Photo by Marcy Stamper
Movses Babayan, second from left, and fellow pilots towed his glider to a nearby road, where it was disassembled into four pieces for transportation. Babayan said landing in a field on occasion is “part of the sport.”

No harm to pilot or glider in unexpected ‘inconvenience’

By Marcy Stamper

To people unfamiliar with the mechanics of glider planes, seeing one in the middle of a hayfield last week was disconcerting.

Concerned onlookers called the police and Aero Methow Rescue Service and hung around wanting to help, worried about the pilot.

“Everybody is fine. A glider lands in a field occasionally — that’s part of the sport,” said pilot Movses Babayan, who strolled to Twin Lakes Road from the nearby field and hitched a ride back to the Twisp Municipal Airport to gather reinforcements and his trailer, so he could retrieve his 700-pound glider — a sleek white plane with red trim.

“It was very much a controlled landing — not an emergency by any means,” said Babayan. “Landing a glider is hardly an unusual event. We disassemble it, put it in the trailer, and are on our way,” said Babayan, of Monroe, who was in the valley with fellow pilots from the Arlington-based Evergreen Soaring Club.

“I’m guessing he didn’t anticipate wind like this,” said Winthrop Deputy Marshal Doug Johnson, who went out to check on the plane and its pilot on a blustery afternoon last Thursday (June 28).

Babayan knew he was getting low and wasn’t finding any usable lift, so he began searching for a landing spot. The field was perfect — wide and open, with no obstacles. Babayan would have preferred to land at the Methow Valley State Airport, where recovering the glider would have been easier, but the airport was closed for repaving.

Babayan started flying gliders, or sailplanes, about eight years ago and has since accumulated around 400 hours in the cockpit. He also has a license to fly what he calls “power planes,” but flies the single-engine planes “only when necessary,” he said.

“It’s the poor man’s flying. Burning dead-dinosaur juice is a very brute way of staying aloft. Any glider pilot will tell you that,” said Babayan.

Members of the Evergreen club and friends from other glider clubs in the state made their annual trip to the Methow Valley last week to take advantage of the exceptional thermals here. “This area is the best soaring there is in the state of Washington — maybe the whole Northwest,” said Babayan.

The marine air around Arlington can flush out the thermal columns of rising air that gliders depend on. Wind can be detrimental to the thermal lift because it breaks up columns of air, but sometimes the wind actually helps, said Babayan.

Glider pilots have complete control of their direction and speed, just not their altitude, said Babayan. “We have normal, regular controls like in a normal airplane — a stick, rudder, pedals and an air brake,” he said. Computers provide readings about wind and altitude. They’re regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

To gain initial altitude, gliders are tethered to another plane. When they find an updraft, they disconnect the tow rope. On a good day, gliders remain aloft for six or seven hours, flying above the Pasayten Wilderness to the Canadian border, or south to the Columbia Basin plateau.

Nine times out of 10, they land where they started, said Babayan, who said his longest flight last year was about 320 miles. Their typical cruising altitude is between 12,000 and 14,000 feet, at a maximum speed of 149 knots — about 171 miles per hour.

“The landing was just a mild inconvenience,” said Babayan. “I fed [my fellow pilots] steak after getting out the plane. That’s the tradition.”