Triple Tankers and Super Trains

    It was January 5, 1990. I was driving an empty triple crude tanker – 9 axles, 34 wheels, 105 feet long, 60 tons loaded, pulled with a supercharged 2-stroke V8 Detroit Diesel engine – in the godforsaken badlands of central Nevada when my old hang gliding friend Howard Gerrish passed me, flying low, in his Mitsubishi Montero on a uphill grade east of the highway maintenance station at Blue Jay. He didn’t know it was me, of course, and I didn’t know it was him. And I didn’t know the Montero was destined to become one of the 25 worst cars ever tested by Consumer Reports because of its extreme rollover risk. I remember Howard’s silhouette, black against that shining, noon-lit desert highway, arm across the seat, kind of slouched back. He shrank to a speck and vanished, far ahead.

Half an hour later, I noticed a tan SUV parked way out in the sage brush. It was a little strange for anyone to be parked out there so I took a closer look. For a moment, I thought someone must have been doing some pretty serious four-wheeling because the vehicle was covered with gray dust – even the windows. Then I realized it was the SUV that had passed me. It must have rolled and landed on its wheels. I saw it all the time on that job. People get tired or bored, drift onto the shoulder, have that panic reaction and jerk the wheel, catch the highway edge and flip.

    The last one was only a few weeks before. I’d just parked the triple tanker on the scales at the Eagle Springs refinery in Railroad Valley and stepped into the office to pick up my manifest. One of the crew ran in and told the dispatcher there was a car wreck across the highway from the refinery. I told the dispatcher I was an emergency medical technician. He told me to leave the truck and get over there. I ran.

   She was a mother, driving alone with her baby and young son in a big Suburban. She’d drifted off the road. The berm at that spot was a six inch drop. When she corrected, the right tire caught the edge, locked left and the Sub rolled several times. Her little boy, unbuckled, was thrown out the broken side window on the second roll and the SUV came to rest on its side on top of him. We could see his little feet sticking out by the edge of the roof. I told the guys running over from the refinery to put their backs against he roof, grab the drip edge and lift with their knees. We crawled under and gently slid him out. His brains were dragging in the dirt.

    One of the guys put his hands over the woman’s eyes but she had seen it. She was gasping, speechless, twitching, with a look of utter hopeless loss. The toddler was okay, safe in her car seat through the whole thing. But crying, terrified. I asked the mother to take the child in her arms. That helped both of them.

    People should buckle up. It keeps them inside their cars if they crash…

    Anyway, I saw that dirty Montero and brought the big rig to a stop in the east-bound lane. No traffic anywhere. I ran over to the vehicle. Nobody in it. I looked around. There, between the bushes, was a body.

    People’s fate sometimes falls entirely into the hands of the Good Samaritan beneath the baking desert sun, out there in the wilderness of Egypt, as we call it – but not so politely. In the densely populated worlds of others, they drive on by, expecting the cops, the search and rescue, a utility worker, a doctor, somebody else to stop and render aid. But out here in the wilderness, driving on by is a death sentence for the injured. Most drive by, anyway, insulated from brutal reality by their plush, air-conditioned steel stereo cocoons. But not me. When my legs started roasting in that groaning cab, I’d hold the door open to let the heat out.

    I ran over to the guy. He was covered with $100 bills. Bills were caught in branches. Bills scuttled lazily between sagebrush, teased by a light breeze. He was on his back, moaning, bloodied, covered with dirt. I didn’t recognize him. 

    His eyes were closed. He was grimacing, his face lined in agony. “I’m here,” I said. “I’m an EMT. I’m going to help you.”

    “Thank you, boss,” he said. I did a double-take. Howard had always called me “boss.”

    “Howard, is that you?” I asked. “It’s me, Rick Masters.” We were 390 miles from Howard’s home in Ridgecrest, California, where he worked as a chemical engineer at the Naval Weapons Test Center in China Lake. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” I said.

    Howard was severely injured. He appeared to have a broken back and broken ribs. He was pale, going into shock.     “Sorry, Howard, I have to do this.” I knew I was going to have to leave him. I raised his legs and stuffed some branches under them, hoping it would buy some time. He screamed. “Get the money,” he gasped. I quickly scooped up the Benjamins and stuffed them in my pockets. Thousands of dollars had popped out of his wallet.

    “Howard, I’ve got to get to Blue Jay to call an ambulance,” I told him. “Hang on. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.”

