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Mitch Polinsky: Soaring Like a Hawk

Mitch Polinsky loves truck camping, but his head is in the clouds.  Is he full of hot air, or has he just gone thermal?  We get to the plane truth on this soaring subject.

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How does a Professor of Law and Economics at Stanford Law School cut loose?  Why with truck camping and soaring of course.  For Mitch, it all started with a January, 1967 article in National Geographic titled, “Sailors of the Sky”.  Mitch was nineteen years old and the images of gliders and the stories of their adventures captivated him.  Ah, the power of magazines.

Twelve years later, Mitch would finally have the opportunity to take flight in a glider launching a life long love affair with soaring.  Today he tows a glider behind a Four Wheel Camper Hawk and soars into the desert skies above Utah and Nevada.  His personal record is a 606 mile (975 kilometer) eight hour flight.  Let’s just say that Mitch takes our “go anywhere” motto to infinity, and beyond.

For his article, Professor Polinsky instructs us on his pre-purchase truck camper research, his camper modifications, the art of soaring, and the finer points of avoiding restricted airspace.  Sharpen your No. 2 pencils.  Eyes front.  Class is in session.

TCM: You said in an email to us that you had a story about tent camping versus truck camping.  Could you tell us your story?

Mitch: In the summer of 2009 I went on a three week glider flying trip in Nevada and Utah.  I took a tent and a lot of camping equipment and pulled my thirty-four foot long glider trailer behind my Honda Ridgeline.  I was at an airport at which twelve other glider pilots were living in their RVs, while three of us were living in our tents.  Every day the local winds would blow the dust on the ground through the mesh of my tent and lightly coat everything with dirt inside, and one day a thunderstorm came through with fifty mile an hour winds that bent my tent poles.  

I want to stay at the glider airports rather than in a motel because there is a good sense of community and camaraderie there among the pilots.  But after that experience, I vowed to get something like a Class B or Class C motorhome, or a truck and camper for the summer of 2010. 

TCM: So why did you choose a truck camper?

Mitch: I am very safety conscious and wanted a truck and camper instead of a motorhome mainly because of safety.  I’ve found that motorhomes lack many of the safety features available in recent pick up trucks.  Most motorhomes don’t have side impact air bags or electronic stability control and they have a much higher center of gravity.  The Ford F-150 has side impact air bags and electronic stability control.  It also has a five star crash rating. 

Once I settled on the truck and camper idea, I had to decide whether to get a hard-sided camper or a pop-up camper.  Pop-up campers have a safety advantage by providing a lower center of gravity while driving, and they are usually lighter in weight than a comparably sized hard-side camper.  I’m pulling a 2,600 pound trailer behind me, so I didn’t want to overtax the truck.  I wanted the lightest possible camper.

There’s another reason why I wanted a truck with a camper.  There’s a chance with my gliding that I won’t be able to get back to my home airport and that I might have to land somewhere other than at an airport.  One of the places glider pilots end up landing at in Nevada are dry lakes in the high desert.  If that were to happen, I would need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to the glider.  Having a four wheel drive truck is a big advantage if someone had to come and pick me up.  A conventional motorhome wouldn’t work well for this purpose.

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Lastly, I wanted a truck camper, and more specifically a pop-up camper, because I live in a private home on the Stanford University campus with other faculty.  With a pop-up camper in the down position on an F-150, nobody complains about my keeping the truck and camper on my driveway.  I wanted something I wouldn’t have to store at a paid storage lot. 

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TCM: How did you do your research for your pop-up camper?

Mitch: I read Truck Camper Magazine, went to manufacturer websites, and spent a lot of time researching various options.   

As I did my research I kept hearing good things about Four Wheel Campers.  I talked to Tom Hanagan, the President of Four Wheel Campers, and Stan Kennedy, their Sales Representative.  They both spent a huge amount of time with me on the phone and were very patient in answering my questions.  The more I learned about their products the more it became clear that one of their campers would be ideal for my needs.  Their Hawk model, which is what I got, was the lightest pop-up camper that I could find for a six and a half foot bed.  A visit to their factory solidified my enthusiasm for their product and for the Hawk model.  A big advantage of Four Wheel Campers for me is that they are only two hours and fifteen minutes from my house, and not far out of the way on my route to Nevada where I mainly go to fly my glider.  So, it would be easy to stop by there in the future for any repairs or upgrades.

Four Wheel Campers did a lot of little custom things for me.  I got a TurboKool evaporative cooler, also known as a swamp cooler, the first one they ever installed on one of their campers.  I also got a window air conditioner.  It works better than the swamp cooler, but when I can’t plug in, the swamp cooler is very nice.  I also had them make a longer slide out bed to accommodate my wife’s and my preferences for not having to climb over the other in order to get down to the main level of the camper.  With the extra long bed they provided, we can both sleep parallel to the length of the truck.

Then my wife, Joan, asked, “How will I dry my hair?”  Without shore power, she wouldn’t be able to use a hair dryer unless I got an inverter.  We settled on a 2,000 watt inverter which will run a hair dryer, toaster oven, or power tools, though only one at a time.

