The two most lethal words in aviation are “watch this.” Less known is that the four most dangerous words in storytelling are “this is absolutely true.” What follows, however, is.
This didn’t happen TO me it happened around me. There is a ridge in England that faces Wales—Tolkien country infested with hobbits, shires, exquisitely beautiful hamlets and the dark mines of Mordor. From this land the wind blows from the south west and thus provides endless and constant LIFT for birds and other flying things. The gliding club which introduced me to flight, far far back in the 60s was sited at the intersection of two critical components of engineless flight; lift and stunning beauty.
I have strong feelings about flight. I believe it should start in gliders (sailplanes). Since they live in a constant crisis of permanently crashing, the student learns to love gravity, FLY the aircraft and find LIFT. Thus, when in later life an engine quits the first reaction, intuitive, familiar, is to ease the nose down and reconsider the beauty of silent flight. Panic? Why? Spent hours doing this. Now, where to land….
I actually truly believe no one should fly without passing through the stages of gliding and taildragging and only then go spend a bunch and get glass. Otherwise what do you know? Go straight to a glass cockpit and you’ll die when your battery fails. C’mon, it’s a video game with bumps.
Watch a power boat driver in a crosswinded marina. It makes you want to scream for the approved stages of sailing: rubber duck in bathtub, dinghy with oars, then a small sail, then a big one —one foot of boat for every year of your age. Go on, watch a newly minted powerboat owner backing a floating mortgage into a slip, beetroot of face, hoarse and utterly screwed. If you don’t feel it, all the horsepower in the known world won’t help. You have to learn things progressively and with application, not all at once with a check book.
I digress, and for a very good reason. Gliding isn’t just about flying, it is about purity and I am about to prove it.
My gliding CFI was a professor of chemistry at the university where I drank away my early promise. It had many notice boards and one of them had a grubby notice in this professor’s hand; “come gliding. 7 days board, lodging and flight instruction. 13 pounds (sterling, about 20 bucks).” Cheaper than staying in town. He was a truly fine flier, taught us well and we almost all went solo in that week on the ridge. One of us became the chief pilot for British Airways. Another became a CFI. A third gave up academy and industry and drove the glider launch winch for forty years. All are happy men.
Mission accomplished, our CFI took off to do his gliding Diamond cross country—a few hundred miles in a triangle clawed across England—a meteorologically unreliable and blustery place. Bear in mind he took off and at 1,000 feet elected to effectively have an engine failure, dropping the launch cable and wandering off for a long cross country at pattern altitude. Without a radio.
We last saw him burrowing away under some cumulous towards the South-east. We flew the day on the ridge, riding the lift, manoeuvering with enormous care and sweating coordinated turns to grab every foot of lift there was; like he said “fly it like you’re milking a mouse.” We launched each other and wore away the day watching ourselves become airmen. There was one woman. One of us married her but I won’t go into that since it wasn’t me.
Our CFI flew all day and covered over 350 miles. By 19.00 his lift was failing and he was 40 miles from home. Despite coaxing lift from stubble-burning and the occasional tin roof he had 400 feet left and that long field by the big stone manor house looked dead right. 400 feet is a lot in a glider if you understand what to do with it. And he’d already done his Diamond Distance. So—low but happy.
Peter—that’s as far as I’ll define him—came in steep and accurate as a missile; dive brakes are good at that because in gliders you don’t get to do go-arounds; bad approaches are not an option. He flared, touched his single wheel to the grass and coasted nicely towards a brakeless stop. Stirring full control inputs as he slowed he became aware of something odd. Something not right. Speeding alongside and just off his wingtip was a penguin.
Almost 10 hours of engineless flight had taken a psychological toll. Nursing precious lift, coaxing advantage from topography, reading the wind like a seer, peeing in a bottle—he was imagining things.
His Dart sailplane stopped, fell over like an exhausted Labrador and Peter opened the canopy. The evening balm swept him; he swears a distant church bell was ringing on the light breeze. A smell of warm mown hay drifted over this pastoral paradise to which fate and vanishing thermals had brought him.
He had all but forgotten his hallucination when it unsportingly reappeared, bearing down upon him from the wingtip. This penguin was in fact a man in butlerish attire bearing a silver tray on which was a crisp gin and tonic. “His lordship bids you good evening sir and asks that you join him for dinner?”
