Like most non-aviators I didn’t know one aircraft from another, but while driving in the country I saw one swoop low overhead that looked unlike any other. It moved slower than I thought planes could fly, and seemed to make no sound! ‘Is that what they call a glider?’ I wondered, pulling over to watch as its long wings slid low over treetops, down out of sight.
Did it CRASH? There was no explosion…
I bounced up a dirt road through those trees until they opened on a private airstrip and there lay that strange metal bird, one wingtip resting on the grass. Was it busted? As I drove up it’s canopy opened and two people clamored out, smiling… An hour later that would be me.
Fascination hardly bearable, I stood at the periphery to listen and look, and gather the courage to part with twenty bucks. It was reassuring to learn that the pilot, Ed, was a math teacher and family man, a far more responsible citizen than I. Others in that loose and chatty group exemplified what’s true of soaring people everywhere: a tribe of boggling diversity, from Girl Scouts to diplomats, bound by a sense of aesthetic and childlike curiosity. Among the peculiar blend of artistic types and engineers are many practical salt-of-the-earth folk (heavy equipment operators make fine soaring pilots). And of course some of us even our mothers would classify as flakes. Hi Mom!
So alien was that first experience, and so long ago, I recall few details. The bustle of new information was not so much disorienting as stimulating. I only hoped these people knew what they were doing! Our craft was hitched to the tail of an old Cessna by what looked like ordinary ski rope and pulled up the runway on its one wheel, wobbly at first like starting out on a bike.
I was 24 at the time, and had been on airliners, but never seen out the front before. Tailing another plane in flight from close behind was the first in what became a flood of novelties. Soon it peeled away, leaving us enthroned above a lush crazy quilt of farms and forest, floating in silence. Already I was caught in a current of destiny, and then the pace quickened.
Responding to the faintest bump, Ed sighed gleefully and rolled into a sensuous turn. Instinct pulled my eyes that direction and down, as it does for almost everyone. “The wing’s moving backwards!” I laughed. “We’re spinning around like a top.”
“Spin’s a four-letter word,” he chided. “That wingtip’s moving forward about fifty, believe it or not. And of course the other one’s going faster…” I understood that, basically, but my eyes still said otherwise!
Ed narrated the entire performance as we rose, pointing out details while I strained to absorb all aspects of a spellbinding moment. It seemed dreamily unreal, yet more natural than the drive out there! My strongest impressions were a euphoric, fleeting kind of peace — and nearly limitless potential.
“So this is what you’ve been missing,” he concluded. “And we could easily stay up here the rest of the day, but now we should hurry down to give my next victim a chance.”
He had me pull back on the big blue handle (ever drive off a cliff?) and suddenly it was over. Our landing on the grass felt like easing into a feather bed, and when feet again touched the ground my spontaneous delight only fed the others’ contagion. Dazed, I must have asked the same predictable questions I would later answer for countless other first-timers in all the seasons since — something we all have in common.
Someone clapped Ed on the back, “Seems you’ve hooked another one,” and they all chuckled, looking fondly at me. Nothing was the same, ever again.
My second flight would be my first lesson and the beginning of a long career. But in more than forty years since, I have yet to take a second ‘ride’…