I'm not afraid of flying. It's just that it's hard to get excited about it when you're strapped down in a tight, steamy cockpit. The sweat is pouring down your face. The window is stuck. And all you can think about is throwing up.
"You feel us goin' up? C'mon baby! We're goin' up, we're goin' up . . . Looks like we got ourselves a little thermal!"
Bill Bogie, a soaring enthusiast from Great Falls, was talking to the wind. He'd been quiet on the way up, keeping his eyes on the Piper Cub towplane. Now, at 3,000 feet, he was chattering away to anyone and anything that would listen. Which was mostly clouds. At this point in my maiden sailplane voyage my head was in my lap.
We had just found a thermal - the great challenge of soaring. If we latched onto one of these rising bodies of warm air we could gain altitude and glide around the sky for hours. Without it we'd drift back down to earth in a hurry. Bogie hadn't expected to find one on this partly-cloudy day, but a funny thing happened when the towplane dropped us off - we didn't sink. So now here we were, swooping around in the sky like a drunken buzzard, trying to capture that elusive column of air.
"You little devil, you tried to push away from me." (Bogie, talking to the wind again.)
"C'mon Bill, let's do a little flying here. By God, there she is! Hang on, we're gonna drive into her . . ." (Bogie, to himself.)
Thank God. We lost it. We are sinkin fast now - about 500 feet a minute. At 1,000 feet Ski Liberty Mountain is in our faces and getting bigger and bigger. We get no help from lift, but altitude should give us room enought to make the landing field.
Bogie points the nose down. "We gotta get out of this damn stuff." We are going about 60 miles an hour - 10 miles faster than our speed in the thermal - because "If you're gonna make a mistake you make it fast. You don't make it slow. Slow is death."
We'd been flying 25 minutes.
The landing was the best part. We shot along at 60 miles an hour about three feet off the ground, fast and quiet, for half a mile. A glider has one big wheel in the middle - not three like the big jets you're used to flying - and you might think you're going to tip oer. But you don't. When you hit the wings stay level and you dump and roll along without teetering.
Back on the ground. I felt sick. "Everyone feels the same thing," said Mike Barrett, an engineer from Frederick who was duty offficer of the day. "It's the difference between being a passenger and being a pilot. I always insist on my passengers taking dramamine."
Bogie flew bombers in World Warr II, But even he felt anxious the first time he went up in a glider. "The first time I flew I said, 'What in the hell am I doing in this thing?' I've seen experienced jet pilots be just as confused after their first light as you were.
"Soaring is just a totally different experience. It can surprise people. Things come awfully fast in a glider."
Bogie and Barrett are members of the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association, which has members in the District, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware. About a hundred members are from the Washington area. MASA has its own airfield, the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Center at Fairfield, Pa., about 10 miles from Gettysburg and an hour-and-a-half drive from Washington.
About half the MASA mambers fly out of the new soaring center. The others fly out of Frederick, Md. Bogie used to fly out of Frederick, too, until he was coming up in a thermal one day and saw a Concorde flying 500 feet above him.
You have to be a real idiot to get hurt soaring, all the pilots say, and they give you the old line about how you're in greater danger driving to the field than you are gliding. Every glider pilot is rated and licensed by the Federal Aviaion Administration, and must renew the license every two years.
From two to six people die saoring every year - a much lower fatality rate, the pilots point out, than in hang-gliding. Most blame carelessness: the pilot who fails to make a cautious preflight check, a midair collision in a competition when pilots are racing toward the same thermal, stall spins from failure to maintain proper air speed when landing.
Soaring involves a lot of waiting. You wait for the weather (the best thermals are in the afternoon). You wait to be towed up. If you don't own your own glider, you wait to share club planes.
It doesn't seem to bother the people at the Soaring Center. After all, said one enthusiast, you have to wait around for the chairlift when you go skiing. And when you go sailing there's all that time you have to spend cleaning the boat out and loading the gin-and-tnics. . .
Besides, waiting around is part of the appeal. It balances out the hectic run of events in the air. Things come awfully fast in a glider.