Bucketlist: Wild Blue Yonder
On a perfect sunny day, the writer took control of a sailplane and checked off another experience from his bucket list
For most of my life, wanting to fly has been a dream of mine. I’ve attended numerous air shows, envious of the pilots, imagining the freedom and the thrill they experience every time they strap into their cockpits.
And so when offered the chance to engage in soaring – being towed into the air in a glider, behind a tow plane, and then being left to glide – I jumped at the chance.
My hosts were members of the York Soaring Association, operating out of an airfield an hour north of Toronto in the small town of Arthur. The 200-acre site is outfitted with a few outbuildings, areas for trailered sailplanes to be parked and an RV camping area complete with facilities, for those who visit for an extended period, perhaps while working on their license.
The York Soaring Association is made up of about 500 members, many of whom are seasoned airline pilots who like to keep their flying skills heightened in the demanding environment of a sailplane. As we walk along the flight line, the different aircraft are pointed out and explained by my host Eddy Carolan. Everything from basic trainers to high-performance sailplanes constructed from today’s most exotic composites are on the field today; there is even a vintage side-by-side trainer circa WWII. “You’ll need a warm sweater, goggles and a Snoopy hat if you fly in that one,” chuckles Carolan.
As we walk towards the sleek two-seat trainer they are taking me up in, I am briefed about what we will be doing. I will be given the opportunity to take the controls and learn a couple of simple maneuvers. I am firmly secured into the aircraft, and the pilot, Charles Peterson, sitting behind me, goes through the pre-takeoff checklist while the slack in the line connecting us to our tow plane is drawn taught. Peterson, it would turn out, is more than a comforting presence for a first-timer like me –he is also the founding director of Freedom’s Wings Canada, a charitable program to help the disabled fly.
Before I could get my camera out of its case and turned on, we are off the ground on our way up to 3,000 feet. With my right hand lightly on the control stick and feet on the rudder pedals, I could feel the degree of control input my pilot was using just to stay in formation with our tow. We quickly reach altitude and with a clunk we are released and on our own, sailing through the sky at 55 knots.
The sky was partially overcast with those dreamy fluffy clouds you see on the nicest summer days. It turns out that those clouds are just what a sailplane needs and what their pilots look for. They represent lift – thermals rising from the earth’s surface due to the sun’s energy heating the ground. As we get under one of those clouds, it feels just like an elevator taking off to the top floor, as much as 1,000 feet per minute in some cases. Circling in these thermals and using each successive cloud as a stepping-stone, glider pilots can keep a forward velocity going and maintain altitude for hours on end.
We spend about a half hour playing under the clouds. Peterson briefs me on how to make a controlled right turn and then tells me, “You have control.” I respond, “I have control.”
Looking to the right across the wing, I begin my scan of the sky, looking for other aircraft in the area; my scan complete, we are safe to make the turn. I ease the control stick to the right, press on the right rudder pedal to control the yaw and the plane begins to bank. Returning the stick to the neutral position and pulling back slightly on the stick brings the nose up, maintaining a level turn. Then by moving the stick to the left and giving left rudder input with my left foot, the glider begins to come out of the turn. As we approach level flight, the controls are returned back to the neutral position.
With a big grin on my face, thinking I was a natural at this, I hear Peterson tell me that the turn was not bad but I banked a little too much, 45 degrees instead of the recommended 30 degrees, and my nose was down a bit too much during the turn. “Gotta work on that I guess, after all, it was my first time,” I say. Peterson chuckles as he inquires if I’m up for some of the fun stuff.
We find a few good-looking clouds and regain some of the altitude I lost during my turns. Peterson briefs me on how he will be performing a wingover and then proceeds to bank the aircraft hard over and into a dive. Gaining velocity, our wings level out and as we pull up Peterson banks the opposite way –that’s two G’s, he says. All I could do was giggle like a kid. After receiving confirmation that my lunch was still in my stomach, Peterson proceeds to do a few more wingovers before heading back towards the airfield. As quickly as we were up, the landing was smooth as butter and we were on the ground again. What an experience.
As the day draws to an end, I am amazed at the camaraderie among the association members, and the enthusiasm expressed towards anyone new. The York Soaring Association has various outreach programs designed to welcome new members or groups looking for a new activity. Introductory flights are $140 per person for a 30-minute experience. Visit yorksoaring.com.
As for me, I was left with a blissful feeling, having tasted an experience that had been on my bucket list for a long time, and took away a memory to last forever.