Why am I here? Here being in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where I am about to be dragged into the sky in an engineless airplane. Actually, I know why. It was that newspaper ad I read: "The ultimate gift. Our pilot takes your friends for a breathtaking motorless soaring flight no words can express. Towplane ready. Rope attached. Towed high above the earth, rope released."
Yeah, and then what? After all, death is the ultimate breathtaking experience. Still, the ad hooked me. I had to find out if, in fact, no words can express soaring.
That's why I'm here in Wurtsboro, N.Y., standing by the runway at Wurtsboro Airport, waiting for my turn to climb into a sailplane and be hauled off into the sky at the end of a towrope. Now, suddenly, going up in an airplane with no engine makes about as much sense as jumping off a cliff without a parachute. Of course, people do that. They also jump out of planes. But for me, those sports—hang gliding and skydiving—cross the fine line between pleasurable excitement and terror. Once, when my brother tried to persuade me to ski a particularly challenging mountain, he said, "Don't worry, I can always talk you down." Being talked down (or up, for that matter) means the pleasure scales have tipped to terror. I'm not looking for real danger—only a hint, a reasonable facsimile. I'll take my risk with a modicum of safety, thank you.
Soaring in a sailplane seemed a reasonable compromise. The terror side of the equation is obvious: There's no engine. The pleasure possibilities offset that fear: to soar silently through the air, like an eagle or some other raptor circling as it searches for prey. Except that I would be the one carried away. Rapt and, with any luck, rapturous.
October 1, 1989
At that moment, I witness my first sailplane landing. The angle of descent looks quite steep. But what do I know? After all, the space shuttle is essentially a big glider, and it comes in on a horrifying 19-degree angle.
I notice that this sailplane has only one wheel under its belly. A very tiny wheel. As the glider touches down on that wheel, it seems to be going quite fast. As it rolls out, it comes to what looks like a fairly bumpy stop on the front skid of the nose and tips over on one wing.
"Was there a problem?" I ask the guy next to me. "No, no," he replies, "that was a pretty good landing." I suddenly feel much worse. There is obviously quite a bit to it, and not all of it entirely comfortable. An army of butterflies goes on maneuvers in my stomach.
"So," I say, "are these good weather conditions today?"
Bill Soukup, a hydro-geologist who for three years has been moonlighting on weekends as a soaring instructor, overhears this conversation and answers, rather patiently it seems to me, "There are several ways to soar. You can fly on the thermals created by the sun. Or you can fly off the winds from that ridge over there." He points to a ridge that stretches from one horizon to the other and says, "On a good day, with a west wind and thermals, you can fly along that ridge all the way to Pennsylvania, about 150 miles away, and back."
I notice that there is no sunshine for thermals and no wind to speak of, so I'm fairly sure I won't be heading for Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, Soukup assures me that this is "an excellent day for a first ride." Why? "Nothing too startling up there to shake you up." To a person who sometimes has trouble with turbulence on a 747, this comes as a relief.
"Tell me about thermals," I ask, wishing that on this cool day I were wearing some. Soukup explains how the thermals he was referring to occur when the sun warms the ground and that warms the air above it. "The warm air rises in columns," says Soukup, "but not evenly. It's just like water boiling in a pot." On a sunny day with puffy cumulus clouds, he tells me, you can hopscotch your glider from one thermal to another.
"How do you know where they are?" I ask.
"Follow the eagles," says Soukup. "They know where the thermals are." A wonderful answer, even if he is putting me on. But I think not. Everyone else I've been talking with shares a similar, almost poetic, vision of the sport.
However, as I watch the Cessna yank another glider off into the wild gray yonder, I wonder whether I've made the right decision by signing up for a lesson in operating a glider—as opposed to merely a "fly and ride"—the first time out of the gate. But I can always change my mind midairstream and revert to a demonstration ride.
My turn is next. I'll be flying a two-person trainer with dual controls and a wingspan of about 52 feet. "These aircraft," reads the Wurtsboro Flight Service pamphlet, "have an unparalleled reputation for safety and performance." I hope the instructor has a similar reputation. No history of heart trouble, for example. Visions of being "talked down" dance in my head.
When pilot Bill Getter finally appears, he seems healthy enough. In fact, he looks rather dashing, in a Red Baron sort of way, complete with scarf. The very picture of cool experience. Later, when we are airborne, the 55-year-old Getter tells me he has been soaring for only a few years and that it took him 40 years to work up his nerve to try the sport. "I was chicken," he says.
