Flying has always fascinated me ever since I was a little boy. Recently in the London Times I saw an article about a 14-year-old girl who had finally soloed a sailplane. The delight on her face reminded me of the delight when I first became a solo pilot in a sailplane.
Sailplanes are different from gliders. Gliders just go down from an altitude to the ground. Sailplanes are designed so you can stay in the air by knowing air currents. For example, where wind bounces off a hill the air goes upwards, and you can get altitude. Over a parking lot on a sunny day the heat of the parking lot sends thermals into the air.
When you get into your sailplane you put it on almost like it was a coat. It fits you very closely, and the wings become your wings. You are then connected to a motored plane which will lift you into the air a few thousand feet.
Then there is a magic moment when you throw a switch and you are disconnected.
You’re on your own, and it’s you and your wings and your knowledge of how far you can travel, where you can land safely, but much more important, how you can stay in the air like a bird, knowing exactly where the air currents are going.
I’ll never forget the thrill of when I found an upward thermal above a shopping center parking lot, used the upward currents to get altitude – and found that my companion was a great big, beautiful eagle! I was almost, myself, an eagle in the air.
When it was time to return to my base (I was not willing to go too far that early in my training) I knew exactly how much altitude I needed to have so that I could make the runway. And also if I came in too high, how to do something called side-slipping that would drop my altitude to the correct height approaching the runway.
Carefully and gently, landing like a leaf touching the ground, I brought myself back home with the same kind of joy that young girl experienced. It was the joy of being able to fly through the air very much as if you were born to do that.