by Chris MacIntyre
In late February, business spirited me away from our unrelenting winter and deposited me in the Phoenix area for a few days. So I made an appointment for a checkout at the Estrella Sailport in Maricopa, 40 miles south of Phoenix.
Driving out of town, the straight roads and carefully planted palm trees fade away. The desert takes over, things get stark and the road wanders around the sharp hills. Stepping out of the car at Estrella you first notice the silence. Then you notice the oddly out of place sounds of birds and ducks. It's an aviary, made by Bruce Stephens of Arizona Soaring. Nearby are a pool, some benches overlooking the runway, and a camping ground for those lucky enough to stay longer than I could. I was curious about a large hangar. In it I found 20 sailplanes in an intricate pattern of tilted wings and shrouded canopies. Quite a set of ships, going all the way from Pegasii to an LK-10 of WWII vintage and a (Czech)? Mucha Standard, a wooden contemporary of the Ka6.
I headed over to the H201b Standard Libelle, mine for the day. It's a rare ship in a rental fleet, and one of the first mass produced fiberglass sailplanes. I read the handbook while sitting in the cool cockpit, surrounded by the other aviary, this one of fiberglass and wood. It made for a peaceful introduction.
Rich Randolph, my instructor, lead me through the extensive field briefing book. It included minimum altitudes for return from the 4000 foot ridges adjacent to the field. A lesson in desert perspective, though, as what looks adjacent to an untrained eastern eye is actually 7(?) miles away. The return altitudes are high as well, alluding to the strong sink that goes with strong desert lift, even in February. Flight on the other, upwind side is for the more experienced, as the Phoenix Class B airspace (formerly called the TCA) virtually precludes anything higher than minimum return altitudes. Some of the land is cultivated, while in the desert proper, the roads are unlandable. They are cut below the surrounding desert and would easily catch a wing. Dry riverbeds the same, so landing would be on the dry washes, following the direction of apparent flow. We expect a sled ride but pull the G-103 Acro to the line anyway.
And who is wandering the line but Bill Gibson, instructor at Nutmeg and a fellow corporate pilot! This is such a delightfully small world we soar in. Estrella is a world famous aerobatic glider site as well, having three parallel 5000 foot runways and a separate jump zone for the co-existing parachute school. It was opened by Les Horvath in 1978(?), a National Sailplane Aerobatic Champion and 15 Metre Nationals winner.
The 103 ride reveals cobwebs in me and lift in Arizona. These guys throw away what we in the east are happy to find. We do the airwork and get an airborne reinforcement of the briefing and are soon back at the field. In the Libelle, I've had to push pedals all the way forward and strip cushions to fit. I'm 6'2" and would hesitate to plan a long cross country in this cockpit, but for the local flight today, no problem. She has only the basic guages, with cutouts for more, but the airframe and gel coat are in good shape, so I opt to go. The canopy slides carefully overhead with a complex latching system which demands attention. Perhaps that's better than the easy ones, its tougher to forget. Cockpit checks complete, chin barely above the canopy rails, the wing is leveled and off we go. Light controls, but not too. We tow to the main ridge and I bow to the local practice of deliberately putting a loop of slack in before releasing. Amazing how procedures differ from place to place. And the exultation of the release after a long layoff. The stark brown rock below leads to chalk lines snapped in the mottled countryside. They point to the glittering city and the mountains beyond in the crystal clarity of desert visibility. And lift bubbles off the ridge, inviting the exploration of both the place and of oneself, as our sport always does.
So for 1+20 we cavort, feeling one another out. The Libelle seems almost as happy slightly sideways as straight ahead and the rudder is almost without feel it is so light. My shins slowly get rubbed to bright red against the panel, dancing with the yaw string in opposition, as usual. But the 4 to 5 knot thermals are tough to let go and we streak between them, venturing a little farther into the valley each time, circling and cursing the winter that keeps the ships in the box at home. Too soon we head in to the pattern. Good airbrakes make positioning easy and the 3 runways keep options open. The wind has shifted since we took off so we land in the opposite direction, flaring late and bouncing, a reminder that this is a taildragger, thank you.
Good ship, good people, great site. If you ever have a chance to spend some time in the Phoenix area, call Arizona Soaring at 602 568 2318. You never know who you'll bump into and even if you don't, guaranteed, you'll enjoy it.