SI Vault
 
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.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

We went back up, to 2,500 feet, and I made a landing. As I turned onto the final approach, Carris said: "Open your spoilers. You're way too high." So I jerked them back, and we came down like a rock. We hit like one, too, but after one bounce the sailplane stayed on the ground. It ran about six feet and stopped, with a smell of burned rubber. "You had the spoiler handle back all the way," said Carris. "Your brakes were on when you touched down. It isn't necessary to stop quite that short. O.K., let's go try again."

The third flight was over the ridge on Harris Hill. The wind had moved around to the northwest, and we found it blowing up the hill from the valley. At least Carris found it. From a release altitude of only 1,000 feet we soared for 35 minutes. He would get us up to 2,500 feet, which was about as high as the ridge current ran that morning, then turn the sailplane over to me, and I would lose the altitude he had gained. Sometimes, sinking, I would pass one of the broad-winged hawks that soar so smugly along Harris Hill, and it would wheel gracefully out of the way, wearing a sneer. "The secret," said Carris, "is to stay away from the ridge, 50 or 100 yards, on the valley side. Not over the ridgeline itself. Watch the hawks."

On our fourth flight we looked for thermals and found nothing. I was doing all the flying now. My tow technique had smoothed out; my landings began to look less like a rubber ball. And then after our fourth landing a strange thing happened. Carris climbed out of the sailplane.

"O.K.," he said. "It's yours."

I was 500 feet in the air before I realized that this was my sailplane solo. Carris had told me to release at 2,000 feet, but I didn't dare. I was 4,000 before I worked up the courage to pull the knob, and Erwin Jones, the tow pilot, later told me he was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to let go. And then I was by myself in the sky and reacting like any novice on his first solo. I was alive with joy, lightheaded with the exhilaration of freedom, of detachment. There was no one to tell me what to do or how I should do it. I was the boss. I could shout, I could sing. I could soar on silent wings all over the dad-blamed place and never come down unless I felt like it. Only I came down right away.

I looked for the wave. I couldn't find it. I looked for a thermal, frantically. No thermals. I headed for the ridge in desperation. There was no ridge wind for me. The little red pellet hung there inexorably, pulling me down at 200, 300, 400 feet a minute. I looked at the altimeter: 1,000 feet. And I remembered what Tony Doherty had said about farmers' fields. I turned for the airport and just made it.

I sat there in the cockpit, waiting for someone to come help pull the sailplane 200 yards farther up the field, where it should have been. I hated to look at Carris and Jones when they came trotting up.

"Congratulations," said Jones, "but what are you doing back so soon?"

"Let's have lunch," said Carris. "Maybe this afternoon you can find some lift."

That afternoon I found some lift. From a release point of 3,000 feet I soared for one hour 39 minutes. The wave had departed by then, and this was a day that was never to produce a thermal, but I found the ridge wind, finally, all by myself.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9