THE FLIGHT I'D RATHER FORGET
by Tony Burton
(now the former owner of RS-15, EE)
Early on in my soaring life (1979), with just a couple of seasons flying EE in Ottawa, I was at the Gatineau Gliding Club's wave camp at Sugarbush, Vermont. One flight there gave me more excitement than I ever want to have again in a glider; it was the closest I have ever come to making a statistic of myself. I thought I'd resurrect this tale for your edification ...
Sunday night gave the promise of a good wave for the next day as the moon
lit up the edges of two lenticulars over the valley. However, as cold pilots
wandered around the airfield Monday morning, the usual low cloud was back again,
scudding across the valley and hiding tops of the back ridge to the east in
snow flurries. However, the wave was working, as an occasional gap in the cloud
to the west showed that an enormous cap was sitting on Mt. Ellen. The sky closed
over completely for some time but by 11 am, a wave window opened over the air
field which promised to be fairly consistent.
A 2-33 towed off, and by using ridge lift, was able to contact the wave directly from the ridge. It was obvious that the low cumulus-type cloud blowing through was showing some lenticular smoothness as it got to the ridge line.
Taking a 3000 feet tow to the same area, I released and found 200 fpm lift. At first, it was difficult to get established in the wave because flying at the release altitude meant winding around much broken cloud which got in the way and cut visibility, and the glinting light from snow particles in the air made the ground invisible when looking towards the south. As I got a little higher however, I was able to see the general features of the lenticulars above me to get better oriented in the wave and also see down into the valley through a larger area of gaps.
The sight was spectacular. To the west stood a smooth wall of cloud extending up to 20,000 feet - a gigantic cap to Mt. Ellen and the other mountains hidden underneath. Above and behind me were three sets of stacked lenticulars. The low one I was now climbing in front of at 6000 feet was rather ragged, the middle one was thin and smooth at about 10,000 feet, and the highest at about 16-20,000 feet was very large and extended a bit more forward of the others.
The lift varied as I explored around, but I climbed steadily and enjoyed
the expanding view. I passed the middle lennie and the lift improved. However,
the view below to the ground became steadily poorer because of the increasing
altitude, and the brightness of the surroundings compared to the gloomy fragments
of valley floor, visible through the clouds and snow clogging the window. At
around 14,000 feet, EE was climbing steadily at 4-500 feet per minute, and the
lift continued to be strong as I flew along the front of the top lenticular.
I broke off the climb at 18,000 to ask for further clearance. Eventually, the
radio answered with an approval to 22,000, but before it came I had decided
that I better get down and began the descent.
With full flap and a hard steady push on the stick, the glider dropped smoothly in a stable turn at 60 knots at well over 1000 feet per minute down. I was to be thankful for that characteristic of the RS-15.
The strong nose-down attitude prevented the compass from turning, a detail I had never really noticed before but became acutely aware of as the window continued to close beneath me. In retrospect, I should have broken off the descent at about 10,000 feet and stayed at that height in the wave until conditions improved. I got myself in trouble and committed to a descent through the cloud in what seemed to be an amazingly short period of time. As I approached the lower cloud level around 8000 feet, its "levelness" quickly turned into canyons and bowls of murk on all sides, and the last shred of hole filled in below.
Feeling quite apprehensive, I continued the descending turn. I knew that
any changes in flap setting or control motion would affect the stable attitude
of the glider and assure me of an instant case of vertigo once cloud was entered.
At about 5500 feet, in I went near the bottom of my bowl. In the grayness of
the cloud I had no sensation of motion at all, I just put all my effort into
"freezing" the control position, making only tiny corrections in my push on
the stick to hold the air speed steady. I was worried - scared, I didn't know
where I was, and I knew that cloudbase was on the ridge top to the east.
After unremembered seconds, a short flash of trees appeared rotating below with a dusting of snow on them. I was close to the ridge, but which side? More mist, then I was clear. Rolling the flaps up and getting straight and level, I was presented with the most awful sight of my gliding career. I was downwind of the ridge in the next valley east of the airport. The ridge crest was above me, the ground was only about three hundred feet below, and all I could see - anywhere - were trees. Banking around, I saw that the forest sloped away gradually to the northeast, and I followed, gaining a little "freeboard" as I went. At this point, my state-of-mind was in a shocking condition, and I swore, "Burton, you've really gone and done it to yourself this time", (or words to that general effect.)