I also found a company that sells a portable shower stall.  It consists of a plastic base and a curtain that goes around a metal ring.  Tom Hanagan and I worked out a system to easily mount the portable shower unit using the brace that normally is used to hold one of the rear jacks.  I can easily insert an L-shaped metal tube there and hang the shower from it.

By the time I finished all of my little add-ons, I really got to know and like the people who work on the production floor at Four Wheel Campers. 

TCM: That’s quite a list of custom options.  What do your friends at Stanford think of your gliding and truck camping?

Mitch: I have several colleagues who are as adventurous as I am, including three or four other glider pilots.  I also have some good friends on the faculty who go rock climbing and wilderness backpacking, even Himalayan trekking.  Still, gliding is pretty rare and many of my colleagues are amazed when I tell them I do flights of more than 500 miles over the Nevada desert and mountains for eight hours without an engine.

It’s actually more unusual at Stanford to have a pick up truck and a camper than to have a glider.  I bet you didn’t expect to hear that!  As I mentioned, I know three or four other glider pilots on the faculty, but I don’t know any other faculty members who have a truck camper.

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TCM: Tell us about your glider.  And what exactly is gliding?  Or do you call it soaring?

Mitch: Basically, a glider is a full size airplane without an engine.  They are sometimes called sailplanes.  And the sport is called gliding or soaring.  Both terms are acceptable.

Actually, there are two types of gliders, traditional ones without an engine, and a newer kind that has a small auxiliary engine.  For a traditional glider without an engine, the glider is initially hooked up to a 150 foot rope pulled by a propeller powered plane.  Then the powered plane takes off pulling the glider and the two planes fly in formation up to 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground.  Inside the glider is a knob that allows the glider pilot to release from the powered tow plane when the glider pilot feels rising air that can sustain the glider without the power plane.

In the past twenty years or so, gliders with small retractable engines have become more popular, probably rivaling traditional gliders in sales.  I have a high performance self-launching glider with a fifty horsepower rotary engine and a retractable propeller.  The propeller comes up on a pylon behind the pilot’s head.  I can then climb using my own power to 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground before turning the motor off and  retracting the propeller again. 

My goal is to never have to use the motor again the rest of the day, and usually I don’t.  But about one flight in every seven I can’t get back home using natural air currents, so I end up extending the propeller and starting the engine in order to get back.

TCM: So the engine and propeller are there for safety as well as for self-launching?

Mitch: I mainly have the engine for convenience, not for safety.  Pilots are taught to plan for the worst.  If you extend the propeller and the engine doesn’t start, and then you can’t get the propeller down, you’re in a worse situation than if you hadn’t tried to use the engine.  So if I need the engine to get home I always start the engine over a safe landing spot, so I can glide down and land there if the engine doesn’t work.

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TCM: How does gliding actually work?

Mitch: After I’ve turned off and retracted the propeller, I look for rising air currents, which are also called thermals.  Thermals are cylinders of rising warm air.  If there is enough moisture in the air, the warm air turns into a white fluffy cumulus cloud when it rises to the condensation level.  When there are lots of cumulus clouds, it’s the perfect day for a glider pilot.  We fly under these clouds because we know that there will be rising air underneath them.  Once you get in the lift, you turn the wings and circle under the cloud.

Some days, however, there won’t be enough moisture to form the cumulus clouds.  The thermals are still there, but they are harder to find.  These are much more challenging days for glider pilots.  We call them “blue days.”

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TCM: How quick is the ascent when you’re in a thermal?

Mitch:
Five hundred feet per minute lift in a thermal is typical where I fly in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah.  On many days the lift is much stronger, seven or eight hundred feet a minute or even a thousand feet per minute.  Going up one thousand feet per minute is like going up in a high speed elevator in an office building.  I was in one thermal last summer in which I ascended the height equivalent to a thirty-story building in three minutes, without an engine.

When you fly between thermals, you are losing altitude.  The height of the cloud base in the Great Basin usually is at least 14,000 feet above sea level and often 15,000 to 18,000 feet above sea level.  I usually enter a thermal three or four thousand feet below the base of the cloud and then climb in the thermal to near cloud base before leaving the thermal.  I’ll then glide five to fifteen miles to the next thermal, losing several thousand feet of altitude in the process.  I spend the whole day jumping from one thermal to another thermal, losing height between thermals and gaining it back when I get to the next one.

I have a flight recorder in my glider that records my position and altitude every three seconds.  At the end of the flight I can download the file for that day onto my laptop computer and analyze my flight.  On a typical day it shows that I spend about 20% of my time climbing in thermals and 80% of my time cruising between thermals.

TCM: With all this thermal jumping, how do you know where you are?

Mitch: I have a GPS navigation system with a moving map, just like in a car.  Actually, I have two of them since I want a backup in case one fails.  One of them also has a connection to XM Weather, so that I can see on my navigation screen where adverse weather is, like thunderstorms, and where there have been lightning strikes.  Two or three times every summer this information is really valuable when I have to fly around big storms in order to get home.

