|Wes Boyd's |
Spearfish Lake Tales
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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"
Jackie Gravengood decided to leave the canopy open while the slack was coming out. The sun was beating down, and it was a hot day, for the first weekend of May. With the canopy closed, the cockpit would become an oven in minutes, but she knew it would be better when she was in the air.
She sat back in the cockpit and watched the old brown Buick as it rolled up the runway. It had turned into a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with cumulus popping all over the sky, and it was just too good an afternoon to pass up. Even better, it was her turn to fly the little single-seat sailplane she and her husband Mark had rebuilt from a wreck a few years before.
Far ahead of her, more than a quarter of a mile away, she could see Mark stop the old Buick. He and Cumulus got out, so it was a safe assumption that the 1800 feet of 3/8" golden yellow polypropolene towline had been unrolled off the reel in what had been the trunk of the Buick. She sighed; it had been a long time since she had taken an aero tow behind a towplane, three years now.
Aero tows were a lot easier. That was how she had been launched when she had first flown a sailplane, back in Colorado, when she and Mark had been on their "honeymoon", the nine-month trip they had taken around the country in Rocinante, their Cessna 140.
They had been away from sailplanes for some time before getting back into it. When they first had the sailplane — a Schweitzer 1-26 — they’d tried towing it with their Cessna, but the trees at the far end of the Spearfish Lake airport had gotten much too close for comfort, and the runway at their farm was shorter. They’d towed it behind the old Stinson that Mark’s dad had owned, back before he had realized that he was going to have to give up flying forever. When the Stinson had been sold, it had become a case of either replacing Rocinante — which neither of them wanted to do — or resorting to auto tows.
Auto tows weren’t all bad. They were more fun than aero tows, anyway.
Far in the distance, she could see Mark take the far end of the tow rope from the reel, and fasten it to a stake she knew was set into the ground. He threaded the tow rope through a snatch block mounted on the Buick’s trailer hitch.
When he and the dog got back into the car, that was her signal to close the canopy. It wouldn’t be long now. She latched the canopy, and nestled back against the seat, her head against the headrest. She could see the Buick’s brake lights flash, and felt a little jerk as the slack came out of the towline. She thumbed the button on the stick between her legs, and spoke into the boom microphone dangling in front of her lips: "Slack is out. Take her away."
Up in the Buick, Mark gave his wife a second to get settled before he floorboarded the throttle. The Buick was an old clunker; it had no license plates, the muffler wasn’t much good, and the floorboards were rusted through in spots. He had bought it for fifty bucks, mostly on account of the huge engine stuffed up under the hood like a head cold. He settled himself in the seat, glanced at Cumulus to make sure the dog was in a good position, pulled the drive selector into "Low", and stomped the gas.
Jackie had read of how it felt for carrier pilots to get a catapult shot off of a carrier deck, and she had imagined that the sensation must not have been very different from the acceleration that booted her in the backside as the sailplane shot forward. With the rope running through the pulley on the back of the car, she was moving forward at twice the car’s speed, and inside of a hundred feet or so, she was at sixty miles an hour and easing the sailplane’s nose upward. It broke ground readily, and began to climb rapidly. Still, Jackie kept the stick back in her belly, bringing the nose of the sailplane higher and higher, until her heels were well above the level of her head, and all she could see through the canopy was blue sky.
She stole a look at the variometer, the instrument that told her her rate of altitude change, and could see that it was pegged somewhere beyond 2000 feet per minute upward, and the altimeter’s needle was spinning around in a blur. Like a homesick angel, the 1-26 raced skyward.
Still ahead of her, farther below, Mark let the speed of the Buick ease off to twenty. As Jackie and the sailplane had to go the long way around an arc, the sailplane’s airspeed indicator didn’t notice the difference. The drag of the climbing sailplane on the car told him that his wife and the 1-26 were climbing like mad.
Passing through 900 feet above ground level, Jackie could feel the rate of climb ease off a little, and she dropped the nose of the sailplane, to milk all the energy she could off of the towrope. The sailplane continued to climb, inching skyward as she dropped the nose further. She couldn’t expect much more from the tow; and if she held on much further, the rope would start dragging her downward. She dropped the nose, and pulled the red knob on the dash to release her from tow.
