Earning my wings...

The urge to fly is not something that has ever been a casual interest of mine.

It is something that wells up from deep within. Somewhere just above my guts and slightly below my heart, I think I have an additional body part whose prime directive has always been to frustrate me when both feet are firmly planted on terra firma. On a bad day it will keep annoying me: "Something's wrong... you are standing!!!" On a good day, this body part, which I have since started to refer to as "my internal flight director" would organize the most amazing virtual flights of the imagination.

I remember one Saturday afternoon in 1985, sitting on the bank of a tributary of the River Touws on the southern tip of Africa, where it breaks through the last defences of the mountains and joins the lagoon on its final journey to the sea, looking out over water that is the colour of Coke, drinking the ambience of light and magic as jungle and mountain drench their thirsty feet in the cool water, while millions of creatures, great and small, feast in its abundance. The next moment, I lifted off from where I sat... and was flying, like Peter Pan, with outstretched arms and legs, inches above the dark river into the densely forested bank on the other side, where I carefully hovered my way into the jungle on the steep slopes of the opposing river bank and slowly ascended into the forest canopy, cautiously negotiating my way through the gaps between ancient branches of 500 year old Outeniqua Yellow Wood trees, and breaking through the upper leaves of the canopy back into the deep blue sky of the late summers afternoon. With no engine, I was not above nature, but part of it. The millions that inhabit these forests accepted me as an equal, not an outsider.

Back in the blue, I transitioned into full climb, adding speed, spinning slowly in sheer delight on my way up, marvelling at the Knysna Forest down below, the Outeniqua Mountain to the North, and the Indian Ocean and Lagoons to the South. Levelling out at about 500 feet, I took some time to enjoy the view below, then unceremoniously, folded my "wings" backward like a Tomcat, and pushed forward into a blazing steep dive, the wind thundering in my ears, as I came blasting inches over the water's surface and pulling straight back up into the blue sky, as I converted speed back into height... levelling out again at about 400 feet.

"What a delight it is to fly," I thought, when, in a flash, I was back on the picnic blanket as one of my friends put a cocktail glass in my hand with the words: "Time for that sundowner and to light the barbie, don't you think."

Subconsciously my dreams of flight dictated to me what sort of flight was best for me. First and foremost, flight is about being one with nature, and so-being, has to happen with no noisy propulsion system. Secondly - flying fast and furious like a falcon is fun, but flying slow is equally rewarding - it gives you time to look, absorb, become one.

Gliding was an obvious next step, and it took many, many years to transform from virtual flight, and simulated flight, into the real thing, and part of that transition has sometimes been painful. Starting in 2001, I regularly got up at six on a Sunday morning, drove to the club and then started gliding in the ice cold winter skies above Lasham wearing ski gloves and a ski jacket, doing endless ups and downs, safety training, and coping with endless emergency situations.

So my first real step to return to some of the freedom of my virtual flight was when the instructor finally decided it was time to let me go at it alone, but even though he was not behind me any more, his voice was still there, suggesting, reminding, urging... taking over control. I was on my own, but I was not quite there yet. I had to silence the instructor's voice. I had to merge his voice with my own, making them inseparable, combining my own creativity with the principles of flight so that they could become one.

That transition came with lots of practice, and eventually converting to single seaters. I joined the IBM club and got introduced (by people as obsessed about flight as I was), to a lady they all loved just a wee bit more than their own wives, called Betty Blue. Now Betty is a K6 vintage competition glider that rolled out of the Alexander Schleicher factories somewhere in the nineteen sixties, but if you see her today, she looks as if she rolled out yesterday. The reason being, that my new buddies in the IBM club have painstakingly stripped her down to her undies and beyond, and serviced or replaced every part. Slowly but surely, they dressed her again. The paint job alone was the result of many weeks of hard work. So the mere thought that I am flying their first love and first born all rolled up into one, worried the living daylights out of me. They had quite a number of things to say that were new to me on maintenance, towing, caring, flying, etc. but above all these, there was this unspoken line... It is the same subtle, but unspoken, threat that you somehow get when you date someone's favourite daughter for the first time: "If you break her heart, I'll kill you in cold blood - you hear me!"

