Fly Like an Eagle! リックの初フライト
Rick soaring over Omura City. Photo: Mr.Y
The weather forecast last Sunday was marginal with rain likely. We went to Nagasaki mostly because Rick caught a glider on a tree branch, managing to tear one of the suspension lines. While small fabric tears can be repaired at home, line damage needs to be repaired professionally. These lines are less than 2mm thick and each can hold body weight. Rather than being knotted, they are attached by small sewn loops at their ends for maximum strength and their length is adjusted to millimeter precision, so that a line repair is not something one can normally do at home. The mishap emphasized the importance of treating the glider like your life depends on it (obviously!); this too is a good lesson that every beginner must learn. With some embarrassment we returned the glider to Mr. Y, our oyakata (guru) for repairs.
In the end, were we ever glad we made the trip! Though the air was humid and light rain wafted down several times, conditions were in fact exceptional for flying, with the air buoyant yet smooth. The takeoff area had a gentle, steady uphill breeze – perfect! Several club members were able to soar hundreds of meters above the Mt. Kotohira’s 334 meter summit, while others immediately offered to take us on tandem flights. It was finally our turn to be lofted into the air by a glider! With a view toward the eventual first solo flight, I resolved to not get too nervous or excited by my tandem ride; I would instead try to soak in the sensory input and incorporate it into my sphere of comfortable surroundings.
I had to wait, standing patiently and still for about ten minutes on the steep takeoff slope while my pilot waited for a good wind. Before me was an expansive view of the city of Omura with its eponymous bay swathed in the mists of early spring. Suddenly I noticed my heart beginning to race. My knees began to quiver; I convinced myself this was from standing in an awkward position, and tried to shift my feet somewhat to relieve the strain. Then suddenly, I was told, ‘Run!’ which I did, and a moment later we were in the air. A slight swaying motion first reminded me of riding on a ski lift, but seconds later the ground receded so far below my feet that there was no question we were flying. With an experienced pilot at the controls, I just sat there and stared. The unobstructed wide-angle view of the three-dimensional landscape slowly drifting by, the caress of a gentle stream of cool air on my face, the mesmerizing feeling of cutting a steep turn through the air…these are things that ought to be experienced at least once by everyone. If a jetliner is like a bus, a light single-engine plane like a car, a glider is like a bicycle coasting down a mountain road. Or a kayak following a rocky seashore slowly, closely, and quietly, traveling that special slice of space inaccessible to faster, motorized travel – a magic space where one can look at the world from the outside and yet not be removed from it.
Video of Leanne's tandem ride. Enjoy!
My effort to remain calm seemed to be successful and even after the landing, I did not sense much adrenaline. Instead, I felt light and free, not unlike after a yoga session. But even meditation could prepare me for what came next. H-sensei, one of our respected instructors, brought me a new yellow canopy. Watching me practice the takeoff sequence several times at the landing zone, he proclaimed ‘Now you are going to fly’. About half a dozen club members immediately swarmed me, and before I knew it I was sitting in a car winding its way up the mountain road. My new friends egged me on excitedly, their faces shining like schoolkids’: ‘Don’t worry, in Sensei’s hands, you can do this whole thing blindfolded!’ I should note that besides being a paraglider of exceptional talent, Sensei is also a radio control model freak. I would soon become his life size, if somewhat recalcitrant, flying dummy. Minutes later, I found myself once more on the steep mountaintop, the controls of a glider in my own hands this time. A month of solid practice was about to be put to the ultimate test. The wind was perfect and steady, and I too was somehow reassuringly calm. ‘Anytime you’re ready’. I double-checked that my lines weren’t tangled or wrapped around anywhere, though my friends had already done this for me. I tugged the glider into the air. It came up readily, but yawed slightly to the left. The moment of no return came and went: after a split-second of hesitation I turned around and let my legs propel me forcefully down the slope, following the glider with the reflex I had trained for weeks. One, two, three big steps and I was airborne.
The most critical moment: starting the launch sequence. Photo. Mr.Y
Unlike my earlier tandem flight, I now found myself focused on control, ignoring the view. Sensei’s voice came over the radio, telling me to turn toward the LZ; this I did without much trouble, but presently my brain became preoccupied with the slightest movements of the glider. It did fly more or less where it was told to, but never failed to remind me it also had a mind of its own. At times it would pitch a bit, and my keyed-up senses would duly amplify the sensation. A rush of wind in my ears, deceleration, a moment of silence, speeding up again…like a tree swing, but a hundred meters in the air! I was now to fly straight, and for a while there were no instructions on the radio. With nothing to do, I began to feel a bit nervous. I decided to try controlling the pitching with subtle movements of the toggles, remembering all the while not to make any sudden control inputs. Although this worked, it seemed to require too much mental effort, so after a short while I let the glider fly itself again. Now I was nearly over the LZ, and way high above it: several switchback turns would be required to shave off height. To wit, instructions from Sensei began pouring out the radio speaker, some a little difficult to make out over the distortion and the noise of the wind. Predictably, my turns were mostly too shallow: while I tried to follow Sensei’s commands to weight shift and pull on the toggles more, I also had to fight the sensation of plummeting into the inside of each turn. No matter: after three turns Sensei somehow compensated and brought me in to the final approach at just the perfect height.
Counterclockwise from upper left: Final approach. A second before touchdown. The peanut gallery. Sensei guiding by radio. Victory pose. Photo: z (click for a larger version)
On final, as I steadily approached the ground and as well as the limit of my ability to cope, I noticed I was heading for the wrong rice paddy, but resigned to my fate; anyway I’ve seen other pilots land there before. But the radio crackled: ‘go right!’ I took this as a cue for a last-ditch maneuver. Just at this point, I suddenly regained an accurate judgment of the altitude and decided that a vigorous S-curve was in order before I got too close to the deck. ‘Too much, overcontrol!’ crackled the radio. I countered with the second turn, which luckily lined me up perfectly. I stood up in the harness, deploying my legs for the impending running touchdown. More guidance came from the radio but it was too much for me; anyway with only seconds left I became confident I could do the rest myself. My forward motion slowed to comfortable jogging speed as I pulled ever more brakes, but I began losing height rather quickly. With a meter or so left, I pulled both toggles all the way in a flare maneuver and a second later my feet touched the ground, light as a feather. I took a few more steps, turned around, and brought the glider down as I’ve practiced hundreds of time before. Still holding the toggles, my hands went up in victory.
Watch a video of Rick's first flight!
Besides the obvious problems of takeoff and landing, in-flight navigation is a big challenge for the novice flier. I found that although I did not pay the scenery much attention, my horizontal spatial awareness was automatic and accurate throughout the flight. Perhaps due to this, I was occasionally seized by worry about being steered downwind from the LZ. What if I couldn’t make it against the wind on the final? These perceptions may have come from my experience kayaking in strong currents, where it’s best to avoid being swept down the stream. But gliding is different: some downwind distance is essential for the final approach. It was also hard for me to judge what is perhaps the most crucial moment of the flight: the altitude from which to start the final. It happens seemingly too high off the ground for accurate judgment and it also depends on the strength of the wind. In the end, I glided in much steeper than I expected even though the wind was light. Without the radio instructions, I would probably have circled over the LZ, then landed in some other paddy upwind! Many thanks to Sensei for his excellent radio control.
Watch a video of club members landing at the LZ
A couple of hours later, Sensei, Mr. Y, Leanne and I were relaxing in an outdoor hot spring, collectively dreaming of where we will go together on vacation. Switzerland, Turkey, Nepal? Any of these sounded pretty good. Afterall the sky is the limit!