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JIM HARD A LIFE IN THE SKY

            Jim Hard was as integral to the Minnesota Soaring Club and Red Wing Soaring Association as lift is to glider flight.  He passed away on February 9, 2019. 

As a long-serving MSC flight instructor he was skilled in all aspects of flight but had a special strength in teaching cross-country flight and thermalling.  He emphasized the “craft” of soaring, honing the skills of capable pilots until they held the steady circle in lift that shoved them aside, or cored thermals so small that even raptors stayed on the ground.  Jim also served as tow pilot, MSC officer, ACE Camp organizer, and the Midwest’s first SSA Master Cross-Country Instructor. 

His dream of flying “around the world” in his 1-26, “271,” required hundreds of cross-country flights, for which he pigeon-holed his students to crew for him with the promise, “You’ll learn a lot of valuable information about gliding by crewing for me.”  Sure, sure, I thought as a student.  But Jim was, in this, as regards all matters of soaring, true to his word.

He asked me to crew one April day decades ago.  Because it was early April I agreed, in part, because I thought he couldn’t go far during the relatively short daylight of an early spring day. 

“If I outpace you, drive to Chicago and wait,” he ordered.  This was in an era before cell phones, in which Jim, upon landing would walk to a farm house and telephone his home to leave directions to his landing location.  I would telephone the same number at regular intervals until I eventually get directions to Jim and 271. 

He outpaced me on that April day—quickly.  Halfway through Wisconsin I drove through a blinding snow storm.  The day was that cold.  Since it was in the twenties on the ground, it was sub-zero 6,000 feet in the sky.  Imagine spending hours in a metal glider in frigid air—Jim was tenacious and tough.  As the miles passed in a blur of snow that turned the harvested fields white, I kept radioing “Glider 271, this is glider mobile, do you read?”  Only to be answered by static.  It was inconceivable that Jim was still aloft, which meant I was driving away from his little snow-covered glider stuck in the middle of a corn-stubbled field.  But, as I was to learn, “inconceivable” meant something different as regards Jim and soaring flight.  I reached Chicago as the sun set, and it was pitch-black by the time I got directions to Jim and 271.  He had landed a few miles north of Indianapolis. 

Now, in the interest of honesty, I will admit that Jim could be a bit tetchy.  It was rush hour when I drove through Chicago hauling a 25-foot trailer, and the highway department seemed to be rebuilding every tollway in the city.  It used to be a four-hour drive from West-Chicago to Indianapolis.  It took me six hours.  Exhausted, I walked into a smoke-filled country bar to find Jim on a stool sipping a beer.  The first thing Jim said was, “Where the hell have you been.”  Tetchy. 

We disassembled the 1-26 by moonlight in the bitter freeze and drove home through the wee hours.  As we drove for ten hours he talked about the cold, the nature of April lift, the cold, his decision to fly well out of his way to get around the snow-storm front, the cold, how he could have flown further had daylight not forced him to land, the cold, how at the end of the day he had gotten high and stayed high, the cold . . .  He was right, I harvested an enormous wealth of knowledge about soaring by crewing for Jim.  Up to the end of his flying I continued to learn from him by being his crew.

Years later I painted a watercolor of Jim landing 271 on a grass strip next to a corn field at sunset near Indianapolis to memorialize the flight and the man.  In time the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum added this painting to their permanent collection.  The painting is titled Jim Hard: Diamond in the Rough which I lovingly named to honor the greatness of the man with rough edges.  It’s a comfort to know that Jim is immortalized and recognized by being part of America’s greatest museum of flight.  Orville and Wilbur, Neil Armstrong, Jim Hard—it has a nice ring. 

Jim would eventually earn the World Distance Award for cumulative cross-country flights equal to a distance circling the equator, or 40,000 kilometers—all in a 1-26.  I think of this feat as akin to winning the Indianapolis 500 in a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle. 

Then, bright, attractive, personable Kathleen Winters joined the Minnesota Soaring Club.  Jim and Kathleen found a special bond in the air and their hearts that ended in marriage.  They were both devoted to flight, and Kathleen would crew for Jim as much as he would crew for her.  With Jim’s support Kathleen would write two books about female pilots:  Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.  Kathleen was taken from us too young, with Jim by her side.  In my idea of heaven they are again flying side-by-side. 

MSC flight instructor Phil Schacht once said to me that Jim “has forgotten more about gliding than we know.”  A high and true complement to Jim from one master of the air about another. 

            Once I became a flight instructor, I advised my advanced students to take an instructional flight with Jim and to crew for him.  Studying with Jim was like learning from a Zen master who happened to be part eagle.

            In the last few years I had the honor of conducting Jim’s flight reviews.  Which, after quickly determining he met all FAA requirements for continued flight privileges, I used to learn from him.  Over thirty years of sharing a cockpit with Jim I discovered he had changed his advice about a few things.  For instance, he used to advise that upon finding lift to immediately and fully move the stick to turn as fast as possible—the yaw string be damned.  But, in later years he believed in perfectly coordinated flight, and he flew as smooth as silk.  He was learning till the last time he took to the air.

            Jim taught me, and many of the Minnesota Soaring Club (MSC) and Red Wing Soaring Association flight instructors to fly, and later in advanced training, the mastery of the thermal.  His knowledge is part of the weft and warp of the instruction that the current MSC and Red Wing instructors share with our students.  That is to say, Jim lives on, in the hearts of us that knew him, and in the soaring flights of all of us who are much better pilots for what Jim did not forget and we will never forget—for Jim the man, as well as his knowledge, is unforgettable. 

Wherever you are flying now, I know you are flying high, and staying high, my friend,

                                                                                                                        Stephen Nesser

                                                                                                                        February 10, 2019

           

Posted: 3/12/2019


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