I came to gliding and becoming a sailplane pilot through most of the regular influences and a few that were irregular. As a young student I always enjoyed reading aviation stories and I built a collection of plastic airplane kits and later balsa and tissue rubber band models, control line, and free flight models. I did not have any family or neighbor friends who were pilots, but sometimes Dad would drive the family to the local airport where we could watch the planes taking off and landing. I also remember watching the Disney episode “The Boy who Flew with Condors,” and thinking someday I would like to fly a glider.
When I became a young adult I took a handful of hang glider lessons and even soloed a paraplane after a package of flight lessons. Meanwhile, I had the usual fun with discovering sports cars (MGs, Fiats, and Mustangs) and motorcycles. Finally, in my late 20s, I found a local soaring club and began flight lessons. I had a job that required weekend and shift work, the club only taught on weekends, so lessons were spread out over better than a year, but the day came for the solo sign-off and a bit later the private glider rating.
Soaring soon became my favorite sport and pastime. Soaring had several advantages over the sports cars: no speeding worries, much easier to generate G Force at will, and no need to buy tires every six months. I became a regular club flyer and eventually bought my first glider, a Schweizer 1-26B with a partner in the club (who later became my wife, too). Sailplanes and their designs are like most vehicles, optimized for cost, intended use, and performance envelopes. The 1-26 is popular, easy to fly, slow, and modest in value. The 15 meter and open class sailplanes are big, fast, and expensive. I’ve always told people that the 1-26 is like an MG, and the open-class ships are like a Porsche or Ferrari. Remember the old sports car saying, “A slow car driven fast is more fun than a fast car at the limits.”
So, to finally get to my story, the 1-26 is a great sailplane to have fun with and has a big owners club for support. Many US sailplane pilots began their flying in the 2-place Schweizer 2-33, and transition to the single seat 1-26 after soloing. The glider pilot is always aware that any flight could end in an off airport landing. The little 1-26 can climb well in thermals but is slow upwind and in cross-country flights.
As a consequence of the lift/drag ratio of a 23/1 glideslope and best cruise around 50 mph, pilots who attempt cross country flights will someday find themselves low and without lift to sustain a flight, with no airfield in sight. The sailplane pilot quickly becomes a big fan of the country’s farmers and the crops that are growing in the fields. Sailplane pilots are taught how to plan off field landings. Books can be written about out landings, and have been, but I will only mention the big points. Some pilots might fly for years and never have an off field landing; others may have off-field landings several times a season. Flying the 1-26 generally puts you in the latter category.
The day inevitably arrives. The weather is nice, there are cumulus clouds, soaring birds, other sailplanes are climbing, and I am beyond a final glide to the airfield. Suddenly, I’m not finding lift anymore, the trusty 1-26 is sinking as my heart rate is climbing. I’ve been taught off field landings, I have helped bring gliders back from off landings, and I’m about to have an off field landing.
A first off field landing will rank right up with the first airplane flight, first solo, first kiss, first *@!*, never mind, etc. The pilot has about 90 seconds for the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). In order: I’m not too low… I WILL find lift… WHY did I leave the local airfield in a 1-26… God, I’ll do an extra duty at the club if I don’t have to land out… I’m sad… the club members will tease me… and finally, well… I have to land somewhere. (Yes sir, the gliders always land, we haven’t had any get stuck in the sky yet.)
OK, I’ve been watching for fields and looking for lift beginning around 2000 ft AGL, no lift found and still descending, by 1500 ft select two or three candidate fields, long enough, clear approaches, and fallow or low crops (still hoping for lift) and finally, around 1000 ft, pick the landing field, look for wires, poles, ditches, hazards to avoid, fly a pattern and land the glider.
I picked a good field, fly a pattern, touch down at the aim point, roll out, use the brake and skid to stop as short as possible, and come to a stop. Off field landings are not so bad after all, just a part of the sport. Somehow, I did not see any people while planning the landing, but almost from the moment the glider stops, people are all around the glider. Land outs can be fun, and the questions begin,
“Hey, I didn’t hear the motor, did it quit?” (Don’t have one)
“Did the wind quit?” (Best answer: YES, it did)
“How are you going to get out of here?” (With help and a trailer/ground crew).
Oh, someone almost always offers the pilot a beer or stronger drink. Gently decline; you still have a glider to take apart, maybe carry parts to the trailer, sometimes over a fence, and a drive home.
Glider pilots and balloonists are the only flyers that land out anymore. Even in the community around our soaring club, most people have never seen a land-out so an airplane in a field is a unique event. I have managed to meet one family twice in my own adventures. I once landed in a field behind a farmhouse and met the kids and housewife while waiting for my wife to bring the trailer.
Later than same season I had another land-out to a different field. The wife and friends again brought the trailer out and the glider was disassembled and about to go onto the trailer when a car stopped at the roadside. A voice called out my name and asked if I remembered them (the family from the farmhouse).
“Yes, I do remember. How are you?”
“Oh, we’re fine, but haven’t you learned how to fly that thing yet?”
“Well no ma’am, I’m still learning.”
I’ve been soaring almost 30 years now and my wife and I still own the 1-26, and I also have an SGS 1-35C now, so we can both share a thermal on nice days. And yes, I am still learning how to fly sailplanes.