True Confessions: I Crashed the Club's Schweizer (not Schweitzer) 2-33 Glider (Sail) Plane
July 4, 1984
For Jaspal, who wanted to know all about my adventures in flying gliders at the Boulder, Colorado airport and even commented on what I had to say.
My first mistake
The sun rose with a vengeance on that fateful day, as if determined to suck the life right out of me.
In all innocence, I rose with a smile possibly as bright. I was with my favorite buddies from the Denver Soaring Council- evidently renamed The Soaring Society of Boulder- and it was my turn to soar the friendly skies of Eagle Airport.
By now I had logged nearly 100 solo flights, most lasting 30 minutes following my release from our Piper Cub Tow plane. The club operated out of where the altimeter was set at 5300 feet- 5288 to be exact. A tow would take about 20 minutes and then I was on my own, searching for pops of lift to extend my flight time. Boulder, Colorado
I'd flown summer camp flights at Buena Vista and Kremmling as well as Salida and even experienced a 3000 foot climb in altitude on a one hour flight out of Westcliffe, where the lift was strong as an elevator.
I always got stomach butterflies before a flight. My gruff and dear instructor Bill Williams assured me that I had an instinctive ability to fly, which he attributed to my sex. The guys are more calculating, he would say. Jack might know all the technical stuff, but you fly intuitively.
Jack was my boyfriend. He and I drove to Boulder every Saturday and Sunday when the clouds weren't overbuilt and spent the day flying or hauling gliders onto the runway so that others could fly. We lived and breathed gliding. I tried not to be competitive with Jack. He was a dedicated and determined pilot.
Jack wasn't with me on this particular Fourth of July. His little sister was coming out at Central City Opera House and I hadn't been invited to the ceremony. I was not a favorite of his parents. Something about being too common...
Eagle Airport sits at 6540 feet above sea level. The runway is a mile long. But sitting behind a towplane working through the checklist, its expanse of concrete doesn't feel intimidating. It feels like an opportunity come knocking.
A special crush of mine, Jeffry Ohmart- winner of the 1978 Kolstad Scholarship for Glider Pilots- was already up in his family's single seater. He was hovering above the runway somewhat anxiously, watching my flying companion Fred Pool climb into the cockpit. Fred was not an instructor and was therefore the Pilot in Command; I had yet to take my glider license test, though I had enough hours and had passed the written.
Fred was renowned in Aspen, an experienced glider pilot in his 60s who had written an article in Soaring Magazine titled Noise makers for safety, May, 1978. In 1994 he, along with the Denver Soaring Council would be awarded the Colorado State Soaring Society Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Soaring Movement in Colorado. Fred was a legend.
I felt honored and somewhat overwhelmed that Fred would want to go up with me. It wasn't really recommended. In fact, it was probably illegal to have a student fly with someone who was not an instructor/pilot. If Bill had been along, he would never have allowed it.
However, I trusted Fred's judgment and so I climbed under the yellow wings and into the pilot seat beside this white haired sage, excited to be in a position to learn from his vast experience.
Fred was determined to teach me about coring a thermal. The mountains around Vail-Eagle Airport inspire lots of lift. We didn't have a sound variometer, as you hear in the video. So he had me focus on the instrument itself, noting when it popped upward. The upward movement indicated that we had found a thermal.
All of this intellectual activity kept me focused. I maneuvered the stick obediently as I watched the needle move. And held the plane in a tight turn to catch the rising wave of lift. We were up for an hour, and I worked hard the entire time. I didn't mind that I was not really in charge. I listened to Fred and did as he said. I was learning.
A Schweizer 2-33 is a two seat glider. Kind of a workhorse of a glider, though on the tubby side. It doesn't hold lift like a sleeker one seater does. It's not a high performance glider and doesn't offer ease of steering. My arms were pretty dang tired by the end of the hour- even trembling a bit. Working out wasn't on my weekly list of activities and like many women, my arms were weaklings. Still, I pressed on, as I didn't intend to humiliate myself with Fred.
I was mostly learning to ignore any physical sensation in my body telling me I was in lift. Telling me anything at all, in fact. I was learning to listen to Fred without relying on my instincts.
When glider pilots land, we fly what is called a landing pattern. We fly across the runway, crossing where we intend to land, and check traffic, wind and obstructions on the runway.
After crossing the runway, we turn left and fly along the runway to its end, gauging what we need in the way of landing space depending on the conditions discovered in the checklist.
We turn left again at a right angle to the runway until we reach its middle point- or what will set us down in the middle of the runway, again depending on revealed conditions. Then we turn left to final and adjust our position so that we land in the middle of the runway and roll out-- hopefully to the take out point where friends wait to help get the glider off the runway.
The Vail Eagle Airport runway was one mile long. I was still flying and needed to get myself into landing mode, but Fred kept asking me, "Could you land now?" I guess he was playing what he thought was the instructor role but what was happening was not instruction. I was being distracted. I was acting as Pilot in Command but my head and body were not in the game.
We flew along the right side of the runway and my stomach began to get flutters. I was not comfortable with what Fred was wanting from me. He evidently expected me to do a full pattern at the end of the runway but I felt too low. I felt like I needed to land NOW! Still, he was the expert and so I continued to follow what it was I thought he wanted me to do, which was continue to the official landing location.
All of a sudden, he freaked out and shouted, TURN IN! TURN IN! WE ARE TOO LOW!
I startled and made a left hand turn towards the runway, at which time he grabbed the controls and we dropped. The rest of the landing is a blur to me. Suffice to say we hit what Fred later said was strong sink.
I'm not convinced. We were low on approach and I should have ignored him and crossed the runway immediately upon feeling the urge. I could have flown a full pattern had I listened to my intuition.
As it was, he twisted the plane into a very quick right turn of landing pattern legs known in layman terms as a circle at less than 200 feet above the ground. We hit the runway diagonally and hard, skidding across it into an embankment of ground perhaps set up to keep planes from going over the edge. The plane lay there like a crushed Chinese New Year's fish kite.
Fred climbed out of the plane absolutely livid and red-faced, muttering as he limped past fellow clubbers rushing to our aide.
Jeff observed this from where he thermalled above the airport and landed in record speed, taking me into his arms, trembling. I hugged him back, cherishing his tensed jaw and snappish observation of events. He believed in me and was furious with Fred.
I am forever grateful to Jeff for helping me survive comments made by members who blamed me and vilified Fred. I did fly again, after the glider was repaired. Fred was forced to accept responsibility, as I was a student pilot. I'm thinking he never spoke to me after that. Bill was furious at him for taking me up at all, as it proved to be an illegal choice.
I am not blaming Fred. He was trying to do what he thought best for the situation. I blame myself for not being strong enough to take control and act in our mutual best interest without worrying about what he was thinking. I failed to trust my self.
Jack and I named our first dog Schweitzer!
On my last solo glider flight as pilot in command, several years after I totaled the Schweizer, Jack and I headed to a summer camp event held out on the eastern plains in a town called Limon.
By now, we were married and appreciated being able to spend an entire Memorial Weekend away from our respective jobs. Despite my usual butterflies, I climbed into the cockpit of the Club Blanik with anticipation. I was looking forward to a summer of soaring discovery.
The towplane released me and I was off seeking thermals. But something was different. I felt queasy. Had the accident made its final claim on my nerves? I felt nauseous in fact. Perhaps I had caught a bug. The thought of landing, covered in vomit, did not appeal, so I fell into the landing pattern and touched down exactly right where I intended.
Within a few days I discovered I was pregnant. I never flew again.
© 2009 Barbara