“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Soaring Over Alabama

This is not right. I have a death grip on the control stick between my legs, the ground below is rushing towards me and there is no engine sound coming from my plane. In normal circumstances these factors would be a recipe for disaster.

From the back seat I hear a calm voice say “Pull back on the stick.” I ease the stick back and the sailplane gently climbs into the clear blue sky. Wow! What a rush! This is my first time to ever pilot any kind of aircraft and the glider plane’s almost instantaneous response to my touch on the stick is thrilling.

I’m soaring 8000 feet over the green foothills of the Appalachians in north Alabama and loving every minute of it. I swivel my head left and right and take in the expanse of forests, fields and undulating hills stretching for miles in both directions. The sunny sky is clear, a few puffy clouds cast faint shadows on the hills below. Off to the right I see the airplane which just towed us into the sky banking down to return to Moontown Airport, a tiny grass airstrip just east of Huntsville. That plane, a Piper Pawnee, is a muscular ex-cropduster that easily towed this light Blanik sailplane up to 6000 feet before I pulled the lever and released the tow cable.

The takeoff was stressful. Although my instructor, Mike Baker, had given me extensive basic flight instruction and orientation on the glider plane, the fact remains that I am a total novice as a pilot and jockeying the plane around while being towed by the Pawnee required all my concentration and a deft touch on the stick. By the time we reached 6000 feet I was already sweating profusely. And it took a supreme leap of faith to release that cable. No matter how much confidence I have in Mike and this glider plane, it was still scary to let go of the only thing with power and trust your life to the vagaries of invisible air currents and updrafts. But once I pulled the lever and released the cable, everything changed. The first couple of seconds were tense as I held my breath hoping the sailplane would not plummet nose first into the red Alabama dirt below but the plane shuddered a little in the Pawnee’s turbulence and then—magically—regained its composure and we were suddenly free and gracefully sweeping through the sky, silently soaring in the rising air.

Now I’m scribing graceful arcs through the sky, banking the Blanik to one side and the other, gently swooping back and forth, a fluid ballet. The plane responds to my touch and I’m feeling pretty good about my piloting abilities. Mike tells me to put the plane into a shallow climb until I feel it start to stall, then push hard on the stick. I point the nose upward, wait for the telltale flutter of the stall and push the stick forward. The plane noses over and gathers speed in a smooth noiseless rush. I’m feeling comfortable, I expected this to be a high adrenalin adventure but the only way I can describe it is calming--no irritating engine drone, no scanning of oil pressure or engine temperature or RPMs. The controls in the Blanik are simple; a stick, control pedals, an air speed indicator, a string attached just ahead of the canopy to indicate wind direction, and a fore-and-aft ballast adjuster. That’s about it, just pure flying.

I’m feeling pretty cocky about my skills when Mike asks if I’d like him to take the controls from the back seat and show me a few moves. Sounds good to me and he takes over. My cockiness instantly evaporates. He wheels the plane into a tight turn, the left wing nearly perpendicular to the ground and then pulls the stick right and the plan tilts lazily over on the opposite wing. He executes a series of dance-like moves that would be the envy of any aerobatic pilot and I realize how amateurish and tentative my flying had been. My transitions were jerky and abrupt, his are smooth as syrup. He climbs nearly vertical into the sun, pushes the nose over and eases the plane into a silky downward spiral. I obviously have a long way to go to reach any level of competence in this sport.

But that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm and I eagerly retake the controls. For another hour or so I swoosh over Alabama, carving wide turns, gaining and losing altitude. And then it’s time to land. I spy the grass runway a couple of miles away, line up and begin my descent. I consistently keep the plane too high-- I gotta tell you, landing a plane without an engine is nerve wracking. I definitely do not want to be short of the runway—how will I regain altitude to avoid plowing up some farmer’s field with a very expensive sailplane? Mike repeatedly tells me to lower my glidepath, which I finally do. At the last minute he takes the stick and we skim across the grass runway, finally settling to a halt.

I am ecstatic. I open the canopy and pump my fist. This is much better than I had ever hoped. Where else can a rank beginner take total control of a plane and experience the thrill of flying in one day?

In Memoriam: Mike Baker, my instructor, was killed shortly after this flight in the crash of a MEDEVAC helicopter in Colbert County, Alabama.

No comments:

Post a Comment