FIRST COMMUNION

It was time for a new student’s first try at thermaling, and I got all giddy recalling the delights of my own initiation.  Staying in the thermal long enough to slow gravity for a while was such a miracle, I muttered to myself all evening and mourned that I couldn’t go for even more glory the very next day.  If this kid fares no better, I thought, he’ll have plenty to think about for the next week.  

As we settled in beneath the nearest circling glider I explained that the pilot above us was an airline captain with beaucoup soaring experience whose ship was both slicker and more maneuverable.  “Expect him to climb away, but let’s see what we can learn before he leaves us behind.”  

Holding station beneath the other bird, I gave over control, and half a circle later the predictable oscillations began on every axis.  

“Try not to jerk the stick,” I recited for the millionth time, “and hold your nose steady on the horizon while we’re turning.”  On and on, the usual litany, but this student was quicker than most.  Adopting my tweaks eagerly as if he they were his own, soon he was making corrections himself, unprompted, and we began to gain on that bird above…  

Our thermal was rising from one of several chutes between buttresses of a higher ridge line.  Noting that sun angle and wind direction favored a similar spot nearby, I said, “You’re doing fine already.  Now let’s straighten out and cross this spur for the next bowl, to see what’s different about it.”  

Immediately we found fresher lift and, after topping out there, moved on again.  Meanwhile the airline captain remained in that first thermal, hundreds higher than before, though now lower than us.  As the lesson continued we forgot about him, but I heard later that on that very flight he flew 400 miles before landing two states away!  

Although we never went anywhere that day, other than eventually back to the airport, we proved that an apt beginner with earnest effort and just a little help might harness atmospheric energy as efficiently as a proud old-timer lulled into indifference by the twin luxuries of high performance and premium weather.  

Soaring great distances on a perfect day can be more fun than anyone deserves, but in a modern racing sailplane it’s no heroic feat.  So if you’re obliged to fly in weak or difficult conditions, or in low performance craft, there’s no reason to feel deficient.  The point of soaring should be to enjoy making the most of what IS, while laying an essential foundation for terrific adventures yet to come.