THE THRILL OF CRASHING A SAILPLANE INTO THE GROUND
What The Heck Is A Sailplane?
A sailplane is an airplane without a motor. It is constructed as an extremely light aircraft designed to “glide” on upward air currents. The first step is to hook a tow line to the front of your plane and attach the other end to the rear of a motorized aircraft that takes off with your craft being pulled behind. You fly up to around 1800 feet of elevation and then you pull a lever and release the towrope. After that maneuver, you’re on your own, flying without power!
The thing that makes the whole system work are pockets of airflow called “updrafts”. Sort of like dust devils, they help a sailplane stay in the air for an indefinite amount of time. But only if there are enough of them and you can locate where they are without the benefit of visual input.
For assistance in that effort, one of the instruments at your disposal is a device called a variometer. It gets active when your craft experiences a sudden change in altitude by indicating the rate of ascent or descent during normal flight operations.
A variometer – also known as a rate of climb and descent indicator (RCDI), rate-of-climb indicator, vertical speed indicator (VSI), or vertical velocity indicator (VVI) – is one of the flight instruments in an aircraft used to inform the pilot of the rate of descent or climb. https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Variometer
The goal is to fly around seeking invisible updrafts that will boost your sailplane up to a higher elevation. You try to stay in the updraft until it no longer is increasing your rate of climb.
What you don’t want is to be caught up in a weather pattern that includes turbulent wind conditions and erratic pockets of shifting air currents. That is what happened to me one fateful day that I will never forget.
Setting The Stage
I wanted to learn how to fly when I was 22 years old, but the cost of flight lessons in a powered aircraft were prohibitive, so I chose the more affordable unpowered route. Living in Southern California at the time, I heard of a reasonably priced instructor in an area called Lake Elsinore which is located about 76 miles north of San Diego.
It is a city situated in the Santa Ana Mountain Range at about 1300 feet above sea level centered around the largest natural freshwater lake in Southern California that bears its name. Skylark Airfield caters to skydivers and sailplane enthusiasts alike. I made regular trips there some 50 years ago to take lessons, and it looks very much different now when viewed on Google Earth.
We didn’t have the massive amounts of homes that now surround the lake back then when the population hovered around 3000. I remember that open fields and cow pastures dotted most of the landscape with plenty of places to land if your sailplane got into trouble. I guess now you could end up in someone’s back yard if things went wrong.
My instructor was about 78 years old and his plane was a vintage World War II relic, but I chose him because the cost of his lessons fit into my limited budget. So, I took the plunge and received no instruction booklet or pre- flight training as part of the agenda. I was given an old military style parachute assembly to put on and told to just get into the cockpit and hang on for the ride. Oh, and by the way, you might want to say a few prayers while you’re at it.
My First Flight
Since his sailplane (glider actually) was built as a trainer, it was a 2 seater. I sat in the front and he was in the back. We were required to wear those parachute harnesses during each flight, but I could never figure out why. There was no training on how to use them, so I guess we had to put them on only because flight regulations at that time required us to do so. Kind of a primitive way of initiating a safety feature.
I remember my first flight. We pushed the sailplane out onto the runway and positioned ourselves behind a Cessna. The end of the towrope extending out from the rear of that aircraft was hooked to a latch on the front of our craft and we got in. The plane then spun its propeller and slowly inched forward until the line was taught. Once a secure connection was established, the tow pilot powered up his engine and pulled us down the runway.
A bit of fear embraced me as we lifted off the ground and followed the Cessna upwards until we reached the desired elevation. The instructor told me to pull on the lever in front of me and I heard a pop as the towrope was released. We were now flying free and floating on pockets of air.
As we began our sojourn, the instructor told me to keep my eyes on a specific device located in the center of the instrument panel which he called a variometer. He said we would use it to locate invisible pockets of rising air currents that would lift us up to a higher elevation as we soared through the air.
Before long, I felt a bump in the seat of my pants as we were thrust upward after entering the swirling action of our first updraft, this one being a circular vortex of heated air rising off the desert floor. When that happened, we suddenly shot upwards and floated somewhat higher than we were before.
At that point, the instructor let me take control of the steering yoke and gave me rudimentary flight control lessons. I banked left, then right, and then dove down and back up. It was a real thrill to be the temporary pilot of an aircraft for the first time in my life.
As I progressed in my training lessons, I became aware of more advanced techniques available in operational flight procedures. One time the instructor dove down to pick up speed, then pulled back hard on the control stick. Within a matter of seconds, we shot straight up towards the clouds and then went over backwards as he initiated something called a loop that brought us all the way around before we leveled off. Needless to say, that little feat scared the daylights out of me.
