Thursday, 8 July 2010
The last activity birthday pressie was a while back. A day's gliding in Essex or was it Norfolk? I really didn't know what to expect when I arrived at this frankly run down airfield at the end of a long dirt track.
The classes were run by a local group and their HQ was an old club house. It was like stepping back to the 2nd World War and the fighter squadrons that kept the Hun from Blighty's door. Low leather sofa, ashtrays, and pictures of redoubtable aviators dressed up in leathers and handle-bar moustaches. The refreshment was less "Battle of Britain" more "On the Buses", instant coffee and sandwiches the cost of which was not included in the flying fee.
I was the only non club member there that day and I was marched over the hanger. That's where the stars hung out. Beautifully sleek creatures: these weren't planes they were birds. They had ridiculously long wings which rested on blocks; otherwise they would bend and snap. My instructor pointed to a rather fetching little yellow number. We hitched it onto a trolley, dragged it to the Land Rover which trundled it and us to the middle of the airfield and what I swear was a decommissioned holiday coach.
There I joined the other flyers and watched as, one by one, they ambled over to their flying machines and seated in the cockpit waited to be hitched up to the winch which was to launch them into the clouds.
At the far end of the airfield stood the huge engine which drove the winch that pulled the gliders into the air. Just before each launch there would be a huge roar and a cloud of exhaust as the machine wound in the wire. As the wire tightened the glider shivered and then began to trundle along the grass and then, slowly to begin with, lift off the ground. In an instant the glider was almost vertical ascending at an astonishing rate and at the top of its ascent it would disengage from the cable which fell back to earth and she'd be free. It was a thrilling sight and I was going to be part of it.
Then it was my turn. I'd already climbed into my parachute, the straps of which gripped me reassuringly if tightly. We climbed into the machine; me in front the instructor behind. A few instructions on how to go up and down, left and right, before "Don't worry, I haven't lost anyone yet." He may have thought those words were reassuring in a jokey way - not I. The next thing we were off over the grass, off the ground and then, the glider was, I swear, standing on its tail, so rapid was the ascent.
I been given the pleasure of releasing the clasp at the top of the climb. "Now", said my companion and the clasp and wire fell away and we rose for a while. "See the glider to your right, he's in a thermal, we'll head for him. Not too close, that's how accidents happen. O.K move the stick to the right." And as I did so the glider banked sharply. We were in a plastic transparent cocoon, which reached down below my waistline. I hadn't appreciated that on the ground. It seemed as if much more than 50% of me was out of the glider - this became thrillingly clear as we banked. I swear it was only my seat strap that stopped me from tumbling over the edge of the cockpit. It felt as if I was suspended in the air.
We managed a number of large circles around the airfield climbing higher and higher and then a final turn, lining up the craft to hit ground parallel to the hedge running along the edge of the field. I was in control as we dropped lower and lower, not continuously but in a series of gentle waves before we landed. Sitting the cockpit waiting for people to secure the wings I unbuckled myself and let out a deep sigh. "When do we go up again?" I enquired.
On the way home I stopped at a pub and had a pint and something to eat. I returned to down to earth Walthamstow an air ace. My wife greeted me with the words "The pub's phoned: you left your wallet on the bar; luckily it had our number."
As I sped off into the wilds of Essex - again, I really didn't mind going another hundred or so miles. In a sense it just extended what was a magical day.