I Learned About Flying From That: Land-Out at Kitt Peak

To see more of Barry Ross’ aviation art, go to barryrossart.com Barry Ross

I know you've heard the saying "Superior pilots use their superior judgment to avoid situations requiring their superior skills."

And I'm sure you know some superior pilots or have them at your field. Steely-eyed, square-jawed types — their flying skills are immense; with or without their planes they can bound over tall buildings.

When I'm struggling to stay up in a thermal they appear below and, seconds later, are at the same altitude. I blink and they are a thousand feet above and streaking off, heading for their next conquest, leaving me stunned and in awe at their prowess.

At the end of the day's flying we listen humbly to their exploits as they hold court on the clubhouse deck. "Just a 500-miler today, a quick dash to the border," they say, "got low about a hundred miles out but caught a small thermal and ... " Names of distant turn-points are dropped and we hear of adventures in faraway places that are not for us mere mortals.

… But we can dream.

Then, a few Saturdays ago, I found myself at the top of a thermal above our club field at El Tiro, Arizona, in my Russia AC-4, a fiberglass, 45-foot-wingspan glider that is cute as a button. I've had the glider for a few months and it's a great flier, but I haven't really gone anywhere in it. I've dashed out to local airports, Marana Regional Airport (KAVQ) and Pinal Airpark (KMZJ), each less than 10 miles distant. And I have sneaked up on Picacho Peak about 15 miles away when I had 12,000 feet tucked away in my pocket and the promise of more good thermals.

So, I'm at 9,000 feet and thinking to myself, where shall I go? You can probably tell, dear reader, I'm not one of those ace pilots I mentioned a moment ago making superior judgment calls. I'm airborne but have no real plan and no conscious decision on a destination yet.

My first thought is to play it safe, go where I've been before. … Let's head south to Ryan. I can make it there and back in a couple of hours and then spend some time on the clubhouse deck, drink a beer and tell some lies about my flight before the real pilots get back.

It's 20 miles away with a fair number of land-out spots, farmland and fields en route. Also some easy strips where I can put down and get a retrieve, if needed, by the club towplane. Plus, Ryan is a good, solid general aviation airport with big runways if I arrive low. So, not a bad decision, safe … let's go.

Off we went, the Russia and I, heading south. My plane didn't have a choice; if it had known what I was going to make it do it probably would have complained. But ignorance is bliss for gliders and us nonsuperior pilots.

Over to the left, I watched an ultralight field slip by, along with a private strip. I lost altitude and dropped to 7,000 feet but quickly made it up again in strong thermals, back up to 9,000. I could feel it, I'm going strong, and the term I'm golden started creeping into my head.

Another thermal, then another. Easy.

Then I made the big mistake. I'd been flying about 15 minutes when out of the corner of my eye, over to the right, I saw a flash of sunlight glinting off a remote mountaintop. I knew what it was — the Kitt Peak National Observatory — where dome-housed, large telescopes explore the night sky. I'd never been there. It's 30-plus miles from our airfield, but I'd heard the "big boys" talk of it. They'd dash by, take a quick picture, and then speed back to the club field and impress us all with a racing finish a few feet off the ground.

I would like to say at this point that I tried to ignore the lure of straying from my "safe" plan. But I didn't. The hint of somewhere new and interesting held the chance of a story to tell at the end of the day. And the words I'm golden once more popped up in my head.

Without a doubt in my mind, I kicked rudder and stick, turned the Russia to the right and headed off. As I said, big mistake.

What I saw in front of me, though, was beautiful — a sky full of cumulus clouds. Unusual for Arizona as we mostly have clear skies, lots of heat and strong thermals, but no clouds that mark the tops. However, it was August, we were in the middle of the monsoon season, and CUs were everywhere.

Some more good lift arrived and up I climbed again to 9,000 feet, and I popped out and sped on toward the beckoning siren. Increasing my speed and getting closer, I could see the main dome of the observatory, shining white in the sun. It looked magnificent. What I failed to notice in my eagerness was the terrain below as it turned from desert scrubland to mountainous.

Another thermal, not quite as good this time, and I topped out at 8,000 feet. Squinting in the strong sunlight, trying to get a decent picture with my smartphone, I failed to notice I was dropping.

The first clue came when I realized I couldn't see the terrain on the other side of Kitt Peak. I was about level with the mountaintop. A glance at my altimeter showed 7,000 feet, and the first seed of doubt entered my mind.

I stopped taking pictures and turned the plane back north, went to best lift-over-drag speed and took a moment to figure out what I was going to do.

First, find lift. But nothing came. I'm still dropping. And it slowly dawns on me — I'm 35 miles from home and could be in trouble.

I flipped my smartphone's screen back to XCSoar's map and saw an almost blank screen around Kitt Peak, no close airfields or land-outs. There was just one possibly in range, marked as F10 about 10 miles away. I tapped it for information. Not good, but landable. But then I realized it was on the other side of Kitt Peak, so that F10 was out.

At this point, you start paying attention. It doesn't matter if you are a superior pilot or a Sunday driver; your mind becomes focused. I wasn't in a terrible place yet, but I knew there was a good chance that I could be soon.

I looked for a cloud that might mark a thermal and noticed, for the first time, that I was in the middle of a large patch of "blue." I was in "sink" and, as I was about to find out, I would find no thermals.

It's amazing how quickly bad things can happen. My altimeter now read 6,000 feet and was still dropping. ­XCSoar showed less than 3,000 feet agl. Ryan Field is the best part of 20 miles away; there's nothing closer.

