Sunday, June 12, 2011

A New Experience

I'm not sure this would ever have appeared on my bucket list but today I went gliding. 

Gadget decided I needed a wake up call from the endless cycling and running so presented me with a gliding voucher for one of those birthday's that shall not be named.

I nearly forgot.  When it finally occurred to me that there was an expiry on this gift, I had wasted a whole summer and apparently the best gliding time. What do I know about thermals and best and worst seasons? So I duly presented myself at the Magaliesberg Gliding Club this fine wintry Sunday morning. I saw the windsock showing some activity but alas, wind doesn't seem to be a pre-requisite for getting the balsa wood and fibre glass contraption off the ground.

I must have looked like I knew what I was doing because I was asked if I was the Duty Officer as I arrived. It was my "pilot" who asked showing very poor judgement! For his sins, he got lumped with taking me up.

The group I approached knew nothing about my contact person there but took over the arrangements with aplomb and lots of enthusiasm.  It was all happening a bit too fast for me. The plane was tilted on the grassy runway looking very small and about two inches from the ground. 

I decided I wanted the real deal so opted for the winch launch (I don't know all the correct terminology) as opposed to being towed by a small plane. A very thin cable with a parachute lay partially concealed in the grass and I believe it tows at about 100km/hour.  A quick loading of a parachute and instructions on its use followed - that was really going to help! I could just see me extricating myself from a four point safety belt system, unlocking the canopy, hurling myself out and pulling the rip cord all in that order. But, Chris the pilot said, he had no plans to ditch the plane in mid air. He added later that he had ditched it into muddy fields several times in his flying career, joy of joys!

And of course there were the snide comments about the barf bag!  Unfortunately, there was an odour lurking from the previous week when the occupant had apparently ditched their breakfast.  Uh uh - no way. I was not going that route. 

Then there was a bit of waggling of the controls, some radio coms and the cable came to life and we were off.  it was noisier than I thought with the wind whistling past the canopy but we were airborne so quickly and steeply, it was freaky.  One is used to the rumbling of a jet engine down a tarmac strip building in crescendo before taking off - not here.

At about 1500 feet, the cable jettisoned itself and we were free and flying.  Chris kept a running commentary to what was going on which made me feel a lot more in control but it was a strange motion with lots of corkscrewing to keep on a thermal.  We stayed at that height for a while but then started to drop altitude a bit.  Chris manfully worked at the controls and used all of his 30 years of training to find us stronger thermals but we were circling the drain. Damn winter weather!

There comes a point where one has to call it quits and he had already decided that it was safer to go back and land.  We turned (again) and headed in a slightly different direction (yes, these things are very mobile as you'll read) and all of a sudden picked up a strong thermal and we climbed and climbed and climbed.  There was much less corkscrewing and just more lift. The buzzer that indicated ascent and descent was constant beeping instead of whining and all of a sudden, reaching the clouds was an option (literally).

We reached close to 10 000 feet which was incredible - the panorama of the region laid out for miles around. Then the fun and games started. Chris, having done the impossible, could relax and show off some of his skills and exactly what the plane could do.  He showed me how they chase thermals when racing cross country and we reached speeds of about 170km/hour. As you hit the next thermal, you start turning to gain height and all of this is done on feel and visual cues - amazing.

Good, kind pilot that he was, Chris kept asking me if I was ok. Silly me - I said yes and we launched into a complete loop. I briefly opened my eyes and saw the ground above me. Freaky with no engine to power out.  I had done that in a Harvard aerobatic plane (name dropper I know) but this was way cooler.

Then we sped off in a direct line to see how much speed we could get and I swear it was heading towards the 200kmk/hour mark. I felt as if I was in a fighter plane with the narrow cockpit, clear canopy and speed. We did a few slidey things (the name escapes me) where you do half turns and bank rather steeply and then, just for laughs, we did another 360 loop.  I kept my eyes open for this one.

Then it was all the pre-landing checks and we glided into land. Smoother than many a 747 landing I've had.

Chris, Martin, Peter (the other newbie) - thanks for a great morning. And to Gadget - that was an awesome gift, one I'll remember for a very long time.

Posted via email from Go Cycling

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