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First Flight

It is mid-March. It is cold - 42 degrees - and a stiff wind is blowing into my back. The sky is clear, blue.

I am riding on the passenger side of a golf cart. Gil, my seventeen-year-old son, is standing between the golf-bag fasteners behind the seat. All around us are piney woods: twenty-foot tall pines interlaced with ten-foot scrubby little oaks, their bark grey and gnarly. The soil in the woods is manilla sand and orangy-red dust, heaving up and down in small hummocks and troughs like the dune area. it was thousands of years ago.

We are riding down a narrow field, carved out of the piney woods only six years ago. It is bumpy, tussocky, a thin buzz-cut of grey grass revealing the manilla sand underneath. The golf cart lurches silently among the bumps. I hear the wind blowing against my back. And I hear soft, deep-toned, irregular metallic bumps and booms, in delayed synchrony with the bumps of the cart. That's the sailplane.

We are pulling it along behind us, on a ten-foot, white-and-blue nylon braid hooked under its nose. It is tilted over on one wingtip, from which protrudes a tiny wheel on a bent, springy wire. The fuselage rolls on a single tire about the size of the tires on the cart, which now lurches into a low spot and lurches out. A moment later I hear the deep metallic oil-can boom of sheet aluminum as the glider navigates the same depression. The field is 4000 feet long. We are moving down toward the east end. It is taking a while.

The cart driver is Jim Gager, our instructor. He's lean, six-foot plus, with a weathered, squinty face. He's wearing a faded-red, billed cap with "Abercrombie and Fitch" scripted above the bill in black letters outlined in white. The hat and Jim's head have clearly spent many hours together. Jim's outer layer of clothing is a zip-up, insulated body suit, blue-worn-to-grey, with red-and-white striped bands on the upper arms. "Piedmont," is stencilled prominently above the right front pocket. I wonder if the suit reflects his former employment. I know, in that suit, he is warmer than I am.

Jim, we learned this morning in "the little room" used for instructional chats in the Bermuda High Soaring School clubhouse, has been soaring for only three years. He came out to this same field three years ago with a gift certificate for a glider ride. He stayed on: right through his solo, his private license, his commercial certification, and his certification as a flight instructor. Now he's instructing where he learned to fly. Everything is very familiar to him. Everything is still interesting to him too, even a little wonderful. He seems happy to be here. I sense a mid-life crisis successfully resolved.

We pulled the glider out this morning from a hangar full of gliders, a three-dimensional grid of angled, white geometry, with long wings going every which way and fuselages - their noses close-cloth-covered and blind - resting low on their little single wheels. This two-place training glider has high wings tied with struts to the lower fuselage, and a spartan, antique looking cockpit. We pulled it gingerly, like a pick-up stick from a leaning pile, from the network of wings and tails over and under it, rolled it out the 30-yard long, accordion-doored hangar front, and went over it with care.

We looked in the nose vent for wasp and bird nests, in the pitot tube holes for wisps of lint or chaff, at the front tire. We picked up the front seat cushion to examine the documentation underneath and check for ballast (25-pound bags of lead shot). We raised the right wing and inspected the attachment points on its strut, looking for little safety pins through all the nuts on all the bolts. We looked at the hinges on the spoilers, checking for cracks and for the presence of fastener pins in each hinge. We did the same for the ailerons, then tilted the wing down and repeated the process on the top surface, reaching into the open spoiler assembly through access holes to handle the pushrods and tensioning springs. Moving back along the fabric-covered rear fuselage, we checked that "nobody had kicked a hole in it." At the tail of the glider we checked hinges again - rudder and elevator - checked the rudder cables and stops, checked that the elevator, fully deflected up, didn't jam against the rudder. All the right-side checks were repeated on the left side. We were very careful. "The pilot-in-charge of the airplane takes his life in his hands," Jim told us. "It's your responsibility to make sure the plane is safe." "Ohh-kay," said Gil, on the rising inflection he has adopted since we last saw him at Christmas.

