Outdoor: View to a thrill

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The Independent Online
By the time you've realised just how minimally the plane is constructed, it's too late: you're trapped, about to find out what it feels like to be fired into the sky. Eric Kendall goes gliding.

Gliding - even the word sounds smooth - gliiiiding, soaring, swooping, sailing. Well that's exactly how it is, once you get up there. But, for a long 15 seconds, you may find yourself wondering whether the getting there is more important than the arriving, in terms of its effect on your pulse. Take-off, for want of a better expression, is a bumpy surge followed by a near-vertical angle of attack - practically a rocket launch - which puts Alton Towers in the shade.

And it set my mind going: this is basic technology, the same as you used, aged seven and three quarters, to launch ill-fated aircraft on maiden flights that always, always landed in a tree, even when there weren't any woods for miles around. The pilot, had he been more than a stencil on the side of his balsa-wood cockpit, would have been a goner, as broken as the plane's fragile wings.

The people who fly real gliders hide behind an air of semi-detached, 2.4 kids, Volvo respectability - sensible types who tut at dangerous stunts such as hill-walking in winter or skiing off-piste. They lure you into serious-looking planes stuffed with hi-techery, only to tow you into the air on a cable. As for safety precautions, the word "parachute" wasn't even mentioned until long after I was strapped into the thing. I thought it was some kind of detachable seat padding, before I noticed the big metal ring-pull up by my left shoulder.

But once you're airborne the sensation is gentle and secure. You sit right in the nose, in front of your instructor, feeling very uncocooned despite the bubble of Perspex. Relax into the silence and enjoy the view quickly, because in no time at all a voice from behind will say: "Follow me through on the controls", before demonstrating the basic manoeuvres, while your hand follows the dual-control stick's movement.

Then the voice says "You have control", to which you think, "What?!" but reply without a flicker, "I have control", because a glider is no place for histrionics; everything is smooth and glidey. Sensing the shadow of a doubt, the voice tells you that the glider flies better alone than with you steering. Great. As a first-timer, you feel that's not saying much.

But under the gentle encouragement of the voice - "Look, no hands!" - it soon becomes apparent that the glider can indeed get by just fine without you. You're thousands of feet up in the air and, more important, miles away from anything stationary. As you experiment with adjusting the pitch (stick forward to speed up, backward to slow down) and then turning (stick right for right, left for left) you realise the voice is right: you have control. It's astonishing to find yourself airborne and really flying the thing. At the equivalent stage with Impact School of Motoring you would still be learning de-mister from fog light, and wouldn't even have turned the key.

"I have control," says the voice. "This time, we'll try some tight turns. Follow me through on the controls." And suddenly, though your hand may be following the stick firmly to the right, your stomach goes equally firmly to the left and your mind goes into orbit. The plane banks over so steeply that the landscape sweeps by, towns and villages eaten up under the glider's nose until you're heading back the way you came, maybe farther round, maybe into another county - maybe you've simply no idea. Nothing could prepare you for the speed, least of all when you are watching these apparently languid aircraft from the ground.

"You have control," says the voice again. "Now it's your turn." Tentatively - for all I know, an over-enthusiastic attempt will send us into an unrecoverable spin - I move the stick well to the right and slightly back. We zoom round in response and this time my breakfast and brain are only moments behind, feeling the perfect sensation of raw power without its usual hallmarks of noise, vibration and being on the edge of control. It's breathtaking.

A few more of these, and we're heading for home. I still have control, I have my bearings and I even have some confidence. Just head towards the hill beyond and to the right of those cows down below. Easy-peasy. But approaching the ground, for the first time, gives a sudden indication of speed. The cows are long gone and the hill's looking bigger all the time. I'd really like the voice to tell me to turn. This is definitely the bit the glider won't do on its own.

Suddenly the airbrakes are on, and the voice, sounding more relaxed than me, asks me to turn. I oblige. Dropping quickly towards the airfield, still going like the clappers, I'm straining to hear just three more words, which come in the nick of time before touching down. Just as well - we're not supposed to cover landing until next week.

Learning to glide

Gliding is accessible in most parts of the country. The British Gliding Association (BGA, 0116-253 1051) can provide details of clubs around the UK and leaflets outlining how to start gliding. Clubs vary in size; some operate only at weekends, though the biggest are seven-days-a-week, year- round operations.

Practically anyone can learn to glide, though exceptionally short, tall or overweight people may have problems. The learning process is fast and intriguing. The initial emphasis is on non-confrontational, confidence- building techniques, getting you to do things (such as flying the glider) before thinking about them. The most critical safety issues are avoiding obstacles such as other aircraft, and taking responsibility at an early stage for keeping a thorough look out for hazards. At the London Gliding Club (01582 663419) in Dunstable, these can include Luton Airport Jumbos and, on landings, Whipsnade Safari Park rhinos.

Clubs offer trial lessons and the opportunity to learn to fly solo for well under pounds 1,000, making this a relatively cheap form of flying. It's also considered very safe. Two methods are used for getting airborne: winch launches which are cheap and thrilling, and aerotows (being pulled by a plane) which typically take the glider two or three times as high to give much more gliding-time, particularly in winter.

During the course of training to fly solo, the principles of soaring are also taught, enabling height to be gained by riding thermals and wind "waves". Soaring is sometimes characterised as three-dimensional chess, due to its tactical, calculating nature. It's an essential part of cross- country flying, during which vast distances can be covered by expert pilots. Aerobatics are also possible.

Thanks to Chris Pullen ("the voice"), Chairman of the BGA Instructor's Committee.

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