The butler surveyed my CFI as if measuring him. “His lordship pointed out that as you have no motive power he could rely upon your acceptance. Sir.” Peter clambered out and accepted the gin the tonic and the invitation.
“His Lordship is familiar with aviation, sir, he flew Camels during The Great War in 1915. He misses it, Sir.”
Stable lads were summoned to guard the flying machine from ruminants. Peter was escorted to the large manor house and shown a room; the bathtub was already running. He blissfully, dreamily soaked away the day and enjoyed a second gin and tonic. Resuming his room he found a suit of clothes had been laid out and were a very decent fit. He put them on along with the third gin and tonic thoughtfully placed on a side table by the butler, who advised him that dinner would be in ten minutes and was pleased that his sartorial estimations had proved satisfactory.
Thus the evening passed over a fine dinner, excellent conversation and his lordship’s truly astounding flying stories—one of which I will later relate. It was late when Peter retired exhausted, satiated and happy. He slept deeply.
We did not. From the cracked and blustered windows of the clubhouse we watched the sun set over the western mountains, ate ravenously, and wondered what the hell had happened to Peter? No call came. No map reference for the retrieve crew to head for. By ten o’clock the opinion of the gentlemen at the bar was that it was time to start calling hospitals and policemen along his intended route. We kept at it until midnight and then slept fitfully. We were 19 years old. Somebody pointed out that this was probably like waiting for a missing aircraft during WW2—one of our CFIs is missing we joked. Sort of. We stepped back a generation. We learned we were not immortal. We encountered the somber wraith of respect.
Peter woke to a dawn tap on the door, a polite cough, the morning tea and an apology—the London Times had not yet arrived. Reality arrived instead—the efficient CFI awash in hospitality and fine flying conversation with a wonderful old airman had forgotten to call in to his retrieve crew. Unforgivable. They must be beside themselves with worry!
“Not at all sir, they are enjoying a substantial breakfast with the stable hands.”
The butler explained:
“Last evening when you retired I took the liberty of returning to your aeroplane with a torch (flashlight) and ascertained the telephone number of your flying club … pasted on the canopy, sir. They arrived about an hour ago. Your clothes are laundered and currently being pressed. Your aeroplane is already folded and inside a trailer.”
Peter had a difficult ride home. The incident cost him many beers that evening.
For months would-be diamond triangulates hunted for that manor house. Only one actually found it and was not disappointed.
Apart from teaching you how to fly with some subtlety, gliding has many other merits. You’re never really sure where you’ll end up which, I maintain, is very much the point. I mean, with a nice glass cockpit and all those satellites and a completely reliable engine you always know where you’re going and exactly how you’ll get there. Predictable. But you’re probably met by nice people too.
However, next time and just for fun, try it without an engine.
And don’t panic. The sound you’ll hear is called flight.
About the Author
Michelle Goodeve and Glenn Norman were working in New Zealand as Story Editors for the “White Fang” TV series when the Producer announced that he wanted them to create a “Search & Rescue” spin-off series … for free. Their agent said “No Way,” so—in punishment—a well-known Hollywood screenwriter was hired to fly down from L.A., write some “Fang” Eps, and create the new series in lieu of Norman & Goodeve. However, the “punishment” back-fired because the screenwriter turned out to be Steve Roberts, an antique-airplane-lover just like Glenn & Michelle. (And the couple soon learned the real reason Steve had taken the job was so he could fly taildraggers around N.Z.!)
In the years that followed, Glenn & Michelle became great friends with Steve. They wrote for him on three seasons of the animated “Redwall” series. Steve visited (and flew with them) in Canada. Glenn & Michelle visited (and flew in his beautiful Stinson) in L.A. And as Steve’s son, Toby, shares the same birthday as Glenn, the couple flew to England to celebrate Glenn’s 50th birthday with them. (Steve seems to have houses, rare British cars, pirate ships & airplanes stashed all over the world!)
As you’ve just discovered—Steve is a wonderful writer and the kind of storyteller who can regale you with tales for weeks (without ever repeating himself.) His professional track record is so long and impressive that we’ll simply point you to his IMDB entry, which contains some of Steve’s highlights (including his creation of a character named “Max Headroom.”)
As for Steve’s Why Fly story … “From the Kilo Kid” is a reference to Steve’s beloved “Mr. Stinson,” A.K.A. N9615 Kilo.
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