We must be far enough down the field now, for Jim wheels the cart around all at once, figure-eighting over the nylon line and facing the glider. He reaches with his foot under the glider nose and kicks the tow hook open, dropping the towing loop to the ground, then rolls the cart and us twenty yards off to the side of the field, near the maroon and white truck. I can't think what this truck is doing here, but I have no time to ask. "All aboard," Jim says.

We stride back to the glider. It has been established in our instructional chat earlier that I will take the first flight, the first flight of the day, the first glider flight of my life. I think that I should not be nervous. Intellectually, I know everything that is going to happen. I have been a member of the SSA since 1968. I have read every issue of the magazine since then. I have been waiting for this flight for 30 years, waiting with considerable commentary. Gil has heard me talk about soaring since he has heard anybody talk about anything. I'm supposed to know what I am doing. So I am as matter-of-fact as I can manage.

Aspects of the situation seem very odd to me though, almost surreal. The glider seems like just a big model airplane: it's that slight, simple and unadorned. But though it is very big for a model airplane, it doesn't seem very big for two people to fly in. The cockpit seems very small, and very far forward, right at the nose of the plane. There's a lot of airplane behind one here. It's hard to see it as a balanced arrangement. And it is cold. And windy. I wouldn't fly a model in this wind. I feel very exposed, very grounded, standing in the middle of this grass-bald field with this motorless model airplane, facing into a featureless blue sky and a stinging cold wind. It doesn't feel much like my fantasy of leaping into the warm, beckoning undulations of the air.

But Jim is giving orders, getting set to turn the glider into the wind.

"Roger, push down on that handle on the nose. Gil, push on the left strut. There's nothing under us but sand. If we just pivot the plane on its wheel, we'll screw it right into the ground. So keep it rolling." We all push. The glider rolls and turns. It is so light, easy to handle.

"OK, Roger," says Jim, tilting the cockpit canopy all the way over to its left side. "Put your foot here, on this step, and swing in. Step down inside anywhere you want. Put your hand anywhere you want too, except on the canopy." I put my right foot on the step, lean in. The canopy is the only obvious place to put my hand, but I put it on the hinge edge instead, which is sharp and unpleasant. I swing my left leg over and step onto the seat, my right leg following onto the floor, and sit down, very upright, on the seat where I was just standing. Not a very graceful entry. Is there a better way? The sides of the glider are at my shoulders.

"This seat belt is more complicated than you're used to," says Jim, calmly. He seems to have all the time in the world. I, on the other hand, feel rushed, as though I am holding people up. Whom? There's nobody out here but Jim, Gil, and me. But I'm fumbling with the belt, trying to see how it works by myself.

"There are two shoulder straps," drawls Jim, slowing me down. "And there's a strap on each side. The eyelets on the two shoulder straps go together and you slip the tongue of the left side strap through them and through the slot of the right side strap over this hook which is tightened up and locked with this lever here." He locks the lever down with a metallic click. The mechanism seems like a Chinese puzzle to me. I have no idea that I could put it together again.

"Now we have to tighten all these straps." Jim pulls on a strap overlap here, pulls slack through a buckle there. "They'll be a little tighter than you're used to, but that's the way we want them."

Jim seems to levitate himself effortlessly into the back seat of the glider and speaks over my shoulder.

"You can put the canopy down if you want to," he says. I want to. The wind is blowing right in my face. I rock the canopy down to the right side, ducking instinctively. Surely it will be too low for my head. But it's not. I notice that the scene is not distorted in the plastic, as it was looking through it from the side. I notice that it is much quieter, and immediately warmer. I pivot and slide forward the odd-shaped bent-wire latch, noticing that the bend makes a good place to stick your finger to operate the thing. So much to notice. I think that one day all these little things will be unnoticed, will recede completely into the background, as so much associated with getting into and out of my car is. But now it's all fresh. It's the first time. I want to be conscious of noticing everything. But Jim is going on. "Now we've got this little checklist placard, up there on the left side of the panel. Let's use it to go over the instruments and controls." We have covered this information in our classroom instruction earlier this morning. But I'm glad to have the time to look around. The cockpit scene is more hard-edged, more dingily functional, than in the illustration in the book, and in my life-long fantasies.

