Saturday, 1 August 2015

Gliding... Think I can fly...

So I've met a girl...

Well, when I say met, I mean re-acquainted myself with. Remember that girl who took me to the Secret Cinema screening of Star Wars? ... Claire? ... We've been friends for a while, even used to date as teenagers.... And now it would seem are very much enjoying each others company yet again.... :)

I'm all about surprises, so one Sunny Saturday in July I boldly declared that we were 'Off on an Adventure!' my smile beaming from ear to ear.
Claire all strapped and ready!
As we drove to the venue, Claire had no idea where we were going. There was a brown tourist sign on the road pointing to 'Southdown Gliding' as we turned in but luckily she was too involved in telling me something than looking out of the window. It was only as we slowly crested the brow of a grassy hill that she realised we what we were doing. There were a number of gleaming white gliders sprawled out over the field in front of us. "Are we going gliding?.... We're going gliding?!" let out an excited Claire. I let out a little smile

The format of the makeshift airfield in Parham was a first come first serve for the 'Intro to Gliding' course. We were the 3rd group of people which made the day quite a full one, but we were assured that we'd both get a go in the glider.

We had a safety induction and signed our lives away on a waver form. The safety included getting acquainted with a parachute! Which I was surprised about. I had visions of the comedy slapstick of jumping out of the plane, falling and hitting the floor, and then the chute jettisoning out above a splatted me! The instructor assured me it was very hard to get the plane to fall out of the sky and the only real reason I'd need to use the parachute is if 2 aircraft were to hit each other.... The chute itself looked very old and sun faded... possibly implying it had never needed to be used?

The people who had arrived before us got to go in the gliders first, leaving Claire and I spread out on the grassy field in the summer sun, great big majestic gliders sailing overhead. The gliders are tugged up by a small, and quite loud, conventional aircraft. Once they get up to height the glider pilot then jettisons himself off of the tow and is set free.

Enough time for a selfie
I opted to go first when it came round to Claire and I going. Strapping the big parachute nervously on to my back I then clambered in to the cockpit. It struck me at how simple these things are! There was one computer module which didn't seem to do much more than GPS and speedo, the rest was literally rods, pulleys and cables running the length of the aircraft to the control flaps (probably not the technical word). The seat was comfy and I settled in... with a few nerves fluttering... I don't like heights, you see. 

The instructor, sat behind me, then proceeded to 'instruct' me on what I needed to do. I thought this was a pleasure flight!.... "ooohh no no no no" the instructor joked. "Technically that'd be a commercial flight. Commercial flights need much more legislation... We leave all that to the Easyjets to do. You are actually learning to pilot a glider. Tuition. Different legislation" Great. Now I'm trusted to actually fly this thing! 

So I start squinting hard at all of the Altimeters, ailerons, rudder control and pitch compensation sticks that I now realise litter the inside of the cockpit... I start to sweat... "You can let some fresh air in with that" the instructor informs me, pointing to a 2 inch square piece of sliding perspex in the cockpit window. "And don't worry.... You'll pick it up quick"... I try desperately to remember which bit of the parachute to pull....

The tug starts pulling us along the field. It's bumpy, really bumpy and the cockpit shakes, but before I know it that shaking turns to total weightlessness... and instant silence. We've lifted maybe a foot off the ground but we are totally airborne. Up up and away!

The aircraft infront leads us on a very large spiral up. The dials infront of me show our ascent in metres. It's only when this hits 2,500 metres above sea level that the instructor tugs at some lever in the back and the tug rope falls away front of us. We are now a very big, silent floating white thing in this very big blue sky... It's wicked!

After the guy behind me showed how the plane would respond I gingerly confirmed I wanted a go at piloting the thing.

Flying around of your own accord is just how it sounds. A mixture of delicious pleasure tinged with that flutter of danger. My whole life depended on me and my control of the stick between my legs ;) I picked up the control fairly easy. It's intuitive once you know the inversion settings of the controller....Just like a computer game. Keep the nose at a certain level with the horizon so you know you aren't heading in to a dive or a stalling climb and you're sorted.

Dad's house
I flew us along the ridgeline of the South Downs, heading East, to take a picture over my Dad's house. The glider had a device in that bleeped if it detected the air around you was rising. A thermal pocket... The trick then was to crank in a big turn to try and stay in that thermal and use the rising air to take the craft higher.

Our tow was to 2500 metres above sea level. We were doing very well at one point as we had got up to 3000 metres just by using thermals and the ridge line to get higher than we were delivered to.

All of my fears had totally gone away and as I relinquished the controls back to the instructor I was already pencilling in when I could come again in my head. As it turns out it's not that expensive a sport to get in to. You'd think that with all these aeroplanes and storage and licensing etc it would be. But I was told that should I decide to take up gliding and once I'd finished my training hours, it was possible to rent a glider for 39p per minute and a 2500 metre tow was £25 paid directly to the tug pilot for his fuel. Not too expensive!

Claire's face when she came down from her flight was exactly what I'd aimed for. She looked as amazed, pleased and enthusiastic about the whole thing as I had felt. If you are ever at a loose end one Saturday look in to gliding. I'm not good with heights but as soon as you make that silent leap, just a foot off the ground. Everything in your mind goes out the window and you are just soaring with the birds...