Benediction
by Doug Jacobs

World Champion Doug Jacobs wrote a story called "Benediction" just after Robbie's death which was published in Soaring and won the Lincoln Award. Have a read...

It really wasn't much of a soaring day.  The colors of Nature's fall paintbrush were beginning to flow across the hillsides, heralding an end to the season.  The cool breath of winter was not far behind.  As he swung out onto the Parkway and headed northeast, he could see that the robins-egg blue of the sky overhead was marred at the horizon by the dusty haze of a strong inversion.  To the north and inland over the high ground a few cu's had begun to form.  However, their energy had been mostly spent in the ascent through the inversion, and they hung at the top of it lifeless and limp.  It would be a difficult day with indifferent thermals and long searches for lift, he knew.  A day when the soaring was hard work. 

     A season of racing was behind him and he was tired.  The constant juggling of job, family and flying had taken its toll over the course of the summer as it always did.  Eager an irrepressible in the spring after a long winter's hiatus, he nonetheless felt spent in the fall, almost welcoming the restful winter weekends ahead.  Today would have been a good day to relax, to putter around the house, to enjoy the gentle pleasures his children brought him.  He'd been reluctant in gathering up his gear and had almost decided to stay home.  Still, he drove northeast, vaguely aware that this was a pilgrimage of sorts, knowing that he had to fly today or perhaps never again. 

     The crowd at the field was subdued.  Crewless, he rounded up a few friends to help with the wings and got the glider together.  He tried not to think of the last time it had been assembled, purposely keeping his mind blank as he taped and washed down its elegant form.  Several pilots stopped by to chat, but he was inattentive and they drifted off. 

     His turn came quickly in the launch line.  He ran to the car to leave the keys, unsure who might be persuaded to retrieve him if he went down but not thinking that he would.  After an interminable wait, the L-19 roared into place in front of him, its propeller ticking over in anticipation.  Slowly the towrope tightened and he felt the sailplane leap forward as the towplane's throb turned into a deep-seated roar.  He eased back on the stick and the trees bordering the field fell all around him, magnifying the effect of the rapid climb and bringing with it the heady first taste of flight.  As if sprung from a trap, the glider leapt upward behind the tow ship, the air welcoming him back, he rejoicing in its embrace.  He gained height quickly behind the powerful tug and was soon climbing through release height.  Pulling on the release knob, alone and on his own, he swung the nose around in a graceful arc and headed west. 

     His route took him over the high ground of western Connecticut for the first thirty miles.  Farmland with inviting pastures soon gave way to hillsides forested with New England hardwoods and narrow valleys drained by fast moving streams.  He tried to hop from airport to airport in the hope that an aero-retrieve might be arranged if he lost it.  There were few along his course at first, and as expected the lift was weak.  Each thermal took forever to climb through and was surprisingly turbulent for so gentle a day.  Perhaps a windshear existed at the inversion level, stirring up the rising air as it passed overhead.  Whatever it was capped him out at medium altitude and each succeeding thermal seemed all the harder to find.  He was often low, though never dangerously so.  Just enough to tell him that today was not the day, that to turn back was advisable.  Even so, at the top of each climb he continued west. 

     Soon he was near the shores of the Hudson.  Here the river was broad and deep, the surrounding shores were low and wet enough for ten miles in either direction to make crossing it difficult without good height.  Over foothills on the eastern side he found good lift and decided to take it as high as he could for the crossing. 

     As he rose, he gradually realized that he had begun to enjoy the slow climb and the panoramic view of the Hudson valley that it afforded him.  He also knew why, that the driving pressure of the racing season had yielded few opportunities such as this for aimless enjoyment.  Flying for seconds and minutes seldom permitted such luxury, and he was happy for the freedom of these moments.  After a long climb he reached the top at last and reluctantly headed onward, anticipating a long glide before reaching the active portion of the river's far shore. 

     There was heavy traffic on the river, mostly pleasure boats.  For many, it would probably be the last cruise of the summer.  At ground level, the water flowed smoothly, untroubled by the massive scale on which it moved.  Boats fighting the current northward did so with seeming ease, their bows scarcely rising and falling.  From above, he admired the spindly lines of the boats' wakes spreading out into a broad vee behind them, overlapping with the many others that had crossed paths.  It was easy to imagine them as mindless insects intent on capturing the river in a spider's web of coiled bonds.  That's us, he thought.  Trying to control and contain the inevitable with wishes and hopes, hardly aware of what we're up against. 

     From his vantage point above he could also see a deep churning pattern to the water's movement not visible from the surface.  Deep within the river were massive upswellings spread out over miles, as though a huge kettle were just beginning to boil.  The water was smooth and complacent on the surface yet churning below, seeking release.  Like me, he thought. 

     His glide was absolutely still for a long time, the ship seemingly suspended in amber.  He sank lower and lower, trading distance for altitude as cheaply as he could.  He was easily within range of the big county airport but, never having landed there, he was uncertain of his likely reception.  On the chance that he might end up there, he jumped into the busy flow of radio traffic at a quiet moment.

