Spring on the Airfield

IMG_4181A belated spring has finally reached Britain. The trees are beginning to come into leaf, a couple of months after the first flowers poked their heads above ground, only to be buried deep in snow and frozen into submission. Down at Pocklington airfield, everyone is out of doors and a grand fleet of gliders is lined up in two orderly queues, for winch launches and aerotows respectively. The first of the spring thermals have arrived, and no-one wants to miss a moment of flying time.

Thermals are columns of hot air rising from the earth below, which can be hijacked by gliders and used to gain height. The lack of any warm air at all during the winter months is what makes gliding relatively neglected for half a year, when all anyone can do is descend as slowly as possible. In spring, when the nights are cold and the days are warm, and the temperature differential is at its strongest, the thermals are at their fiercest. It is possible to climb thousands of feet in just a few minutes.

I’ve been gliding all winter through, and coming out to Pocklington once a fortnight on average. I’ve been up a dozen times, but even so my total flight time is still just under an hour. An average winter flight lasts about 5-7 minutes, and even if you’re lucky and get 3 flights in a day, it’s still not a lot of time. Often rain, or adverse winds, or ice on the wing, will scupper your chances of getting into the air.

By contrast, my first flight this spring lasted 38 minutes, and took me to heights of 3500 feet. It was terrifying – but then I find everything terrifying while I’m flying a glider. It’s part of the reason I go. In this case, my head knew, abstractedly, that the higher we are the safer we are, that we have more room to manoeuvre, more opportunities to find another thermal,even – God help us – more time to bail out should anything go catastrophically wrong. My stomach, however, has only just got used to seeing Pocklington from a thousand feet up, and is really unused to this new perspective. It doesn’t help that climbing in a thermal involves spiralling inside a column of hot air, and maintaining that spiral in despite of all the efforts of wind and turbulence to force you out of it. It requires a tight look out, careful handling of the controls, and a strong stomach, particularly on rough days. By the time I land, I am noticeably green around the gills.

Yet there’s fun to be had on the ground too. Once we huddled in the tea bus, hunkered over our mugs and shivering, while mist poured from our mouth and nostrils with each exhalation. Now everyone is sat out around a table, telling the tall tales of lightning strikes and crash landings that are so much a part of the gliding experience. All around us, the birds are back in force. Since almost all our aircraft are silent, and the one strip of tarmac we have dates back to World War Two and is harder to land on than the grass, there’s little to scare them away. The swallows are all over the place, and popular with everyone except the man who’s job it is to keep them out of the aircraft hanger, where they have an irritating habit of nesting inside the gliders. The moment one entrance is stopped up, they find another. It’s a never ending task. Swifts and skylarks are to be seen in profusion, and I was once halfway through my circuit when I looked to my right and found two buzzards flying a few feet off my wing. Of course, I couldn’t let that go by without writing a poem.

Birdwatching on the Airfield.

The swallows nest in gliders in the spring.
Leave one uncovered for a week and when
You check inside the canopy or wing,
You’ll find them stowed away there in their den,
Awaiting launch by aerotow or cable,
As if they thought to fly up like the wren
Upon the eagle’s back, in Aesop’s fable.
This spring, there’s many kinds of birds around,
I’d name them all for you, if I were able,
But of the ones whose proper names I’ve found,
I like the skylark best for its ambition.
Because, like us, they’re born upon the ground
But will not be content with their condition.
To see them struggling skywards in full song
Fills we with – well, a kind of recognition
Of my desires in them. Oh, prove me wrong
If you’ve a mind to, but I think we share
A certain glee in flight, now Winter’s gone.
It wasn’t long ago I saw a pair
Of buzzards in a thermal spiralling
Beside my glider on the rising air,
And as we soared together, wing to wing,
I thought: to us, with human speech’s gift
There’s mystery in all they do or sing,
But sympathy as well. Why, take the swift:
Would it play all the games it does in flight
With drag and thrust and gravity and lift
If with us it shared not the same delight
In ease and speed and silentness and height?

Let’s Go Fly a Glider!

Me and my instructor.

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.

Instrument check.

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.

You can just see the old tea bus on the runway, with the gliders lined up beside it.

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.