#12 – Fly in a Glider
Gliding. Now, why did I put that on The List? I think because I felt The List (whilst exotic with all my travel goals) was nevertheless lacking in a bit of daredevil, perhaps needed something aerial and – since I’ve already done parascending and two skydives and there’s no way I’ll ever do a bungee jump because I wouldn’t be able to make the decision to go over the edge – gliding was a logical choice for inclusion. I was relieved to find I had phrased my original list carefully. The challenge I set myself was to ‘Fly in a glider’, NOT ‘Fly a glider’. Phew!
For Christmas, my lovely family gave me a voucher for a trial lesson at Lasham airfield, so the game was on. Lasham itself is one of the largest airfields in Europe, with several gliding clubs based there and over 200 gliders on site. When the day arrived for my trial lesson, the skies were blue, the sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in sight… It looked like a perfect flying day (to my untrained eye). But, apparently not. Apparently, some clouds are good. They just have to be the right sort of clouds. The clouds indicate the presence of thermals and since gliders don’t have an engine or any power supply of their own, they use thermals to stay aloft and to gain height. This is the same principle birds use to stay in the air. The problem with blue, clear skies is that without the clouds to show you the way it’s a bit like looking for a transparent current in a whole sky full of air! Which, as you may expect, isn’t all that easy.
We walked across the airfield out to the runway (which actually should be called a tow-way), and pushed our glider (dual controls) into position.
It was surprisingly light and easy to manoeuvre, and after a brief safety introduction (how and when to activate the parachute if required and UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES touch that red knob),
we were attached to our airtow and being pulled down the runway by what looked like a small stunt plane.
The take off was surprisingly smooth. It was difficult to notice exactly when we became airbourne. Once we reached the 2,500ft the tow plane disengaged and there we were, on our own floating about in the sky.
It was beautiful up there, so quiet and peaceful with sun shining and the patchwork Hampshire countryside spread out below us.
Immediately the hunt for a thermal was on. Thermals are created when the sun warms the ground, which heats the air above it. The hot air then rises, creating a thermal. Experienced glider pilots use several indicators to find thermals; the presence of growing clouds, landscape features on the ground (some cause air to heat faster) and even circling birds since flight for birds uses the same principles as glider flying (or ‘soaring’ as it is properly called). In the absence of clouds, my instructor headed towards a promising landscape feature (I’m afraid I’m still largely clueless as to what constitutes a promising landscape feature), but we did indeed find a thermal.
Once in it, we had to circle. Turns out you can’t just park yourself on a thermal and get lifted up. We made a corkscrew type motion, around, and around, and around, and around, gaining height but staying in broadly the same place relative to the ground below us.
Once we’d got back up to at least the height we had when the tow released us, the instructor decided to head off in search of another thermal and also try to explain to me how to steer and ‘fly’ a glider. This was very scientific. I just about grasped the fact that there are three dimensions which you need to balance:
- roll (basically turning left or right)
- pitch (movement up and down – the easiest one to get – point the nose down, it goes faster) and
- something called yaw (which seems to be to do with whether the glider is broadside into the air or not, but is mysteriously different from roll)
Yeh, I was totally lost. My brain doesn’t seem to operate in three dimensions. Although I did notice that the instrument to measure the ‘yaw’ is literally a bit of red string sellotaped to the outside of the glider above the pilot’s head! Technical it is not. The string is supposed to stay parallel to the edges of the cockpit.
Unfortunately (or luckily, depending on how you see it), we couldn’t find another thermal so couldn’t get any more height which meant we just had to meander our way back to the beginning of the runway to land safely and I didn’t have the opportunity to try the controls, other than having a quick go at pointing us downwards and speeding up. Since I was struggling to grasp the theory though, I was secretly quite relieved about that!
I wished I had had longer in the air because it was beautiful up there and felt very special. It is apparent to me now that what looks like effortless soaring (both from birds and gliders) in fact requires an amazing degree of technical and practical knowledge and I’m fairly sure I’m not competent to even try to grasp this flying thing. I just don’t think my academic and not terribly practical brain is wired that way. Lasham offers a great opportunity to learn though with a free three month membership after your lesson so you can develop your skills and see if it’s for you. If I’d had the time available to give it a go, I would definitely have been tempted to go back again and see if it became clearer after a few more flights, but, would I have been any better? I doubt it. Whilst it would be an amazing skill to have, in this instance I think I’d rather be the passenger than the pilot!