Mark could feel the car surge as the drag of the sailplane came off. He slowed, but continued to drive ahead, to keep the falling towline from landing in a clump. There was a ding in the Buick’s windshield from where the ring at the end of the towline had chipped it after a thousand-foot fall, one time, and it had scared the shit out of him when it happened. He could see the towline winding down to the ground in his rear-view mirror as he heard his wife’s voice over the CB: "Ten-fifty."
A thousand and fifty feet was about as good a launch as they had ever gotten from the airstrip behind their barn. In theory, they could have added another few hundred feet of tow rope, and gotten a little bet better launches, but they didn’t have the runway to do it. As it was, he was past the end of the runway and going down the two-rut to the swamp before he brought the Buick to a stop and put it in Park.
He got out of the car with Cumulus at his heels, and looked up as he took the towline out of the snatch block; overhead, the 1-26 floated lazily in a circle, as Jackie tried to work a patch of rising air. It certainly would be a good day to go soaring, and he gave some thought to rolling the Cessna out of the hanger, and going out to join Jackie. It took a real strong day to soar in the Cessna with the engine shut off, and he wasn’t sure how strong it was. Perhaps Jackie would be able to tell him in a few minutes.
If it wasn’t a real strong day, then it would be tempting to try out the harness on Cumulus, and go for a run with him. He’d built the harness from a drawing he’d seen in an old children’s book about a British Antarctic expedition back in the fifties. It had been a brilliant idea to look up polar explorations in the library; he had learned a lot more about driving dogs. A run up and down the runway with Cumulus dragging one of Rocinante’s old tires would get the dog used to towing something, and he could start him on trail commands. But, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea; he’d have to stay close to the radio.
A thousand feet above, Jackie glanced down momentarily, to see her husband start the drive back up the runway to the stake. She couldn’t take much of a glance, though; she had only a couple of minutes to find some rising air, or her flight would be over with before he could get the towline rewound.
She felt a little bump that lifted the left wing of the sailplane a bit. Without even thinking about it, she realized that there was some air going up to her left, and she racked the sailplane in a hard left turn, to find some more of it.
Back at the stake, Mark waited for a minute, to see if Jackie was going to be able to keep the sailplane up. It was difficult to look up, so he flopped back on the hood of the car to watch. After a few minutes, the sailplane was visibly smaller in the sky, and she was clearly going to be up for a while, so as Cumulus lay down and watched, he began rewinding the towline. That had been a real job, once, until he’d rigged up an electric motor to do the job for them.
He didn’t watch for a few minutes, as he guided the towline while the motor did the work, but once the towline was back on the reel, he looked up, to see that the little Schweitzer was only a small, white speck far above. He got back in the car, picked up the CB microphone, and radioed, "Sunflower, this is Phone Man. You got good air?"
Technically, of course, they should have used call letters, instead of CB handles, and had they been on the aircraft VHF, he would have. But, everybody else on CB used handles, so why shouldn’t they? Besides, it had been fun to think up the handles. His was obvious — he’d worked for the Spearfish Lake Telephone Company for fifteen years — but he wasn’t sure where his wife had come up with hers.
"Sunflower" radioed back almost instantly, "I’m getting five and six hundred. With air like this, I’m tempted to try Warsaw and return."
"No reason not to if you can stay high," he told her. He didn’t have to add that "Get high and stay high" was rule number one for soaring — especially soaring over the north woods around Spearfish Lake, where there was a lot of forest and not a lot of places to land if rising air couldn’t be found. They’d flown around home and Spearfish Lake for several years within gliding distance of one of the two airports before they’d gotten up enough courage to even try flying down to Albany River and back, and had carefully scouted every possible landing place from the air and on the ground before they’d ever tried a Warsaw run.
"If this thing tops out over seven thousand, I think I’ll try it," she replied.
"Well, keep me informed," he told her. "I’m going to play with the computer in the observatory."
The computer drive for the telescope was Mark’s latest toy. Out next to the airstrip, in the middle of the field, stood a wooden astronomical observatory, with a dome made from an old silo top. Inside was a 14 1/2 inch Cassegrain telescope, the third telescope that Mark had built with his own hands. He’d been fiddling with a program that would let the used IBM AT computer drive the telescope.
Sometimes Mark felt a little guilty about that. There were plenty of people his age that he knew that couldn’t afford to own an airplane and a sailplane, an astronomical observatory and not one, but several computers, and a farm with an airstrip — all of them paid for.
