Rafting the Hiwassee

by John Good - copyright 2013

Rafting is a popular activity in the hills of eastern Tennessee, and the Hiwassee is reckoned to be a good river for this.  But a raft made by Schempp-Hirth is probably a poor choice.

Sunday, April 7 was a good soaring day in the high ground east of Chilhowee gliderport.  At 4:40 pm I’d managed about 370 km in my Discus 2a and found myself 40 km northeast of home, with plenty of altitude for what looked to be an easy final glide.

The right route home was a question. The direct one lies just west of Starr Mountain (an 11-mile-long ridge northeast of the airfield), keeping you in touch with the flatland and its friendly fields.  But all day long the wind had been just a bit east of south, which meant sink could be expected west of the ridge.

The right route thus seemed to lie just east of the ridge, popping west out into the flat valley via the gap cut by the Hiwassee River.  The catch here is that this route is all trees for about 9 miles north of the river gap.  But with 1200 ft over a conservative final glide at a time of day when thermals were weakening, I felt this should be no problem.

I reckoned the point of no return to be about 5 miles north of the gap – the last point at which a turn back north would allow a safe landing in an area of farm fields.  I’d lost a bit of my reserve height, but passed this point still with 800 ft over my final glide.   In about a minute I found trouble, in the form of reasonably smooth sink of 3 to 5 knots (on the netto).  I wanted to think it was temporary, but the sink persisted with only minor variations.

John Good with his Discus 2a in the Hiwassee

John Good with his Discus 2a in the Hiwassee

Without a safe option behind me, I pressed on – and the first thoughts of a water landing came into my mind.  I now realized the wind must have shifted west (it had, about half an hour earlier) and I was thus downwind of the ridge.  The last couple of miles north of the river were bad, and cancelled any chance of making the airfield (though it’s only 2.5 miles from the gap).  I reached the river 350 ft above it.

I was hoping I’d look west (downstream) and see an inviting field within reach, but nothing useful appeared – I still had more than a mile of trees in front of me.  I felt it should be possible to glide out above them, but this would mean flopping into whatever field appeared with no possibility of selecting a suitable one or setting up a normal landing.

Ahead was a smooth, straight stretch of river, plenty wide enough.  I had just a few seconds to conclude that this was now my best option.  I put out the landing gear, closed the air vents, opened the spoilers and dove to the upstream end of my chosen landing spot.  I made a point of closing the spoilers and flaring for the slowest possible touchdown.  The deceleration was strong, but not violent.  The nose of the glider plunged underwater, then popped to the surface.

For the moment, the glider was floating nicely in about 4 ft of water.  A gentle current carried me toward the south shore, and I was soon able to jump out of the cockpit (now filling with water – not as cold as I’d have expected for early April) and drag the Discus to shallow water 20 ft from shore.  The right wing was up; the left wing rested lightly on the surface.  Amazingly, the instruments stayed completely dry and were operating normally.  (I quickly shut them off – probably should have done so before landing.)

The next step was to get everything possible on shore.  First the batteries, parachute (now rather wet), and all loose cockpit items – then the horizontal tail, wingtips and canopy.  I tried making a call to the airfield (my wet cellphone still appeared to be working) but there is no coverage in this area.  I then went looking for the road that runs south of the river.  I soon learned that I’d landed next to a small island (Taylors Island) – but the branch of the river south of this is only about 6” deep and easy to wade across.

On shore I found the road and a parking area that would soon come in handy.  I was wondering how to summon help, but I need not have worried – someone driving north of the river had seen the glider and called 911.  Within a few minutes about 10 vehicles were in the parking area: ambulances, fire trucks, rescue trucks, police cars and a couple of “disaster buffs” who’d heard of the excitement via a scanner radio.

To their credit, the officials were willing to accept my report of no injuries and no damage – though this was clearly something of a letdown. The mood brightened when I asked for volunteers willing to get their feet wet helping retrieve the glider.  An eager crew of eight was soon assembled.  They explained that the retrieve ought to be done promptly, as a power station upstream might at any time release a slug of water that would raise the river level substantially.  (I had visions of my Discus being flushed into rapids downstream.)

Sarah and Jason Arnold (Chilhowee gliderport operators), along with numerous gliderport volunteers, had by now arrived with my trailer in tow.  So it was a rather easy job to disassemble the glider and carry the pieces about 100 yards from river to trailer.  The volunteers could not have done better – they were enthusiastic and strong, yet willing to take direction and able to use the right amount of care.  Everything made it back into the trailer without damage.  You would look long and hard to find a better set of emergency responders than in Polk County, Tennessee.

Monday was devoted to cleanup.  Careful examination showed no trace of any structural issues.  The wings appeared to have ingested close to zero water.  The fuselage of course had been quite wet, so I opened up all possible areas and set a blower going for several hours, first with the fuselage upright, then inverted.  Every control bearing and moving metal part was lubricated.  The parachute was opened, dried and sent out for repacking.  The plane was pronounced airworthy by Tuesday.

So what are the lessons?  To start with, it’s clear I should not have been on the east side of the ridge.  The wind indications throughout the flight said that would be the favored side, but only about a 30-degree westerly shift was necessary to change that.  And there’s simply no good way to escape from this area if the wind proves unfavorable.  I should not have put myself in a place where Plan A must work, or Plan B is a water landing.

The landing itself went well. Clearly this is an undesirable alternative, but much better than some others (certainly including the trees).  Some useful points:

  • Choose water that allows room for a slow, held-off landing
  • Choose water deep enough (probably at least 3 ft) to allow for the glider’s inevitable plunge without hitting anything
  • Choose water than allows a landing parallel – and reasonably close – to shore
  • Put the gear down
  • Close airvents
  • Switch off electrical power
  • Close spoilers before touchdown (flaps should probably be neutral)
  • Touch down as slowly as possible, with wings level
  • Get the glider into shallow water as soon as possible

If you really thought a water landing was likely, you’d probably have on board a kit that contained such items as a rope that could be used to drag the glider to shore and perhaps some inflatable flotation devices to ensure that the wings float clear of the water.

