Launch for lunch

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, quickly swallowing a bite of my sandwich, “the tow plane has rear-view mirrors?”

Rio, Lisa, and I were eating in the car as we commuted from Rio’s new home airport back to the Plane Tales home airport at Santa Rosa. Thirty minutes before, Rio had just completed his first training flight in Bravo Golf, the lanky sailplane that’s his new best friend. He and his instructor were towed to three thousand five hundred feet above the New Mexico prairie and were cut loose, where they soared around the sky, riding thermal updrafts for forty five minutes while Rio began to get the feel for the big bird.

Lisa and I couldn’t hear enough about the experience.

What was the view like, Lisa asked? What did it sound like, I queried? What was your favorite part, Lisa wanted to know? Which instrument was the most useful?

Not his usual taciturn self, Rio was positively talkative and gave us the cockpit view of the whole experience. Of course Lisa and I had watched the takeoff from the ground, and it’s quite a process, involving a tow plane, a lineman, a very long steel cable and a ton of communication using a secret dance of arm and hand signals that would put the Masons to shame.

First, Rio, his instructor, and the lineman pushed the sailplane out onto the runway. Next the tow plane, a faded yellow retired crop duster that reminded me of a down-on-his-luck Dusty Crophopper, fired up and pulled into place well ahead of the glider. A cable between the two was secured and the tow plane inched forward until the cable was taut. When everyone was ready, the tow plane’s engine roared to life and off they went down the runway, both planes picking up speed.

In three breaths, the anorexic seagull shook off her lethargy and lifted into the air, hugging the runway, her tow still glued to the ground in front of her. Rio later told us the instructor had to hold the sailplane down, keeping her close to the runway. Her instinct was to rise, and if she rose above the tow plane, the glider could flip the tow plane onto its nose.

Finally the tow plane lumbered off the runway and off the pair went, the sailplane obediently behind and below her ride, like a faithful dog following her master on a leash for a walk in the park.

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Up they went, then around the pattern to the left, finally passing right over our heads. The ugly duckling in the lead, followed by the sailplane, now in her element, full of grace and power.

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And then off they went into the western sky, smaller, smaller, smaller until they were only two points of light: One white and one yellow. Then they were gone and Lisa and I were left alone on the ramp, no sound but the wind.

After a time, the tow plane returned. It swooped down onto the runway and briskly taxied to parking. The pilot climbed out and left for lunch, leaving Lisa and I again with only wind and sun for company as we scanned the cobalt sky, painted with high wispy white clouds, waiting for the anorexic seagull to return from on high, wondering what it was like for Rio up there.

Full of questions we couldn’t wait to ask.

 

The anorexic seagull

By some measures Three-Zero-Seven Bravo Golf is a big airplane. Her wings stretch nearly sixty feet from tip to tip, double that of the Plane Tales Plane, and well more than most commuter jets. But she doesn’t come off as big, perhaps because she’s impossibly slender. Her wide wings are narrow. Her fuselage is cousin to a kayak: Narrow and tapered, extending beanpole-like back, back, back, back to her delicate tail. She’s soft white with a hint of orange on her nose, wingtips, and tail.

All in all, she looks like an anorexic seagull.

And maybe one that caught the flu, too. She crouches low on the ramp, resting nearly on her belly, flopped like a bird too tired to even stand on her legs. But even while collapsed on the pavement, she is still clearly a creature of the air. Her smooth, sleek lines are so aerodynamic as to be hydrodynamic to the eye. Part airplane, part sea creature.

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She’s a sailplane. A high-tech, engineless, airplane built to ply the turbulent currents of air and play dice with the laws of gravity. To literally sail the winds in the sea of the sky and dance with the clouds. She can soar so high her crew of two—who sit tandem under a clear fighter pilot-like canopy perched on her nose—need to wear oxygen.

This is a whole different kind of flying. But not for me. For my son.

Children of pilots are usually taught to fly at a young age. Partly from exposure, partly for safety. And, in fact, there is no minimum age for when a person can start training to be a pilot. Still, when can you become a “real” pilot?

Well, that depends on what you are flying. To hold a pilot’s certificate (the official word for a “license”) that allows you to fly powered aircraft, you have to be 17. Balloon and glider pilots only need to be 16. Ages for the important training step of flying solo—by yourself with no assistance and no one else along for the ride—are 14 for gliders and balloons, and 16 for powered denizens of the air.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Yep. Rio is thirteen, mere weeks from 14. And as a self-described student pilot, he had an interesting choice to make. Despite having several years’ experience with powered airplanes, he cannot venture into the sky alone in one for over two more years. But on March 15, he would be allowed to solo in a glider.

After dinner one night recently, we had a man-to-pre-adult talk, and I laid out the two possible paths ahead for him. I told him I’d never flown a glider, but that it seemed to me that if someone could master the art of flying a plane without the benefit of an engine, they’d be a better pilot for it. Rio mulled it over and then announced that he thought glider training would be, “Fun and beneficial,” and before bedtime I emailed my contacts at 0E0, a hotbed of glider activity, to ask for recommendations on schools and instructors.

And a week later we stood on the windswept tarmac of Moriarty Municipal Airport, taking in the anorexic seagull.