But, he’d worked for it. He’d had the Cessna for years, and had saved his money all the way through the army to own it. He’d worked hard at his job, and Jackie’s sign business that she’d built up over fifteen years and more was booming. They’d rebuilt the farmhouse and barn and shop with their own hands from abandoned wrecks, and the sailplane, too. Still, it was a lot of toys to own, and he knew they could never have afforded all that and children, too. But then, they’d agreed long before they were married that it’d be just as well if they didn’t have children.
The world looked different from 7500 feet above the ground, up near cloud base. Jackie could see the shadows of the clouds on the forest below. Below her, she could see the railroad like like a slash through the forest; she’d follow the railroad to Warsaw and back. Far below, she could see a train on the tracks, mostly made up of pulp flats, heading up to the paper mill at Warsaw, and she idly wondered if her father were running it. She hadn’t talked to her father in several days, and didn’t know for sure what his schedule was — but as the senior engineer for the Camden and Spearfish Lake Railroad, he could pretty well pick and choose when he wanted to work, and he’d decided that he’d run one too many rock trains, so it was a good guess that he was running it.
Right up near cloud base, Jackie decided that she’d milked about all the lift she was going to get out of the thermal, so she turned to the east, guessed her best speed to fly into the sinking air at about seventy, and straightened out on course for Warsaw. Looking down again, she could see the train ahead of her, going no more than twenty-five, she knew, but since she’d have to stop and thermal to get altitude, there was a good chance that it would beat her to Warsaw.
Well, not if she could help it. With that thought in mind, she nosed down a little more, until the airspeed hit eighty, burning off with airspeed the altitude she’d so painfully gotten soaring. She was down to perhaps five thousand feet above the ground before she realized that she’d better be looking for some lift, and a clearcut field a couple of miles ahead looked like it might generate some.
She was just coming up on the field when the needle on the variometer jiggled a couple of times, and then settled down on the up side of the scale. She would rather have run a little farther, but lift was where she found it, so she pulled back on the stick and chandelled up into the thermal. Circling for more altitude, she looked down, to see that the train that she’d passed on her run had almost caught up with her. Instinctively, she tightened up her circle a little, to try to get closer to the core of the thermal and climb faster.
For three more thermals as she headed eastward, she passed the train as she ran between thermals, only to have it catch up to her as she stopped to gain altitude, but she gained a little bit each time. The train was only just catching up with her east of Hoselton when she left the last thermal, heading on into Warsaw, thirty miles east of their farm.
On that last run, she let herself get a little lower than was absolutely necessary, at least partly with the thought that if there were one place in miles that she had the near certainty of getting a good thermal, it would be off the parking lot and the new paper mill, completed just four years ago after being flattened in a tremendous fire right in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years.
She was down to about 3000 feet above the ground before she picked up the reliable thermal off of the paper mill. Though the smell of the thermal left something to be desired, it was rising air, rising quickly, too. She found the core of the thermal and circled tightly, the variometer between seven and eight hundred feet per minute, the best all day.
The train was just pulling into town as she reached cloud base and turned westward. "Beat ya, dad," she thought as she looked back toward Spearfish Lake. Off in the distance it lay like a hole in the haze on the ground, a long way off. She was several miles to the west before she realized that she’d be better let Mark know how she was coming. "Phone Man," she called, keying the mike with the button on the stick. "Phone Man, this is Sunflower. Turn point outbound."
It took Mark a moment to reply; she realized that he must have been in the observatory, listening to the CB in the Buick outside. "Roger that, Sunflower," he said, and added after a moment, "We’ve picked up a breeze, about ten knots out of the southwest."
"Steady?" she asked.
"Afraid so," he said. "Sorry about that."
This was not good news, and she knew it. A ten-knot breeze out of the southwest would put the wind she’d be facing coming at her from off of the lake. The cool lake shut down thermal activity for miles downwind, and she’d have to cross that long patch of dead air somehow or another — and into the wind, too, which would slow her down over the ground. She could offset that a little by keeping a little to the north of the railroad tracks, but getting too far to the north would put her out over the Spearfish River swamp, which also couldn’t be depended upon to provide lift.
"Going to have to play it cool," she replied, and concentrated on her flying.
