“What’s a spin?”
“A spin is when the wings stall. When you get to what’s called ‘critical angle of attack,’ ” he demonstrates using a hand to represent an airplane climbing at an ever-steepening angle, “which is the angle at which the air goes over the wing but doesn’t produce any lift; that’s when the wing stalls, causing the nose to drop. What happens is one wing stalls just before the other wing. The other wing is producing just a minute amount of lift. That causes the rotation. So the nose drops and you have a rotation pretty much on the vertical access.”
It sounds crazy to me, but Garret assures me, “It’s not that big a deal. Spins are really mellow. Hollywood makes them out to be violent experiences, where the wings get ripped off and the plane disintegrates, but really it’s docile. You’re sitting in your seat and the horizon is going around in circles. You just stick forward, push on the opposite rudder pedal, the nose drops, the rotation stops, and you recover.”
Garret explains to Dan how to operate the parachute, and then the two of them pull the 600-pound plane out onto the runway. Garret walks backward, tugging on the nose; Dan holds the tip of the right wing. Meanwhile, Willat taxis the tow plane — a high-wing, tail-wheeled Piper Supercub — from its parking spot at the far east end of the east-west runway, dragging 200 feet of quarter-inch yellow polypropylene rope. At the loose end of the rope a softball-size Wiffle ball bounces along. When the tow plane stops about 80 feet in front of the sailplane, Garret takes the ball and pulls from within it a metal ring attached to the rope with a bowline knot. He brings the ring to the nose of the sailplane. “Open,” he says to Dan, who pulls a hardball-size knob on the dashboard. This opens a jaw-like hook on the underside of the plane, about a foot back from the nose. Garret slips on the ring.
“Close.” Dan pushes the knob back in, the hook closes around the ring. Meanwhile, the tow pilot, a tall, dark-haired man in his early 20s, runs out of the office. He’s ten minutes late. “Come on, Garret,” he jokes as he climbs into the tow plane. “What’s taking you so long?”
With Dan in the front seat, Garret in the back, they lower the canopy over the cockpit. Dan pushes alternately on the pedals, moving the rudder in the vertical stabilizer back and forth. The tow-plane pilot responds with his rudder and starts to move forward slowly until the rope is stretched tight. He then gradually accelerates until the two planes and the rope between them are racing down the runway. Three seconds before the tow plane lifts off, the sailplane jumps into the air. In a few more seconds, the rumbling sound of the tow plane’s engine has become inaudible. I take my eyes off them for five seconds to tie a shoelace, and when I look up again, I can’t find them in the wide expanse of sky over the airport. But ten minutes later, while looking east toward the 6000-foot ridge seven or eight miles away, I see the tow plane and glider moving west toward the airport. When the plane banks left and the glider right, I know Dan has pulled the tow- release knob, and he and Garret are now soaring.
Minutes later, Dan and Garret glide in for a landing, which looks remarkably smooth. The sailplane seemed to float a foot off the ground for 200 yards before gently setting down on its single wheel.
For Garret’s next flight, he parks the white sailplane and pulls out an orange-and-yellow high-wing model. His passenger is a man about 65 named Jim Dewey. “I’m from Oklahoma,” Jim tells me. “I have a small business jet, and I flew some people into town here for a little vacation.”
“What attraction could a sailplane hold for someone who flies jets?” I ask.
“I just love to fly,” he answers, “and this is a different type of flight. You don’t have an engine to rely on. You adjust everything — descent, ascent, speed of the aircraft — with your hands and feet. It’s a challenge.”
After Jim and Garret take off, Willat, who has come out of the office, picks up Jim’s theme. “Flying sailplanes,” he says as we stand on the runway and watch the tow plane and glider ascend in a slow right turn, “is the best way to learn how to fly because your stick and rudder, which are your main controls in any airplane, are going to be learned a lot better in a sailplane than in an engine-powered airplane.”
“Is that because they’re more responsive in a sailplane?”
“No,” he answers, “it’s actually a little less responsive in some respects because you’ve got great big wings, and to get them moving it takes more coordinated work between your hands and your feet. In an airplane, the rudder pedals are used for takeoff and landing. You need to use them all the time in the glider.”
“How long can you stay up there?”
“How long can your bladder last?” he responds. “If there’s lift you can stay up indefinitely.”
“Lift,” Willat explains, “is upward-moving air. If you find it in a sailplane, you can actually gain altitude. There are basically four different types of lift, and we have them all here.” He holds his hand three inches above the dirt at the edge of the runway. “If you feel the dirt here, it’s hot because of the sun shining on it. The hot dirt warms the air above it, and it forms kind of a bubble of warm air. A little bit of wind breaks that bubble loose. When it breaks loose, the warm air, which is lighter than the cooler air around it, goes up until it cools off. That’s called a thermal. When we find the thermal up in the sailplane, we circle in it, riding it up.”