Earning the Lead A

I knew all about the various badges that could be earned in soaring; the A, B, C, then the Silver C followed by the Gold C to which three diamonds could be added, but I had never heard of one below all them known as the Lead A. It's a prestigious award; only one is awarded each year and then only to some deserving member of the Colorado Soaring Association. I suppose I did earn the award even though I'll never admit that I deserved it.

I met this fellow who was a lifelong helicopter pilot. (I never trust anything that depends on a mass of moving parts to fly.) He learned to fly in the Army in Korea and went on to build up about a jillion hours doing scenic rides in Hawaii, flying people back and forth to offshore drilling rigs and finally flying for the Los Angeles police department. He not only didn't have a license for flying real airplanes but had never been in a sailplane so the logical thing for me to do was invite him for a glider ride.

I loaded him in the front seat of the club's 2-32 and off we went. It was a great soaring day and we were soon punching through 15,000 feet so I headed out under a boiling cloud street for Pikes Peak. Lift was strong enough under the street that I could shove the nose down and run at whatever speed matched the sink. Soon we were looking down at the top of Pikes Peak.

We buzzed the peak house and rocked our wings at the people waving and taking pictures of us. It was one of those days that you could soar a brick so I headed for Cripple Creek. An hour or so later we headed back and as we passed over the peak at cloudbase, I noticed that the clouds ended in a big roll along the front range and the only thing to the east was a towering Cu Nim dumping rain and hail with cloud to ground lightning out around Peyton. No big deal, storms like that always move east away from the gliderport and at 16,000 feet, I had ample altitude to make it back without any lift. I headed for the gliderport 25 miles away at best glide speed in air was smooth as silk.

I had used up a bit over 2500 feet by the time I was abreast the Air Force Academy airstrip where I could see all the yellow 2-33s being pushed into the hangars. It seemed strange that they would be putting the ships up in the middle of the afternoon but who was I to question the wisdom of those people. I didn't seem to be covering the ground as fast as I should so I pushed the nose down and added another 20 mph to my glide speed to overcome any possible headwind. After all, I was still over 2000 feet above the minimum altitude for making it back from that point. I had my passenger turn the radio on and I called, "Black Forest, what are your winds?"

"Five X-Ray, winds at Black Forest are east at 20 gusting 30." The storm out east was dumping and the downwash was flowing out in all directions, giving me a headwind. I pushed my airspeed up to 90 and started doing mental calculations on my glide angle. I still had 3000 feet and it was only five miles to the field. A towplane with a dead engine could make that and I could always do a straight in approach to the east if I needed to. The ground crept slowly under as we chewed away at the altitude. I picked an imaginary line on the canopy and watched to see if the field was rising or sinking. It seemed to be standing still which meant we would make it back. Then I heard over the radio, "Five X-Ray, winds at Black Forest are now 40 from the east."

The conclusion to this flight was becoming painfully obvious, we weren't going to get back to the airport. I called the field and told them that I would be landing out and would they get someone to hitch the 2-32 trailer to my pickup and come after me. Then I turned my attention on finding the best place to land. It was open ranch land all around the gliderport but there was Woodmen Road right in front of me. There was a brand new, five mile long runway, right into the wind, just waiting for me. It wasn't actually open yet, still lacking signs and a stripe down the middle. There were barricades at each end but people who knew better just drove around them and used it anyway. I had just driven it a few hours before and was wondering how long until it would open. I called Black Forest, "Five X-Ray will be landing on Woodmen Road right at the top of the hill where it joins Templeton Gap."

"The trailer is on the way," they replied.

We touched down, rolled to a stop and I told my passenger to stay in to hold the nose down until I could turn the ship out of the wind. I had just swung the nose away from the wind when I saw my pickup coming over the hill, followed by several cars. Since flying had stopped, it seemed that everyone at the airport figured that an outlanding and retrieve would be more interesting than standing around there watching the wind blow. Unfortunately, among the gliderport crew arriving, there was black and white car with gumballs spinning like crazy. I had also attracted the attention of the Colorado Highway Patrol.

Dozens of willing hands set about unlatching the canopy, pulling pins and removing the wings so the ship could be loaded on the trailer. The highway patrolman stepped out with his ticket book at the ready and asked, "Who was flying this thing?" Just then an official US Government car pulled up and the driver flashed his identification card to the patrolman and said, "I'm with the FAA and since this is an aircraft, I'll handle it." The patrolman reluctantly closed his ticket book and drove to the top of the hill to stop traffic. "You owe me one on this," said the FAA inspector with a smile as he started helping with the loading. He had been at the gliderport for some rating rides. Unfortunately I never found his name so I could thank him properly.

I handed a couple twenties to a lady who had come out and asked her to go for beer because I knew with all the people who had responded, this outlanding was going to take several cases. By the time the ship was back together, tied it down and I got to the clubhouse, the beer was all gone. I figured that the whole incident was over.

A few months later I was blissfully enjoying myself at the annual CSA banquet where new officers are installed and various awards are handed out. They finally got down to the last one which was a tree branch with the hood emblem off an old Packard impaled in it. The MC was talking about this special award called the Lead A and went on to mention that Woodmen Road had been built just for certain people. Parts of his spiel were beginning to sound painfully familiar but fortified by a couple martinis, I still wasn't paying much attention until he said, "And this year's recipient is Jim Foreman."

I still say that I was totally undeserving of the award but no matter how I tried to convince them otherwise, it was mine to keep for a year until I could find another unfortunate person who had exhibited an unusual level of stupidity which ended without bandages or bent aluminum.

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Copyright 2001 by Jim Foreman