The Last Lesson.
The mountains all around Tehachapi were booming.
It was early spring, and the sun was warming the large rocks and empty hillside fields so hot that the air shimmered. The heat waves rose and merged into columns of heated air. Some of those twisting columns were wasted in dust devils, mini-tornadoes of no particular threat except to scare the cows. But much of the rising air combined into large, swirling circles which were too diffuse to have the destructive energy of a tornado, but their lifting energy was awesome.
The glider pilots called the large circles "thermals," and those air columns were the ticket to a unique soaring experience. If a lightweight aircraft maneuvered into one of the thermals, it signaled the beginning of an elevator ride of perhaps several thousand feet - an acceleration so strong and sudden in its "lift" that the physical experience of flying a glider into a vigorous thermal was much like getting kicked in the seat of the pants.
So, to a pilot familiar with the air conditions, the hills were booming with lift. It was everywhere! The smiles on returning weather-beaten faces were testimony to the fact that it was one of those days when "you can't fall out of the sky!" The current wisdom was that lift existed wherever you looked - just hire a tow plane to haul your gossamer wings to a thousand feet or so, and you could ride all afternoon!
This was good news to me. I had only recently re-entered the sport of soaring after a two-year layoff, and it would be a game of chance for me to keep my rented glider up in the sky. My skills were still rusty, and I knew my rides would certainly be very short without the booming conditions. Hell, my flights might be short in any case...
I had just graduated into a hot German fiberglass glider from the two-place, American Schweizer fabric-covered training glider, much as someone would take tentative hair-raising spins in a sleek, manual-shift Porsche after learning to drive in a beat-up old Ford automatic. I was torn - I longed for the high performance of the German aircraft but I also wanted the easy familiarity of a Schweizer.
My supervising instructor recommended a compromise for my day's flying: I had demonstrated adequate proficiency in the German glider - enough to give him the confidence to let me take out a single-place Schweizer. There was no back seat holding an instructor to correct my errors, but he didn't feel that I would make any dangerous mistakes: "The worst you can do is miss a thermal, embarrass yourself, and glide back down in twenty minutes! But I'd like to see you stay up for an hour or more, if you can."
So I hooked the nose of the Schweizer 1-26 to a two-hundred-foot tow rope, and concentrated on staying behind the tow plane while it turned and climbed its way up to a particularly popular spot over one of the nearest peaks. I was excited to be flying a new aircraft - and it was my first experience of "teaching myself."
Since only one person could fit into this glider, the accepted method of instruction was to first take the prospective single-place pilot out in a two-place sailplane with difficult flight handling characteristics. If everything went well, it was then assumed that the pilot had the ability to teach himself how to fly a more forgiving single-place glider.
On the way up, I was still immersed in the process of getting familiar with the 1-26, and I just barely noticed the dozen or so other gliders circling around the mountain. The all tried to stay in a rising column of air that couldn't be seen - it could only be felt in the momentary rising of a wingtip, or, if they really had it pegged, they would feel that satisfying "kick" in the seat of their pants. I did notice that some of the pilots were doing very well - they flew in the same general area as several hawks. Since hawks are born to soar, by moving from one thermal to another with undetectable adjustments in their seemingly-stationary outstretched wings, if those pilots could fly near the hawks, they were piloting admirably.
Finally, it was time to release from the tow plane, and to test my new acquaintanceship with the 1-26. Would I be able to stay up for more than twenty minutes? I was excited to find out.
Thunk! I watched the once-taut tow rope recoil like a folding accordion, to gracefully trail behind the tow plane, now descending to the left. It was time to get busy, and to make the climbing right turn which insured that I would fly well away from the tow plane's path.
There! I sense a slight nudge on the control stick - it feels like somebody else is trying to take control of the Schweizer, but I know it's just the power of a thermal announcing itself, by pushing up on one of my wingtips. But which one? It's gone now - I pull the 1-26 into a tight, steep circle to search for that elusive nudge. And there it is again! Right away, I get the kick in the seat of my pants that indicates the strongest part of the lift. Whoopee! This is fun! And I gain five hundred feet of altitude during the circle! I've got to keep it up - if I can stay in this thermal, I'll put several thousand feet of altitude in my bank, to squander later when I go looking for other lift.
Abruptly, it disappears - there's a sinking feeling in my seat cushion, and a similar drop in the pit of my stomach. Instructors can teach certain patterns to fly, in order to stay in the concentrated part of a thermal, but when it comes right down to it, you almost have to have a sixth sense to keep your glider in a high-energy thermal for very long. And obviously my lift-seeking sixth sense was not operating very well today. I mentally kicked myself - "I can do better than this... my father taught me to do better than this."
Oh, no. That idea caught me by surprise - I hadn't thought much about my first instructor, my dad, in months. And to be thinking about him now... when I was flying the glider that he so dearly loved to fly while he was alive... it was too much. My eyes filled with tears, and I turned the 1-26 back toward the airport. Well, it wasn't such a bad flight - at least I kept it in the air longer than twenty minutes.
Then I flew into the second thermal, and I distinctly heard my first instructor's voice from the back seat, "Turn left. Hard left." Automatically, my right hand swung the 1-26 into a steep left turn. You don't question your instructor's command - you just do it.
Sure enough, the kick in the seat of my pants tells me we've flown into the liveliest part of a dynamic thermal. Wahoo! According to the instruments, we're going up at the rate of a thousand feet per minute. But it's hard work to keep this one pegged - we're slipping in and out of the strong lift, and it's taking all my concentration to fly an unfamiliar aircraft in this wild, powerful thermal that's quickly becoming a bucking bronco! I hope the instructor in the back won't notice. "C'mon - work it harder," again from the back seat. Damn. He's noticing. I shut out everything except feeling the 1-26, and checking the sky for other gliders. The 1-26 and I merge into one entity - we fuse at the control stick, and we have the flight of our lives.
When I could spare the time to check my watch, I noticed that we had gained five thousand feet in the last six minutes. The thermal was finally topping out and getting easier to fly. I turned back over my shoulder to thank my instructor for the encouragement... and suddenly remembered that I was flying a single-place glider.
I was dumbfounded. I knew someone had helped me - in fact, I remembered recognizing that voice from somewhere...
But it couldn't be... he died two years ago...
When I looked out toward the high right wing, still tilted up in a left turn to stay in the thermal, I saw a hawk eyeing me curiously and hanging in the sky, just a foot or so in front of my wingtip.
He honored me with his company for three full circles.
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