Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mike Abernathy

Mike Abernathy in his Stemme Motorglider, Moriarty Airport.x

Mike Abernathy is the Martin Scorsese of the Albuquerque glider community. He is a talented pilot, photographer, filmmaker and an avid fly fisherman and hiker. Most of the Moriarty pilots would agree that the best soaring photos they own of themselves are the ones that Mike has shot. Mike is also working closely with his nephew, Matt Murray, to produce a spectacular documentary on soaring.

Mike’s talents are as diverse as his background. He grew up in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California.

Mike is a software engineer by profession. He worked as a Manager and Principal Engineer at Rockwell International for 15 years. Then he started his own company, Rapid Imaging Software, Inc. Mike works and lives with his business partner, Carolyn Galceran, his wife.

I have flown with Mike once and witnessed his enthusiasm for the sport. He made me feel like I was a child seeing the world for the first time. His approach to flying is that of a pilot who enjoys the sport the way a hiker enjoys nature. He seems to appreciate not only the art of flying but also the incredible scenery that is only available from high above the earth.

“If soaring is an intellectual sport then Mike Abernathy should be at the top of the heap.” – Mitch Hudson

How and when did you get interested in aviation?

I was born with it. As a 5 year old all I did was draw airplanes. I wanted to fly since day zero. I was in my mid forties when I realized that it was achievable.

What type of planes have you flown?

S 2-33, G103, G102, Discus CS, T6 Texan Radial Engined warbird, Stemme S10VT.

What type of gliders do you presently own?

Discus CS, Stemme motorglider

What advice can you give pilots about purchasing a motorglider?

Honestly ask yourself before purchase – do I have the discipline to fly a motorglider safely. Am I able to not get low and bet on the engine starting? An MG pilot should never gamble on an engine start without a landing option. If you can handle that, then ask yourself if you can handle the complexity of motorgliders, without loosing the joy of soaring.

What are the pros and cons of owning a motorglider?

Cons: Complexity and cost are significant.

You can fly to anyplace and from anyplace with the right motorglider. So it has many of the benefits of owning a regular power plane. Because of the disintegrating infrastructure of soaring (fewer glider operations every year) a motorglider greatly facilitates soaring safaris. I am doing everything I can to support glider operations like Rick Kohler’s Sundance Aviation, but for long cross country flights, a motorglider helps. Also, you can fly yourself to areas of lift when it is too far or too high for the tow plane so you have few experiences with “falling out.” You can launch between other pilot’s tows (a big plus in 90 degree weather) and, if you are inclined, you can scout lift (under power) for your non motor friends. With an engine restart (even if you have had to land) a lot of the hassle of landing out is removed.

Are you a competitive pilot?

No. The only person I compete with is me. I want to get better and better. Racing is of zero interest. I enjoy the companionship of flying with other pilots, but not competition. Like all glider pilots, I race the sun, competing with the weather to go further and further.

What is it about flying gliders that you enjoy most?

Freedom. In a glider you are free in an indescribable way. A non- pilot lives in 2D. A power pilot lives in 2.5D because they are limited by their motor. But the glider pilot lives in a dimension which they cannot imagine they really live in 3D+. This freedom is for me often a spiritual experience. The cross-country soaring pilot lives in harmony with nature, and that is a powerful communion.

I also believe that soaring is a life-long commitment to learning. Flying is an activity that challenges you to get better and better for your whole life. So you will find yourself staying in shape, exercising, watching your weight, and generally taking care of yourself. You will find yourself reading books about how to be a better soaring pilot. You will find that every year of experience counts, so you will listen to the experiences of your friends to learn from them. You will relive your own flying experiences trying to glean every morsel of education from them.

I am inspired by a man named John Muratore, a NASA innovator who created the X38. He said that our society needs to explore in order to grow, and that without that our society would stagnate. I strongly believe that for these same reasons soaring is good for our society. It gives people an opportunity to learn and grow and to see our world in a whole new way. It is energy efficient and intensely engaging, challenging and fun. It is not too much to say that becoming a good soaring pilot will make you a better person overall, because it requires personal excellence at some levels.

Soaring is the safest and most affordable way to fly, but more important it is also the most fun because the challenges never end. For a power pilot, once the landing and take off and other mechanics are mastered, the learning curve flattens out while more air time is accumulated. As a power pilot once said to me “I have about 400 hours – but really it is like the same hour just repeated 400 times over.” With soaring, the evidence is clear that learning to read the sky is a lifelong quest. I am fortunate to have guys like Billy Hill, Mark Mocho, Jim Cumiford, Tim Feager, Rick Kohler, Brian Resor, and other great glider pilots who share their experiences with me, as this helps one become a better pilot.

What is your most memorable flight?

September 11, 2004. I declared an out and return to San Luis, CO and back. I was joined traveling north by Mark Mocho, Billy Hill, Howard Banks, and Al Whitesel. We all went different ways at different speeds but basically went up the Sangre De Cristos. It was my first declared 500km flight and moment of profound pride and a day of unbelievable natural beauty. It was such fun. Just the memory of days like that will get you through a lot of ground-bound days of winter. Cloud bases at 20000 feet plus and 10 kt thermals. Absolutely awe-inspiring. Below us the mountains were changing color with the season so they were green, yellow, orange and red.

Your hangar is often the hang-out for several glider pilots after a long day of soaring. What is one of the funniest stories you have heard during the "pilot cocktail hour"?

It is a great blessing to have the companionship of so many skilled, yet giftedly-humorous, pilot friends visiting our hangar. Billy Hill and Mark Mocho have made me laugh so hard that I lost my breath many times. It is hard to pick which story is best.

One afternoon we were all flying an “iffy” day and Billy had gotten low and radioed that he would have to land-out at Mountainair. Mark Mocho couldn’t resist ribbing him, even at such a tender moment. “You should thermal above your ego!” Mark suggested. As I drove off to pick up Billy, I saw that Mark himself had been forced to land-out at Estancia! The next time Mark was at the hangar with us I asked him what happened to him after such hubris.

He just looked at me and said “Those whom the gods would land-out, they first make proud.” This is a variation of a very ancient Greek proverb. I still laugh about that, and I still believe it is true.


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