My every preconception of gliding was pretty much wrong. I had turned up to the Wolds Gliding Club expecting to be towed into the air strapped to the back end of an aeroplane. Instead, I had a winch launch, which means there’s a machine at the far end of the runaway with about three thousand feet of cable on a drum. This gets hauled out to the other end of the runaway by tractor and attached to your glider. When you’re ready, the winch takes in the cable really, really fast – and within 100 metres you go from being stationary on the ground to ascending at a 45 degree angle. Powered take-off is a bit cissy by comparison.
At the York University Fresher’s Fayre the week before, the gliding society had pulled me in not just by their low, low prices, but by the opportunity to do a loop-the-loop in their simulator. I was so extremely keen to do one in real life I had pictured myself sitting in the cock-pit with folded arms and refusing to land until my instructor did one for me. Unfortunately you need 2000 feet of height for a loop-the-loop, and even the best winch launch I’ve ever done only got me to 1,700. And with no thermal updraughts around during these cold winter months, there was no hope of getting any higher.
Later on, I also had to come to terms with the fact that there’s the way the wind is blowing and the way the nose is pointing, and the way the glider is actually travelling tends to be halfway between the two. That was a whole new adjustment to make. But on the first trip, the rush of the winch launch was pleasure enough, followed by the chance to make a few turns in the glider and admire the spectacular view of Pocklington from the air. It was a clear day, and I could just make out the towers of York Minster glinting in the distance. Then, after a paltry five minutes flight time, we came in to land.
And hardly knowing how or why, I was hooked. Unlike the executives of the gliding society, for whom flight seems to be almost a calling, I can’t picture myself flying a glider outside of University. The costs go up so furiously when one stops being a student that it hardly seems worth it. Unlike, say, climbing mountains or bouldering, gliding is a part of my month I won’t miss desperately when it’s gone. I tell myself I’ll get to the level of skill where I can go solo and fly a glider by myself, and then I’ll quit. In the meantime, though, there is something glorious about living the dream of unpowered flight, which 99% of humanity have never had the chance to realise. Even if gliding is an abberation in my career, it remains no less of a fantastic opportunity.
The trouble with flying in winter is that you generally get three five minute flights – sometimes only one flight – and have to wait around all day for them. But there are compensations. Chief among them is the fantastic tea bus, run by a Canadian woman named Donna, who does what would be the greasiest and most evil sausage and bacon sandwich I’ve ever tasted – if I hadn’t lived in Cardiff for the past three years. It was until recently an extremely clapped out red double-decker bus, but they’ve now finished kitting out a modern single decker with tables and cooking equipment, and all moved in there. It’s a great place to sit when the rain’s coming down or the wings have iced up, drinking endless cups of builders tea and talking about aeronautical matters – or in my case, doing my diary.
Another bonus is the fact we get involved in airfield operations, which involves clearing gliders for launch, holding the wing prior to take-off, doing the signalling, keeping the flight log, and – my personal favourite – driving the tractor. It’s a big, stiff, ugly machine, but compared to the Cardiff Student Union van, which I one had the misfortune to take into the suburbs of Cardiff on an errand, it handles like a Mini Cooper. Whenever there’s gliders or cables to be retrieved, I can hop on the tractor and roar away happily.
I’ve done eight full flights now, as noted in my very glamorous Pilot’s Log Book. One typical entry reads: ‘3x WL [winch launch] flew after release practiced turning and trimming the glider. Follow through on launch and landing. Good progress.’ I’m as proud of that ‘Good Progress’ as I ever was of the ‘Very well done’ stickers I used to get on my work in Primary School.
On my most recent flight, I landed the glider for the first time – which was fantastic, because I hadn’t expected to land it at all. I just kept doing the turns as the instructor told me to, expecting to hand back control to him at any moment. And then he was telling me how to do the approach, with me on the joystick while he handled the airbrakes – and then we were skidding down the runaway to a halt. It wasn’t a very orthodox landing. But once again, it was an incredible rush.