Best of all would be a plan that avoids any need for water landings.


Latest posts by John Good (see all)

  18 comments for “Rafting the Hiwassee

  1. Rob
    April 21, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    It’s nice to read a story in which those of us who live in or near “Deliverance” country are given credit for being more than Inbred Jeds. I’ve lived all over the world and the Deep South has in it some of the nicest and most able people I have ever met. I’ve flown over the area in the story several times in a powered plane and always got the willies because there is simply nowhere to put it should something go awry. My hat’s off to you for making the best of what could have been a bad situation and for saving both your butt and your airplane.

  2. Lars Groot GR
    April 22, 2013 at 1:48 am

    Why would you put the gear down, if i may ask?

  3. John Good
    April 22, 2013 at 9:32 am

    As I understand it, this is recommended by glider manufacturers and all those who’ve looked at the issue of glider water landings.
    It’s tempting to believe that with gear retracted a glider would skim neatly along the surface, until it settles gently in the water. But the shape of a glider’s fuselage doesn’t match that of anything actually designed to skim along the water (e.g. a seaplane, or a motorboat). Instead, it seems that the initial plunge below the surface is worse with the gear retracted.
    And the wheel is useful – both to offer some protection from unseen obstacles, and to keep the fuselage higher once shallow water is reached.

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:03 am

      Hey John: Frank Scarabino here in Seattle. First of all, long time no see how are you? Second, where do you get the info of the “plunge” being worse with gear up? We’ve always been taught in power that ditching a retract with gear down really pitches you forward. Certainly does with amphibs landing with the gear down. I’m at fscarabino@aol.com


  4. Herb Kilian
    April 22, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    John, you are a master story-teller, well done. You are now so apt at retrieving gliders in distress, you should make it your side business. I admired your work during a tree retrieve up the ridge of Sinking Creek Valley near New Castle where we celebrated with Polish sausage and beer the successful salvage of an LS-3. We ended up cutting down about 4 trees in the National Forest and – under your guidance – lowered the tree supported glider on ropes gently to the ground, unforgettable!

  5. John Murphy (SRK)
    April 22, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    John, Congrats on a successful “event”. You are now a member of the unique “Hiwassee River Glider Club” as the second glider to land there. Back in the late 1970’s a Ka-8 landed in the river and a group retrieve was organized like yours. We had to bounce the fuselage along an ancient Indian weir to extract it. The Ka-8 was restored and later flew, known effectionally as “Aqua Eight”.

    • jj
      April 22, 2013 at 6:04 pm

      Well done. So, given the choice (nil wind, good approach etc etc), should one land up stream or down stream), not that 1 or 2 knots of flat current wold make much difference. The trade-off is water current on impact, and maybe? less nose diving? J

      • Herb Kilian
        April 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm

        Upstream, but only if you’re without a paddle!

  6. Ron Clarke
    April 22, 2013 at 9:08 pm


    As what one might predict another masterful, graphic and colorful description from your keyboard – capturing what for many would probably have been a few minutes of sheer terror before splashdown.

    You managed to make it sound more like ” Cruising down to the river on a Sunday afternoon ” .

    Some masterful airmanship which hopefully you won’t make a habit of .

    Ron (ZA)

    Showing 1 – 10 of 11

    Previous Next it into a ” cruising down to the river on a

  7. Oscar
    April 23, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Well don John – glad it turned out OK

  8. John Good
    April 23, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Other things being equal, no doubt landing downstream is better in theory.
    But if the current is strong enough to be an issue, you can expect some significant post-landing problems.

  9. April 23, 2013 at 1:24 pm


    The vertical distance between the main gear and the cg is significantly less in most gliders than that in most airplanes. The shorter lever arm in gliders means that the torque tending to flip a glider forward when the gear contacts the water is much less than that in an airplane. The advantages of a gear up landing in a glider, pointed out by John in a previous reply, outweigh the relatively benign increase in the tendency to nose forward during a gear up water landing in a glider.

  10. Jo Stricklin
    April 24, 2013 at 8:49 am

    You are right about our Polk co. responders and firemen, they are the best ever..

  11. Sandy Snyder
    April 24, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    About the Hiwassee — John wisely chose the most benign stretch to land; below the rapids (class 1 and 2) and upriver of the sturdy US Highway 411 bridge. The fact that the river was “turned off” also helped. I’m a recently licensed pilot, with much more experience in whitewater than air. We train beginning paddlers on that stretch of river — can you imagine their thoughts if they had encountered John and his plane?

  12. Chip Bearden
    April 25, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    Nice job of keeping your head as well as for the write up, John. Kudos for giving the rest of us the benefit of your experience. I happened to be flying out of Chilhowee the day the Ka8 splashed down many years ago. At first we couldn’t believe it was a glider in the river but then there was some radio chatter about it. :)

  13. Frauke Elber
    April 28, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Hi John, do I have to call you “Admiral” too? Looks like you learned from “Sully’s Hudson landing.
    One more story for your soaring adventure book.
    PS I am really glad everything went that well

  14. Frauke Elber
    June 7, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Hi John, we were at Chilhowee over the Memorial Day weekend. Sandy showed me where you “watered”. I must say you did a master piece. I too surfed the Hiwassee River, though further upstream and over the rapids with Sandy, an experienced river rat. For me it was a first and never thought I could do it. It was fun and I survived it in one piece. But going down the river I visualized the last minutes of your flight. It gave me the shivers.

Comments are closed.