Fortunately, the thermal near Hoselton was still working, though somewhat weaker than before, and it took her a long time to ride it up to cloud base. "Better stay high and grab every patch of up I get," she thought as she left the thermal, again heading westward. Several miles west of Hoselton, she found a weak, diffuse thermal, without much of a core and only two hundred feet per minute or so of lift, and it seemed like it took her ages to get back up to cloud base, but she rationalized that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, downwind of Spearfish Lake. Finally, brushing the clouds, she decided she’d ridden it all she dared. Again, she turned to the west and started out, sure now that the altitude she had in hand was going to have to last her until she was out of the shadow of the lake.
She turned to the northeast as far as she dared, to try to cross the lake shadow at as much of an angle as she could, but the swamp kept her from making a direct line of it. From her perch high above the ground, she could see the rail line, three or four miles to the south, and knew she had about the best course she could manage as she headed eastward, the altimeter slowly unwinding as she sank through the flat, still air.
There was no way of telling, of course, how far she might have to go before she found another thermal, and as the altimeter unwound, she thought that she had better prepare Mark in case she couldn’t find another patch of rising air. "Phone man," she called on the CB, "I’m down to 5000, north northeast of the lake."
He must have been working with the computer again, as again it took a moment to respond. "The wind hasn’t changed, Sunflower," he replied. "How’s it looking?"
"I think I can get around to the north of the lake," she said, "But I’d better find something there, or you’re going to have to get out the trailer."
"I’ll stand by," he said.
As she crept westward, the altimeter continued to unwind, without any hint of rising air. Four thousand feet. Three thousand, and it was beginning to be time to think about finding a place to set the Schweitzer down if she didn’t find some lift in the next few miles. It wasn’t impossible; the lake air had shot her down in this way before, more than once, and she had a catalogue in her head of places that she could land. The best place was about five miles ahead, about as far as she could stretch her glide, although she’d never landed there in the summer. She didn’t really want to land there, but if she kept on this course much longer, she would be committed to it, and the alternative was not as good.
Two thousand feet. She keyed the microphone once again. "Phone Man, it looks like it’s going to be West Turtle Lake," she called. "Unless I can get some lift off the golf course."
"If you have to, Sunflower, you have to," Mark replied. "We knew it was going to happen sooner or later. I’ll get the trailer hooked up."
"I’ll try to keep it up if there’s anything there at all," she replied.
She was down to about 1100 feet above the ground before she crossed the grass runway at the West Turtle Lake Club, and turned to cross the golf course. Out in the sun, it might produce some lift, weak and patchy, but up. Still, there wasn’t a ripple. She made a swing a little to the northeast of the golf course, in case the wind had blown a little vagrant lift that way, but the altimeter continued to sag. She was down to eight hundred feet now; with the runway in hand, she was committed. "Phone Man, this is Sunflower," she radioed. "Landing at West Turtle."
"I’m on the way," Mark replied. "I’ll be there in half an hour or so. Keep your shirt on."
If Jackie could have seen her face in a mirror right then, she would have noticed a slight reddening. Mark’s last remark carried a double edge to it, and she knew it. With a sigh for the awkwardness that she knew was to come, she set up a pattern, turned into the breeze, and let the sailplane sink toward the grass runway.
As she turned final, at perhaps three hundred feet, there was a little bump of lift, but that low, there was not going to be any working it; there wasn’t time or altitude to circle once or twice and still land. High over the end of the runway, she popped the spoilers, and let the sailplane sink toward the ground. Only a few feet up now, she closed the spoilers and let the sailplane float in the ground effect up toward the clubhouse; there was no point in walking any farther than she had to. As she got close to the clubhouse, she opened the spoilers again, letting the sailplane sink onto the runway. The end of the runway was coming up fast, but a quick dab of the brake on the single wheel brought her to a stop.
She just sat there for a moment, thinking that another five hundred feet in hand and she might have been able to scratch herself up and away from the club on the little thermal off the end of the runway. Even as she sat there, it began to get warm in the cockpit, so resigning herself to what was to come, she opened the canopy and began to undo the five-point harness that held her in the seat.
"Well, hi, Jackie," a voice called to her. "You finally decided to drop in, huh?"
She looked up, to see a familiar face. Kirsten Langenderfer, an old friend from high school, one that she hadn’t seen much of in recent years. Though Jackie’s age, she was still bouncy and blonde, and quite visibly pregnant.
And, wearing the uniform of the day, considering that the West Turtle Lake Club was a nudist camp.