Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jimmy on the SPOT

The more soaring I do the less it seems like flying. Now that's nonsense, because while you are soaring you are definitely surrounded by air. I have the same feeling about ag flying, too: yes, there is an airplane, but the flying seems secondary to the mission. Maybe the way to look at it is to that flying is such a large part of my outlook on the world that I spend more time looking at how things are different than how things are similar.

Or think of it this way. A couple of years ago I went to the Soaring Society of America convention. This was one of those typical soaring productions, involving dozens of phone calls and emails and several weeks of deciding the best way for all of us to get from Salt Lake City to Albuquerque. We're all pilots, and some of us are power pilots, so there was a lot of comparing my club's Cherokee Six to Lew's Bonanza and Tim's Mooney as far as comfort, performance, and cost. The Mooney lost on comfort. (Keep in mind that I am a former Mooney owner, but a couple of the guys are pretty big and it's hard to fit big and Mooney into the same sentence.) And in the end the Bonanza and the Six lost out to Southwest's inexpensive 737, which is certified for flight into known icing.

We arrived separately, but we all left on the same flight. So here we are, 6 or so pilots filing onto an airplane. I know a bunch of Southwest pilots and believe me, they are pilots just like we are. (If you doubt me, watch the crew exchange in the jetway: you'll see lots of hands in the air illustrating the finer points of landing on 7R at Las Vegas when the wind is out of the south.) But what they do, at least when they are at work, seems to have nothing in common with what we do. (And, again, this is nonsense, since lots of airline pilots are glider pilots, like Dave English from hikoudo.com, or Lew with the Bonanza, and even I am getting ready to do some King Air instruction later this summer.)

So maybe flying is flying.

But something is different about soaring. I was reminded of this yesterday as Tim (of the Mooney) set out to fly 1000km in his Ventus, a high performance single seater. He had been watching the weather for a few days (and, yes, this involved dozens of phone calls and emails; we are like a bunch of old ladies) and it looked good.

He launched at about 0800 local time, a time more typical of a King Air than of a glider, but the forecast was for strong west winds which would mean lots of ridge lift. He set his SPOT to track mode, and as soon as the first track message got out there was a flurry of emails.

School is still in session for me, so I was stuck in the office or, at best at the coffee shop. I checked Tim's progress through the morning, noting that he made his planned turn near Salt Lake City and was headed north. I told people about the attempt, and of course many of them looked at me funny. But I was excited for him. And jealous, of course.

Headed out for lunch I checked his progress. But now there was something different: instead of a "track" message, his SPOT was sending a "help" message. He had landed out. (SPOT has two help messages, the "I'm OK but need help" kind and the "Call 911!" kind. Tim's was the former.)

Or so it appeared. I tried to call him, and got no answer: the advantage of SPOT is that it works where cell phones won't. So I left a message and sent a text "saw your help msg what do you need?" Sometimes an SMS message gets through even when cell coverage is too weak for voice.

The old lady glider pilots started to light up the phone and T1 lines with talk and email. I was physically closest to Tim but nowhere near his trailer, but I started to head his way just in case. But before I got to my car, Tim called. He had hiked to get cell phone coverage, and as soon as he got it there was my text.

What a world! There you are, alone in a single-seat aircraft, in a sparsely settled valley, in a plowed field, almost as alone as Apollo XI astronaut Michael Collins on the back side of the Moon while Neil and Buzz explored the surface. But no, that's not right: your friends know where you are and before you can even ask for help it is on the way!

But that's one way soaring is like flying. We go out of our way to help each other out. I've had airliners relay messages to Center for me, and I have relayed messages to airliners, including whole IFR clearances. That's another story; or is it? The FO was a friend, we recognized each other's voices, and they couldn't reach ATC, and the next thing I knew I was saying "ATC clears Skywest blah-blah-blah to the ..."

I could have saved him from copying the clearance if I had thought to send him a text.

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