One morning near the end of my rookie season I noticed a tow pilot kneeling beside the cockpit of our single seater.  Until then I’d never seen him fly anything but the tug, and supposed that like many tow pilots, sadly, he had little interest in gliders.  Walking closer, I found him disconnecting the instruments and asked why.  

“First chance in weeks to go soaring,” he said, “and might be my last for the whole year.  I fly better with no temptation to look inside.”  He eyed me like a big brother when Mom and Dad did not need to know about this.  “Don’t tell, okay?”  He was actually two or three years younger than me, but like any loyal little bro I shrugged Okay.  

To me as a beginner the idea of flying without instruments was intriguing.  Aesthetically, it appealed at a visceral level, but the filters of cultural bias made it sound wild (even for 1975), possibly felonious… and more importantly, reckless.  But what did I know?  One thing I did know, I knew I was reckless enough already.  

I tried to observe each moment of his flight while waiting my turn for launch, but that didn’t last long.  He hopped off tow below others in a house thermal, promptly out-climbed them all, and was first to leave the area – for the whole day as it turned out.  

My flight amounted to forty minutes of mostly coming down.  There was a lot of that that day, and well before five o’clock the whole fleet had returned – except you know who, whom nobody’d seen for hours.  While helping the handful of regular crew perform their end-of-day routines, I dared not mention our little secret, not yet anyway, but really wasn’t thinking about much else.  When someone finally expressed concern, his dad filling in for him shrugged it off.  “He’ll be back when he gets hungry.  Lunatic did call for a fifty mile retrieve last year just before sundown, but he won’t make that mistake again.”  

I was hungry already and decided to head for home.  Before climbing into my pickup though, I stared up into the empty sky and vowed I’d someday learn to fly like that guy!  

Then twenty minutes up the road I glimpsed a flash in the air, identified the missing bird and pulled over to watch.  He was low, and it being so late the climb was slow, but eventually he rolled out on final glide.  Hungry at last.  

I almost hurried back right then to pick his brain when he landed, and should have, but put it off for the next weekend.  Of course he missed the next weekend, and I missed the one after that.  Then he went back to college and we never met again.  

But that’s how I got this way.  Blame him, whatever his name was.  His clarion example just that once imparted a unique trajectory to my own soaring career, and I’ve flown his way ever since, relying on sight and sound and feel in favor of expensive, complex and distracting gizmos.  It wasn’t easy at first, as with so many rewarding challenges, but honestly, other than checking the altimeter every minute or so (the one instrument that always works whether it’s properly connected or not), I’m usually too busy gleaning reams of actual information from the real world to waste brain time inside the cockpit.  When I do check the panel against perception it’s seldom more than confirmation of the obvious.  

And audio?  What an annoyance!  It masks the non-virtual acoustic I’m listening for, obnoxious as those awful PA systems at ball games these days.  If a phone refused to stop ringing I’d either unplug the thing or stuff it in a sock.  Much more informative, and satisfying, is the gentle real-time song of the actual wind.  No batteries required.  

While most folks deplore such heresy, occasionally I persuade someone to join in a demonstration.  We leave the panel intact to be legal of course, but no regulation says we can’t tuck a dark rag over it and go soar with our feathers out like the Almighty intended.  A return to roots, like swimming in the buff or… well, you know.  Companions on such flights are always surprised to find it easier than expected, and more fun as well.  Imagine that.  

YOU, however, can never learn to fly with such freedom – unless you try.