Small planes scare me and the Washington Monument makes my knees shake, but I've always wanted to fly a glider, a graceful, motorless plane, sailing on the currents in the air.
It has an aura of romance, exhilaration and freedom. Much like the feeling I had at 13 when I dreamed of being whisked off on horseback by Dennis Morgan and his band of Riffs, singing "The Desert Song."
So when Jim Kellett, one of my colleagues, mentioned that he was a licensed glider instructor and invited me to take a demonstration flight, I swear I heard hooves pounding.
Jim started flying sailplanes in 1965 and within six months earned his pilot's license and bought a plane. "I've always been a flying freak," he smiles."It's what I call my Peter Pan fantasy."
He teaches on weekends at the Warrenton Soaring Center, where you can also rent or buy a sailplane, rent a parking spot for it or get a tow.
Since gliders have no engine, they have to be pulled into the air, usually by a single-engine plane. Once there, though, they use the natural energy in the atmosphere to sustain a flight, sometimes for hours.
For instance, a sailplane can climb by using rising air currents such as "thermals," columns of hot air released by the ground, or waves shaped like those at the beach, or the updraft along a ridge.The distance record for a single flight in a sailplane is 1,000 miles.
Grounded, a sailplane is like a pelican, ungainly and out of proportion. It's so low to the ground you have to climb down to get in. Its wing is elongated, its tail exaggerated and its body bulges in front. Yet, a fully loaded trainer weighs only 1,100 pounds and balances easily on its single wheel. And, like a pelican, once airborne, it takes on beauty and grace and amazing stability.
Jim popped open the plastic canopy over the trainer's cockpit and called me over. "Let's go over the instruments and controls while we wait."
There were only four instruments on the panel: a compass, an air-speed indicator, an altutude meter and a dial that tells whether you're climbing or dropping. A fifth "instrument" lay coiled on the nose, one end tied to the air-intake tube. It was a piece ofstring.
"That's the most sophisticated and demanding instrument you have," Jim said. "No matter what you're doing, even turning, that yaw string should stand straight back toward you."
The controls, too, seemed simple: Pedals to move the rudder, a control stick and a handle for the air brakes. Moving the stick to illustrate, Jim said, "To turn right, you push the right pedal and move the stick right simultaneously. To turn left, reverse it. To gain speed, push the stick forward and drop the nose. To slow down, pull back." Simply, the actions of the controls change the shape of the wing or tail and, thus, the plane's reaction to the atmosphere.
James Kranda, president of the center, joined us about then. The hardest things to learn, he said, are to think in three dimensions and to be always thinking ahead, anticipating, rather than waiting to react.
Finally it was our turn, and Jim motioned me into the front seat and told me tighten my seat harness as much as I could stand. "You'll be a lot more comfortable if you're not bouncing around." I tugged at the hip and shoulder straps until I couldn't wiggle.
We ran though a checklist, hooked up the tow rope, got the ready signal from the tow plane and went whooshing down the runway. The light glider was off the ground before the tow plane had gotten to take-off speed.
As we climbed, Jim told me to scan the horizon, to make a habit of looking all around. "Keep oriented to the field. Look for natural landmarks, for other aircraft and for birds."
"Yes. They're great at finding thermals. When you see a hawk hanging in the sky, you can bet he's riding a thermal and you can head right for him."
Don't they scoot before you get there?"
"Not unless you come in from above or behind like an attacker. I've flown wingtip to wingtip with birds. They'll sit there, just off your wing, and cock their heads around -- I think they have swivel necks -- and kind of look at you like 'Hey, brother, aren't you a big breed.'"
At 3,000 feet we released the tow rope. Suddenly we were free, alone with the light and the clouds, with the ship and the unseen air currents and with the earth so far below.
Sitting there, strapped so tightly to the seat that only my arms and legs could move, I felt an incredible but strangely solemn sense of release.
There was sound. "Listen," Jim said, and I became alert to a persistent whistle as the air slipped past the canopy. "You can tell the airspeed by the sound of the slipstream. I've flown for hours by that sound."
Jim is what Kranda calls "connected." He's plugged in to all his senses, totally aware of his plane and his environment, taking clues from everywhere and sorting, analyzing and using them to fly. The compleat pilot.
Hour after hour of practice makes the handling of the controls second nature, so his mind is free to be "connected."
At Jim's direction, I took over the controls and practiced flying level. I soon learned that you can't hold the stick and pedals still, because the plane is not still.
Then I did a series of right and left turns, trying to make each one smooth and controlled. Once I pushed the pedal too early and the plane skidded, according to the yaw string and Jim. Another time, I froze during a turn and we went into a steep bank, headed for a roll, but is corrected easily.
My confidence in the plane and in myself was growing.I thought I heard music in the distance.
We were moving toward a ridge that rose, alone, out of the surrounding farmland; and I was holding us in a soft circle when I sensed a new motion.
It was a push. I felt it first in my seat, then it shot up into my stomach and raced through my head to the tips of my hair. It was sensational. s
"Hey, we're climbing," I shouted. "We're climbing."
"Check your instrument," Jim suggested.
Confirmed. We were climbing, spiraling slowly upward, pulled by a force we could not see or control, only cling to.
I was laughing and squealing and clapping when I heard Jim say sharply, "Tighten it up a little."
Tighten what up? Who? Who's flying this thing anyway? The answer was "no one." Stable in its turn, the plane had flown itself, pulled by the thermal until something maybe my unconscious stomping on the pedals, slipped us out of it.
We made several tries, but could never find more than a piece of that thermal again. We'd had it and I'd lost it. I was feeling pretty dejected. t
To cheer me up, Jim said, "You felt it. That's great. You should feel it before you read it. I've known pilots who've been flying for years and never been able to feel that surge."
By then, our altitude was getting low and raindrops had begun to trace the slipstream back along the cockpit, so we headed for the field.
I crawled out of the cockpit, exhausted by the fluctuations in emotions I had felt. One I had not felt, though, was fear.
That would come weeks later with a gusty wind raking the runway, shoving us sideways and up and down as we turned in over the trees to land. I couldn't close my eyes or swallow until the instructor had us safely on the ground, dead center of the runway.
It didn't shake my enthusiasm so much as sober it with a dash of realism. Because I know somewhere up there is another thermal to set my heart pumping and my adrenalin racing. And a broad-shouldered waver to surf. And Dennis Morgan riding into the sunset with his band of Riffs.