Yesterday I had my first experience of Gliding. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was going to be like, but it simply blew my mind.
And because I’ve never been good at “simple”, I’m now going to talk through how our day went.
A few weeks ago I agreed with my friends Pat and Rob that we would try out gliding on this particular Saturday, and given that we’ve recently been experiencing the wettest part of the drought, we got incredibly lucky with the weather, meaning the day started with a lovely drive through rural Wiltshire:
The sat-nav was taking us through some interesting country roads, but we weren’t quite sure what to expect when we got there. However we knew that this was a military airfield that we were heading to, so when we saw this sign, we knew we were getting close.
We received another sign in the form of a distant glider high above
Eventually we found the airfield, and drove round the perimeter road to find the Wyvern Gliding Club. It seemed like a very simple affair; around there were just cars, gliders and this bus, which seems to act as offices, clubhouse and control tower for the club:
We were received in a very light-hearted and cheerful manner, and this seems to be the way the club generally functions. After heading upstairs and talking to a man called John (who was manning the control tower part of the bus) and filling out a temporary membership form, it was barely 20 minutes before they called me out to hop in this glider:
I’ll say now, something that seemed very satisfying about the whole thing was how “by hand” everything seemed to be; everything was done by clipboard, the gliders were all moved around by three to four people just pushing it along, and even the glider itself had no form of battery or power source in it at the time. It all seemed a very satisfying way to get on with things, and between flights we were all helping move gliders into position. Nice bit of social labour in the sun. J
Anyway, my flight. I was introduced to a chipper old gent called Gerry, who was to fly all three of us that day. The first step was to fit me with a parachute, and showed me the pull-cord. This was one of only two things in the day that actually made me pretty nervous; the notion that I might have to take charge of my own survival, mid free-fall, after clambering out of a stricken glider. But I managed to forget about this after climbing into the front of the glider, as I came face to face with a rather small amount of controls. The only ones I used that day were the stick (for rolling and pitching the aircraft) and the rudder pedals, which were slightly fiddly, given that you can’t see them while sat in the cockpit.
Ok, we’re now ready for launch. The launch method at this club (and most clubs, I believe) is you have a vehicle like this about two hundred metres away with a massive V8 engine-powered winch:
This, when given the all-clear, will tow the front of the glider smartly forwards, at which point the pilot pulls the stick right back and soars into the air. It’s very similar to running along to try and get a kite aloft. You can see my friend Rob being towed into the air in this video:
If you think that being dragged steeply into the air, going from 0-1500ft in under a minute sounds like a great thrill, you are absolutely correct. It’s bloody awesome. You’re pushed right back in your seat as you climb, just going up and up, and then there’s a little *clunk* as the cable detaches, and then…well, it goes rather quiet.
It’s so strange being that high in the air, very close to the elements in what very much feels like a plane, but with really very little sound; there is just a steady rushing, not roaring, of wind on the wings. Gerry and I were talking to each other at pretty much the same level of voice we would use in someone’s living room. This is Gerry sat behind me, with the beaming smile that seemed permanently affixed to his face:
In fact it gets even quieter if you dip and start flying down; as you are no longer creating much drag it’s barely audible. Although I get very lucky on my first ever glide, in that we didn’t start flying down, we kept going up and up. Gerry had managed to find a strong thermal current straight away. I think the highest point in our flight was when I took this picture, with the altimeter showing 4250ft:
This is a very high place to be without an engine. Gerry was pointing out various things like the Southampton inlet, which was about 30 miles away from where we were. Here is a picture of the airfield we had taken off from:
While we were up there I got to try piloting for some of the time, which was interesting. The stick was very light, so if you ever try it don’t yank it, but do commit to the motion. Like with driving I found I was a bit hesitant than I needed to be, with Gerry regularly saying “Come on, a bit more stick!” And the pedals took some getting used to; in hindsight I wish I’d had a good look at them before getting in, because I didn’t really know what I had my feet on, and wasn’t sure where to apply pressure exactly. However, once you actually have some control, it is a fantastic feeling. The very notion that you are now flying a powerless aircraft upwards is awe-inspiring.
I don’t think I ever stopped grinning throughout the entire 30mins or so that we were in the air.
Well…except maybe for the loop-the-loop.
It turns out that Gerry is allowed to perform aerobatics with the public on-board, so when he said “You probably don’t get this opportunity often, so would you like to go for a loop-the-loop?” I could only respond “Oh, yeah! Definitely!” So we straightened out, I put the camera back in my pocket and was instructed by Gerry to keep my arms resting on my legs and my head up straight, then he pulled the stick back. At this point I stopped grinning, not because it wasn’t fun, far from it! I stopped because I’d never felt those kinds of g-force before, which feels like the very air is pressing you flat into your seat. After a few seconds I glanced upwards, and sure enough, the ground was now above me, which was odd, as it had never been above me before. Then the G’s hit again when we levelled out again. “How was that?” Gerry asked. I barely knew what to say…
When sadly, time was up and we had to head back, Gerry instructed me to take us down at a rate of 70 knots (about 80mph) which is the fastest I have ever piloted anything. I think I’ve hit 70mph in a car before, but that’s it. Of course, Gerry took over for the landing itself, which was a lot more gentle than I expected. That 30 mins was probably the best £40 I have ever spent.
It turns out I was particularly lucky on that flight, as the longest either of my friends got was 15 mins per flight, although Pat did get two launches, which kept him very happy. We’re already talking about taking up a course, as we just want more! It was such a great day out, with great weather, an amazing new experience in gliding, and of course John’s stories from all the planes he’s flown over the decades (he used to be a Navy test pilot).
In conclusion, gliding is incredible, and I’m very thankful to the people at Wyvern Gliding Club for giving us the opportunity to try it. It certainly won’t be the last time I go up there without an engine!