Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gliding High

“Straight ahead is Kitchener. Guelph’s at 2 o’clock. Can you hear me?”
I breathed slowly and deeply to fend off panic. It didn’t do a god damn thing. Every inch of my body shook. Good thing I was sitting down.
“Do you want to take the controls?” yelled Steve.
I brought my right hand over to rest on the joystick. I couldn’t stop the trembling in my hand, let alone steer the plane.
“We’re hitting a thermal,” he said.
Nauseated, about to pass out, I clenched my teeth. What if the wind tore us apart? What if my instructor had a seizure or a heart attack? Who would land the plane? Terror squeezed the oxygen from my lungs as I braced for a wild ascent.

This was one of the best days of my life.

Life had been dull as of late. Being conscious seemed an insensible slog. Life had lost its newness; sobriety had lost its novelty. The voices in my head grew louder. You can have a drink. You can smoke a joint. Where had the edge gone? Where were the highs? My life was a windowless, airless, florescent-lit room stacked with reports no one ever read. On the subway, on the street, in meetings and shops, I felt the creeping approach of decay and irrelevance. I prayed not to do anything stupid.

Then a letter came in the mail.

“One Free Introductory Gliding Lesson” read the gift certificate. On the card, a pilot wearing shades sat in the cockpit of a glider, vertical toward the stratosphere. My boyfriend purchased the lesson for me, in a not so subtle attempt to shake me out of my doldrums. The Southern Ontario Soaring Association (SOSA) Gliding Club invited me to quit whining and fly.
Gliding as a sport started more or less because of the Treaty of Versailles. After World War I Germany was restricted from manufacturing or using powered aircraft. Aviators, jonesing for the sky, developed, designed and flew motorless planes. They discovered how to surf the natural forces in the atmosphere to fly farther and faster. By the time World War II came around, the Germans had a supply of pilots ready to be trained in warplane operation.

Some of the old guys who run SOSA look like they could have flown in World War II. There are some hard core aviators at SOSA, retirees who live to fly. My guy Steve had been flying for thirty years. You are in good hands at SOSA.

The most frightening part of the lesson was being dragged to 3000 feet by the tow plane.

Every lurch, bump and dip felt extreme. Imagine turbulence. Now imagine being able to see turbulance infront of you, in the bobbing and weaving of the tow plane. There’s no in-flight entertainment system to distract you, no episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm to watch. This is flight — heady, exhilerating, weird.

At 3000 feet the rope connecting the tow plane and glider released (yeah, it’s only a rope that keeps you fastened). Then off we went into the wild blue yonder; soaring, dipping, rising.

I began to relax half way into the flight. The terror of surrendering to natural forces eased into wide-eyed awe. Stretched below, verdant, bucolic, Southern Ontario: the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo, Hamilton, shiny grey clusters. Above, cumulus clouds, white wisps and patches of condensed air, the friend of gliders everywhere. By the time we sailed down to land on SOSA’s grass airstrip, I wanted to grab the control stick and head skyward again. Sheer bare-headed bloody freedom.

SOSA offers intro gliding flights on the weekend until the end of October. They also offer introductory aerobatic flights. To top it off, it’s across the way from African Lion Safari. But doing both in one day — that might be too much excitement to handle.