     "Hello Stewart tower, this is glider Delta Juliet on a cross country flight transiting your area between one and four thousand feet."

     "Roger Delta Juliet, how's the lift?" was the delighted reply.

     "Not great, but as good a day as you can expect this late in the year," he said.

     "Yeah, fall is here.  Good flight, Delta Juliet and we'll watch out for you." 

Yes, please watch out for me, he thought.  Watch out for all of us. 

     To the west of the Hudson the lift became more reliable.  This was familiar sky and he felt at home.  The Catskills gleamed in the distance, their rugged peaks the site of so many soaring hours.  Like a geological freeway, the Wurtsboro ridge below him ran straight toward them, ready these last hundred million years to bear a sailplane on a favorable northwest wind into their heartland.  To the south, the ridge melded into others, and their collective might ran for almost five hundred miles.  

     He remembered how they had flown this sky intensively together, had seen each corner of it from almost every conceivable angle.  On good days they had raced one another, never having called it such but each inevitably pressing to take the lead.  On poor days they had huddled together, searching for the needed lift as one, helping each other home.  Far overhead they had caught wave, riding its silky thrust until the mountains had been humbled far below, until the sky directly overhead began to blacken.  Here and there was the site of an outlanding, the result of too much confidence, each one having taught its lesson of restraint.  He knew this sky and its memories well indeed, and he greeted it now with warm affection as it lay in the midafternoon sun. 

     At first he couldn't find the small grass strip airport just short of the ridge.  He had been over it many times and knew its pilots well but had never launched or landed there.  After a long search it suddenly popped out at him, paralleling a highway and hidden by the pattern of the surrounding fields.  Its surface was lush and green, and the sailplanes tied down around its perimeter seemed to be quietly grazing in bovine complacency. 

     To the west at the end of the runway was the small triangular cornfield.  He found a weak thermal and began to circle, looking hard at that field.  Somehow he had expected something more dramatic.  It looked like most other cornfields and was almost free of any signs that could be damage or disarray despite the number of people who had tramped around in it.  A bare spot showed here and there, but these might easily have been the result of poor drainage patterns.  Perhaps in their infinite wisdom the natural forces at work below had conspired to swallow the outward effect of the tragedy, had straightened the crushed cornstalks and make them green again.  Dust to dust, he thought, vaguely disappointed.  Perhaps it's best to put it behind us, to give up trying to understand, to simply forget.

      He suddenly noticed that the cockpit had become strangely silent.  At first he thought his ears were blocked but a forced yawn brought no release.  The choppy turbulence of the thermal had been replaced by a quiet calm that felt like wave but couldn't be.  Stick and rudder remained almost motionless under his light touch and the glider felt like it was flying itself.  He switched off the electric vario and heard the silence intensify.  An unnatural lack of airframe noise made him think he was stalling.  A quick glance at his airspeed indicator showed a solid fifty knots, and the controls had none of the butterfly-like trembling that signaled separation.  Perplexed and suddenly anxious, he had a mad thought. 

     "Robert?" he said aloud.  The sound of his voice crashed across the still cockpit. 

     "Robert," he repeated, quietly this time.

     He never saw the approach of the red-tail hawk.  It was just there suddenly, twenty feet over his canopy hanging motionless.  He'd seen many before; the ridge below served as a major migratory route for thousands of hawks but he'd never seen one act quite like this.  The bird remained just above him, flying inside his circle and not moving relative to his canopy.  He stared at it for long moments, mostly reacting in surprise to its sudden presence in a seemingly empty sky.  Its fierce eye was plainly visible and as he watched, it glared at him, challenging him somehow.  For several circles they shared the thermal, eyeing one another as both comrades and competitors.  This is my sky, the bird seemed to be saying.  Fly it with me as I do or be gone. 

     While the hawk hung over with him, so close above, he admired the beauty of its banded wing, the flexibility of its tail, the thrusting pointed beak that defied the wind.  How nice it might be, he thought, to be immersed in the air, to be rid of fiberglass and imperfect instruments, to fly as Icarus dreamed, without restraint or fear. 

     The hawk disappeared as quickly as it had come, swinging its talons forward and flexing them while eying him with one last ferocious glare.  With a half roll it dove behind his left wing.  He quickly threw the glider into a near vertical bank and pulled hard on the stick, searching for his companion.  Shuddering from the g forces the sailplane slewed around quickly and nearly stalled, but it was no use.  The sky was empty again. 

     He headed east, retracing the ground he had worked so hard to cross.  While the flying continued to be difficult, he knew full well that he would make it home.  The empty feeling with which he had begun the day persisted, but had diminished somewhat.  He felt challenged, felt like his deep need to be in the air, to soar, would not now abate as he had feared.  He also knew that the events of this flight would not bear close examination, that the release and renewal he had found could be easily lost if he thought too much about what had happened.  He simply knew that he carried with him all the answers he was ever likely to get.

DOUG JACOBS - DJ     

 

 

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