But as I am being strapped into the sailplane, I don't know that. It's just as well, because I am beginning to get the same sensation I get when the safety bar is pulled down at the beginning of a roller coaster ride. My mind screams let me out! but, for some reason, my mouth doesn't utter the words. Frozen with fear, I suppose.
Sitting behind me, Getter must sense what I'm feeling, because he says, "I do the takeoff and the tow. Once we get up to 2,500 feet, there's nothing you can do to get us in trouble."
"There's nothing I can do to get us in trouble," I repeat, mantralike.
"There's absolutely nothing you can do to get us in trouble," he says. A pause. "Unless you freeze on the controls." Oh, god.
Getter gives me instructions, and I try to concentrate on the words. I hear the towplane's engine revving up. Oh, god.
He tells me about the controls: "That's your airspeed indicator. We'll be flying about 70 miles per hour on the tow, and once we get off the tow, we'll be flying about 40 to 45. This one is the altimeter. And this handle here is your trimmer." He points to a lever on my lower left.
"Right. Now, once we get off the tow, I'll have you pull that back two notches. Basically, it's like a cruise control on your car. This over here is called a variometer. It tells whether we are going up or down, and by how much."
You mean, I won't know whether I'm going up or down? How many notches am I supposed to pull that thing? And when? Why am I here?
No time for dumb questions—or existential ones, for that matter. Getter is pointing to a little piece of yarn flying from an antennalike device on the nose of the plane. "That's a yaw string. That's what glider pilots fly by," he says.
"It tells me where the wind is coming from?" I ask.
"Well, no, it tells you if you're flying correctly into the wind. You can be going sideways over the ground, but if the glider is going straight, then the string will be back straight."
I have no idea what he's talking about. Because he's sitting behind me, Getter can't see the panic on my face as the canopy is closed over our heads. We're still on the ground, but the butterflies in my stomach are in full flight.
The single-engine Cessna heads down the runway pulling us along behind it. Suddenly, very suddenly, we're airborne, even before the Cessna is, like a kite being pulled by a child. Ahead, finally, the towplane begins to climb. So does my blood pressure. Getter is talking again: "What's your name?"
This strikes me as incongruous, considering we've just shared the intimate, breathtaking thrill of takeoff under the same canopy. I think it strikes him as routine. "Judy," I say.
"Well, Judy, do you know much about airplanes?"
"A little bit." He's asking this now!
"What we try to do on the tow is keep the glider in a fixed position with the towplane. Now, using your feet on the rudder pedals, try to keep us lined up there." Out of the corner of my eye I see a hand pointing to a spot on the rear of the Cessna.
I push down on the left pedal and the glider's nose moves to the left. I try the right pedal. Nose moves to the right. I am thrilled. Keeping us lined up with the towplane, I work the pedals with aplomb. Then I look down. I don't scream, but it's close. The altimeter reads 1,100 feet.
"O.K.," says Getter, "I'll take the controls until the release."
With Getter flying the plane, I relax a bit. The view is spectacular, the mountain road winding down the valley and the green hills unfolding into the distance. It all seems much closer than from a regular plane, even a small one. Perhaps it's the bubble canopy that expands my sight lines. Whatever it is, I decide I like it.
"Now, just before we release," says Getter, "I'm going to bring the nose up just a bit and then drop it a little, to put some slack in the rope. Don't worry, it's not a screaming dive."
Cue the butterflies. "And then what?" I ask.
"We're going to do a right-hand turn," he says. "The towplane does a left-hand turn. That's so we get good separation."
So this is it: the cutting of the umbilical cord, Dumbo losing his magic feather, the moment of truth. Or, as they say, the point of no return.
The towrope releases with a thunk. It sounds like the trapdoor dropping on a gallows. Just as suddenly and fatefully, Getter tells me I am back in control of the plane. My gasp is audible. The difference between being towed and floating on air, sans tether, is tangible and immediate. I pull back the trimmer with my left hand, as instructed, and feel the glider slow. We are going 40 mph, but it seems as though we are hardly moving.
Except, that is, for the sound. I had expected soaring to be a quiet experience, especially on such a calm day. But this is no whisper of a wind. It's a stage whisper, enveloping its captive audience. On a blustery day, one suspects, it would be a roaring soliloquy. What's missing is the sound of anything mechanical, like an engine. It is downright eerie.
We've circled to the right. The towplane is gone. "You see those mountains in front of us?" asks Getter.