"Altimeter." With a little knurled nob at the bottom of the businesslike black and white dial I set the two hands of the altimeter straight up to zero, close enough to the field elevation in eastern South Carolina. The air speed indicator is to its right, across the top of the panel. Below it is the variometer.

"Belts." I'm fastened in, for sure.

"Canopy." Down and latched. Yes it is.

"Controls and Trim." I push the left rudder pedal in; the right comes out. Right in, left out. I don't know what I'm supposed to notice about this. Certainly they move freely. I grab the stick with my left hand, remember that I have to use my right one, switch, and push the stick all the way forward, pull it all the way back. Don't know what I'm supposed to notice here either, except, again, free movement. I push it all the way left and look at the left aileron deflect up, swivel and see the right one down. Right stick, opposite effect. At least I can see these guys move.

The bare metal, ratcheted trim lever on the floor between my feet is supposed to be all the way forward, Jim tells me. It is, and it's a good thing. It would be tough to reach it with these belts tightened up like this. I think that this may not be the best order for this checklist. I also think that I don't understand how this "trim" linkage works. I thought a trim control would cock the control surfaces at some fixed angle; that's what it does on my RC models. I'll have to ask later; now is clearly not the time.

"Cable." I'm supposed to check that the cable is hooked up and the tow release is locked in. The tow release is a dingy red knob, bigger than a golf ball, smack in the top-middle of the panel. I pull it out a couple of times, careful to use my left hand, against a strong spring.

"Divebrakes." That's a half-inch steel rod with a right- angle bend in the far end, on the left side, above my knee. It slides back and forth when the right-angled end is pivoted out. Pulling it back, I look left and see the panel in the lower surface of the wing tilt out. I notice it's red-painted on the side facing me. So I can see it, I guess.

"When the handle is all the way back," says Jim, "the wheel brake is engaged. You don't want to land like that." "OK." I feel the springiness in the last couple of inches of travel. Otherwise, the handle stays where you leave it. I ask Jim if you have to hold the handle in position when you're flying, if the air flow tends to push the spoilers closed. He doesn't want to stop to talk about that. "What should I ask about? What not? I guess I'll just not ask about much of anything."

I am conscious that my questions are motivated partly by genuine curiosity, partly by a need to assert myself, to show Jim I'm slightly knowledgeable, I'm thinking about things. But Jim is moving on. He wants to show me how to pivot the handle down when it's fully forward, to lock the spoilers closed. I can't help myself. I think of all the stuff I have read in Soaring magazine about the problems associated with taking off with spoilers open, about the controversy among flight instructors and tow pilots over a tow-plane signal for "spoilers open." "Is it a rudder-waggle? What are the pros and cons?" I can't remember exactly. No way I'm going to bring this up, purely showing off. But I've got to shut down my thinking like this! We have come to the bottom of the list on the placard.

"OK," says Jim, swinging his little door open behind me, getting out of the glider. I look up and see the tow plane, 100 yards away, rolling toward us down a little slope in the field.

"Who's the towplane pilot?" I ask, not really able to think who it might be. In the office this morning were only Jim here, and Jayne Reid, co-owner of the operation. Her husband, Frank, I know is gone for the day, talking to the FAA in Charlotte. I read about another tow pilot on the Bermuda High home page. "Did he come in while we were getting the glider out here, going over?"

"Jayne," says Jim, matter-of-factly. "She's the chief tow pilot."

I am genuinely surprised, and then embarrassed that I am so surprised. I remember that Jayne was mentioned as a tow pilot on the home page too. But my image of her is talking to me on the phone, receptionist-friendly. I think of her signing all the letters to us. She was clearly managing the office this morning, answering the phone, doing paperwork, talking to all the animals roaming around the lounge. That all fit: the woman's role, inside, meeting the public in the non-soaring aspects of the operation. But here comes this narrow-cockpitted, low-slung, angular, bow-legged power plane, this ex-crop-duster, chuffing down the field toward us like some powerful, shortlegged bully; and Jayne is driving it. "Whoa."

