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It’s been a few years since I had my introduction to sailplanes, and after much prodding by my friend Greg, and me saving up to fly again, I was finally able to take advantage of some time a few weeks ago and go out to the airfield again.
It’s a quiet, grass field out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dead end road about an hour and a half out of Seattle. The last bit of the drive was through a forest that, in the light I was seeing it, looked like it easily could have been home to Hobbits or Dwarves or a possible dragon lurking back in the underbrush.
I smiled a little to myself and kept my eyes wide open, looking deep into the woods, imagining I might see one. The road turned left and I emerged into a clearing, a fence to my left, and some cars parked neatly on my right. The Fairies that I’d imagined would have been at home with the Dwarves and Hobbits in the forest had taken the elegant shape of sailplanes taking off and landing on the other side of the fence.
Greg came up to greet me, his traditional peanut butter sandwich in his hand. He’d been sitting in one of several plastic chairs lined up in the shade on the south side of the field. He got one out of the shed for me, and invited me to sit down and chat while he spliced the end of a tow rope.
Part of me really wanted to get in the air, but another part of me was just happy to enjoy the peace and quiet of the fall colors, the fresh air, and the occasional gentle breeze.
There was another flier that visited every now and then. It was a dragonfly (or maybe it was a baby fairy) and its wings almost imperceptibly thrummed as it inspected us. It was never in one spot long enough for a good picture, but it emphasized the almost palpable quiet there. I mean, there can’t be much background noise if you can hear a dragonfly…
It was nice.
I heard the towplane fly overhead , looked up, and saw that someone was enjoying a ride in the same sailplane I’d gone up in a few years ago.
I smiled again.
His peanut butter sandwich finished, Greg now had both hands free and we chatted some more while he continued working on his towropes, with the dragonfly checking in every now and then.
The tow plane – a hard-working Piper Super Cub flown by a an equally hard working gentleman named Patrice, pulled many planes up into the sky, including the PW-6U we’d be in.
The afternoon went on, and I saw it go up and down a few times…
I could sense my eagerness, verging on impatience, wanting to get in – but there were people ahead of me in line, and they had to go up first, and the tow plane needed gas, and a student needed scheduled practice, all valid things, but all making me feel like a fidgety kid peeking around everyone else standing in line for a ride on the roller coaster at the fair. The only thing missing was the smell of cotton candy and popcorn wafting in the breeze.
So I waited, and chatted with Greg, and John, the fellow I’d gone up with the last time, and a few others, and the afternoon wore on – no – it didn’t wear on, it was better than that. It passed, pleasantly, softly, gently.
The shadows grew longer, and longer, and finally, as the sun was casting its last warmth over the horizon…
…we got in. With Greg in the back, me in the front, and Patrice in the tow plane, we all took off and headed for our release altitude. As low as the sun was by that time, Greg said it would be a “sled ride” (all downhill) as we needed to be down before the sun actually set.
We kept climbing, turning gracefully behind Patrice.
At one point, I looked out the right side and was speechless at the absolute majesty of Mount Rainier, almost close enough to touch…
…and then, looking closer at the picture, realized it’d be a good idea to not wear a striped shirt next time I flew. (How cool, I’m already thinking of a ‘next time’)
Greg had me pull the release for the tow rope. It sprung and coiled for a bit before straightening out as Patrice flew back down to the field off to our left. We found our way along the big ridge behind the airfield, turned again, and given the sled ride nature of the flight, Greg flew, and I was just in awe of the beauty around me.
He asked how I handled steep turns, as he was going to burn off a lot of altitude very quickly to get down in time. I grinned as he banked hard and did an amazing corkscrew into the pattern, extended the spoilers,
and put the setting sun behind and the moon in front of us as we approached the field. We squeezed right between the trees, and the gentle hiss of the sailplane was replaced by the shuddering rumble of the landing gear on the grass, quieting down to silence as we rolled to a stop right where the plane needed to be put away…
We got out, I turned around and saw the sun setting behind the trees as Greg got my Nikon out of the front cockpit.
I heard something ticking off to my left, and as I turned, I realized it was the engine of the Super Cub that had taken us up, still cooling off and resting from its day of labor.
It was already tied down, the moon reflecting off its wings…
Greg helped put the PW-6U we’d flown back in the trailer and after he’d made sure the cover was down and latched, we headed over to the edge of the fields where the cars were.
I thanked Patrice for his tow, and Greg for the flight and conversation, and then headed back through the woods I’d come through earlier.
Only this time, I knew the Fairies were real.
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