Lucky Number Seven
By Loren D. Jones
Above average temperatures and light breezes brought the Minnesota Soaring Club members out in force on the last Friday in April and I was happy to be one of them. This was only my third outing in my “new” 1-26B, No. 343. (Note: As a new 1-26er I have learned serial numbers are tracked more closely than N-numbers, so I’m adjusting to calling her No. 343! I guess the theory is N-numbers can be changed, but serial numbers are forever, perhaps like names versus fingerprints.)
I had flown her once ten days earlier on the Wednesday afternoon we assembled her, followed by four more flights the following Friday. Despite twenty-three years of powered flight experience, including several hundred hours of flight instructing, I am a neophyte glider pilot so I have a lot to learn about soaring. Little did I know how much the seventh flight would test what knowledge I do have!
After helping two fellow club members move their ships from the trailer tie-down area to the flight line, I headed for the hangar to retrieve No. 343. She is not quite “new” since her birthday was in 1966, but she is new to my partner and I, and having recently been refurbished she looks like new! We pulled her out of the hangar and hooked her up to a club golf cart, then headed for the flight line.
Arriving at the flight line, we pulled her up behind a PW-5 waiting his turn at the tug. Sitting on the lush spring grass she looked very much at home and happy to be there. Within twenty minutes I was strapped in and ready to go.
Soon we were airborne behind the Super Cub climbing into the wind northwest of Stanton Airfield (SYN). It was, indeed, a perfect spring day and I was getting bounced around pretty good on tow.
Releasing at 3,000 feet above ground level (AGL) I began my quest for lift. It didn’t take long to identify a good thump and soon I was circling in 4-5 knots of lift. As a soaring neophyte, finding, then truly centering on a thermal, remains an elusive art, but I tried my best. I can’t say that I ever really nailed the center of that thermal, but I was close enough to either maintain altitude for periods of time, or actually eke out some climb.
The 1-26 is so light and can fly so slowly that even small thermals offer hope of upward mobility. With 35 years of soaring under her belt, I’m sure No. 343 periodically shakes her head and wonders where this soaring bumpkin holding her stick came from, but so far she has humored me and let me experience the exhilaration of going up in a column of air despite my lack of experience.
At one point I was down to about 2,400 AGL, then found more lift. Over the next several minutes I worked my way back up to 2,900 feet. I was soaring!
Unfortunately, like a Popsicle on a hot day, this was not going to last and, once again, I had lost all the altitude I had gained. I decided it was time to head for the airfield.
Suddenly Stanton Airfield looked far, far away. Fortunately, I knew I was upwind of the field so I nailed my best glide speed (48 mph) and made a beeline for the airfield. Despite the original concern, I made it quite easily. I entered the pattern on a left downwind for runway three-six precisely at 1,000 AGL, flew a normal approach, and then opted to land a little long with a nice, slightly tail-first touchdown. I rolled off to the right side of the runway to clear the way for the next glider that was getting ready to launch. At thirty minutes total flight time it was not a stellar flight by soaring standards, but still satisfying for me as a newbie.
For the next couple of hours I assisted other club members with their preparations and runway retrieves while I waited my second turn. One pilot reported upon landing that the thermals had pretty much died out, causing him to return. Despite the fact he was flying a much higher performance ship than No. 343, I remained undaunted. I wanted to fly, even if it meant just gliding back to the airfield rather than soaring!
Eventually my turn came and I strapped myself back into No. 343 and proceeded through my checklist for what would the seventh flight in my new friend. I noted the windsock which indicated the wind had shifted more to the east.
You really didn’t need to look at the windsock to know this, as there are sewage holding ponds a few miles east of the airfield and anyone with a sense of smell pretty well knew where those air molecules had been.
Despite the wind shift, the tow plane headed off west after liftoff, rather than his usual tendency towards upwind tows. However, I noticed two gliders thermaling over the same area I had worked on my earlier flight and I figured they had probably caught his attention, too, so off we went in their direction.
Upon release I headed towards the other gliders. By the time I got there only one remained, our club’s two-place ASK-21. I entered the thermal above him and began turning the same direction as he was turning. It worked for awhile, but due to a combination of glider performance and pilot performance (probably more the latter than the former), soon I was circling below the ASK-21. It didn’t matter. I was happy just to be up in the sky. Along the way I happily snapped a few in-flight pictures to capture the moment.
Before long I realized I was down around that 2,400’ mark and needed to head for the airfield. I quickly pointed the nose toward Stanton and nailed my best glide speed. Again, the field looked far away, but I attributed it to my relative newness to flying out of this airfield and remembered I had easily made it back from here earlier in the day.
The altimeter continued to steadily unwind.
“Hmmm…,” I thought to myself, “I’m not progressing quite as quickly as I would like…” Then the memory of the windsock flashed back and took center stage in my brain.
“Oh, crap….I’m seriously downwind!”, I said to myself.
Up to this point in my relatively brief soaring career I’ve made it a policy to be very conservative, which has meant staying upwind of the airfield at ALL times. In my zeal to join the “gaggle of two” I had completely neglected what the windsock (and holding ponds) had tried to tell me prior to and during my launch.
At this point I did remember some of my training and added half of what I had estimated the wind speed to be based on the windsock. In retrospect, I should have added a little more as the winds aloft were definitely stronger than on the ground.
