Look, I may not be a chainsaw or Home Depot kinda guy, but how many of you tree-felling, drywall-nailing types have ever ridden in a glider?
It happened many years ago when I was in Germany. I was visiting a friend in a nearby town, and he raved about his recent flight in a glider and suggested that I might want to head over to the local airport where for twenty or so Marks (which was something like $5.00 back then) I could take a ride in a glider. Being young and not wanting to look like a complete chickenshit, I agreed.
I expected to find a multi-passenger aircraft, not unlike those (although not as large) used by the Allied Forces on D Day. What I found was a sleek looking two-seater with bigass wings. I was already beginning to have second thoughts, but bravado had taken me this far, so I went along.
The pilot turned out to be a fellow considerably older than I was at the time, and he was right out of Central Casting for the part of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot, white scarf and all. Upon chatting with him, I learned that, in fact, he had been a pilot in the Luftwaffe. He was a very friendly guy, and he certainly looked competent as hell, so I figured I would be in good hands. Besides, I did not get the impression that he was looking to settle any old scores by crashing both of us into the ground.
I hopped in the rear seat, which is located essentially on the “floor” of the glider. I had to situate my legs on either side of the pilot’s seat. The pilot checked the connection of the tow cable and then hopped in. He told me to buckle up, and he closed the canopy. We were about ready to rock.
In the past, I had seen movies of gliders and, in each case, the glider was towed aloft by a tow plane. When the glider reached the desired altitude, the glider pilot released the cable.
Not so with this glider.
It turned out that way, way at the other end of the airfield was a large motor, which turned a large spool that reeled in the tow cable. The pilot very proudly explained that the motor was a “Rocket 88” engine. Yes, that’s right. The airfield had gotten its hands on an old Oldsmobile Rocket 88 V-8 engine and attached it to the cable spool. When the pilot gives the signal (via radio) to the Spool Guy, the Spool Guy would rev hell out of the Rocket 88 and pop the clutch.
And, that’s just the way it happened. Of course, as we were bouncing along the grass at ever-increasing speed, I could not help but consider the consequences of a failure of the cable release mechanism and what it would be like to be dragged out of the air by a Rocket 88 and slammed into the ground. Fortunately, the cable release worked.
It was quite remarkable. The absence of an engine and, therefore, the absence of any engine sound, gives one the sensation of how it must feel to be a bird in flight. I then learned something that I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I had not realized until that day.
I had always thought that a glider, much like a paper airplane or one of those balsa wood toy planes we tossed as kids, went up in the air and gracefully came down. Nothing more. Of course that is wrong.
The pilot showed me how easy it was for him to gain altitude by riding the currents, just like a bird. He showed me the role that the temperature of the air plays in flying. He kept the controls in one position as we flew over fields and grassy areas. When we flew over the parking lot, I could feel the glider dramatically gain altitude, which, as the pilot explained, was the result of the air being warmer over the black-topped parking lot. He then proudly explained to me that his father had won some kind of award for staying aloft in a glider over that airfield for twenty-four hours.
The glider had no landing gear (although it may have had one wheel or two wheels – like in-line skate wheels built into the fuselage – but, I really don’t think so), and, as such, the landing was, by definition, “rough” as you and the glider bounced along on the grass, with the ground inches from your rear end.
It was quite an experience being, even for a few minutes, just like a boid.
OK, maybe I’m not as gutsy as I led you to believe. The truth is that, while I was still gathering up my nerve at the airfield, Mrs. Parkway hopped into the glider, and it was she who flew first. It figures. She likes to shop at Home Depot.