Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways…Chardonnay in one hand…chocolate in the other…body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, screaming “WOO HOO, What a Ride!”This is an anniversary diary. It is the 35th anniversary of an accomplishment by a woman, Sabrina "Sib" Jackintell, that has not been surpassed, and may very well never be matched or exceeded.
- author unknown, but often attributed to Hunter S. Thompson
Women do not get the recognition they deserve, and to compete in a male dominated world, have to be twice as good at everything. Barbara Jordan once said, “Life is too large to hang out a sign: For Men Only.” I am an admirer of women who are smart, strong, competent and accomplished. I was married to a woman like that for 55 years, but she flew west in 2011.
This story is about one of those women. Sabrina “Sib” Jackintell died two years ago at the age of 71, just two weeks before her 72nd birthday.
Follow me through the orange rotor cloud for more....
I first met Sabrina Jackintell in the early 1980s at Black Forest Gliderport, which no longer exists. How Black Forest Gliderport came to shut down is a separate story for another time. It is a story of greed, politics, taxes and land developers. The Black Forest Gliderport story is another cautionary tale that needs to be told. I had gone out to Black Forest on vacation, to a “wave camp.” Black Forest had a package deal where guests could stay at a rustic bunkhouse across the road, hang out at the field, and rent gliders for instruction or just fun soaring. Pilots from every walk of life came to Black Forest for a fun week or weekend of soaring.
More serious pilots came to try their hand at ‘flying the wave,’ the challenging and potentially dangerous mountain wind coming across Pike’s Peak from the west. When conditions are right, the wind creates a powerful updraft called a mountain wave, sometimes referred to as a ‘standing wave.’ Thermals and ridge soaring will only go to lower altitudes. The wind crossing a ridge at right angles dips into the valley and rebounds. When conditions are just right, the wave may be four times the height of the mountain that created it. Wave flying is a test of flying skill and willingness to take ultimate risks. Some wave flight attempts have been fatal.
One morning several of us were sitting around the office at Black Forest when a rather attractive woman walked in. One of the other pilots exclaimed incredulously, “That’s Sabrina Jackintell.” I had never met her, but had seen her picture in magazines. She plopped down in a chair and joined in the conversation. Sib was warm, friendly, witty, and unassuming. After she got to know us, she invited four of us over to her house for a spaghetti supper. After the dishes were put away, she got out several photo albums. We spent the next several hours looking at pictures and talking about mountain flying. When she talked about the joys and dangers of mountain flying, she was in her element.
Next evening, Sib rounded up several of us and we all went into Colorado Springs for dinner. First, we went to what was supposed to be an authentic Mexican restaurant. Sib called the manager over, grilling him about his food and whether he used frozen. Not satisfied with his answers, she thanked him for his time and said, “Let’s go guys. I know a good Japanese restaurant that uses nothing but fresh food.” She walked out the door leading the rest of us like a bunch of ducklings. We had Japanese that night.
What was so special about this woman? When she was a student at the University of Florida, she took up modeling and was in a number of advertisements, mostly clothing. At the age of nineteen, she was on the cover of la Vogue. It was not her last magazine cover. She also graced the cover of aviation magazines several times.
Just a pretty face? Far more than that. In 1965, at the age of 25, she set the women’s land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats. She was the first woman to drive a land vehicle over three hundred miles an hour in Art Arfons famous jet car, the Green Monster. It was an unofficial record, because to be official, runs must be made both ways through the timing traps within an hour. After the first run, the Green Monster developed mechanical problems and she was unable to make the return run within the time window. If memory serves correctly, her one way speed that day was 317 miles per hour. A few days later her friend Betty Skelton drove the Cyclops, another of Art Arfon’s jet cars, both ways through the timing traps, giving Betty the official women’s land speed record at 277.62 miles per hour. Regardless, Sib was the first woman to drive a land vehicle over three hundred miles an hour, with official timing.
Sabrina Jackintell became a legend in soaring. When going through her photo albums, she pointed out several photos of her out in the desert with her glider. Like every glider pilot, she had to make the occasional off-field landing. If there was no one to chase her with the trailer, she walked to the nearest road and hitched a ride. Keep in mind this was long before cell phones. If you wanted to make a phone call, you had to find a pay phone. If she could not find anyone who could come get her, she would hitchhike or catch a bus back to Black Forest, get her trailer, go back and retrieve her glider. She logged a total of over 4,000 miles cross country flight in a glider. That figure boggles the mind of any glider pilot.
