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Do You Have a Plan?

It was a beautiful morning at the small gliderport just outside of Middletown, California. A faint mist was rising from the ground as the sun warmed the dew-covered grass. I was a student pilot learning to fly in gliders and had only a few hours under my belt. My instructor that morning was Jim Indrebo, CFI, DPE, and champion glider pilot. He and his wife Connie, also an instructor, own and operate Crazy Creek Air Adventures in Southern Lake County.

"So, what's our best-glide speed in this glider?" asked Jim.

"At our weight today, 52 knots," I answered.

"And our stall speed?"

"38 knots."

"OK, good. What would you do if you had a rope break on takeoff below 200 feet?" Jim asked.

"I'd land straight ahead in that field across the road."

"How about above 200 feet?"

"I'd get the nose down, make a steep teardrop turn into the crosswind, and land back on the runway."

Jim asked several more questions until he was satisfied I'd done my homework. Then he supervised my pre-flight and we went flying. We stuck close to the field, practicing aerotow launches and pattern work. Aerotow is essentially formation flying with someone pulling on your nose, so it's a great way to develop a feeling for the controls. With all the adverse yaw produced by ailerons at the ends of those long, skinny wings, you really learn what your feet are for.

As the lesson went on, Jim said less and less, allowing me to do more and more by myself. On one launch, Jim asked me to "steer" the tow pilot back over the field and release at 1,500 feet AGL. I started the steering turn by maneuvering the glider from its position directly behind the tow plane off to one side, signaling the tow pilot that I wanted a turn in the opposite direction. Then I followed his turn, moving back in behind him when I was ready to stop turning. It's a challenging maneuver but it went well, without a word from Jim in the back seat. I released the tow rope at 1,500 feet and basked in the glow of my accomplishment as I took in the gorgeous view.

"Do I have the best job in the world or what?" Jim said with obvious delight in his voice. A few seconds passed.

"Now do you have a plan?" Jim asked, his voice turning serious.

"Uh, well, I was going to circle around here and set up to enter the pattern," I replied hesitantly. Honestly, I hadn't given much thought to what I was going to do next, and when your only fuel is altitude, that's not a winning strategy. Jim's pointed question made clear that the left brain always needs to be taking care of business even while the right brain is enjoying the scenery.

As I progressed through my glider training, I flew less with Jim and more with his other instructors. Eventually, I understood his reasoning. Come the checkride, as designated pilot examiner, he wanted to evaluate my flying with fresh eyes, as objectively as possible. When the day finally came, Jim was very thorough and exacting, but completely fair. When the ride was finished, I felt like I'd been through a ringer, but I also knew I was finally ready for my "license to learn"—the Private Pilot certificate.

I haven't flown gliders in years, focusing instead on flying my club's airplanes, but that early training honed my stick-and-rudder skills and provided a solid foundation that I appreciate more and more as time goes on. The principle of primacy says that we learn best what we learn first. I'm very grateful for the many lessons I learned from Jim, Connie, and all the instructors at Crazy Creek, but a couple in particular stand out:

Always have a plan.

And don't forget to enjoy the view.

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