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Allan MacNicol 1930-2005

Final Glide: A Flight and a Memory

On Sunday, July third, I hopped into Juliet Sierra,-one of three ASH-26E’s based at Stowe, Vermont- and declared Springfield, Vermont as a goal. I wasn’t looking to add this to my one diamond badge leg, earned 35 years ago, I just wanted to make sure folks knew where to look, if I didn’t make it. The real reason I was headed South was to visit my old club, NESA (pronounced Knee-Sah) and to show off my baby, to one of the six NESA instructors who taught me to fly in the sixties, forty three years ago.

Most student pilots set up a relationship with their flight instructors, in which the instructor becomes a surrogate parent. I often meet former students, who I forgot I taught to fly, but who haven’t forgotten me or the advice I gave them many years ago. Of the six NESA instructors who taught me, only one, Allan MacNicol, still plays an active role in the sport, locally. Allan is one of those sweet people who loved helping out where ever he could. My wife Ann and I stopped in on him, at his house in New London N.H., two years ago. It was located on a private airstrip and he was rebuilding several antique sailplanes that had been damaged in a hangar collapse the prior winter. This included the SGS 1-21 that won the US Nationals in 1947, flown that year by my Stowe neighbor, Dick Comey. Allan’s 1-21 is slated to be flown by his son John in this year’s International Vintage Sailplane Meet, which is run by another one of the 60’s era NESA six, Jan Scott. Allan was in good spirits, for his age, and had a new wife, Shirley. He told me he was now flying out of Springfield, with NESA, which had moved to Vermont from Hiller Airport in Barre, Massachusetts, several years ago. Allan is one of those conservative pilots, who preached making your mistakes in equipment that wouldn’t kill you. We had both seen enough good guys go down in the hotshot gliders that we could only dream about owning forty years earlier. As experienced flight instructors, we both knew the reasons for the accidents, which in New England turn out to be high landing speeds, very small fields and unseen obstacles.

When he ran the Mount Washington Wave Camp in the early Seventies, Allan quickly figured out that the dangers there were very real. After a couple of 20 mile up-wind tows into the primary, he changed strategies when an inexperienced pilot released in the primary rotor and ended up walking out of the woods below, carrying the largest piece that was left of his Ka-6. From then on, the policy at Mount Washington was to release people in the tertiary wave that formed above North Conway and let them work their way North. I thought of Allan whenever I taught a student how to work what I called “rotorque,” which regularly formed at two of the gliding sites Ann and I managed, Sugarbush and Stowe, Vermont. It is amazing how few pilots know this simple technique. Basically, you circle in the lift beneath the rotor. Because there is no vortex, just a small column of rising air, you need to use a technique which works when you are flying a sheared off thermal, which is to straighten out and slow up each time you come around into the wind and catch the vertically rising gust, and then make a very tight turn back around as soon as you exit the gust. While circling, you also need to watch for the next cloud wisp to start forming up wind, and the moment it does, you push off up wind towards the next gust, before the rotorque you are currently working ends up entering the wave downwash and turns into turbulent sink. If you keep at it, even in a 2-33, it is possible to work your way into the wave itself, which will appear magically out of nowhere, on one of those occasions when you push off towards the next forming rotorque. On days when there is mixed wave and thermals and no rotor, the technique is easier, get as high as you can thermaling under the Cu, before building speed on an upwind pass through the lift, and then converting your kinetic energy into altitude as you clear the cloud. If the wave is there, you will contact it just after you fly under the leading edge of the cu. Allan and his guys perfected these kinds of wave flying techniques at Mount Washington, along with special high altitude gear (pantyhose and Kiwi boots). They also made flights off of the ridge right next to North Conway airport, using it to contact the wave with start points as low as 1500 feet. For those who attended these wave encampments, Diamond Altitude was not the goal. Making the largest altitude gain of the day or the largest number of Diamond climbs in a day, were the real goals – most had achieved 30,000 foot climbs off of Mount Washington in the past, and were there for the camaraderie. It turns out that Mount Washington is one of the best-kept secrets in soaring. On a good day, you can notch a barograph at 2000 MSL over the ridge and make a climb to 31,000 feet!

