By Frank DiBianca
We had landed at the Memphis Soaring Society’s operation at the Forrest City, Arkansas, airport. My wife, Kay, a new private power pilot, had flown us in on a Cessna 172. The hangar and airfield were empty except for the Pawnee towplane, its pilot, and the ground launch crew. A sailplane instructor had just landed the two-seat Lark and asked me if I wanted a “demo ride.” I nodded, and before I knew it, we were in the air behind the towplane with 200 feet of tow rope between us. At a 2000-foot altitude the instructor pulled the tow release knob and we were free. “That farmer’s fire to the west will give us some altitude,” He said.
Are we high enough to reach it? Don’t want to fly into the fire! But he’s the expert.
By the time we approached the smoking cinders and flew over them at about 400 feet above ground, my instructor said, “No lift here, Frank. Plan B. See that cornfield over there?” He radioed back to the airport that he was “landing out” and needed a tow back. I grabbed the seat with white knuckles during the landing and felt the bumps as we rolled down the farmer’s dirt road, both wingtips feet from the cornstalks along the road and stopped.
After I said quite a few prayers of thanksgiving, the towplane pilot landed ahead on the road and towed us home. “Well, I guess you’re going to pass on soaring, eh?” a club officer said as I stepped out of the plane.
“It was fun,” I answered. “Sign me up.”
Lessons: Embarking on a new adventure can be fun. Trust your coach. Don’t let a scary experience stop you.
Three years later, Kay and I took our one-and-only, six-day flying vacation in Minden, Nevada. A day of soaring, one flying, and one sightseeing. Then repeat.
After a morning of three check-out flights at Soaring NV, I was ready for a nap at our motel.
“They just opened the wave window. High flying! Why don’t you try it?” Kay asked.
“Wave flying? Into the stratosphere? Are you kidding?” I answered, exaggerating a bit. Modest demurs didn’t work, and soon I was in the air again.
“OK,” my instructor, said. “The towplane will fly us toward the mountains around Lake Tahoe. When the variometer (showing rate of climb) reaches 3 knots, we’re in the wave, and you can cut us loose.” I knew a wave was like a Slinky spring going up the stairs. When a high-speed wind came over a mountain chain and poured down the back side, it got compressed and then oscillated upwards reaching phenomenal altitudes. I felt like I did on my first flight.
Well, to make a long story short, when we reached 15,000 feet, with our oxygen masks on, I asked my instructor if we could go down. At 20,000 feet, I tried again. What if the oxygen stops? How long will it take to get down to adequate air pressure? At 25,000 feet, almost five miles above sea level, I said, “This is it. I’m going down!” He touched my shoulder, “Just give me another 50 feet and we’ll descend.”
Back in the office, the owner of the operation came over and said, “Congratulations, Frank!”
“You just won a Symons Award. It’s given to a sailplane pilot-in-command who reaches an altitude above 25,000 feet.”
“I didn’t do anything. He did it all,” I said, pointing to my grinning instructor, who walked over and put his arm on my shoulder again.
“Frank, I couldn’t have done it without you!”
Everyone burst out laughing.
Lessons: Be alert for once-in-a-lifetime experiences you can write about someday. Just because you haven’t done it before, doesn’t mean you can’t do it now. Follow your spouse’s advice—usually.
Frank A. DiBianca is a fiction writer and retired university professor. He received a Ph.D. in high-energy physics from Carnegie-Mellon University and later worked in biomedical engineering. Frank lives in Memphis with his author-wife, Kay, (The Watch on the Fencepost, CrossLink; Dead Man’s Watch, Wordstar). He has just completed his first novel, a romance.