During another lesson, he let me take the controls and search for thermals on my own. We had a particularly good flight that day as we found quite a few of them and climbed all the way up to 13,000 feet. We reached our limit at the base of the clouds above us, but still had fun as we moved in and out of them. One minute the sprawling valley below was clearly visible, the next one found us buried in heavy shrouds of mists and vapor. It was really a weird feeling when I experienced this phenomenon for the first time in my life.
I also got lessons in sensational types of landings. You only get one chance to land the plane since you have no engine to bring you around for a second try. That is where some real thrills flying sailplanes are brought to bear.
There was one incidence where I was approaching the nearby runway and came down too low over some livestock in an adjoining pasture. The next thing I knew, I was heading straight for a fence with a cow in front of it. The instructor took over and landed early to gain speed, then pulled back on the stick to hop over the fence at the last-minute as the heifer bellowed out her displeasure below us. Whew!
Windy days were another problem. When I made my final approach on certain occasions, low level updrafts kept the plane from gliding towards the runway at the correct height before touching down. To compensate, I had to learn how to “side slip” the plane. This meant bringing it in cocked sort of side ways which really caused a reduction in the airspeed and rapid loss of altitude. With this procedure, you straightened the aircraft out just before you touched down and this corrective action allowed you to make a normal landing.
When Things Went Horribly Wrong
For the sailplane aficionado, wind can be your friend at one moment, but also turn into a vicious foe the next. Just like with hurricanes, tornadoes, and the so-called “Santa Ana” winds of Southern California, you don’t want to test your mettle with them.
But, of course, we did. That scenario took place on the day I was supposed to complete my training. That meant I was required to perform 10 takeoffs and landings with the instructor onboard before doing my Solo Flight alone without him in the cockpit.
The winds were very high that day and we probably shouldn’t have pursued the matter. But I had driven so far to be there (some 86 miles), that the instructor went ahead with the test flights anyways. That decision turned into a life threatening nightmare!
The first two flights were shaky, but were completed successfully. However, on the 3rd approach towards the field, the wind buffeting the wings of our sailplane was somewhat fierce by then and gaining strength as I came in. Even using tricks to lose altitude, I was still having a lot of trouble. It was a dire situation.
Suddenly, the instructor yelled out that he was taking over the controls. He then banked the plane very sharply to the left to come around and make another attempt. As the right wing lifted up into the air, a strong wind caught the underside of it and flipped the aircraft over into a stall.
Now out of control, the plane at that point was about 600 feet off the ground. The next thing I knew I was staring at the dirt field coming straight at me. Spiraling down, we hit the runway with a tremendous amount of force. Since I was in the front seat, I should have been killed the moment the plane crashed. Instead, I was only knocked out and recovered shortly after it happened.
I do remember being pulled out of the cockpit while my mind was in a complete daze. I took the brunt of the impact and paid a price. My lower back was very sore. It was difficult to walk around but I was still able to do so with some help.
The instructor was okay, which was surprising. Being as old as he was, that impact should have been a factor for him. But he was able to get out and walk around without limping or showing signs of any injury or such. His location in the seat behind me was definitely in his favor.
Unfortunately, his sailplane was totaled. Completely crushed in the front section, it was too old of a craft to repair. I felt bad for him, even in my stupor. It was the end of his aircraft and there was no replacement for it.
Once the dust settled, I was faced with the daunting prospect of driving all the way back home in my Porsche sports car, a journey which I knew would take about an hour and a half. Even though I was very uncomfortable while driving, the seating arrangement was such that I could extend my legs out straight, a feature which helped me endure the painful requirement of sitting erect during the trip..
I later learned that I had a compressional fracture in my lower spine as a result of the crash. The pain eventually went away, but this condition would come back to roost and eventually haunt me later on in life.
I did take one more fight after that with the same instructor. He had borrowed another, and newer, sailplane, and invited me to come down for another flight. Sadly, it was to be my last one, and his too. Three months after that last flight, I read in a newspaper that he was flying a sailplane that lost a wing. He plummeted straight down to earth from a high altitude and was killed immediately when he crashed. He was wearing one of those obsolete parachutes on that flight, but didn’t use it for one reason or another and rode the stricken aircraft all the way down. Wearing that gear made no sense to me when I had it on, and it proved useless to him because it didn’t help him at all.
I realize that this was one of several events that should have ended my life. Being an adventurous sort, I was always ready to take on some type of risk or another. Someone else died instead of me. It should have been the other way around.
I was not spiritually inclined back then, but I still found myself asking God why he kept me alive through another incident that, once again, should have snuffed out my life. Eventually, this event, plus one more, drew me closer to Him and the ultimate result was my salvation.
The best conclusion I can make is that He has allowed me to pass through the fires of many trials and tribulations so He could get my attention. Why I was so hardheaded back then, I will never know. But He is longsuffering and will do whatever it takes, while patiently waiting, to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Maybe that is why I am still alive and penning this article for you today!
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