What if I did something stupid and damaged their darling... "Sorry dudes, I just bumped into another glider while ground handling," or, what if I landed in a muddy farmer's field with this grand lady in her evening dress? Or what if I landed in a crosswind and just messed up the round out / straighten-up bit and landed hard." I later learnt that some of them took turns to have done all of the above with Betty, and she managed to overcome all of this without bearing any grudges of any kind.

But all of my own numerous concerns vanished in thin air as I took to the skies with Betty for the first time. As we reached the top of the launch, I let her go, and went immediately into hunting mode on the trail of the nearest thermal. To my great delight, this little thing responded to everything that is out there. This is no grand old lady in evening dress - I told myself - this is a party girl that wants to boogie! And a few turns later we were sitting at 3,000 feet. I was howling like a hillbilly out of sheer delight. Soon I learnt that this glider can fly slow enough, and bank steep enough while flying slowly to take advantage of the weakest and tightest of thermals. On some days when some of my peers, flying glass, were flopping straight down, Betty and I were feasting up in the blue. Soon I was clocking up flights of over three hours without any major effort.

More importantly, Betty has taken over the final leg of my base training. I needed to merge my own creativity with the principles of flight so that I could fly creatively, but within the strict framework of what is safe, good airmanship and technically sound. On my last flight prior to writing this, it was time to take Betty through her paces. Sideslips and stalls and stalls with wing drop, steep turns, high altitude simulated push over from cable break, etc. because I have never done this with her before and it was time to familiarize myself with the way that this babe handled that sort of thing. Testing her moods, likes and dislikes, memorising... as one does in any good relationship... Again, what a pleasure to fly this glider! I am now happy that I can handle her in whatever situation comes my way during normal flight. I then did a direct hangar flight and executed one of the softest landings of my gliding career. Betty was smiling at me, and vice versa.

Gliding is a lifelong journey to nowhere in particular, because it has nothing to do with going from A to B (even though that may be a goal of cross country competitions). It is all about the perfection of flight itself - getting from A to B, or from A to A, as fast as possible is just another way to measure perfection. Betty and I are on that journey to perfection.

The only thing that worries me, is that soon, some other junior will step up next to Betty with a twinkle in the eye and urge to fly... And I will have to inform him or her of all the ropes, and try to keep from saying: "If you break her heart, I'll kill you in cold blood - you hear me!"

Stewart Watson

There is much useful reading that can be done before, between and after flights.
These books are available from Lasham, bookshops or the Public Library.

Gliding Steve Longland
The British Gliding Association Manual
Latest (2002) hard-back publication - superbly illustrated, comprehensive and easily understood manual on how gliders work - but costs 25!
Going solo Derek Piggott* Handy pocket-sized booklet you can take with you on the airfield
Beginning Gliding Derek Piggott Definitive textbook for instructors and students
Gliding Derek Piggott Derek's classic - recently revised
Understanding Gliding Derek Piggott Covers the technicalities in detail
Theory of Flight for Glider Pilots R C Stafford Allen Handy booklet covering the basics - may be out of print
The Weather Guide A G Forsdyke Useful introduction
Pilot's Weather Ann Welch A good read from a veteran
Meteorology and flight Tom Bradbury Thoroughly comprehensive and readable - highly recommended
Meteorology for Glider Pilots C E Wallington The definitive weather guide - a bit heavy going in places!

*Derek Piggot was Chief Instructor at Lasham for over 25 years and is one of the world's finest instructors. In addition to writing
the text, Derek draws the beautifully clear diagrams. He has also had a long and successful career in power flying for films,
notably 'under the bridges' in 'The Blue Max', described in his biography 'Delta Papa - A life of flying', a really good read.

The following pamphlets are usually available from the LGS office at Lasham.

Know the Game - Gliding Useful introductory booklet
Laws and Rules for Glider Pilots Essential information
Local Flying Rules and recommended practices More vital info for Lasham flyers
Lasham Progress sheet To chart your progress
Lasham Training syllabus Plan your progress
Pilot's Log Book Keep a comprehensive record of your flying


Sailplane and Gliding
Keep up to date with this mine of information On sale at Lasham, newsagents or on subscription from BGA
(monthly by the Soaring Society of America - SSA)
Contains much useful info and news Available by subscription from SSA
Today's PILOT
Edited by an experienced glider and tug pilot - good coverage of gliding subjects On sale at Lasham, newsagents or subscription
General aviation magazine On sale at Lasham, newsagents or subscription