Last weekend I flew a glider for the first time in a long time. (In 2007 I had to go inactive in the Soaring Club of Houston and hadn’t flown for a while even before that. It was a long hiatus due to having a novel published, writing two more novels, having a parent diagnosed with Alzheimers and then relocating out of an apartment complex being sold to developers. Life happens.)
So I went up with a glider flight instructor and did better than I thought I would. I flew two flights from tow to full stop, without the instructor having to take the controls except when I forgot to plant the tail wheel after the first landing. They say it’s like riding a bicycle – you get rusty but you probably won’t crash into a tree if you haven’t ridden a bike in forever. Likewise flying skills stay with you even though finesse definitely does not.
The instructor gave me some memorable landing advice. He reminded me to pick a landing spot to aim for, then once in ground effect – a wing length or so above the ground – to look at the end of the runway. Like a lot of other things, landing an aircraft is done best when your attention is not overly immediate. You need to be taking in the whole view of the runway; it’s vital. The instructor said, “Pretend there’s a Nazi sniper in the trees at the end of the field and look for him!”
Pretend there’s a sniper in the trees at the end of the runway. I won’t forget that. It’s the best kind of flight instruction admonition: pithy and funny enough to stick in a busy brain and be recalled when it’s needed most.
A couple of days ago I discovered the origin of the word sniper. It was in a recent re-edition from Oxford University Press of a classic cookbook written for British housewives in 19th-century India. (!) Snipe entered in as wild game that might end up on the dinner table. They are wary marsh birds. A sniper is a hunter skilled enough to shoot a snipe.
OK, that makes a memorable lesson and a half. Look for the sniper in the trees to make sure your eyes are where they’ll do you the most good in the last moments of a landing. And practice toward a snipe-hunting level of accuracy!