"Yes." In fact, they're all I see. We're headed straight for the ridge.
"I want you to try to maintain a constant attitude between the top of the instrument panel and that horizon," he says.
Getter thinks I am ready to try a few maneuvers with the control stick, dipping down and back up. Everything seems to move in slow motion. "Now," says Getter, "I want you to give it a little bit of right stick and right rudder at the same time."
I do this, and get high marks for keeping the piece of yarn dead center. For someone who didn't know a yaw string from a shoestring an hour ago, I'm feeling pretty cocky—until, that is, we hit a bump. A big bump.
"What was that?" I say. This time I do scream. That, Getter explains, is just a bump of air. On a windy day, we would be bucking through a lot more of them. I can't help but wonder how many people have been sick in this man's glider.
"You go ahead and play with the controls," he says, "and be aware of what you're doing. Remember, you can't get us into any trouble."
I play with the controls for a couple of minutes. Then I see it. "There's a plane in front of us," I say with rising panic. "Why don't you fly now." With that, my hands-on soaring experience comes to an end for the day. My flight has reverted to a demonstration ride.
No regrets, though, because flying and riding are two separate and worthwhile sensations. I liked concentrating on the controls, on the attitude of the plane, feeling the wind and responding to it. But I also like floating, free of tension, along the ridge. Instead of the sounds of instruction, I hear only the sounds of the wind, which are varied.
The ride is over too soon. We head back for our "box turn" landing. With no thermals or winds to speak of, I wonder why we haven't dropped more rapidly. Says Getter, "These trainers have a glide ratio of about 23 to 1. That means for every foot of altitude they lose, they go forward about 23 feet. Theoretically, having been released at 2,500 feet, we could travel for about 12 miles with no thermals or wind at all, just air. On a day with strong thermals, you can climb about a thousand feet a minute. But today, with no thermals or ridge lift, we're just riding air."
The air we happen to be riding suddenly seems a lot closer to the ground. And now Getter is talking about the mechanics of landing.
"If you'll look down underneath the wing, either wing, you'll see a little flap. See that?"
I give a perfunctory glance, but all I really see is the ground coming closer. "That's called a dive brake," Getter says. "Since we don't have a motor, we always come in higher than we need to. Once you know you're going to make the field, that enables you to increase your angle of descent without picking up any speed."
"Say, Bill, uh, what kind of angle of descent are we looking forward to here?" I ask. My voice seems to rise as we go lower.
We hit a patch of what Getter calls "moderate turbulence." I notice that the yaw string is a bit off to the right. I feel compelled to mention this.
"That's all right," he says, "we're just doing a bit of a slip as we come in for the final approach." A slip, I'm told, can increase drag and steepen the descent.
I remember one other thing about the space shuttle. "Because it has no power," says the tape playing in my head, "it has one shot at landing. There is no go-around." We're now into our one shot at a landing. I think of that little wheel and wish I hadn't. The wind gets louder as we get lower and then: clunk, clunk-clunkety, clunk. The sailplane's wings bump along the runway. My body, made of softer stuff, bumps along with them.
Then, nothing—no more wind, no more rattles. The glider has tipped over on one wing, spent. I empathize.
"Wow!" is all I can manage.
"Well," says Getter, "we promised 15 minutes and you got 15 minutes."
Fifteen minutes? This information gives new meaning to the concept of time. If you can fit that many sensations into 15 minutes, what must it be like to soar and dip for an hour or more? To fly the ridge all the way to Pennsylvania? To migrate south for the winter?
As I walk away from the sailplane, I pass other would-be raptors waiting their turn. They look uncertain. I feel cock-of-the-walk, certain of myself. I also feel certain that I will try gliding again—maybe on a day when I can hopscotch those thermals, a day when I can follow the eagles.
I buy a book called The Joy of Soaring before I leave the airport. A thumb-through tells me it was wise to save this for postflight reading. The headings alone would have kept me grounded. "The Unintentional High Speed Spiral," reads one. "Fouling the Glider in the Towline," reads another. Worst of all, "Action to Be Taken If There Should Be an Unplanned Tow Release, Assuming Inhospitable Terrain."
But the lingering elation of my very full 15 minutes of flight, true flight, is an effective antidote to such dire, down-to-earth warnings. I am floating on air because, in fact, I did float on air.
Judy Muller is the anchor for "Correspondent's Notebook "on the CBS Radio Network.