It had been a bad summer for the local farmers. Northern Ohio had received about half of its normal rainfall and when it did rain, it came in dribs and drabs. Not enough at any one time to do much good. The browning corn stalks and fallow fields I was passing on my way to Chardon were clear evidence of this. Given that it was just past nine in the morning, and I was catching sight of scattered little white puffs of clouds, it was clear evidence that the drought was going to make today another great day for soaring.
Our gliderport was located a bit south of Lake Erie and east of Cleveland. In a typical year the lift was dependable and it was normally pretty easy to hit your one-hour limit in the club planes. What we lacked, though, was really strong lift and it could really be a struggle to get anywhere near or over 5,000 feet AGL.
This summer, though, was a whole new ball game. With the browning fields of corn and ninety plus degree weather, we were hitting 8,000 feet AGL and higher without much effort. Where corn and grass crumbled and withered into the ground, thermals were being born and taking us to new heights. If the weather was exceptionally clear, there was even the occasional glimpse of Canada across the lake.
Pulling into the club lot I was surprised to find that I was the first one there. I unlocked the clubhouse and got the field prepped. With tow ropes ready and my name on line one of the flight sheet, I pulled out the 1-26 and preflighted her. Those little while puffs weren´t so scattered now and I was ready to go. All I needed was someone to fly the tow plane.
At the time it felt much longer, but in less than half an hour a tow pilot appeared. In short order George and I had the Scout preflighted and took a quick hop around the field to warm her up for a tow. In a matter of minutes we were back on the ground with the Scout and the 1-26 lined up and connected on the runway. We exchanged rudder wags, built up enough airspeed to lift my right wing and I was soon airborne.
At about 1,500 feet AGL, I saw the Scout shoot up like someone had just kicked her in the ass. My hand instinctively went for the release and when I got that same kick I was off tow. Circling back, I easily found myself in a strong thermal that quickly carried me up to about 5,000 feet AGL. Fed by the barren fields, clouds were popping all around me and I had my pick of thermals in every direction. The drift was negligible and I could easily journey in any direction that struck my fancy. No worries about having to keep the 1-26 upwind from the gliderport.
As I came up on the club’s one hour limit, I headed back over the field to see what was going on down at the gliderport. I was surprised to see that both of the 2-33´s were still tied down and there were only four cars in the lot. Making a note of the time, I went happily back to flying around the area and picked up another couple thousand feet. In the back of my head I was wondering if my first flight of the day might end up being a two-to-three-hour flight. I just followed the thermals and was having a great time.
Thirty minutes later I passed over the field again to see that one of the 2-33´s was ready to take off. The other had been untied, but not moved yet. With the lift as solid as ever, I was making lazy circles over the field to see what was happening. Since I had plenty of altitude, I felt safe in the foolish certainty that I was secure, and completely missed that I was making a big mistake at that moment. I wanted to fly as long as I could and I got focused on the landscape below, on the 2-33´s, the stark outlines of the gliderport, the number of cars in the lot and who on the ground might want the 1-26. Essentially, I had the 1-26 on “autopilot” as I fixated on the ground activity and not on the airspace around me.
Our gliderport was home to four sailplanes, two tow planes and a beautiful 1930´s New Standard D-31 biplane which was one of only four ever built. I had been lucky enough to have had been up in it a few times. You always knew when the D-31 was getting ready to take off. It sputtered, it roared, and it was a beautiful bright yellow that you could not miss.
On this day, though, when I was busy flying, counting cars, seeing which gliders were still on the ground and speculating who might be on the ground wanting my glider, I missed that the D-31 was in the air. It was in the air and as I took the 1-26 out of “autopilot” and leveled out, I looked ahead to see the D-31 coming directly at me as if in a battle charge. It took me a precious second to process my situation and another to shove the 1-26´s stick as far forward as it would go. As I felt my stomach drop away in tandem with the nose of my plane, a half-ton of aircraft passed directly over me and the D-31’s roaring engine was the only thing I could hear.
Once I levelled out and released the breath I hadn´t realized I was holding, I processed what had just happened. The D-31 had not seen me and had to have been moving two to three times faster than me. I had failed to keep track of the airspace around me and had almost paid a terrible price for it.
The rest of the flight and subsequent landing were thankfully uneventful, that sobering reminder of my mortality ensuring my full and undivided attention to the task at hand. Once I had secured the 1-26, I found one on my instructors and talked through what had happened. He listened, made a couple of observations and ended with “I think you learned a few things today. Things you´ll never forget.”
An hour or so later a descending rumbling growl heralded the arrival of the D-31. I watched as it landed and I headed straight over to talk about what almost happened. I was right that he never saw me. He had no idea how close we were and that I had flown right under him.
Later in the afternoon my name came up on the flight list again and I was up in the 1-26 for another flight. The flight was very similar to the first. Great lift. Little drift. Nothing but sky for miles and miles. But this flight I flew one hundred percent aware of my surroundings. Eyes open, not just at the beauty before me, hungry for the horizon. Eyes open, with the knowledge I was not alone in the sky. Eyes open, vigilant, alive.