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Shaken, not stirred

My hosts at Pratt told me the field was used to “outfit” B-29s during the war. The massive bombers were built in Wichita, then flown to Pratt to receive their turrets and machine guns.

They had a crew car and said I was welcome to take it to town if I wanted to get a bite to eat. But instead I decided to feed my gear. I brought all my various electronic parasites in from the plane and plugged my GPS into the wall next to a lamp, my iPad into the plug shared by the water cooler, and my cell phone had to make friends with the microwave’s plug.

It was warm and friendly and the airport residents wanted to know where I was from, where I was going, and whether or not my Ercoupe had rudder pedals. (She does not.)

While my head was buried in weather forecasts on a huge iMac in the pilot’s lounge, I heard the lineman say to a local pilot, “Well how’s that for a change in the weather?”

I looked over my shoulder at them and was surprised to see sunlight. Stepping out onto the ramp, I could see that the entire southern sky was a towering mass of grey, like the ramparts of a fairytale castle in the air. Sun spilled over the ramparts and above us was glorious blue sky with not a single cloud. The storm was retreating south.

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Still, the distant horizon to the west remained white. There were still clouds out there, but the number of reporting stations made it difficult to know what was really happening on the micro scale across my route. I decided, rather arbitrarily, to give it another go at noon, an hour away, and if I couldn’t get through, I’d stay the night at wherever it was that I managed to reach. Decision made, I had the lineman top off Tessie’s wing tanks. She actually has three gas tanks. One in each wing, and one in the nose.

The engine runs off the nose tank, sometimes called the header tank. The gas flows down from the header to the carburetor by gravity. An engine-driven fuel pump pulls gas from the two interconnected wing tanks to fill the header, which overflows back down into the wings. Like a beating heart, the pump keeps the fuel constantly flowing between the tanks. The whole design is a great safety feature: If the heart fails, the engine doesn’t die. In fact, if the pump fails you’d have about an hour’s flying time. There’s a float gauge on the nose that lets you know if the level starts to drop, signaling either empty wings or a dead fuel pump.

While the lineman gassed me up, I admired the other plane on the ramp. Sharing the tarmac with my expensive-to-maintain antique was a brand spanking new expensive-to-buy Diamond Twin with the aeronautical equivalent of the curves of a Playboy centerfold. I gotta say, this is one sexy airplane. But despite being new, the owner was having some mechanical issues dealing with the brakes. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I found some sort of perverse reassurance in the fact that new planes aren’t immune to expensive maintenance issues. My only defense is that our last annul cost nearly half as much as the plane herself did, and I’m guilty of wondering whether our family’s money might have been better spent on a newer airplane. Apparently not.

At noon as I headed for my ride, I told the twin owner that I hoped the weather gods were feeling kinder than the brake fluid gods (he assured me he thought they would be) and I was off and on my way.

I cruised in sunlight at first and wondered if I should have taken my winter flight jacket off, but soon enough I was under a high blanket of grey again and the temperature in the cockpit dropped. The ceiling seemed to stay put, but the stupid ground got higher and higher with each passing mile. The rules for the kind of airspace I was in state that I’m supposed to stay 500 feet below the clouds. How high off the ground? Actually, there is no set altitude over empty, open prairie. You just have to be high enough to land in an emergency without hurting anyone on the ground.

The horizon grew brighter and brighter as my opening between sky and ground got tighter and tighter. The final edge of the clouds clung to a ridgeline southwest of Meade. I sailed over the flat, open ridge at 200 feet above the ground and then burst into bright, clear sunshine. For a moment all was calm and beautiful.

And then the turbulence hit.

You can almost count on angry air between frontal boundaries, and this region did not disappoint. I had a momentary vision of my being bounced right out of the cockpit, and falling (with 12 bottles of expensive red wine) to the earth below. I tightened my seatbelt and shoulder belt, and then did the same for the case of wine that was riding shotgun with me. I climbed back up to 500 feet, then added another two hundred for good measure, Tessie was like a bucking bronco. I held onto her yoke with my left hand and onto her windshield support with my right. My only mission was to get the wings level when the churning air knocked one wing higher than the other. The up and down lurching I didn’t worry about. One blast of air would send us up a hundred feet, the next would fall on us like a hammer, driving us back down again.

And just when I was far enough out from the frontal boundary to escape the turbulence, I entered a popcorn sky. Well, that’s what I call it. I’m sure that’s not it’s formal name. But a popcorn sky is one populated by a sea of small cumulus clouds, all at the same altitude.

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They are beautiful and look puffy and harmless like cotton candy, but each one of the little bastards has it’s own personal weather system. As you fly under each, you hit the updraft. It’s as if the cloud wants to suck your plane up into its hungry maw. And as you hit the far side, you encounter the downdraft. Angry you escaped, the cloud hits you with a rolled-up newspaper.

The game is harmless, but tiring. Like taking a roller coaster to work. After about one hour of it, I was sure glad I was transporting wine, not champagne.

And finally, after hours of being jostled and jolted, Runway 26 at my homebase appeared off my nose. I was glad to be home again: I’d had enough flying.

Well, at least for a day or two.