“Like a hawk?”
“Just like a hawk. Another kind of lift, which I mentioned earlier, is shear. When two air masses meet there is often an upwelling. We have that here because of the coastal and desert influences. There’s also ridge lift, which happens when wind hits a ridge and rises up over it.” He turns all the way around, pointing at the horizon. “You can see we’re surrounded by mountains here so there is plenty of ridge lift. Then, there’s what we call mountain waves, which come from large air masses pushing against high mountains. On the lee side of the mountains, the side that’s sheltered from the wind, big waves of air form and you can ride them up. We get some of that here too.”
As we talk, Garret and Jim sail straight overhead, perpendicular to the runway. The sailplane makes a low whisper, like wind in the mouth of a cave, as it glides over. Once they clear the field, they circle around to the left and land. After touchdown, the aircraft rides on its one wheel for a few hundred feet, then the nose drops and a metal plate underneath slows the plane down to a stop, right out in front of the office. Jim climbs out with a big smile on his face. Garret follows.
“Now, you and I are going to go up,” Willat tells me.
At rest, with nobody in it, a sailplane sits in a two-point stance on its wheel under the fuselage and one or the other of the wingtips, each of which is fitted with a small, spring-mounted wheel. Before I climb in, Willat stands at the nose of the craft, pushing it downward onto the skid. When I climb into the front seat, my weight holds the nose down. Willat walks around to the right side of the plane, and, leaning in, helps me fasten the four-point seat belt. That done, he runs me through a quick familiarization with the controls. Directly in front of me, coming up from the floor to about stomach height, is the stick. It’s an inglorious-looking metal tube with a hard rubber bicycle grip on top; no molded finger slots, no trigger. My feet rest on the wide rudder pedals. The dash of the plane is very simple: airspeed indicator, altimeter, and a variometer, which shows the rate of climb or fall. “A sailplane always goes down at about 200 to 300 feet a minute.” Willat taps the variometer, “But if we find some lift, you’ll see this go up to zero or above if we’re actually climbing.”
In the middle of the dash is the tow-release knob. “Don’t pull that before I tell you to,” Willat jokes, “or we’ll have a short ride.”
The last thing Willat shows me is a lever on the left wall of the cockpit. “That’s the trim,” he explains. “You see, pilots are lazy, otherwise we’d have real jobs, right? So we have this trim lever, which we keep full forward during takeoff and tow and then pull back two or three notches after release. What that does is relieve some of the fore and aft pressure that you’d otherwise have to hold with the stick.”
Willat walks around to the nose of the plane. “Open,” he says. I pull the release knob. “Close,” he says after inserting the metal ring of the tow rope. Then he moves around the right side of the plane and climbs into the backseat of the cockpit. “Okay, I’m going to close this canopy. It looks like it’s going to crush your head, but it’s an optical illusion. Put your hand up there and feel how much space there is.”
I do and I’m surprised to find a foot between me and the top of the Plexiglas bubble. While he was closing it, it looked as if I was going to have to slide down in my seat to avoid being thumped.
Willat has me give the rudder signal to the tow pilot, parked across the runway from us. He signals back and begins to roll slowly. When the rope tightens, the sailplane begins to slide forward on the metal skid plate, but after a few feet it sits up on its wheel and we’re racing down the runway and…lift off….
“Look at the trees,” Willat says after my initial exhilaration of taking off subsides. “They just changed color. I love this time of year.”
The tow plane pulls us up at about 400 feet per minute in a slow right turn. I’ve got my right hand on the stick, my feet on the rudder pedals, and I can feel Willat moving them on his duplicate controls in the backseat, holding the sailplane in a tow position behind and a bit above the tow plane. Below us, Highway 79 snakes its way north toward Temecula and south to Santa Ysabel. To the left and straight ahead, the mountains loom up. Below to the right, the town of Warner Springs sits at the northwest corner of the broad, grassy San Jose Valley. Serpentine lines of trees follow the paths of the creeks and rivers that water this land. They all flow toward Lake Henshaw, which sits behind and right of us, to the southwest. “To the left,” Willat says, “is No-Name Mountain. It has no name. Straight ahead is Hot Springs Peak, which is the highest peak in San Diego County. That’s the one we’re going to. It’s about 6500 feet. We’re going to release just over that. Okay, go ahead and try towing.”
I feel the stick and pedals go dead as Willat releases them to my control. Immediately the glider starts to slide to the right, and I overcorrect back to the left. Willat laughs in the backseat. “Now, there’s no way you’re going to do this,” he says as he takes control again. “This is the hardest part of flying a sailplane, staying on tow. It usually takes about a dozen flights before you can stay behind the tow plane. It’s very hard at the beginning, then all of a sudden it’s very easy.”