As we looked at her picture albums, she recounted one particular flight while trying to set a long-distance record for gliders. Filing an FAA flight plan in a glider is an exercise in futility, because without power, they cannot follow a predictable flight path. She found herself out over the desert and lift from thermals was very weak, and lift finally fizzled out. She got down to a hundred feet, running out of altitude and ideas rapidly. If she landed out in the middle of nowhere, she could easily die in the desert. No one knew where she was. At one hundred feet and losing altitude, she said she “started bawling like a baby.” At that moment she felt the gentle puff of a thermal rising off the desert floor. She circled into the thermal and gained several thousand feet of altitude. Using that stored energy like money in the bank, she set out on her heading once again, landing safely at the end of the day, another soaring achievement goal reached.
There is a special award for high altitude flight in a glider, called the Robert Symons Wave Memorial. The memorial award consists of a beautiful wall plaque and a “Lennie Pin.” Few pilots have ever seen a Lennie pin, much less been awarded one. The Lennie pin has images of one, two, or three white lenticular clouds, nicknamed “Lennies,” set against a blue background with a silver rim. The lenticular symbol represents the unique and beautiful lenticular [lens shaped] clouds that only form in mountain waves when conditions are just right. They appear to remain stationary in the standing wave. What happens is the leading edge grows, while the back edge dissipates, giving the appearance of remaining in one place despite the strong wind. Sometimes they form in a stack, one above the other, like pancakes. This short video shows a variety of beautiful lenticular clouds in mountain waves. When pilots see lenticular clouds, they know the wave is working.
One Lennie represents an officially recorded glider flight in a mountain wave to an altitude between 25,000-35,000 feet.
Two-Lennies are awarded for an officially recorded glider flight in a mountain wave that reaches an altitude between 35,000-40,000 feet.
Three-Lennies are awarded for a mountain wave flight above 40,000 feet in a glider. Only 12 three-Lennie awards have ever been issued to individuals. Of the twelve three-Lennie award recipients, there is only one woman: Sabrina Jackintell. Sib set the absolute world altitude record for glider flight by a woman on Valentine’s Day, 1979.
Thirty-five years ago today, in a flight lasting three hours and eighteen minutes, Sabrina Jackintell flew her Astir CS glider to 41,460 feet, surfing the long-winged sailplane up the mountain wave flowing over Pike’s Peak.
That flight did not come without a price. She suffered from hypoxia on that flight and a subsequent flight. When above approximately 34,000 feet, the oxygen system must go to positive pressure. Even at 100% oxygen, there is not enough atmospheric pressure at that altitude for the lungs to absorb oxygen. A pressurized system forces oxygen into the lungs under pressure, but the pilot has to exhale forcibly to empty air from the lungs, which is opposite to natural instinct. Positive pressure breathing requires effort. As a result, some pilots slow their respiration or even forget to breathe. If the oxygen system fails or malfunctions at 40,000 feet, the pilot has between five and ten seconds of useful consciousness to solve the problem and fix it.
At that altitude, at the edge of the stratosphere, it is cold. Temperatures can drop to lower than -60° Fahrenheit (-51 C). Hypothermia is a life threatening danger, in addition to the risk of hypoxia. Gliders don’t have heaters, and in order to keep the canopy from frosting over, pilots keep the air vent open, allowing outside air to blow in.