Along the way there were a few bumps of lift and at one point I even tried thermaling to gain some sorely needed altitude. By the time I reacted to the bumps and initiated a turn I found myself in deep sink, so I immediately pointed the nose towards the airfield and kept it there.
About two miles from SYN it became painfully obvious that a landing on one of its lush, green runways was, at best, a 50:50 chance and those odds were slipping fast.
“I bet I can stretch it,” I found myself thinking. In the next second the other half of my brain (the rational half) was saying, “Don’t even THINK about trying to stretch, you idiot! Find a safe place and land.”
In the preceding few weeks I had voraciously read everything written about off-field landings that I could put my hands on, including Tom Knauff’s “Off Field Landings”, Reichmann’s “Cross Country Soaring”, Piggott’s “Gliding”, and Bob Wander’s badge soaring books, plus every Soaring Magazine article I could find. If it discussed landing out, I read it.
In addition, seasoned 1-26 guru Jim Hard had given a presentation on landing out to our glider club two weeks earlier. Jim is a veteran of well over 100 off-field landings, which means he’s landed out more times than I’ve landed a glider!! He had a wealth of information to share, along with a story for every pearl of wisdom imparted to us that night. I had taken copious notes and took the time to transcribe those notes into a document I could use for future reference.
Boy, am I glad I did.
The one thing ingrained in my mind was “tilled fields are the most desirable.” Prior to all this study I would have been inclined towards a pasture, with all that lovely, green grass inviting you to just drop on in….sort of like a nice grass landing strip!. I learned, however, that pastures are often pastures because they are too rough and tumble to be used for farming, so don’t trust them if there is a tilled alternative.
Fortunately, I didn’t have that option to deal with.
I was now down to 300 feet, which gave me a real good look at the fields below! The one ahead and to my left was long and open with no wires, but it was obviously plowed (bad), not tilled (good) and didn’t look hospitable to a glider at all.
On the south side of that field was a long, green, inviting access road into the field, but it was very, very narrow. I then noticed the southern most border of that plowed field had a distinctly different look to it, being much lighter in color and appearing to be much smoother than the rest of the field. It was almost like they had cultivated approximately fifty feet or so along the southern perimeter of the field.
I was still waffling between it and the narrow green access road, when Jim’s words came back to me. “A tilled field is always your best option.” With Stanton Airfield now way too high in my canopy to be considered a possibility, I committed to land.
I was right over that hospitable looking portion of the field, so I turned upwind and pulled 343’s spoiler handle. She descended smartly, but gently to just above the black dirt. I eased back on the stick and held her off as I reduced the amount of spoiler, wanting to touch down as softly as possible.
The tailwheel touched just slightly before the main, then she rolled to a gentle stop and rocked up on her skid plate. The best way to describe it is to say it was like landing on a thick, plush carpet! It was unbelievably smooth.
After stopping, the wings hung there momentarily, perfectly level, balanced in the almost direct headwind until I gently lowered the left wing to the dirt. Pacing it off later 343 and I had consumed approximately 125’ from the point where the tail first touched down to where the nose came to rest, and that’s without applying any braking whatsoever! My other aircraft, a Mooney, would have to hit a brick wall to land that short!
Talk about mixed emotions after landing. On the one hand, I was incredibly frustrated with myself for poorly planning my position and altitude, then forgetting all about the wind shift, resulting in my failure to make it back to the airfield.
On the other hand, I was ecstatic over successfully completing my first attempt at landing out! Landing out was one of the goals I set for myself for my first summer of Minnesota soaring in my own glider. I just assumed it would naturally follow the C Badge, probably coming on one of my Silver Badge flights. I never expected it to precede them!
I grabbed the camera and took a couple of quick pictures. A quick survey of the area confirmed Jim’s words of wisdom to be just that: Very wise. That inviting strip of green grass that almost sucked me in turned out to be a good 10-15” below the level of the field I landed in. I almost certainly would have clipped the lip of the field with one of my wing tip wheels, which likely would have led to a ground loop.
In addition, there were badger holes big enough to lose a Beagle in, with their accompanying mounds of dirt surrounding them! They could have provided a VERY abrupt halt to a nice landing!
I hiked towards the airfield, across the fallow fields. I was greeted by several club members who were quite tickled to see me earn the first (and, as it turned out ONLY) “Clodbuster Award” of the season, an auspicious honor bestowed upon those who land out on what was intended to be a local flight.
After a quick assessment by these seasoned veterans, it was decided an over-land retrieve was possible. With the help of Red Haines, Tom Kuhfeld, Dale Erickson, and my eight-year-old son, AJ, we navigated 343 out of the field by hand, then down the field access road behind my truck (circumnavigating the badger holes along the way.) We walked her across the township road, then over a short stretch of field adjacent to the airfield. Since I couldn’t find the farmer I didn’t want to drive a vehicle across his field without permission. Once clear of that field were were able to tow her the rest of the way with the club golf cart.
After tucking her safely into her hangar, the celebratory dinner was held a few miles away, courtesy of this “Clodbuster”! In retrospect, based on my newbie status and the satisfying outcome, perhaps seven is, indeed, a very lucky number.
The Official Clodbuster Certificate
Here’s a link to a good article on “Speed to Fly” in gliders.