Flying away—two experiences flying outside the US

I am not referring to leaving. I am referring to flying in other countries away from home where customs, regulations and people are different. I have only flown in two other countries but each was an interesting experience in different ways. In Iran, where I spent a year Fulbright Grant teaching at Tehran University, life was a challenge in many ways. Language and culture were an obstacle to teaching. The challenge was dealing with obstacles, including the government, its bureaucracy, and its secret police. I would summarize it as a year of obstruction and frustration.

When I learned that there was a glider operation at Doshen Tappeh airport where civilians could fly, I decided that would be my relief from the university. I was to learn that obstruction and frustration prevailed in all aspects of Iranian life. There was some relief at the glider field in that there were many of us foreigners in the club. We all shared a mutual love of soaring. We could compare notes on what we had learned about overcoming the obstacles or just relieve stress by complaining to each other.

Iran map
Flying anything in Iran, even a glider, is frustrating.

The glider club, like almost every activity in Iran, was supported and controlled by government bureaucracy, often with many nonsensical rules. The rules often seemed to be created to prevent enjoyment or accomplishment. Everything was supplied and controlled by the government. The support personnel, a winch crew, the maintenance staff, and the instructors employed by the government, seemingly had no interest in the activity and did not really understand the interest we had in soaring.

The operations chief changed frequently and the operation rules changed each time. It was rumored that each new chief got the job because of a mistake made somewhere else and the position was actually punishment. The new chief‘s sole concern was to have nothing go wrong in his new position, so he established very restrictive rules to avoid that. With each new arriving chief, all pilots would be required to do another check ride with an instructor. No previous flight checks were trusted. This used up a lot of good flying time. Often when thermal activity was good, either the winch crew would leave with the winch because it was time for tea (the national drink—chai, pronounced cha eee) or flying was cancelled by the chief because of “too much turbulence.”

Since all gliders had radios, you were constantly bothered by being asked what your altitude was. There was a weird rule that you had to be wearing a parachute if you were above a certain altitude. If you were flying without a chute and reported an altitude too high, you were told to come down. It was hot in Iran and chutes were a discomfort. Chutes are necessary when flying with many other gliders and collisions are possible. We seldom had many gliders in the air and none flying near each other so no chute was necessary.

This rule was circumvented by using a method developed by Fred Sharp, a Canadian with much experience in the Middle East and India. Fred said each time you arrive at the field, find out who the new chief is, and ask him repeatedly what the parachute altitude is. This was not so you would not forget, but that he wouldn’t forget what he told you and create a new one while you were in flight. If asked your altitude, you made sure your reply was an altitude below that. This could not be contradicted from the ground. In spite of all the obstacles at the glider field, it did help me survive everything else in Iran. at least for a year.

The other flying I did away from the US was twice in Switzerland, two years apart. I flew gliders at Grenchen in the western part of the country, adjacent to the 2000-foot Jura mountains near the French border. In spite of not being fluent in German, I could speak enough to be made translator on one occasion for a couple of other Americans there. The purpose was to tell them that all landings at Grenchen were to be full stall landings, not wheel landings. The checkouts were simple, brief, and approval was given by the universal word OK. I was then towed up by the mountains in a Schleicher K 8 glider to use the ridge lift.

On one of the occasions the wind was from France, so I was towed over the mountain ridge. I then discovered the wind was at an angle to the mountain face and not producing much lift. I could see pastures below and thought I would be landing out trying to avoid cows on the rollout. It would be a long trailer retrieve across the mountains back to the field.

I spotted a long, narrow ridge which had a spoon-shaped notch in one end that faced into the wind and I decided to see if this notch was producing any lift. I flew to where I suspected lift and fortunately found some. It was narrow and not very strong. I was able to climb in it by flying tight, steep circles. Each time I got to the altitude of the main mountain ridge, the lift died out. I had no other choice but to keep trying to use it for more altitude but the result was the same. After four attempts I got high enough that I thought I could clear the ridge and make it back to Grenchen.

I left the lift and headed directly for the ridge. I made it across but I startled a farmer cutting hay with a scythe in an alpine meadow by flying about fifty feet above his hayfield. The field sloped away toward Grenchen. I paralleled the slope until the mountain dropped almost vertically. Suddenly my altitude above the ground changed from fity feet to two thousand and a clear glide back to Grenchen airport.

I ate in the little airport restaurant and heard a comment made by another nearby diner that I always remember. He had just returned from an aerobatic flight in a Bücher Jungmeister biplane. It was not about flying. It was about my attempts at German and the local food. He spoke English about as well as I spoke German. I had ordered in German with a little hesitation so it was clear I was not a local. When the other diner was asked by the waiter how the food was, he replied in accented English, no doubt for my benefit, “For vat it vas… It vas aaalll right.” The food was simple but delicious, contrary to his remark. I have since often thought of using that in many restaurants that were not that good.

