Here’s my message to Scott about flying and other activities, written Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hi Scott,

Thanks for your good message. That picture is something! Or I should say the glider in the picture is something. Though not to the same degree, we’ve experienced some of the same issues with our new high performance kayak:

You sometimes want to go back to the old tub, which I certainly will do when we’re not racing. We’ve discovered that the sleek racer doesn’t shave that much time off our five-mile clock: perhaps ten or twelve minutes. We’re going for fifteen or twenty. One comment from an expert struck me: there aren’t fast boats, just fast paddlers. Having a thin, light boat does help. Our wooden one is narrow, but not particularly light.

I appreciate your reflections on flying a high performance glider vs. a Schweizer. Here’s my story.

My interest in aviation is definitely related to my dad. It was interesting to hear Paul talk about the loss of his father. You were good to let him open up. My father’s health started to fail about 2008. He died in June 2011. About that time, a guy in the locker room where I swim told me his father’s health was going, and wondered how he should prepare for the end. I told him I was learning to fly! He showed good foresight to think about it.

My dad was a pilot from the first. Charles Lindbergh captured his young imagination, and he never dropped his love of flying. He flew a P-47 in WWII, and everything he could get his hands on after that. He even flew for Northwest Airlines in the 1950s, as a co-pilot, but decided to practice law as more and more children came along (three boys and a girl, I’m the oldest). We used to go out to the airport in Valley City, North Dakota on weekends: he liked to be around airplanes even when the weather wasn’t good enough to fly – or when he didn’t own an airplane he could fly! He would rent a Piper Cub in Valley City before he bought his first, a Bonanza that smelled musty in the cabin, which helped to make me airsick.

Soaring is what captured me. I went up with him in Iowa, where he was a member of a glider club after we moved to Des Moines. I also had a ride in a glider at a school in Colorado, not far from Denver. Flying over the Rockies was neat. Later my brother in Louisiana bought a highly modified Bergfalke motor glider. I didn’t find out till later that a previous owner added the motor to a standard sailplane. I said on the phone, “So it’s a hack job!” a phrase I later regretted, though my brother took no offense. I like my brother’s free-wheeling ways. He had a regular pilot’s license and instructor’s ticket from way back, and essentially taught himself to fly the Bergfalke. Lowering his voice, he would confess to never having obtained a glider ticket.

He put the Bergfalke on the market a year or so before my dad died, and sold it sometime after. His selling the plane planted the seed for me. I thought, alright, I can’t buy that plane, but I’d like to learn to fly a glider. Mostly I just wanted to fly. It did help me to deal with the loss of my father. I took power lessons in Mansfield, as it was easier to schedule those. Finally I joined GBSC at the beginning of 2013, and had an excellent experience there. I liked the people and the flying. I liked both the Blaniks and the Schweizer. I love going up without the sound of an engine. All of the flights were a little under twenty minutes, but as a beginner that was okay. I wanted to get more practice turning, but short flights meant more take-offs and landings, too.

Yesterday I told you the end of the story. Competing in races and a million other things won out. Local triathlons are fairly infrequent, but I like to run middle distance, and 5K races are not hard to find! I’ve been motivated because the fifty year old men are fast motherfuckers, okay, fast runners, and I was about to graduate out of that group. That hasn’t helped my training, though. I still plod the pavement at nine minutes a mile or more for recreation, a little under eight minutes a mile for a 5K. Trail running, also at Hale Reservation, is a blast, but definitely slower than road running.

Now back to flying. Relevant is something that happened at the end of my lessons in Mansfield, but this message is long enough. We can save that for another message or conversation. Your honesty about the joys and difficulties of flying your ship makes me feel similarly open. Anyway, a club member in Sterling said I should pick one bird or the other – the Blanik or the Schweizer – and use that as my primary trainer. My gut choice was the Schweizer. I liked the way it handled, the way it stalled, the way it landed – everything about it felt right for a beginner. Someone compared the stick to a butter-churn, and I thought, that’s right: in a primary trainer you don’t want too much sensitivity.

Later, though, I had an email conversation with Fred, I believe, in connection with lessons in Arizona. He cautioned me about learning in a Schweizer. He observed that beginners in that plane had trouble graduating to more difficult aircraft down the line, so the Blanik was a better choice. That stopped me for a bit, and made me think, okay, I’ll just keep flying both types, depending on what’s available. That contradicted the original advice to concentrate on one plane for primary training, of course.

Your favorable remarks about your Schweizer make me think about all these questions again. They also raise the question about confidence learning to land. I think I mentioned that once, and you replied, encouragingly, “It’s not so hard.” I think that’s true if you have a gentle, steady breeze straight on the nose. Anything not on the nose and not steady seems to complicate things a lot, even with a wide grass strip to shoot for! The episode in Mansfield I mentioned above had to do with landing with about 10 knots of wind, perhaps 45 degrees off the nose. It affected my confidence about landing in general, and it shouldn’t have.

So given the difficulty of learning new stuff at our advanced age, I feel a bit like your wife piloting a sail boat. I love to fly sailplanes, but it may be a long time before I’d feel comfortable going up alone. I may never feel comfortable doing it. That uncertainty, plus the million other things like family, work, and weekend races that press on one’s time, makes it hard to commit the time and money to become competent at flying. When I go skiing, I can take as many runs as necessary down the beginner’s slope to reteach my body everything it knew the previous winter. That’s a little more difficult for flying, where every flight is a bigger deal than a brief run down the beginner’s slope.

So I fantasize, what if I were to buy a plane with someone who knows how to fly well, and just enjoy flying that way? A little sadly, that’s about what happened with my dad near the end of his life. He owned a Cessna Cardinal with a younger pilot in Des Moines. The FAA yanked his medical when the doctors said he had cancer. He fought for a long time to get it back, and actually did shortly before his health failed for good. In the meantime, he flew with his partner, and I imagine he enjoyed it even though he had lost his independence.

Even though owning a relatively expensive kayak with someone else has been something of a pain, it’s been pretty good, too. My partner – he’s in those Facebook pictures – wants to do a 340-mile race on the Missouri River, starting in Kansas City and ending in St. Louis. I counter that we should do a 70-mile event on the same river up in South Dakota, where it’s prettier and we can actually finish in under twenty-four hours. These are more fantasies, but it’s fun to have them.

So if you ever want to buy a Schweizer or another easy-to-fly sailplane with someone who has a little money and almost no spare time, you should think of me as persuadable. As I mentioned in the parking lot, John, the friend who built the kayak, regarded me as difficult to persuade, but I felt I was sucked in all too easily! All a matter of perspective, I guess.

That’s enough for now. Thanks again for writing,