(or...Free Advice From an Unmarried Guy) By Bob Whelan
Last time, we talked about fearfully KISSing as glider pilots. Proving I'm a big fan of motherhood and apple pie, I recommended you: 1) KISS; 2) fly fearfully while taking off and landing; 3) don't hit anything; and 4) hit whatever you DO hit, horizontally. I claimed, if you follow this advice - if you accomplish nothing more as a glider pilot - you'll be reasonably likely to die when your biological clock runs out rather than as a result of a glider accident. I also suggested that flying in the manner you did on your flight test would greatly weight the odds away from your glidering accident. Some people have trouble with this broad brush approach. They want specifics. ("Yeah, yeah, that works for you, but it don't mean diddly to me. Gimme some specifics I can USE!") Big surprise: Wunna these days 'Duh! science' is going to prove brains work in astoundingly different ways. I happen to process information better when I understand basic principles; some people do better remembering stuff. Let's discuss 'stuff' this time.
Q: Hey, Bonehead! How in the world am I gonna become an experienced, proficient, cross-country pilot if I fly every flight like my flight test?
A: Remember, soaring's real safe so long as you don't hit anything. You were real concerned about that on your flight test (maybe that's why you didn't hit anything more than your intended landing spot then!); there's no reason you shouldn't remain similarly concerned as you gain experience. I'd argue the largest aspect of useful XC experience isn't the ability to find (at the last minute), and squeeze into (from below normal pattern height), a suitable postage stamp. 'Useful XC experience' is knowing how to read sky and terrain for lift generating possibilities, and, how to intelligently and 'relaxedly' identify and make patterns into fields other than the one you launched from. NOTE: There's nothing in my reasoning which REQUIRES taking greater risks!!!
Does this approach work?
Well, the worst damage I've done in 20 off-field-landings over 25 years was dirt-clod-poking some holes in my 1-26's nose fabric. On the other hand, landing back at the airport(s) I've taken off from, I've bent a metal fuselage bulkhead and nearly busted the fuselage of a fiberglass twin; I've also home-airport-crashed the Zuni a few times without busting it. In that period, my flight radius from Boulder?: I've flown to the Wet Mountain Valley, Leadville, Eagle, Steamboat Springs, Rawlins (WY), Wheatland (WY), Sterling and the new Black Forest. (Unfortunately, never on the same flight.) On none of those flights did I scare myself, 'scare' being defined as 'put myself in the position where I was worried about hitting something undesirable.' I think it is possible to gain useful XC experience and skills by flying with the mindset you had when you took your flight test.
Q: You mean to say you've never been worried on an XC flight?
A: Ha ha ha! Heck no! I worry all the time! But I've never been worried about hitting something I didn't want to. There's a BIG difference! My lowest - off-field - pattern was entered from 400 feet. My lowest - off-field (though airport) - save was from 650 feet in a 20 knot crosswind. I've put myself in the position of sweating multi-mile, 25:1 final glides to 1000 foot patterns, into fields I've not had as good a look at as I'd like to've had...in the middle of steenking nowhere, with no radio contact, and no crew. I remember these things because each of them pushed my personal envelope, NOT because the situations were fraught with risk. In my view, the last (3rd) example was by far the riskiest of the 3 noted. Why? My field was something of an unknown; your eyeballs lack the resolution to say for certain if what appears to be a plowed & disc-ed field from 5 miles away is in fact that. On the other hand, my - circling - glide to it was long enough that chances of encountering lift were decent. (I did, and the flight continued.)
Q: So have you ever been worried about hitting anything in a glider?
A: Darn tootin'; most every landing I've made! But in the 'fearful of an imminent accident sense' every time which comes to mind was on local flights (mostly local to Boulder), not on nail-biting XC's! Only twice was my concern weather related; every other time it was due to my own complacence or active stupidity. Scary. (There might be a lesson here...)
Q: So details, hunh?
A: What's to detail? If you've paid attention to what you're reading, you already know the circumstances. I put myself into the position of having to stretch a glide to the closest decent landing field.
