Sky Soaring

Gliding on Plumes of Desert Air

While vacationing in the Southwest last summer, I decided to follow my adventurous streak and take a stationary glider ride — a piloted ride.

Upon walking over a gravel runway to the open glider, I was put into the front of the two seats and was told I would soon be doing the flying. ("You're talking to the wrong passenger," I thought.) After me, the pilot got in and pulled a rigid fiberglass windshield over us. (You never feel any wind while aloft.) We were then tethered to a small plane that dragged us across the gravel. The gravel was squeaking so loud and long through the flimsy glider's body that I wondered when we would ever make it off the ground. At last we eased up into the air.

We were towed to 3,000 feet. I could not look at anything whatsoever for a while. Job One was to hold my composure and not get the airsickness the reassuring pilot kept talking about, especially during steep turns to come. The glider would push through the wavy air and swoop from side to side, and I would look down at the instruments and think, "Soon I will have the nerve to look around. But not now. There's no rush." If you can believe it, we had no parachutes. Just reflecting on this fact was enough to give me some pretty jaggy adrenaline spikes.

I gradually began to look out at the desert below, the mountains, the airport, and the plane towing us. I kept trying to get slow deep breaths but it was a while until they came easily. I looked at our wing tips and gradually began to gain some confidence in the strength of those all-too-light-and-bowing wings.

Then the pilot said, "Okay. Break us free." (gulp) "Pull that knob in front of you. You will hear a snap when the cable disengages."

"Uh ... do I pull it hard or gradually?"

"It doesn't matter. Just pull."

Now, when I had previously done such a "breakaway pull" on the DareDevil Dive ride at Great America a few years ago, I immediately experienced the greatest terror I have ever felt in my life, before or since. I was pretty sure this wouldn't be as bad, but I didn't know. So I pulled. But I couldn't look.

I was sure that we would go into a dive from that instant, despite what I had been told in advance, but our nose didn't even dip as it does on a released hang glider. Instead, we started lifting even more, and actually got up above the tow plane. I looked at the meter that showed the rate of rise or sink, and we were going up at 200 feet a minute. This was good because I had been told that when the glider flies in still air, it descends at 100 feet a minute. So we had some kind of good ratio going there.

I had asked the pilot before the flight when it was going to get really fun in the sky. He said "when a thermal takes us up at about 900 feet a minute." As I watched, the vertical speed meter went to 300 ... 400 ... 600 ... and then got over 900 feet a minute.

And that was indeed some real stomach-disorienting fun!

Well, you know what they say about things that go up. Soon we hit the edge of the thermal and began clocking on the downward side. In about 15 seconds we were falling — excuse me — descending — at 600 feet a minute. But we were so far up in the sky that it didn't matter. Yeah, you could get bumped pretty hard on terra firma at that rate, but we were far from Earth.

So, we began to find thermals, ride them up, then come off them and ride down the sinks. We got up to 6,000 feet, 3,000 above the altitude where we had been released. When the pilot finally, told me to take over the flying, I didn't mind. It was easy. Circle down and get lift, then pull back and up until you start to stall. Bank to the side with pedals and stick. Roll back down. You want me to give you a ride sometime? (As if!) Finally, it was time to come in. The pilot took over. As we approached the airfield, I noticed that we were descending at the old familiar 600 feet per minute. I won't tell you I didn't get nervous and wonder whether or not the pilot might be also, but obviously we made it down fine.

Then the sign-up guys asked me if I wanted to go on an acrobatic version of the flight, with barrel rolls and front loops. I politely declined.

And honestly, friends, I'm done. Those were thrills enough for this boy.

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