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.

Discovering Seafood with Keith the Fish

HobbitI came back to York University early in order to spend New Year with some friends, and I’m alone in the house tonight. Well, alone except for the wonderful smell of grilled herring that’s wafting up the stairs. I ate it with steamed green beans and boiled potatoes, and felt like Bilbo Baggins before the rascally dwarves burst in to steal his supper. Best of all, the herring cost me precisely 67 pence, and it wasn’t even going off! What a preposterously undervalued fish it is.

You would not catch the smell of fish wafting up the stairs in my home in Winchester. My father doesn’t like it, and while my mother has always had a thing for sardines, she refuses to let me eat my beloved breakfast kipper underneath her roof for fear of the smell. Given my oily-fish deprivation, it’s amazing I’ve turned out as smart as I have.

It all started with kippers, really. I ate my first kipper in a guest house near Campbeltown in Scotland, on the morning of the 27th of August, 2007 (O, historic date!) It was fresh, local, and delicious, and once I’d figured out the challenge of separating the fish from the bones, I was hooked. By the time I came to Cardiff University in October 2009, the two things I wanted to cook and expected to live off were kippers for breakfast and yorkshire pudding for tea.

I never really managed to do yorkshire pud successfully (I kept forgetting to add hot oil to the pan first) and I now shudder to think of those breakfast kippers. They were cheap fillets from Tesco, three-to-a-vacuum-pack, which I’d microwave and eat. I liked them well enough at the time, but the rest of the flat weren’t terribly happy with stumbling hung-over into the kitchen of a morning to be confronted with the rich, kippery scent of my breakfast. After I found ‘AARGH KIPPERS’ spelled out in fridge magnets a few too many times, I quietly dropped the habit. And for six months, I returned to the fishless days of my youth.

And then, as my second year in Cardiff began, I discovered Keith the Fish.

Keith the Fish takes some discovering. Tucked away behind Marks and Spencer‘s off of Queen Street, he’s definitely off the beaten track. To make matters worse, his operating hours are 9-12 Tuesday through Saturday, so he’s quite hard to catch. I forget what dire exigency could have gotten me out of bed before noon, but I happened to pass by and ask if he did kippers. Turns out he did Manx kippers a pound a time, so I bought one and ate it jugged the next morning. To jug a fish, you pour boiling water over it and leave it for six minutes, then pull it out, slap it on a plate and eat it. It’s not pretty, but it’s fast, it’s delicious, and provided you don’t leave the bones lying around, surprisingly fragrant.

My visits to Keith the Fish became weekly, and I got to know Keith himself, a grand old survivor of the fishmonger’s trade who recently celebrated

Keith with a whopper of a catch!
Keith with a whopper of a catch!

his seventieth birthday. Our conversations always began the same way. ‘The fish trade in this country is going to the dogs!’ he’d growl, before going on to lambast supermarket fishmongers for their smelly fish, or the Arab Spring for driving up the price of his petrol. His main complaint was the lack of fish getting into children’s diet. He loved kids. He had a wonderful trick to pull if any kid came by. There was always some mighty salmon sprawled out across the shopfront, his tail tucked away beneath the display. Keith would pretend to be fussing with something up another end of the stall, lay his hand on the fish’s tail and give it a few twitches. When the screams began he knew he’d done his job!

I slowly got up the confidence to attempt something requiring more complex cookery skills than the application of boiling waterI can’t say I ever really cooked white fish to my satisfaction, but my grilled rainbow trout was so fresh I could taste the water it was caught in, and moule mariniere remains the best thing I have ever cooked for myself.

Now, alas, I have moved into York and all is changed. I have yet to really get a taste for Whitby kippers, and fresh cockles are impossible to find. I was forced to purchase my grilled herring from Keith’s despised supermarket. If I really wish to remain true to his standards, I reckon I’m going to have to take up rod and waders and go angling.