Soaring higher at the whim of the wind

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I try to sit comfortably in my seat on my parachute. Airbrakes closed and locked. Canopy closed and locked. I check the rope – all good for hookup.

Everything set to go.

The airplane in front of me starts moving down the runway.

“All out, all out,” I say into the radio – meaning good to go, let’s take off.

The pilot does. He starts to pull me down the runway.

I get off to a shaky start – the glider is all over the airstrip. For an instant, I think about pulling the release, ending this all before I’m up in the air.

I don’t.

A few minutes later, I’m up 2,000 feet. Flying.

All alone.

I circle, testing my newly-approved abilities as a glider pilot, flying a plane without an engine.

Looking around, I see the beautiful Alberta countryside in October, fields not quite cleared and sun lowering in the sky. I hear nothing but wind.

Taking off

I joined the Edmonton Soaring Club (ESC), based in Chipman, in March 2016.

I started with ground school, four eight-hour days of learning meteorology, safety, the theory of flight and the parts of a glider.

At first, I was intimidated. I had no idea how I was supposed to learn everything.

But the club members – instructors, pilots and other students – are incredibly helpful.

Over the course of the past two summers, I have taken 43 instructional flights with people who have been flying gliders for years. They pass on their knowledge, anecdotes and, quite literally, teach me to fly.

ESC’s chief flight instructor Jason Acker said he likes teaching. A professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Alberta, he said his position with ESC is a volunteer role.

“I wouldn’t put the hours in if I didn’t enjoy it,” he said.

He said the club does not run as a commercial operation, but instead relies on volunteers. Instructors, tow pilots, groundskeepers, hangar-builders – no one in the club gets paid, he said.

“Everyone has a role to play, and you’ve got to figure out what that role is,” Acker said.

Instruction is free with membership to the club. After a pilot gets a license, they can also look into levelling up with instruction on elements of gliding like aerobatics or long-distance flying.

“Even after license, there are continued development opportunities,” he said. “Through the FAI (World Air Sports Federation) badge program, which is a skill-based development program, to instructing to aerobatics to cross-country flying to competitive soaring – there’s lots and lots of opportunities to continue to grow in this, and getting licensed is really just the first step.”

Culture

Acker said becoming a pilot is just one aspect of the club.

“It’s the camaraderie, the bringing together people with a shared interest,” he said.

Westlock resident John Broomhall – who was a management consultant in the computer business – is in his 34th gliding season and is one of the club’s tow pilots. He said he has always enjoyed the club atmosphere.

“You always have a group of people to run a gliding operation,” he said, adding that a club house was built soon after he joined. “Which made all the difference, just in terms of the lifestyle out there. You could actually bring your families out and have social events out there.”

Trevor Finney, an instructor at ESC, is a semi-retired doctor who works at the Westlock Healthcare Centre. He said he flew hang gliders for about 20 years, learning how to sail through the skies by jumping off the same mountain in South Africa that his father had used in 1938 when he was learning how to fly primary gliders.

“I started flying gliders in 2006, because I realized that hang gliding was too dangerous for me,” Finney said. “So I swapped to gliding and used my hang gliding experience to fly gliders.”

He said he flies at ESC for proximity, but also because he finds “a great core group of pilots.”

“I like the variety of personality,” he said. “And the preparedness to look beyond, toward the broad outlook.”

Brains over brawn

I have heard the joke that gliding is “falling with style.”

Really, if the weather’s good, you should be climbing with style.

In a glider, you’re at the whim of the wind. It pushes you around. The ground changes the way you fly, because it affects the way the air moves.

You’re always looking for “thermals” – updrafts caused by the sun heating the earth and making air pockets rise. Gliders can ride these thermals upward, sometimes for thousands of feet of “lift.”

You can also find other types of lift like “ridge” winds or “wave” lift, which can form around mountains.

“We’ve had members who are in their mid-90s who are still active in soaring because it’s not a physical sport; it’s a mental sport that you can continue to develop,” Acker said. “As Bruce Friesen said, ‘It’s playing chess with the sky.’”

Friesen wrote in an email that he was not sure that he invented the phrase or heard it somewhere, but he liked it.

“The idea, of course, is that a pilot flying cross-country is always thinking several moves ahead, and, recognizing the sky gets to make its moves as well, one is always thinking “and if…” he wrote.

Down to earth

Two critical moments of a flight are takeoff and landing. It’s when things can go wrong, because there is so much happening and little room for error.

My instructors taught me to become almost robotic in my actions. Assess the situation. Determine your options. Act. Repeat.

“Fly the plane,” is a mantra. Whatever you do, always fly the plane.

And so, I fly the plane and my first solo landing was exactly as I wanted it.

My reference point was set early, and I met it perfectly. Nice circuit. Good, safe descent.

I drifted downward smoothly, and after I had rolled on the ground and come to a complete stop, both wings were still hovering above the ground – a sign of balance.

It was a beautiful first flight.

There have already been more, and I look forward to the rest.

Allendria Brunjes is the publisher of the Athabasca Advocate.

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Allendria Brunjes is the publisher of the Athabasca Advocate.