After leaving the Worcester range, I headed down to Sugarbush, arriving after spending only 30 minutes in the air, most of which was taken up getting to cloud base in a 3 to 4 knot thermal off of Mount Hunger. One of my former students, Romeo Charlie (Harvey Howell) let it be known that there was a street working on the West ridge, and as I approached the Bush, I decided to move from the East to the West ridge. The wet air coming off Lake Champlain often produces more Cu, but not necessarily better lift. In fact, you can often see the cloud base descending towards the lake along with curtain clouds, a sure sign of a sea breeze front forming. Still, one always feels more comfortable flying the wet thermal route, even if the clouds aren’t always working. I took Harvey’s “street” another 20 miles south, carefully keeping the ship between 6000 MSL and cloud base, which by then was up around 7000 MSL. As I approached Killington, I spotted a series of faint cloud tops that were forming out in the blue hole that lead straight down wind to Mount Ascutney, which is just upwind of Springfield, about 30 miles away. I continued my geriatric approach to my goal. This is to say, I followed the rule, “get high and stay high,” as I no longer have the patience that it takes to “go to the cows,” (the French term for making an off-field landing). In fact, this is the reason I own a ship with an engine. I decided early on not to use the engine, which is why I towed out of Stowe, as taking off under power would waste valuable fuel that I might need to get home later on.

It was approaching 3:00 and I had hoped by this time to be on final glide for Springfield. Below me as I circled in lift one more time I could see Woodstock, the home of my favorite Rockefeller. Laurence was the man who developed the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, gave Hapuna State Park to the people of Hawaii, supported the music program at Jackson Hole, the artwork at Cody, Wyoming, etc. etc. Woodstock was kind to me, and quickly produced the best climb of the day up to 7500 feet, and a sure shot at a 90 knot glide into Springfield. As I approached Ascutney, I spotted Springfield Airport off to the right, behind a small ridge. I called in on the Unicom frequency, and got landing instructions from someone who sounded an awful lot like Allan. I thought to myself, well this will be my lucky day, Allan is on the field, which is not surprising, as he was always on hand on the Fourth and Labor Day to help out with club chores. Over the years one of Allan’s favorite charities, was “the Little Guys Meet” originally held in New Jersey and later in New London, where he was then based. From the air, Springfield looks like an old Army Air Corps training field, which means it has huge runways. I landed on 5 and rolled out onto the grass, just behind the sailplane take off line, so I would not have to pull my ship far to launch. It had taken about two hours to cover the 90 mile course, not bad for a day in which there were no real streets working, and thermals that averaged less than 2 knots.

I opened the canopy as several bystanders dropped by to welcome me – a foreign glider dropping in from nowhere doesn’t happen everyday at most glider ports, and everyone wanted to know who I was and where I had started from. Those questions answered, I mentioned that I was a former member of NESA, something that no one seemed to know, which of course didn’t bother me, as it had been 37 years since I last took a tow behind a NESA tug or flew in one of their long-forgotten 2-22E’s. Then, I asked if Allan was around. Immediately, everyone’s face changed. They stared at each other blankly and appeared agitated. I wondered how it was possible for these three guys to not like and appreciate what Allan had done for the sport. Finally, one of the guys broke the silence and said sadly that Allan was killed yesterday, taking off in his Kitfox from New London.

The Fourth was always a joyous holiday around here. The Little Guys meet was held right off of the strip that Allan died on in New London. Allan, the pilot’s pilot, who ran the Mount Washington wave encampment for years, and taught me how to kill off altitude on final making S-turns, was dead. Allan, my friend and confidante with whom I could discuss business and soaring, and who was a board member of the original Cambridge Aero Instruments Company, was gone. Allan leaves a hole in the hearts of his students and all the people who came to love him. He was 75 years old. The New England Soaring fraternity has lost one of its greatest members. We will miss you, Allan.

Stephen S. Fried

For further information about Allan, click here.

Posted: 8/1/2005

Final Glide 

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