I am grateful to Jim Foreman. Jim was one of the instructors and tow plane pilots at Black Forest. We have been discussing Sib and her flights, and this story would not be complete without his photographs and input. Jim was her official observer on the record flight and explains what happened:
“When she landed, she said she had difficulty lowering the [landing] gear and operating the dive brakes [on her Astir CS glider]. Then she found she had difficulty walking and seemed confused, a quick check gave strong indications of a stroke so I took her to the emergency room. After about ten hours of tests, they said they could find nothing wrong with her except low oxygen levels. The ship still had oxygen pressure and the regulator was checked and found to be operating properly. She was fully recovered in about 24 hours.”Jim took the photo [at the top of this page] of her in the helmet and mask about three days after the record flight. On a later flight to 38,000 feet she encountered similar in-flight symptoms. Once again, she could not lower the [landing] gear or operate the dive brakes. Jim says,
“Her voice sounded slurred over the radio. The (radio operator) on the desk called some of us instructors to see what we could do to help her. Someone suggested that she turn loose of the stick and try to lower the gear with both hands which she was able to do. Then she unlocked the dive brakes to where she could move them with her left hand. She landed without incident and while she was very cold, her temperature was 96° F, but she insisted that she felt OK. Her face was symmetrical but we feared a stroke so we put her on portable oxygen and took her to the Emergency Room. Her blood oxygen was 92% which is the lowest it should go before problems. But since we’d had her on 100% while transporting her, they thought that might have raised it. All the time she insisted that she felt OK.Everyone who operated the radio at the front desk paid very close attention to how pilots sounded as their voices crackled over the radio. If the voice wasn't quite right, the instructors or radio operators would advise the pilot to come back down. "Advise" may be too gentle a term. Make that "ordered." When pilots landed from a wave flight, there was always an instructor to do a quick check of their physical and mental condition. If the pilot did not look or sound right to their trained eyes, that pilot could expect a quick trip to the emergency room.
"They ran a lot of tests but found nothing to indicate a stroke and by that time, she was speaking normally and had good strength in both arms. We shipped the A-14 regulator to the shop in Denver where it had been overhauled only a few months before and they reported that it functioned properly. She still had 800 psi in the tank and the regulator was still set on 100% pressure breathing when she landed. She had pulled her mask off when she was down to about 10,000 feet but was speaking through it when she called on the radio. (The regulator proved to have been functioning properly). Switching to 100% pressure breathing on the A-14, one has to physically exhale to empty the lungs so the next breath will come in. We found that some people would simply get tired and stop breathing for a period of time, especially when they were coming back down. That’s why we always told people to switch off 100% pressure breathing when they got below 25 000 feet. Since in Sib’s case her system was still set on 100% pressure breathing and she had so much oxygen left, it was surmised that she simply wasn’t breathing regularly and that might have been the problem. Many of her symptoms were what happens when someone isn’t getting enough oxygen It was concluded that due to her being so cold, she was approaching hypothermia at which respiration rates slow down which meant she might not have been getting adequate oxygen. She insisted that she was OK but felt very tired and wanted to sleep more than usual for the next week or so.
“All the instructors at Black Forest had received extensive training in high altitude problems at the Air Force Academy and knew how to recognize symptoms [when there were] problems."
Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) achievement badges were established in the 1930s. They are awarded for internationally recognized levels of achievement in soaring flight.
To earn an FAI Silver Badge three elements are required. Silver Altitude is a 1,000-meter (3,281-foot) altitude gain above the lowest point of the glider’s flight. The Silver Duration is a five-hour flight time after being released from the tow plane. Silver Distance requires a 50-km (31.07-mile) cross-country flight.
The FAI Gold Badge requires two elements. Gold Altitude is a 3,000-meter (9,843-foot) altitude gain above the lowest point of the flight after being released from the tow plane. Gold Distance requires a cross-country flight of at least 300-km (186.42-miles).
She loved entertaining friends at her home. I have first hand knowledge of that. She lived at the northeast corner of Black Forest Gliderport. If you stopped by her house, you never knew what astronaut or famous pilot you might run into. Her dinner table and living room was an oasis of tales of adventure and flying.
Besides being an adventurer, Sib had a quieter more artistic dimension too. She collected antiques, and made a prodigious number of beautiful quilts. She gave most of her quilts away. I have seen some of her quilts and it was easy to see why some of them won prizes in quilter’s competitions. She loved animals, and playing with her dogs was a big part of her life at home.
After Black Forest Gliderport closed for good in the 1980s, she moved back to Florida, where she continued flying, switching from soaring to aerobatics.
Jim Foreman talked with her on the phone a few months before her death in January 2012. Her health had begun to fail. She had managed to break her leg as well as some bones in her hand. That she had broken things does not surprise me in the least. She developed osteoporosis as she got older, which contributed to her death.
Here is a link to Jim Foreman’s web site. Check it out. The Old Storyteller is another who has lived life to its fullest, and he is clearly not done yet. I get at least one email a day from him, often with photographs, a joke, or a yarn about one of his countless adventures. Jim took the two high-quality photographs of Sabrina used in this dairy and was generous in sharing them.
The photographs of the Lennie and badge awards were taken by photographer Jim Payne, and are used with permission, courtesy of the Soaring Society of America.