    I ran to the truck. It was pointing the wrong way. I thought about dropping the trailers but it would take too long. I took her up to 15 mph and swung the wheel, dropping off the tarmac and curving off onto the soft desert sand. I engaged the drive-axle lock-up as I hit the sand and caught one more gear, tearing through the sage brush, gripping the wheel tightly as the cab bounced wildly, knowing that if I screwed this up, Howard was going to die. But I roared past Howard in a cloud of dust, arced back onto the road and was blasting the air horn at the locked gate at Blue Jay ten minutes later. I was prepared to crash through it and break into a building to use a phone when a fellow walked around a shed and approached.

    “Call Tonopah,” I said. “There’s a rollover eight miles up the hill. One guy. Broken back. Internal injuries. I’ll be up there. They’ll see the truck.” I roared off.

    Howard was still alive. I held a blanket over him for shade for over two hours, then the ambulance arrived. It was the last time I ever saw him.

  He sent his girlfriend by to get the money.

 “What money?” I teased. She scowled. “Oh, that money!”

    He’d been on his way to Idaho to vacation with his father. The big hunting vacation that never happened.

 Howard died in his sleep the next year. Just went to bed and never woke up. Probably a damned pulmenary embolism from his injuries.

Reno Gazette, Feb 1, 1990

    So why do I tell you this?

    It’s about landing hang gliders up-slope in turbulence. The back story.

    Howard was a lucky guy. Or unlucky, depending on how you look at it.

    He had a head-on collision with another hang glider pilot in the Owens, off Paitue, a few years previous. Maybe it was in 1981. I wasn’t there.

    Helmet to helmet. Howard got knocked out. People were watching him drift around, hanging like a sack of meat under his Comet. He finally came down on soft dirt, gliding slowly. No damage.

    He liked to stay at a little motel on the south side of Lone Pine and fly Horseshoe Meadows. Sometimes he’d let me bum a ride up and I’d fly back to my car if it wasn’t good. One day in the spring of 1984 we got to Walt’s Point and it was backside. Everybody left. But Howard was bummed. He really wanted to fly.

    “Let’s fly Mazourka,” I said.

    So we drove down the Sierras, crossed the valley and headed up Mazourka Canyon. We had too much weight in the car and I remember it dragging on the high spots and Howard cursing. But we made it to the top and we both set up on the south face where I planned to hold the summer’s contest in a few weeks.

    It got really gusty. No dust in the valley, but the wind would come from different directions, sometimes strong, sometimes weak. The sails would flap, then go silent. It was one of those days where you couldn’t stray too far from your glider. It looked to me like rock and roll, out in front. But probably better with altitude. Howard, on the other hand, didn’t like it and he was shaking his head and frowning, not pleased.

    I might have packed it up but I was holding the big contest and still wanted to get a feel for the limits of this place. It would be the first contest here. So I steeled myself for some rough air, and launched my big Moyes Meteor into it. It was a mistake. The gods were angry. 

    I was hit by powerful lift, then equally powerful sink, over and over, without a lull between. It wasn’t sinusoidal, it was violent madness – and I hardly had any altitude above the jagged rocks. Up, down, up, down, and at each juncture, it felt as though my harness was about to snap. I like big gliders but the Moyes was way too big for this stuff. It was everything I could do to keep it pointed out to the valley. Then I was slammed by the worst punch of down air I have experienced. Wings level, I slammed my back into my keel and watched the rocky ridge I needed to cross to escape Mazourka rise up in front of me.

    “I’m gonna have to land on that thing,” I thought. I pulled my bar all the way back and dove through the turbulence, wings rocking wildly in a steep descent as I approached the base of the hill. The air was so rough that I was afraid to give it much flare. 

    “If I can just plant it solidly against the hill without hurting myself, that would be luck,” I thought. Then, about 30 feet from the hillside, I encountered calm. I gave a little more flare than I had planned and found myself standing on a 30-degree talus slope with the basetube still off the ground. I quickly dropped the nose and unhooked, then dropped the control frame.

    I’d made it. But it had been one of my worst judgment calls.

    Howard drove down to Santa Rita Flats and picked me up. He couldn’t understand how I had survived that air. It had looked so bad from where he had been standing, he was convinced he would be picking up a dead guy. But at least I’d learned what Mazourka was like when it was too rough to fly.

    I never saw Howard again after that, until that strange day years later in Nevada, when I saved his life.

So back to the up-slope landing stuff. In turbulence, air goes every which way. But near the ground, it goes every which way but down.

    If you get in a terrifying situation, keep fighting.

    Even if it seems hopeless, fight all the way down.

     Fight for every inch.

    You might just get away with it.

    And if you do, you don’t just save your own life, you save your future and the futures of everyone you might save in your future.