TCM: How did you get into gliding?

Mitch: Like many pilots, I got bit by the flying bug at a young age.  My father was a flight instructor in World War II and was in the U.S. Air Force Reserves for twenty-five years after that.  While I was growing up, he’d spend every other weekend as a Reserve pilot at a nearby Air Force base flying missions.  The rest of the week he was an insurance executive, but always seemed to have flying on his mind.

Around the time of my nineteenth birthday National Geographic magazine ran a big article about soaring, with beautiful pictures of gliders.  I learned that these planes without engines could stay up for hours.  That seemed like a great adventure, and much more fun than flying a conventional plane with an engine.

But it wasn’t until twelve years later that I actually started taking lessons to learn to fly gliders, after I moved to Stanford from the east coast in 1979.  At that time there was a glider airport a half an hour from my office.  During my first year of teaching at Stanford, I took a long lunch break every other Friday to take lessons.  After a year, I got my license to fly gliders. 

TCM: Do you own your own glider?

Mitch: During my first six years of gliding I’d rent planes from a gliding school or from the glider club I joined.  Then, in 1985, I bought my first glider with two other partners.  It was a single seat glider of the self-launching type the I mentioned earlier.  My two partners were much more experienced than I was, and held numerous U.S. records in self-launched sailplanes and one world record.  I learned a lot from them.

TCM: What’s the longest you’ve ever flown in a glider?

Mitch: I had the longest flight of my life in July of this past summer, starting from the Ely, Nevada airport.  Most gliding statistics are measured in kilometers.  That flight was 975 kilometers, which is 606 miles.  It took just over eight hours without the engine and I averaged 75 miles per hour.

TCM: Wow.  How do you go to the bathroom or eat meals during that time?

Mitch: I nibble on snacks throughout the flight, usually when I’m up high and not under stress worrying about how to stay up.  I also drink a lot of water, because people tend to get dehydrated at high altitude.  To discharge the water I use a funnel connected to a relief tube that exits out the bottom of the glider.  This is an acceptable practice of glider pilots since we’re usually flying over the desert or mountains, not over populated areas.

TCM: Do you have to worry about restricted areas?

Mitch: The Federal Aviation Administration designates different parts of the sky in different ways.  Restricted areas are areas pilots are not allowed to fly in unless they request and are granted special permission.  I’ve only asked for permission to fly in a restricted area once in my life, when I needed to go through it in order to avoid a thunderstorm on my way home.  Luckily it was granted.  The restricted areas show up on my GPS moving map display, so it’s pretty hard to go into them by accident.

TCM: Are there accidents in gliding?

Mitch: Yes, unfortunately.  There are a few glider accidents every year, just like there are small power plane accidents.  In virtually every form of flying, accidents mostly occur on take off or landing.  When glider pilots fly in contests, there also is a greater risk of a mid-air collision because there are sometimes many gliders trying to stay up in the same thermal.  That’s one of the reasons I’ve never flown in a contest.

TCM: How does your wife feel about your gliding adventures?

Mitch: She is very supportive.  I am an incredibly lucky guy to be married to her.  I do test her patience sometimes, though, when I talk for too long about soaring.  I can see her eyes begin to glaze over.  That’s about when she says “I’m glad you enjoy soaring so much and have so many glider pilot friends to talk to about it.”  I get the hint.

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Mitch Polinsky (left) and Tom Hanagan (right) at Four Wheel Campers


TCM:
I heard a rumor that you got Tom Hanagan, the President of Four Wheel Campers, interested in soaring.  Is that right?

Mitch: I hope so.  I became very friendly with Tom as a result of my purchase of my Hawk camper, and we exchanged lots of stories about our respective adventures; his scuba diving and my soaring.  He seemed very interested in my gliding activities, so as a thank you for all the attention he gave me during the process of buying my camper, I gave him a gift certificate to take an introductory glider ride with an instructor at a nearby glider airport.  He told me he enjoyed it a lot and is even contemplating taking soaring lessons.

TCM: Is there anything else you would like to add to your interview that I may not have asked you?

Mitch: I would love to help other people who want to try the experience of gliding.  Feel free to email me as I want to encourage people to learn the sport.  It’s a phenomenal experience!  My email address is: polinsky@stanford.edu

TCM: I bet some of our readers will take you up on your generous offer.  It’s not everyday that you can learn about gliding from a Stanford professor!  Thank you, Mitch.

Mitch: You’re welcome.

 MITCH POLINSKY‘S TRUCK CAMPER RIG
Truck: 2010 Ford F-150, crew cab, single rear wheel, short bed, 4×4, gas
Camper: Four Wheel Camper Hawk
Tie-downs and Turnbuckles: Bolted in the bed
Suspension Enhancements: Rancho shocks in rear wheels, Firestone air bags 
Gear: Tow hitch with the truck, 34 foot long glider trailer
Truck Camper Information
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