I fled towards the lowering ground for a full minute without sighting one sign of civilization, before rounding a small spur of the ridge and seeing an abandoned barn on a tiny hillside, grown-over pasture. While approaching this last resort landing spot, I finally got a glimpse of the narrow valley bottom; hidden down within many small humps, and holding a stream, a railroad track, and a road. Turning towards this final hope of improvement, I saw a few houses around another corner and, a mile along the road, salvation at last in the form of a long grassy north-south field down between two roadside ridges. There were tall trees at either end. By now my head was racing along on pure adrenalin, not cool reason.
The circuit was low and rough, and I was quickly changing airspeed and flap setting to set up the approach over the trees. As I passed over them on final, I realized that I was going very fast along the ground - I was too high, too fast, and flying downwind! That long, easy field was disappearing under the wings at an alarming rate. The glider would not settle and with three quarters of the field behind, it was still flying. I flew it onto the ground and held on, while the barbed wire fence grew rapidly closer.
The only way I was going to get stopped was to groundloop. At some 200 feet from the fence, I was still moving at about 30 miles per hour when I forced the left wing onto the ground. Nothing happened for a second - then everything. As the tip plate dug into the dirt, the glider slewed sideways, banging the right wing-tip into the dirt. Amidst all the banging and crashing, the tailwheel fairing flew past the canopy. The glider continued rotating and then stopped with one last lurch pointing back towards the direction it had come.
After all that had just passed, the silence was deafening, and as I unstrapped myself and climbed out, I fully expected to see a broken tail. Joyfully, it appeared to be all right and, by no skill of timing on my part, the glider had come to rest with the tail just four inches from the barbed wire! I have the photo to prove it. Looking back at the signs of my ground loop, the wing tip plate had cut a groove in the dirt for about 40 feet before it caught, and other gouges indicated that the glider had skidded sideways and backwards for over 100 feet. On closely inspecting the RS-15, the tailwheel fork was badly bent along with both wing tip plates, and the tail attachment points had been over-stressed from the large side loads the tail had experienced. That the glider was intact at all was a great testimony to Dick Schreder's design.
Going back to the cockpit, I radioed that I was safe and would find out where I was. So I was left to finally calm down and contemplate my sins. The first person to arrive on the field fed me hot coffee out of a paper cup with a big shot of whiskey in it. Thanks.
A guardian angel worked overtime for me. I relived the flight over and over that very sleepless night
Postscript: In the years that have
passed since I first wrote this story (a generation ago now, in 1980!), I was
always puzzled why the glider was so reluctant to get down onto that field on
final. In retrospect, I think it's possible that I was so rattled that when
I put the flaps down, I was a full turn short of lowering them all the way.
The last thing I was thinking about was wind direction. Where did the flight
really go wrong? A lot earlier than the circuit - I waited far too long to make
the decision that visibility conditions were getting far too poor and to break
off the climb.
What I did not include in the original text was that while I was waiting
for my trailer to arrive, another glider appeared overhead through a light snow
shower, flying downwind along the top of the low ridge on the other side of
the road. (It turned out to be from the gliding
club at MIT.) The pilot had been caught out just as I had. I watched, expecting
him to turn base and land, properly, in my field, but he didn't - he kept on
flying downwind until he was too far away and low to land anywhere. I watched
as he turned, finally, slowly, then suddenly pitched down and disappeared
behind a farmhouse!
Sprinting down the road, and fearing the worst, I ran to the farmyard and found him standing, somewhat stunned, next to the smashed wooden glider where it had impacted on the soft muddy slope of the streamside. It saved him.
I ran down and hugged him, crying, "Why didn't you turn?!"
He mumbled something about trying to ridge soar, his state of mind no better
than mine had been.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Sep/Oct 1980 edition of "Free Flight" magazine. This updated article was prepared for Alberta Soaring Council publication, "ASCent."
The accident report indicated the MIT glider was a MG-23 (N1156Q). I have provided a couple link to MG-23s pictures for others, like myself, not familiar with this vintage sailplane. --- N1156Q 1 --- N1156Q 2 --- The pictures of the restored N1156Q were taken at the International Vintage Sailplane Meet held in Elmira, NY, July 1st - 9th, 2000.