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A Silence in the Sky
Roy Terrell
November 06, 1961
In 1956 there were 600 sailplane pilots in the U.S., or about one for every 5,000 buzzards, an arrangement endorsed by both the Audubon Society and society in general. The sport of soaring was judged expensive and dangerous. Airport Operators conspired to keep gliders from cluttering up their traffic patterns, and small boys with air rifles considered them better targets than the neighbors' cats. In "Government by the People" Burns and Peltason included the Soaring Society of America among oddball organizations, along with the American Sunbathers' Association and the Blizzard Men of 1888.
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November 06, 1961

A Silence In The Sky

In 1956 there were 600 sailplane pilots in the U.S., or about one for every 5,000 buzzards, an arrangement endorsed by both the Audubon Society and society in general. The sport of soaring was judged expensive and dangerous. Airport Operators conspired to keep gliders from cluttering up their traffic patterns, and small boys with air rifles considered them better targets than the neighbors' cats. In "Government by the People" Burns and Peltason included the Soaring Society of America among oddball organizations, along with the American Sunbathers' Association and the Blizzard Men of 1888.

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Everyone made a vow to stay out of farmers' fields. Doherty issued a few more warnings. "Never," he said, "get out of a sailplane on the ground with the towrope attached. When the tow pilot gets the signal from your wingman that you are all buckled in, ready to go, and the towline is hooked up, he calls the tower for takeoff clearance. When he gets the green light he goes. If the sailplane pilot has suddenly remembered that he left his sunglasses or cigarettes or something behind and gets out, off the towplane goes without him, trailing an empty glider behind. It has happened. If you have to go to the bathroom," said Doherty, "first pull the release knob."

Then Bernie Carris came in and led the class to the flight line.

Carris is 39 years old, and he has been chief flight instructor for the Schweizers since 1950. He was a B-17 tail gunner during the war, not a pilot, but one day from his home in Big Flats, just the other side of the airport, he wandered over to see what this soaring business was all about. He hasn't escaped yet. He has pilot's wrinkles around his eyes now, a quiet sense of humor and an extremely brown head. "I don't know what happened to my hair," he says. "It was all there until I began to teach people how to soar." In 1960 Carris took a strange sailplane to Odessa, Texas (SI, Aug. 22, 1960) and finished second in the national championships. Last summer he won the Eastern Open, scoring almost twice as many points as his nearest opponent. He is one of the finest competitive soaring pilots in the world.

The first flight was in a 2-22. The first digit means that this is a two-place sailplane. The 22 means that this is the 22nd sailplane design that the Schweizers have produced. The 2-22 is not very handsome. Most sailplanes are lovely, delicate creatures, all grace and curves and smooth skin, like pretty girls on a picnic. The 2-22 looks more like one of the ants. It has a high wing and external struts and the fuselage is angular and chunky. It does not go very fast. But it is simple and safe and sturdy and not unhandsome in a functional way. We looked it over to see that everything was attached, and climbed in.

The cockpit of a sailplane is so bare that you think you have crawled into someone's bathtub by mistake. There is a stick, of course, and rudder pedals. There is an altimeter, a bank indicator (a ball but no needle), a rate of climb and a variometer, which shows, by means of two small pellets in parallel tubes, whether the airplane is rising or sinking in the air. There is the spoiler control handle, which also activates the brake, and a tow-hook release knob. That is all. No radio equipment, no oxygen gear, not even a throttle. I was thinking about the throttle when the towplane took off.

The 2-22 bumped gently along for a few feet and hopped into the air. Carris held it low to the ground until the tow-plane, a Piper Super Cub, became airborne, too. Then he reached forward from the rear seat and tapped me on the shoulder. "You've got it," said Carris, who does not waste much time. "Just keep the wings of the towplane on the horizon."

There was a slight haze hanging across the field that morning, and I had some trouble finding the horizon. I had trouble finding the towplane, too, since it kept disappearing beneath my nose. The tow pilot seemed to be very erratic. "You're too high," said Carris. "It's hard for him to climb when you're pulling his tail up." This made sense, so I pushed forward on the stick. The towplane reappeared—and so did the towrope, with a huge sag in the middle of the line. As soon as I leveled off, the towplane took up the slack with a jerk. My head bounced like a punching bag. The towline, 200 feet of quarter-inch Manila, began to look like embroidery thread.

"Do towropes ever break?" I asked.

"Not often," said Carris. "About a dozen a year. There's no danger. At altitude you soar if you can find some lift, or else you make a normal landing somewhere. If a break occurs on takeoff, you land on the airport, straight ahead. If you've run out of airport, you turn back and land downwind. I know," he grinned, "that's suicide in an airplane. But no airplane has the maneuverability of these things. And you can land so short that a downwind landing is perfectly safe."

As we jerked along, up past 1,000 feet, Carris explained how to keep slack out of the towrope. "The main thing," he said, "is not to get too high." He forgot to mention that you could also get too low. I was about to ask him why the towplane was suddenly moving so high up when there was a terrific yank at the stick, the right wing dropped, we buffeted about the sky—and then all was quiet, the towplane far above us now.

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