I took a big look around, trees ­everywhere on mountainous terrain and desert scrubland, but could see State Highway 86 going past the bottom of Kitt Peak. It was wide, but there was too much traffic. Unlandable.

My search for lift didn't stop. Finding a thermal was the first plan. The second plan was not to get too far from the road, which at least represented civilization.

I announced on the radio I was going down. No answer. Too low. Out of range. Nobody knew where I was. This was getting worse.

Minutes passed as I desperately searched but still found no lift.

The altimeter kept unwinding. Precious height was quickly slipping through my fingers.

Much too soon I was at 1,000 or so feet agl, time to get absolutely serious, I am landing out … no question. One of the superior pilots at the club has a saying: "Don't be a passenger. You're the pilot. Fly the plane." So, time to take charge and decide where and how I'm going to put down. In other words, I must choose the "where." It may not be good, but choose it. And the "how" is simple: Land the plane under control at minimum speed.

I looked alongside the road, searching for a close-in area of low, evenly topped trees. It was going to be a tree landing and I wanted people in cars to see me come down. But I didn't want to end up high in one. I could imagine the headline: "Glider pilot dies falling out of tree, lands on head, breaks neck."

Then, I saw some road and earth-moving equipment parked by the highway and noticed it had been blacktopped recently. Some small thermals were coming off the dark road, and I could feel bumps as I flew above it. Then, I saw a thin strip of bare earth by the side, past where the vehicles were parked.

Flying over at less than 1,000 feet, it looked about 30 feet wide and a few hundred feet long, trees at one end. No fence, no wires. Tiny, but that's it, that's my spot.

I tried one last save on a small thermal coming off the road, but it was less than 2 knots up for half a turn. Ignore it, time to land.

I decided to approach over the trees heading west, into our prevailing wind in Arizona. And, as I found out later, it was also slightly uphill.

I flew a right-hand pattern, about 500 feet on downwind, still at 50 knots, best L/D. But as I turned to base, I dropped the speed. I wasn't trying to stay up. I wanted to arrive slowly — 45 knots then flare and land at 35 to 37 knots.

A last check for fences and wires … nothing. Tighten seat belt, really tight. Three things on my mind: Check airspeed, yaw string and the landing point. Every few seconds. Airspeed. Yaw string. Landing point. Pull half-spoilers, slip it, keep it a little high.

I came over the road, turning final at less than 200 feet. I could see cars and pickup trucks going underneath me. The road wasn't an option. If I got hit by a pickup doing 70 mph there would be a fiberglass explosion and I would lose badly. Nope, not an option.

What I didn't realize was that the thin strip of bare earth was a drainage berm, with about a 30-degree slope, but I was too busy to notice. I saw straw bales in the bottom of the ditch part of the berm, near the road, held down with pounded-in stakes, so I slid slightly left. My landing strip was getting smaller.

I came out of the slip and put away the brakes, hopped over 20-foot trees and then pulled out spoilers again. Minimum energy. Arrive under control. The plan was to touch down, apply brakes immediately and get stopped.

But events changed. As tail and main wheel planted on the slope, my left wing touched the top of the berm and, slowly but surely, it pulled the plane over the top and into a gully of small bushes and weeds.

The Russia came quickly to a stop; bushes and weeds will do that, so I didn't need to brake.

And silence.

I sat for a second. Stupid. Then looked left and right. The wings were still there. Canopy is OK. I'm OK. Opened canopy, looked back, tail still there.

I got out and checked the plane: unbelievably just a couple of nicks to the wing leading edge, scuffs under them, and scuffs under the nose where I went over the berm.

Still a bit shaken I stood on top of the berm and then stumbled down the other side to the road and realized just how incredibly lucky I had been. With my 40-plus-foot wingspan, I had landed on a 30-degree slope that was less than 30 feet wide, with trees everywhere but here.

The Russia had handled impeccably. It had been stable, had flown slowly when I wanted, and had touched down perfectly. Good plane, and I had been lucky. Very lucky.

A couple of minutes later a sheriff's car came screaming up, lights flashing. Somebody had called in a plane crash.

Then came the border patrol. … We're close to Mexico here. Then park rangers; I was also on Indian reservation land. Quite a crowd with lots of questions. My English accent elicited a few comments, but I assured them I wasn't from Mexico. And yes, it was a Russian plane but I hadn't flown over the border.

Everyone was very helpful; this was an event for them, so lots of smiles and laughter. They called the airfield for me and got a retrieval crew coming.

An hour or so later they arrived — Julie Lazalier-Harvey, Chuck Pinney and Stephen Marshall. The first 30 minutes were spent by them laughing and mocking my misfortune. Then a quick pack of the plane into its trailer and off we went.

So, what have I learned from this? Well, for two nights I couldn't sleep. I kept waking up thinking about how close I came to wrecking my plane and badly injuring myself, or worse.

And have I learned to make superior judgment calls or increase my skills? I'm not sure, but I hope I've grasped a couple of things. First, make decisions early and stick with them. Plan your flights, let people know where you're going, and don't just get up there and wander off. Second, know what's beneath you and have a backup place to put down even if it's just farmland. It's really important, vital even, that you give yourself a decent chance to survive if things turn bad and it all goes to worms. (British expression. Think about it; you'll get what it means.)

Oh, so do I get to tell stories now with the big boys on the clubhouse deck at the end of the day? Well, I still listen respectfully when tales are told of distant miles flown and places visited, but every now and then someone will say, "Tell us again, Richard, about the time you landed on a postage stamp at the side of the road at Kitt Peak."


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