As they soar through the clouds, blue skies stretching out ahead of them, glider pilots seem to have it made, living a glamorous life for at least a few hours.
But, there are people on the ground who help them live that life, people who worry about them, make sure they have what they need to get into the air and stay there for a while.
Mary Beatty and Josh Hernandez are two such people. Both are crewmembers for glider pilots competing in the Soaring Society of America’s 2022 Open/15-Meter Nationals, being held at the Hobbs SSA’s airfield this past Thursday through next Saturday.
Beatty is the daughter of Lee Kuhlke, Hernandez the business partner of Terry Stroud. Kuhlke and Stroud are longtime glider pilots; Beatty and Hernandez are crewmembers who have helped them succeed, sometimes chased after them when they landed out, which means coming down in a field or somewhere else other than their intended landing strip.
Beatty, a nurse from Colorado, began taking part in soaring with her father when she was 15. She’s now 37, so for more than two decades it has been an integral part of her life.
“It’s kind of been a sport that my dad and I share and have shared for years,” Beatty said. “A pretty unique commonality, which is a lot of fun.”
Hernandez and Stroud run a company that does custom work on fiberglass travel trailers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In much of Stroud’s spare time he is gliding high above fields and lakes, and much of Hernandez’s spare time is taking care of him when he glides.
“I’ve been crewing with him for nine years now,” Hernandez said. “The first time was out here; he said, ‘Hey, you want to come out to Hobbs and help me out with the crew, come get me if I land out?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll come along.’ I like this kind of topography, I like being out in the desert, I like helping out, and so I came along. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a challenge to keep him fed; you’re baby-sitting the pilot when you’re out here. You get out here and trust them to go up and make it back down to the ground safely, trust in their ability.”
Hernandez’s duties involve setting up the plane and putting it back in its box when adverse weather conditions make that necessary. But there is a lot more involved; it’s a long process, starting in the morning.
“The routine is, get up, feed him,” Hernandez said. “And then get him to the pilot’s meeting, then get out here, help him put water in the plane, at some point go get him something to eat while he’s going to be up there. So do that, come back, get him out here to the grid.”
And the responsibilities continue at the air field.
“He’s got a tail wheel and a wing wheel,” Hernandez said, “so then I put that back here (to the side of the runway), take it all back over to the trailer, then get everything situated so that when he returns, everything’s ready to go. I’m here when he hits the ground, and then the whole thing starts all over again – I feed him that night, I put him to bed, tuck him in nice and tight, make sure he’s got enough water.”
It seems almost like a parent’s daily routine caring for a child.
“It’s not far off,” Beatty said.
In Beatty’s case, it’s the child caring for the parent, with the worry that comes with it.
“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “That’s a big reason why I come to the contests with him. I try and take some of the load off of these long contests; it can be pretty exhausting for the pilots. I make lunches, make sure he eats and drinks water. I feel like I’m doing my part to keep him safe so he can focus on the task at hand.”
Hernandez’s involvement has gone beyond parenting mode to that of assistant mechanic for Stroud.
“He and I put one of the first jet engines into a (HPH 304) Shark in maybe 2012,” Hernandez recalled. “That was a lot of fun.”
Yes, gliders can have engines installed, sustainer engines that are used for back-up in case the pilot runs into trouble. If there is no safe place to land, he or she can flip on the sustainer motor and have a better chance of finding a more suitable spot to touch down.
“Sustainer engines, for me, have been a game-changer,” Beatty said.
Installing the engines is not always easy. “Especially when you have restrictive shapes that you wouldn’t have in another vehicle,” Beatty noted.
Pilots and crews travel some pretty good distances to take part in soaring contests. And sometimes the crewmembers have to travel even more once they arrive. There are instances when a pilot veers so far off course that crewmembers have to drive hours just to find them and help them out of their situations. With luck, that can be at an airstrip somewhere hours away. Oftentimes, though, the land-out occurs in a field, and the crewmembers will have to push their way through tall grass and thatch. In those cases, the grass and thatch can make it difficult to get the plane’s wings off.
And sometimes, it’s not just grass that causes problems. Beatty remembers being on reconnaissance missions when hailstorms were looming off in the distance.
Beatty also recalls working on the crew of a pilot other than her father, and a situation in Uvalde, Texas where that pilot’s fiberglass plane broke into pieces on impact.
“He ended up being just fine,” Beatty said.
Hernandez recalled a time in Portales where Stroud went down in a field, and there was a six-foot ditch between the road and the field. Stroud had to construct a makeshift bridge over the ditch.
“It was fun,” he said.
All in a day’s work for the crew of a glider pilot.