What heaven must be like.
I’m an airplane nut who’s seen airplanes from the ground once too often.
I’m a cancer survivor who realizes that “someday” is not a day of the week, that life is not a dress rehearsal, and that I have been given a second, and actually a third chance.
I’m a guy who’s spent far too much time working and not enough time playing.
It’s been my dream to fly since I was a little boy, when my dad was in the Air Force, and when times were simpler, and the magic of the skies was still new and still fresh…
And I’d seen sailplanes, here in the states, and in Germany where I spent part of my growing up years, and there was a magic to them, an allure that no other airplane had. They would fly circles for what seemed like such a long time – and just magically stay in the sky.
I mean, to fly is simple…
There, you flew for a second.
Wanna fly longer?
Get a trampoline.
Wanna fly MUCH longer?
Well, now you’re talking wings of some kind – and that’s where things get interesting.
If you want to fly even longer than that – well, now you’re talking engines and propellers. And when you talk engines, then you need fuel, oil, electricity, a cooling system, and gauges to tell you what they’re all doing – and things get simultaneously a little simpler (to go up, push the throttle(s) forward, to go down, pull back on them), and a lot more complex (in addition to flying, you also have to manage all the systems that have anything to do with the power you have available with that throttle).
Another side effect of having an engine is that it also makes things noisy to the point of often having to wear earmuffs to filter out the noise…
They say that the main reason for the propeller is – well, it’s a fan to keep the pilot cool, because if it stops running when he’s in the air, he starts to sweat, but really – it’s to make the flying thing simple… Push forward on the throttle, go up.
Pull back on the throttle, go down.
So if that engine, whether that’s a piston engine, a jet, or rocket engine quits, you are now officially flying a glider. A Cessna 152, for example, will go forward about 9 feet for every one foot it goes down. It might do that at 60 mph. That’s called the glide ratio, in this case, it’s 9:1. The space shuttle – which is also a glider when it’s coming in, goes forward about 3 feet for every one foot it goes down, so a 3:1 glide ratio, it’s just that it does it a WHOLE lot faster, from a WHOLE lot higher up.
Now aside from those types of planes, there are planes that are designed from the get-go to fly without engines. They’re called Sailplanes, and the best of them can have a glide ratio where they’ll go forward 60 feet for every one foot they go down. They are truly, truly amazing works of engineering, craftsmanship, and art.
This means that the space shuttle, for all its engineering brilliance, has a glide ratio a lot closer to that of a crowbar or a brick than that of an actual airplane.
So I made myself a promise awhile back – I guess you could call it one of the things on my “bucket list” – that I would fly. There were so many things that kept me from doing it – but the other Sunday, I realized once again, that life is not a dress rehearsal, that “someday” is not a day of the week, and that there is no contract anywhere that says anyone is obligated to give me tomorrow.
Realizations like that tend to be fairly deep.
The events that cause realizations like that are often quite a bit deeper.
But on the day I had this realization, the weather was perfect, and the next two weekends were the last of the season. I knew I’d be gone on one of them, and had no guarantee of the weather on the second one.
This made the decision relatively easy to make.
I asked my son if he wanted to get out of the house for the afternoon, and with such a perfect fall day, he agreed. I told my wife and daughter we were heading out for a bit – and I have to say that even though I wasn’t sure that I’d go flying – it seems I was subconsciously setting things up so that my options were never limited.
We drove for about an hour to get to this little airfield (Bergseth Field) out in the middle of nowhere – and on this gorgeous Fall day, they were as happy to see us as we were to be there…
We watched – and the difference between this airport and any other airport I’d been at in a long time was like the difference between a calm pool and a roiling river.
If you wanted to take off, they’d look up in the sky to see if there were any other planes coming in – and then you’d hear them yell ‘Pattern Clear” – and off they went, quite literally taking off from the edge of a cliff.
It seemed that for the exchange of a few little oval pictures of dead presidents, one could buy a ride in one of those sailplanes. Michael was more interested in me going than in going himself, so the exchange was made, and along with the pilot, I got into the two-seater sailplane, a Schweitzer 2-33. After I was buckled in, and Michael had handed me the camera, I looked right…
…and saw him smile, which told me I was doing the right thing, and that he was simply happy because I was living a dream.
We took off heading west for a bit, swung north, then did a 270 degree turn to the left, climbing the whole way…
Notice I said, “We took off…”
Something to realize is that flying a sailplane is the only type of aviation I’m aware of that has the aerial equivalent of calling a triple-A tow truck as a standard, expected part of the deal. You don’t take off like a normal airplane, because you have no engine. So you essentially ‘borrow’ one from somewhere. Some places have huge winches that launch you into the sky, some will use a car or other vehicle, some even use huge, huge rubber bands, and some will use another airplane – and that’s the one that’s the aerial equivalent of a tow truck. Very strong, very stable, very reliable.
And that’s the one we used.
As we climbed, near Enumclaw, Washington, the pilot of the tow plane turned toward nearby Mt. Rainier.
I was awestruck.
After we got up to altitude and the tow pilot had let us go, the pilot sitting behind me asked a simple and profound question…
“Would you like to fly?”
The little boy in me, the one who had wanted to fly for over 40 years, was jumping up and down so hard that the seat belts were strained and the canopy was in danger of cracking. The 40+ year old man that the little boy was in, sitting in the front seat of an old, but still graceful sailplane, tried to hold down his excitement and said, “Sure, I’d like to give it a shot”.
And for a moment, both the little boy and the man, held the stick for the first time.
And a breeze blew, and Heaven’s curtain parted for a moment to allow me to peek inside.
The pilot brought me back into the cockpit by asking if I could keep the wings level, and the nose just below the horizon. I’d done it often enough in my dreams that it was easy.
He had me turn the plane south, and I learned that when you bank a sailplane to the right, for example, the plane wants to go straight for two reasons, one, it just likes the whole equilibrium thing, and two, the drag and the leverage from the aileron on the “upwing” side pulls that wing back a bit, turning the nose left, not right. I gently pressed the right rudder pedal with my right toe, got the nose going the right way – and I learned what was meant by ‘seat of the pants flying’ – you really do feel it in the seat of your pants.
We turned again, and the pilot complimented me on the turns and asked if I’d flown before.
In dreams and in my mind?
The adult in me was soaring – I was above the cares of the world, and nothing else mattered.
But the altimeter unwound just like a timer, when there was no more altitude, our time would be up. He landed it, and I saw my son smiling as he walked toward us.
His smile matched my own, but for different reasons. He was simply happy for me to have finally lived that dream.
So was I… So was I…
We talked a bit as we drove home, about life, and the usual things, but my mind kept drifting back up to that blue, blue sky, and I found it hard to keep both feet on the ground when I’d held the sky in my hands.
(C) 2011 Tom Roush