Never Again

How I spent my 45th birthday

August 1, 2010

My birthday party was held at Ted’s Montana Grill. I’m told it was a great outing. I spent the afternoon in a soybean field.

Long story short—to celebrate my forty-fifth birthday, I went gliding. About 4,000 feet agl, I had enough altitude to do some sightseeing and circled a large race track, wondering why anyone would want to drive in circles when they could be making circles in the sky.

The next time I looked at my altimeter, I was 2,100 feet agl, and it was time to find some rising air. Thermals had been plentiful earlier in the day, so I wasn’t concerned. My descent rate was about 300 feet a minute, so I had two minutes to find some lift before my personal minimums kicked in. At 1,500 feet agl, it’s time to nose over and run back to the airport. At 1,000 agl, it’s game over—pick a field and land. In seven years of flying gliders, I had always made it back to my original airport.

I turned to the north to hunt for thermals and made it to the Des Plaines River, but couldn’t find rising air. I turned southwest. Nothing. I turned northwest again and found a small bump, but not enough.

I was 1,200 feet above the ground and still descending 300 feet a minute. Even though I was looking at my home airport, it was roughly six nautical miles away and I wouldn’t get there at my current speed and descent rate. I looked at my watch: 2:20 p.m. The birthday party my wife planned was scheduled to start in a little more than four hours.

Being an aviator requires self-discipline. The title implies that a person has put forth a great deal of effort to develop a mental and physical skill to be entrusted with human lives and rather expensive equipment, and has the ability to make the safest decision in a time of uncertainty. Most of the options in front of me were unknowns. The only option that presented a known and acceptable outcome was the soybean field right below me.

Off-field landings are a reality of aviation. Granted, it is more likely you will encounter one in the arena of glider flying than most other aircraft. But, any aircraft that you take into the sky can come down at a time and place you weren’t originally anticipating. As with all other aspects of flight, you keep your wits about you and rely on your training.

At 1,100 feet agl, it was time to accept the slap to my pride and make the right choice.

I picked a field and committed. The field was large enough, and close to a road so that the retrieval would be relatively simple. I was committed to land and didn’t rethink my decision. I put the Blanik glider into that soybean field as softly as a mother puts an infant into a crib.

The worst part was that no one else saw one of the best landings of my career. I wasn’t sure I’d ever make such a gorgeous landing under pressure again.

I climbed out of the glider, looked around, and started thinking about all that would have to happen next. If just one person had been there to say, “Nice landing,” maybe all of the hassle that was about to begin would be worth it. Those two simple words might have soothed my injured pride.

I walked to the road, and a young woman in an SUV asked if I was the pilot of the aircraft in the field. She said she would bring help and drove off. Next, I called my glider club and told them I landed out and asked them to send a trailer and some people to help me load up the glider. Then, I called my wife and told her that I would be late to my party. I had a strong feeling that I would be sleeping on the couch that night.

Soon, several cars and ATVs arrived with an assortment of hearty, friendly people and tools. Evidently, my arrival in the glider was the most exciting thing that had happened here in quite a while. Everyone had their picture taken with the glider. I offered to pay, but they declined. Then I insisted they accept $20 for beer money, and they accepted. Soon they were back with several cases of beer and coolers. Before long, they were singing “Happy Birthday” and a rollicking party was under way—although not the one my wife had intended. My wife called to inform me that she was going to have my party without me, and I told her to soldier on.

Around 6:30 that evening, two cars and a glider trailer came over the hill, and I knew I was saved. We went to work disassembling the glider. We bid our hosts warm goodbyes.

Back at the clubhouse, I suggested we forgo reassembling the glider that night. It would be my responsibility in the morning.

All of this was a very pleasant ending to what could have been an ugly situation. Any aircraft a person takes into the sky will come down again. There is always a possibility it will come down under unanticipated circumstances. If you keep your wits about you, there is no reason that the most difficult part of an off-field landing shouldn’t be trying to explain it to a spouse. Once my wife knew that I was OK and the glider unharmed, she wanted to kill me.

I jumped in my Jeep and raced to the restaurant, but I was stopped on the way by a siren and police lights in my rearview mirror. I pulled over.

The officer walked up and asked me why I had been driving so fast. I told him the exact truth. It was my birthday and I was trying to get to the party my wife had thrown for me, but I had spent most of the day pulling a glider out of a soybean field after I had been forced to land there. I pulled out my cell phone and showed him the pictures I had taken. There was the glider, the beer-drinking volunteers, my friends from the club putting the disassembled Blanik into the trailer.

The officer checked my license, smiled while he was folding up his ticket book, and said, “Happy birthday.”

Then walking away, he added the words I’d longed to hear all day. “And by the way, nice landing!”

Toby Lynch, AOPA 4432139, has been flying for 10 years. He’s an instrument-rated commercial pilot and CFI with a glider rating.