There are many people, I’m sure, who reaffirmed a personal vow never to ride in a sailplane after they heard of the tragic, double-fatal crash near Middletown last weekend. I understand why anyone would consider it foolhardy to be towed into the air in a plane with no engine.
But I also remember well the unique, fully-alive sensation of dipping the wings and gliding silently and alone high above Napa Valley. In my second lesson out of the long-gone gliderport in downtown Calistoga, my instructor set us loose from the towplane at about 3,000 feet and we rode rising air to 10,500 feet.
No daredevil, I learned that the key to staying safe in a simple airplane with no radio or motor was to be constantly aware of where I was in relation to the airfield and to other aircraft, what my altitude was, whether I was in rising or falling air and which direction the wind was blowing me.
I flew with an instructor more than 100 times before I cleared to solo and then earned a license. I felt safe while soaring, and absolutely joyful, but gave it up because I was spending money I didn’t have and I felt in my heart I didn’t have the right stuff to be a great pilot capable of handling any situation.
The two pilots who died near Middletown, Harold Chouinard and Sean Boylan, were both seasoned airmen who loved the sensations and perspectives of flight and knew that the inherent risks are tamed by vigilance and attention to detail.
I wish Boyland and Chouinard had made it safely back onto the ground last Saturday. They were responsible for keeping track of each other in the air and apparently one or both blinked or made a fatal assumption about where the other was.
But what they were doing above Lake County that morning was not foolhardy or especially dangerous. It was exhilarating, and it was what fliers do.