In fact there wasn’t a single cloud in sight. I just couldn’t think of a better title to describe the feeling of my experience yesterday. Imagine suddenly growing wings… then imagine something grabbing you, rocketing you a thousand metres up and… letting you go. It was exhilarating!
It all began a few weeks ago when I was chatting with a colleague during a business trip. He had flown someone recently to shoot some aerial images and a video of our head office in France. We talked about his hobby of flying an ultra light aircraft and gliders. We casually agreed that on my next visit to France, he would take me to their flying club.
I had no idea what to expect. My knowledge of gliders at that point – in fact until yesterday – was purely theoretical from Aerodynamics classes back in 1994! He begun by showing me around the hanger and explaining how this is a social sport due to the number of people it takes to make it happen. I met a nice bunch of people and spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon with them.
The gliders are so light that they are towed to the runway using an electric golf cart - two gliders at a time! The wing is lifted off the ground and one person steers each glider simply speeding up or slowing down the walking pace. It’s all done in a very relaxed way and everyone smiles as they get everything ready.
Once they’ve gathered the gliders by the runway, the pilots do their pre-flight checks and agree on the order of take-off. I took this time to get a few shots of the other flying machines around me. They ranged from the weird to the wonderful; from the brave to the crazy; and from state-of-the-art-technology to the home-made ones (yes, home-made planes!).
I walked back to see our glider being prepared. This was the moment when I found out where I would be sitting. This was the moment when I started wondering if there was enough room for my camera! This was the moment I wondered why I was putting on a parachute… But it still hadn’t hit me…
I couldn’t get over how small these things are – nor how long the wing span is. I knew they had to be long to provide the required lift – but they still looked long even with this expectation. We were now second in line… I was still too busy taking photos and soaking in the wonderful weather and atmosphere of the place.
I watched as the first two gliders were air-towed… I watched in order to anticipate what would happen. I needed the comfort of knowing and understanding the process. This white/blue/red plane pulls the gliders and climbs gently into the air. The 60m line behind it launches the glider into the air; and the pilot of the glider releases him/herself whenever they feel ready.
It was now our turn… I was shown how to release a parachute ‘just-in-case’ (gulp) and immediately got into the cockpit with my friend. We strapped ourselves in and the canopy was closed. At this point I asked myself: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’. I’m so glad I was busy taking photos beforehand, because as I started letting fear take over, my friend told me that the sign for telling the pilot of the plane we’re ready, is to lift the wing. He told me this as the wing was being lifted. Seconds later, we were in motion…
The point-of-no-return is how I describe the above photo. I describe it as such as I sit here with a coffee and type this post. At the time, there was only one word going through my mind… repeatedly!
I very quickly pushed fear aside and concentrated on the dials and the surrounding views. At this stage we were climbing at a rate of 2-3 m/s, doing 130 km/h at an altitude of 300 m. A few moments later, my friend told me that he would release the glider and we would be on our own. No engine thrust, no noise, no fumes – just air.
The fun part is finding rising air currents and using them to ascend/climb. This is done by feeling for the thermals, and by reading the variometer. Sometimes, other gliders would try to climb in the same area and this is where the etiquite of the sport is very apparent. Everyone competes to achieve the heights, but there is a respect for safety and a constant visible contact is necessary to avoid accidents. They turn in circles in the same direction opposite one another. This allowed me to get some shots of others in the air. Unfortunately, it was a little hazy and I didn’t have a polarizer to counter the reflection from the canopy.
After an unforgettable hour in the air, mimiking birds in finding rising air and gliding down (it’s amazing how well they do this), we headed towards the airfield. My friend allowed me to take full control for a couple of minutes… and I was immediately hooked. Who wouldn’t be? You feel every movement and control your flying, all with the power of the wind. It’s sailing – but at 1200m in the air.
After a glimpse of the airfield, I saw the air-brake applied and soon after I heard the landing gear coming out. A perfect landing executed by a master; and a wonderful end to a memorable day.
The best word I can think of to describe my flight yesterday is ‘graceful’. I loved every minute of it (after the initial few seconds of fear) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope the images convey some of this joy to you.
I cannot end without saying a huge thank you to my friend (fifth photo) who made this possible – not only for this opportunity but for his generous hospitality of dinner with his wife and adorable little son. Merci beaucoup Monsieur Le Dévéhat.