In Search of Simplicity

Sam Weigel celebrates his birthday by celebrating basic flight in three different ways.

It’s a warm spring day in Arizona, 92 degrees Fahrenheit on the ground and not much cooler under the plexiglass canopy at 3,000 feet agl. The northwest wind has picked up, making for some rough tows and brisk crosswind landings. The shear is also breaking up the thermals, making it challenging to keep this 45-year-old training glider in the air. My previous glider experience is in sleek fiberglass ships with a glide ratio of 34:1 or better. This boxy, blunt-nosed Schweizer SGS 2-33—with its tube-and-fabric fuselage and strut-braced aluminum wings—gets 22:1 on a good day.

We’re flying over a prominent ridge that’s not quite perpendicular to the wind. I think strong lift should be here somewhere, but so far it’s been inconsistent. My wife, Dawn, seated in the back, spots a turkey vulture soaring a few hundred feet to windward. I turn that way and soon there’s a deep whump! as a gust slaps the fabric like a drum and the wings load up with a metallic shudder. There’s no electronic vario to chirp a happy song of lift, but you can feel it in your bones and in the stick. This is old-school soaring, and though it’s not terribly sexy, it has a simplicity that is hugely appealing to me. Over the last decade, I’ve done a lot to channel both my life and my recreational flying in this direction. It’s appropriate, then, that I should spend the weekend of my 41st birthday enjoying simple communion with the sky in three different ways.

The festivities started on Friday with getting tailwheel current in a borrowed Piper Super Cub. We’re excited to move into our new airstrip home this fall for many reasons, one of which is that we have pretty great neighbors. One of them, Ken, generously invited me to occasionally exercise his nicely upgraded 1957 PA-18-150. Between the scuzzy weather and my work schedule, I’ve only been able to fly it a few times this winter. So I took off from our airstrip, did some airwork to get reacquainted with the old gal, and headed over to Bremerton National Airport (KPWT) for a few landings. Newly current, I stopped back at our airstrip to pick up Dawn, and we launched for a quick adventure across the Hood Canal and up the Olympic Peninsula’s Dosewallips RiverValley to scout out some hiking routes for this summer. 

A few hours later we caught a flight to Phoenix, Arizona, and on Saturday morning, made our way to Arizona Soaring at Estrella Sailport (E68). The friendly operations manager/chief instructor, Shad Coulson, introduced himself and got down to business. After a primer on the busy gliderport’s traffic procedures, we headed outside to preflight the venerable 2-33. My initial thought was that someone mated a Cub fuselage with Cessna 150 wings—and forgot to add an engine! My second impression was of the apparent toughness of the design. And lastly, the utter simplicity of the cockpit. No radio and no electronics at all. Airspeed indicator, altimeter, analog vario, compass, and yaw string. Stick, rudder pedals, spoilers, 4-position trim, and tow release knob. Amazing. Preflight done, it was time to strap in, hookup, and go flying.

My first surprise was the jarring sound of steel on pavement as we started the takeoff roll. Oh yes, the 2-33 doesn’t even have a nose wheel—it has a steel-faced wooden nose skid. Within seconds, I had control authority to raise the nose and run on the single landing gear. The next revelation was just how eager the 2-33 is to leap off the ground, and on the first takeoff I got slightly high—a surefire way to scare a tow pilot. Once I settled down, though, I found the 2-33 a nice-flying ship, if a bit sleepy in roll. It has much less adverse yaw than higher-performance gliders. And even the dowdy glide ratio felt better than expected. Keep in mind, an L/D of 22:1 is still 2.5 times that of a Cessna 172 with the prop stopped.

Shad was satisfied after two flights and turned me loose for an enjoyable solo, after which I took Dawn for several 30-minute rides, with tows to 4,000 feet. Despite finding several strong areas of ridge lift, they never lasted very long and were offset by equally strong sink. All the circling in hot, bumpy air did a number on Dawn’s stomach, so we decided to call it quits by mid-afternoon. Now that I’m checked out at Estrella, though, I’ll bid KPHX layovers and get in more soaring practice there. Besides the Schweizers, they have a PW-5, a lovely single-place ship I’ve flown before.

My brother Steve flew into Phoenix that afternoon, and we joined him and our mutual sailing friend Amanda for a lovely birthday dinner. Early the next morning, we headed to Skydive Arizona in Eloy. Now, the last time I wrote about skydiving, I had just finished the seven-jump AFF course and was unsure whether I would continue in the sport. Since then, I’ve earned my A-license and logged 48 jumps. My early enjoyment of freefall has only increased; it really is the purest form of flying, with your body as airframe and the relative wind 90 degrees to the horizon. I dream about it often, as I once dreamed of bird flight.

Over the winter, I hadn’t been able to skydive much, and it is a sport that demands a high degree of currency, particularly when new. Being out of practice increases your chance of a malfunction, and also makes it less likely that you’ll respond to one quickly, calmly, and appropriately. The equipment is complex, the procedures are intense, and there’s a great deal of technique and muscle memory to flying well. Whenever I haven’t jumped for 40-plus days, the minutes before my next jump feel really, really uncomfortable.

Except this time, that is. I inspected my rig, put on the equipment, and went through my gear checks and emergency procedures, and it all felt good and natural. Steve and I were full of happy anticipation as we clambered aboard the full Cessna Caravan. There were good vibes all around on the ride up. From the moment we exited, the jump went perfectly. I was relaxed, my control was good, we did everything we briefed and mocked up. We broke and pulled at our planned altitude, and then we had a couple minutes to chase each other around under canopy, laughing and shouting across the sky.

As soon as we landed and gathered up our chutes, we were high-fiving and excitedly debriefing the jump, and planning our next one. My packing was slow—that’s really not a thing to rush when you’re new—but we still got in four fantastic jumps. Dawn has no interest in skydiving but is a supportive DZ spouse, and she claimed a shady spot on the lawn to watch experienced jumpers swoop in and film my and Steve’s more modest landings. It was a really nice day spent with her and my little brother, and a fine way to cap off a fantastic aerial weekend of pure, simple flight, celebrating 41 years of adventure on—and above—our wondrous planet.

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