We are aloft, gliding silently, high above the green landscape. “You guys seem to be finding lift. I’m getting low, I think I’ll join you.” We hear Jason, another club member, over the radio.
“We still show six knots here, come join,” replies Dale from the back seat of our glider, letting Jason know that there is still lift, and that we’re climbing at about 600 feet per minute.
“There he is, joining our thermal below us,” I say, spotting the other aircraft several thousand feet below. It is great how everybody reports where they found lift, and invites others to join in the fun.
“Got him,” replies Dale.
What a treat! Here we are flying gliders over a mile high, silently circling in a rising column of air known as a thermal. Another glider has joined us and we do a silent pirouette. It is amazing to fly so close to another aircraft. The first time I experienced being this close to another glider, it was hard for me to get used to. From my experience with powered aircraft (when I was a teen, about 100 years ago), we were taught to stay away from other airplanes, but with the gliders you are often flying near others so that you may take advantage of the lift they have found.
I adjust our turn by banking the glider left and right, making our circle tighter and then looser. I am trying to stay in the lift but remain a safe distance from Jason, who is flying the other glider. Keeping him at our three o’clock position seems to offer the best photo opportunity and safety.
“I am getting some great pictures back here,” says Dale.
“I’ll try to keep him pointed off the wingtip,” I reply, watching Jason and adjusting our turn.
I need to pinch myself to see if this is real. It’s hard to believe we are circling with another glider in close proximity and gaining altitude, all with no engine. The fun and challenge of trying to stay aloft never gets old. When I first started gliding, it seemed a mystery that some of the people could stay in the air for so long, but now finding lift is getting to be second nature. We stay in the thermal, circling until it loses its strength at about 10,000 feet, all the while keeping the other glider in sight and positioned off of our wingtip so as to prevent a midair collision. I move the stick left and our glider levels out to fly northward in search of more lift. The rule of thumb for us is that we can glide about five miles for every thousand feet of altitude above ground. At our present height that should allow us to travel 40 miles are more.
* * * * *
Today is one of those summer days where there are no clouds to guide us to thermals, so we need to just feel around. After some experience, you start to become part of the glider, and if you listen, it’ll tell you where to find lift. When you feel a kick in the pants, wait a couple of seconds to see if the thermal is wide enough to circle in. Sometimes it’ll raise a wingtip, pointing towards the rising air. You simply turn that way and — voila! — you are going up. Of course, there are the more obvious places to find lift, like under puffy clouds if there are any, but as summer wears on, the days of easy lift become less and less frequent. If you can’t find any, you will be back on the ground in 20 minutes.
As we silently slip northward, green and yellow fields checkerboard the ground for miles, crisscrossed by gravel roads and paved highways, while small towns dot the ground every so often. I relax and enjoy the cruise. The less you control the aircraft the better, as any change in flight path uses energy, and soaring is all about energy conservation. It is surreal to see the world from this vantage point, and know that you are in total control of the aircraft. What an unbelievable feeling of freedom!
In order to grab the joystick, we have built a special cuff that is strapped to my arm. I fly with another pilot in the back since I can’t get a license due to my disability, and relying on adaptations to control the glider would make it unsafe for me to be in the air alone anyhow. Soaring is something that is best enjoyed with a friend, and there are no shortage of pilots volunteering to ride in the back seat. Sometimes I feel bad for the back seat pilot. I fly real gentle … like an eagle ferrying its chick … and probably lull them to sleep at times with the mild turns.
Once airborne I’m experiencing total freedom. In the glider I am a pilot, no longer the guy in the wheelchair. I’m concentrating on finding lift, constantly trying to hear and feel what the aircraft is telling me. We are silently sailing the sky, miles above those on the ground. I totally forget that I am a quadriplegic. Cars creep along at a snail’s pace like dinky toys, farmers work their land, everybody on the ground carries on with their lives, oblivious to your silent perch.
The right wing raises quickly, I bank the glider right and we feel the lift shoot us skyward. Circling for several turns, we gain as much height as we can, then silently move on.
“How long have we been up?” I ask.
“Nearly three hours,” Dale replies.
“It’s been a great flight. Shall we head home?”
“Whenever you want, it’s your flight.”
I shoulder check for other gliders and bank to the right, leveling out on track to enjoy the scenery of the long smooth glide back to the airstrip. The beauty of it all seems so surreal. A grin will be chiseled onto my face for weeks.
What a day!