There were quite a few glider pilots who were there from elsewhere, other parts of Switzerland and also Germany. They had brought their gliders and were staying in a dormitory that had been built into a hangar. I arrived early one morning and found them eating breakfast at picnic tables outside the dormitory. One of them asked me where I was from. I told him America and added I was half Swiss and half German. I believe I said this in German: “ halb Schweizer, halb Deutcher.”

Schleicher K 8
Flying gliders in Switzerland is a great way to learn about a foreign country.

This brought an immediate response from several of them, both Swiss and Germans. I heard “das ist unmöglich,” that’s impossible, and a good natured argument broke out among the whole group. It seemed to end with the Swiss telling the Germans that they would not be flying there if they were allowed to fly in their own country, without all the regulations imposed by the government. Besides, the Swiss said, it was better flying in Switzerland anyhow. I had inadvertently started a ruckus. I then remembered my mom, who was Swiss, and my dad, who was German, would kid each other the same way.

My checkout in a Super Cub in Switzerland was at Le Locle, a tiny town right on the French border. French was spoken in that area. There was a very nice, small airport there. I was there because I had met a Dutch girl, Desiree Vierheim, who was managing the desk of the hotel in La Chaux De Fonds, where I was staying. I was visiting there to attempt to have a clock I design produced. She knew of nearby places that she had not yet visited. I had a VW Squareback I bought and picked up in Germany to use and then ship home. She became my guide in the region as well as a translator. I provided transportation. She spoke at least five languages: Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish, and maybe Italian.

We went to Le Locle to a locally well known, excellent restaurant. While in Le Locle I spotted the airport. I asked her if she had ever flown in a small plane. She said no and was reluctant to try. The airport had a Super Cub and I had flown Super Cubs in America. I was checked out by a French-speaking instructor. The checkout was brief: a trip around the pattern and again the universal word OK on landing. During my checkout, Desiree had been convinced to go for a ride with me in the Cub by the airport manager. He convinced her I was a capable pilot and she would enjoy it.

We took off and flew along the Doubs River on the French border, viewing some beautiful country. At some point I attempted to turn back to the field and was disturbed to learn I could not budge the stick to use the ailerons to bank into the turn. It would move fore and aft, but not side to side. I began to worry and think both of how to use only the rudder for turns to control the aircraft for landing and if I should tell Desiree, who had initially been reluctant to fly, that we had a problem. Cubs have tandem seating and dual controls. I looked back at Desiree to see if she was aware of our problem and how she might be reacting, when I discovered what our problem was.

Desiree was not enjoying the flight as much as I was. I could see she was quite tense and had tightly pressed her legs together against the control stick. Desiree was the problem. When I was able to get her to relax and give control of the Cub back to me, we landed. She enjoyed the restaurant, which was excellent, much more than the flight. I had forgotten flying is not a joy and addiction that all of us share.

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7 Comments

  • I had the pleasure of soaring with the Megiddo Soaring Club in Israel when I was in the area on business. The experience was much the same as yours. Soaring people are are soaring people. Had a blast, learned a few things. Nice thing with their club is that an ice cream van came by at about mid afternoon. One do my better trips there.

  • This article could had been more enjoyable if the author focused on the flying part and less in politics. Sorry

  • I enjoyed this article. A good look at GA flying outside the USA. This story helps the realization of why so many people from other countries do their flight training in the US.

  • Enjoyed the article. Reminded me of the NATO soaring club I came across in England while temporary duty there in the 1980s. Located in a former WWII airfield, you could get a monthly temporary membership for a small amount. I wasn’t a pilot then but was able to go with an instructor for a pound a launch (off a ground winch) and a pence a minute soaring fee thereafter. I don’t recall paying anything for the instructor. Needless to say I was there every weekend! I think the pound was running about $1.30 at the time give or take (pence 1.3 cents) . The winch put you around 800 feet and you either caught a thermal or came around and landed. After a flight your name would go to the bottom of the list and you worked ground crew until your name came up on the list again. This entailed hooking up the gliders to the winch cable and running along side and holding the wingtips level until the glider cleared the ground. They had a nice setup with a chuck wagon right on the field for food and a pub back in the hangar after the day’s flying to swap stories. Hadn’t thought about those times in a while. The IP (I tried to go with the most) told me I should get my license when I get back in the states. I did get my pilots license a few years after that but never did fly in a glider again. Thanks for the memories!

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