Q: So how do you stretch a glide?
A: You don't. 'Stretching a glide' is a soaring oxymoron. In a 'glide-stretching' situation, you fly either at the air's mandated max L/D or min sink speeds (depending upon circumstances/the air), review your sins (briefly!), pray (devoutly and briefly), and promise (wholeheartedly and briefly) never to do it again. After those indulgences, you concentrate mightily on flying your most precisely (which just happens to be your most safely, too). If you're lucky, you encounter lift or sufficient reduced sink to get you to a decent landing option. Afterwards, you definitely do NOT count your 'pulling it off' as a triumph of skill and experience over the weather and the odds. Though you may have brought some skill to the table which helped you bail your butt out when you did encounter lift, the fact is that it was pure luck you encountered any usable lift at all. Meanwhile, you'll be genyoowinely stressed out...if you have an iota of sense. Example: Have you heard you can always get out of the hills by coming out Boulder Canyon if need be? I did. Even was smart enough to look at the sectional and run the numbers for my HP-14 (better glide than any current SSB glider); decided canyon-running wasn't for me. Then one complacent afternoon just NE of Nederland, there was this confounded hill between me and Sugarloaf and safety. It was either plunk down into a hilly pasture (and an HP-14 can safely get into smaller fields than any other sailplane I can think of), or commit to the canyon. Having run the numbers, I - right or wrong - committed to the canyon. This made life a lot simpler...and one hell of a lot scarier: I was either going to crash in the canyon, pseudo-crash in town, climb out of the canyon, or - physics do your thing! - pull off a dead-air glide back to the field. About 2 miles - and a short eternity - down the canyon, I encountered lift. Managing not to stall and spin or hit the canyon walls, I clawed my way out, fought down the temptation to cut and run the instant I could see over the rim of the canyon again, climbed up ridiculously high, swallowed my heart and glided east to atop the airport whereat I settled myself down to the point where I could make a decent landing...then did so. I never told anyone about my stupidity, either. Until now.
Q; Lemme see if I've got this right. According to you, if I fly every pattern like I did on my flight test, always remain within conservative distance of a landable field, I can become an awesomely good XC pilot.
A: That wasn't a question, but YES! Now I have a question for you. What's more important: plan A, plan B, or plan C?
A: My point is, one of the reasons you were so safe on your flight test is that you had a well-developed plan for your flight. You knew what you wanted to do, you were capable of doing it, and you did it. ALL your subsequent soaring should be identical...but more so. The 'more so' is to have plans B & C developed at all times (and be thinking about plan D). On your flight test, you had only plan A: enter the pattern for the airport, fly a decent pattern, and hit your spot. A key aspect of experience is always - and I mean always! - developing additional options in case Option 1 becomes no longer achievable. Re-read my little canyon adventure. It was scary NOT because I was in the canyon (the numbers said I could make it easily back to the airport, remember), but because my options were beyond my direct control (short of not stalling and spinning, I mean, ha ha!). I was either going to outglide the canyon or I wasn't. In my book that's equivalent to no plan B at all. Encountering future lift is most definitely NEVER a part of any plan I'll lend my name to; after all, failure to encounter lift is why you've developed plans B & C in the first place!
Q: You make gaining experience and flying XC sound easy!
A: Now cut that out; that wasn't a question again. But gaining the experience to safely fly long cross-countries is easy; the hardest part is making the time commitment to just go soaring. Gaining the experience is also fun...or should be. Expanding your personal envelope doesn't have to be - shouldn't be - a white-knuckle affair. Here's a wild claim: Off-field landings should be no more difficult/fearsome/sweaty-palmed than launch-airport landings. That's not to say your palms won't be sweatier than normal...but there's no need for them to be if you've done your homework properly. And isn't the fear of off-field landings what is MOST intimidating to the average badge-seeking tyro? (Hint: If it isn't, it should be!) It's left as an exercise for the interested reader to resolve the paradox in the preceding paragraph...