Only once in some sixty years of flying gliders, have I been truly frightened.
The third contest day of the London Regional Championships in 1967 was expected to be difficult with thunderstorms and heavy showers, but with some hope of soaring in the clear intervals. The task was a short race from the site at Dunstable to Rearsby airfield on the far side of the city of Leicester, 105 km away.
I was flying the new Ka 6E I and my two partners had recently imported from Germany
Thirty gliders were assembled ready for launch but we had to wait in the cockpits for a heavy shower to pass. I had a P tube to dispose of unwanted liquids through the floor. I made use of this while waiting. I had not realised that a crew member, Elizabeth, a volunteer from my student tutorial group, was sheltering under the wing. It was exactly the wrong place. She was already wet from the rain so perhaps it didn’t matter.
We were towed up into lifeless air. I and several others were down again within minutes but started again with better prospects. A mighty cumulonimbus cloud was building north east of the track. I had read of pilots flying along the front of such storms, finding lift all the way as cold downbursts poured out from the cloud, forcing the warmer air upwards. It worked just so for me and I made rapid progress.
Leicester appeared ahead in no time, but the storm was squatting, darkly menacing, directly over the city. The cloud there had come down to the ground. An almost impenetrable leaden curtain, streaked vertically in shades of dark and lighter grey, towered above, up, up, vast and awesome into the stratosphere. My goal lay on the other side where all was black and dangerous, the rain furious with hail and lightning. Lightning striking a glider has been known to blow the aircraft apart. The anvil cloud capping the storm was spreading above, cutting off the sunlight. The world seemed almost as dark as night. I was terrified.
As I hesitated, I saw another sailplane to my left but higher. He headed off into the murk. I was much lower and losing height now. It would be madness to try to follow across the city where there could be no safe landing. I could, and should, have turned back a short distance to a disused airfield I had seen, the runways wet with recent rain. Instead, I chose field a few kilometres ahead on track. For the sake of a few extra points in the contest score, I decided that was where I should touch down. It was a mistake.
I saw no obstructions and was committed. The ground was not flat but I could land uphill using a little extra airspeed to make a climb conforming to the slope, before touching down. At the last moment I realised that the ground was steeper than I had thought, and irregular. I had to pull up harder. The first contact was gentle but instantly there was a hefty thump and the glider came to a sudden standstill. There was a rumbling noise that I could not understand. When I looked down in the cockpit, I saw blades of grass sticking up through the floor. I had damaged my precious sailplane.
I scrambled out. The rumbling continued. The wheel of the glider was spinning round; it was off the ground. The fuselage was resting across what I thought at first was a ditch, but soon recognised that I had landed across some lynchets, medieval strip fields which still terrace the landscape of England in many places. As I stared, I heard the flute-like note of another glider nearby. Someone was floating a few hundred feet overhead and I hastily used the radio to say: ‘Don’t land here!’ Whoever it was took my advice and disappeared into the gloom. I never found out who that was or where he came down.
I had noticed no cattle before landing, but a herd of Herefords had seen me and were hurrying up the slope towards me. Cows are curious, always ready to investigate unexpected happenings. They are especially destructive of wooden gliders. They like the taste of cellulose dopes and other aircraft paints. Their tongues are rougher than the coarsest grade of sandpaper and they will lick the fabric and thin plywood off wings and tail in no time at all.
I had landed near a suburban housing estate. As the cattle approached from one side, a horde of excited children came running from the other. I had a brilliant idea.
A couple of energetic youngsters led the crowd and as they came up, I yelled at them: ‘Help me keep these cows off!’
Utter mayhem followed. The boys, girls and infants, in their efforts to help, ran wildly about waving their arms and shouting. The cows took little notice, stumbling dangerously nearer to the wings and delicate tail members with their sharp heavy feet and rasping tongues. The children were soon jumping over and climbing on the glider. Some decided to play hide and seek around it, others peered into the cockpit, waggling controls, poking and wondering what the various knobs and switches did and threatening to blow down the pitot tube, wrecking the airspeed indicator. More kids came running as I frantically tried to protect my machine and worried also about the damage I myself had done in landing.
English policemen are wonderful. I was rescued by a couple of them who arrived in their beautiful car. The children were instantly subdued, the cows, reluctantly, moved off. The bobbies radioed for help. My crew had followed me by road, so were not far away. Watched by the cows, we de-rigged the glider. The storm grumbled on and at last moved away. Piece by piece we carried wings, fuselage and tailplanes through someone’s garden gate, down a very narrow passage between two houses and into the street where a crowd gathered to watch us load everything into the trailer. We drove away waving, with thanks all round and small cheers from the children.
The damage to the belly of the Ka 6E proved to be trivial; a glass fibre fairing had been cracked. I was able to repair it overnight and fly again the next day.
Of the thirty who started, eight pilots braved the storm and reached the goal. One of them, older and more experienced than I, admitted to me later: ‘The last few kilometres were not very nice.’ Nobody was struck by lightning.