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Trip Recap: Glider Soaring

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I slide my legs into the channels around my pilot's seat. The controls into the cockpit look remarkably simple: a center stick for control, a knob to operate the air brake flaps on the wings, and a few gauges that display altitude, speed, and barometric pressure. From the back seat I can't read all of them, but I trust the pilot, Matt, a young man of 28 who looks like he's 16, knows what they mean. The glider owner's daughter, who isn't yet 15 and looks every bit her age, attaches the rope from the tow plane to a small metal ring under the nose of our aircraft, then stabilizes us by simply lifting up on one of wing tips. We lock down the glass hatch, the line pulls taut, and it's thumbs up; we're ready for takeoff.


Faster than I'd imagined we're picking up speed, skimming over the grass airfield. Every move our tow plane makes we mimick in the glider, climbing higher and higher above the trees. The Delaware Water Gap is southwest and dead ahead. Blairstown, NJ, is shrinking behind us. We circle up to 3,000' and Matt instructs me to pull the red knob on my left. I hear a "ping" as the tow rope is released. The sound of the plane's propeller dies to a muffled buzz as it peels off to our left. We slow to 50 miles per hour, the optimal speed for efficient gliding. Matt points out a few landmarks, including the Manhattan skyline just barely perceptible on the horizon. He asks me, "Do you want to take over the controls?" This is what I've been waiting for.

Cautiously I tilt the yoke left and slightly forward. We go left. I tilt the yoke back and to the right, and we level off. Then right and left again, and we have swerved through the sky. I push the yoke forward and we descend, now at about 60 miles per hour. I pull back and level off. "You're a natural!" Matt tells me. "Do you like roller coasters?"

He takes back the controls, and then we enter a steep, gut-churning dive. He pulls up, and my head goes a little light. I would cheer if I could only catch my breath, but in a moment we go from staring straight down the wing at a forest of all shades of green to arcing towards the sun and I figure I had better just sit tight. Hard left, hard right, more up and down; this goes on for a few minutes. I start fiddling with the air vents, certain that I may very likely barf up the carrots and trail mix I had eaten before being seated. Matt has clearly tested the thresholds of rookie flyers' constitutions before, and as I wonder whether I have bitten off more than I can chew he brings us back to level and resumes the charming sightseeing portion of the flight. My dread vanishes.

We slowly descend toward town, over the airport, then double back to prepare for landing. "I think we can hit 100 miles an hour on this last turn," Matt tells me. Sure enough, the gauge says 100 as we cruise over the corn field at the end of the runway. Matt applies the air brakes on the wings, and we gently touch down in the grass, safe on terra firma once again.

Brent has been guiding with Discover Outdoors since May 2010 and has written articles for JAMROCK Magazine and Fjallraven, in addition to the Discover Outdoors blog.