Shiny blue and white, the tow plane approaches on our left, sweeps around in a dramatic 180-degree turn twenty yards in front of us, and sits, slightly off to the right, motor and prop running. As it sweeps past, I catch a glimpse of Jayne in the narrow cockpit, high collared coat, big turqoise headphones, wrap- around dark glasses. I think first that she looks like some central casting WWII pilot. But wait. Turqoise headphones? Anyway I can't get over it.

I see the yellow tow-line in an arc on the ground in front of us. Jim walks over to it, steps over it, leans over and grabs it, passing it around his back. He motions to Gil, who trots over to him. The tow plane engine roars up and it rolls forward, the tow line slipping around Jim's back, the silver tow hook bouncing and twisting along the ground. With three yards of line left before the end, Jim stoops down and the tow plane stops. Jim carries the line over to the nose of the glider, under me, and he and Gil fumble around.

"Pull the knob," says Gil. I pull.

"Let it go," says Gil, and I do. They stand up, and the tow plane roars up again, taking out the slack. Gil stoops down and the tow plane stops.

Jim levitates back into the glider, swings his door closed. Gil moves out to the left wingtip.

"OK," says Jim. "Let's do the checklist again."

"Altimeter," I read out loud. "Set to zero."

"Belts. I'm tight. I presume you are too." Jim doesn't say anything. "Am I supposed to demand a verbal confirmation? Is this a test? Already? " I figure it's not, or if it is, Jim will tell me later. I'd rather sin by omission here than be officious.

"Controls. Rudder pedals stop to stop." I look out and see Gil looking at the tail of the sailplane, presumably captivated by the rudder moving back and forth.

"Stick, right-handed, fore and aft, stop to stop." I wouldn't mind hearing a chuckle from Jim about the "right-handed" remark. We talked about my being left-handed in our instructional talk this morning. I want him to appreciate that there's a little extra strain here, but that I'm game about it. Nothing from the back seat.

"Left to right. I can see those ailerons moving."

"Trim. All the way forward."

"Cable. I presume you and Gil did that right." "Another test? How am I supposed to know this?" I think that this check list really leaves something to be desired. "Let's see, should you do all the other stuff before you hook up the tow cable, and then establish a verbal confirmation from the hooker-up now, at this step?" I really don't have time to think about this.

"The knob's in, anyway," I say, sort of weakly.

"Divebrakes. Control all the way forward, locked down." I look out the canopy at the wings, left and right, checking that the spoiler panels are in. I haven't felt this way since my driver's road test: adjust mirrors, check handbrake. "Stop thinking about how you're feeling! Well, maybe not. Remember, these feelings, these first feelings, are precious. You're only going to get to do this for the first time once."

"Give him a thumbs up," Jim says, meaning Gil. I do that. Gil bends down and lifts the wing about chest high. That's not enough to level the glider.

"That's not high enough," says Jim. But Gil can't hear him, and Jim can't figure out how to signal Gil, and the tow plane is roaring up again. "Oh well, we can deal with it," says Jim evenly, as the glider starts to move.

I think about water skiing. The book talked about the analogy between a boat's towing a skier and the tow plane's towing the glider, how the skier can't pull himself out of the water, but should just sit back and wait for speed to build up, and how the glider pilot likewise shouldn't try to pull back on the stick to get the glider up, but just let the glider take off on its own. I'm not holding the stick of course, and I'm not thinking about the specifics of the analogy. But I did a lot of skiing when I was a kid, and that is the only experience I have to put against this one. I remember well the tremendous forces you get on a slalom ski when the boat first starts to move, when you're way down in the water with the ski. What are the forces going to be here?

I am still waiting to get some feel for the analogy when things start to happen really fast. The glider bumps and slews along the ground. The stick between my legs jerks back and forth wildly, banging into my thighs. I try to move them up, out of the way, but there's nothing to put my feet on. A horizontal tornado of dried grass all at once flies back at us from the tow plane's prop wash and I duck instinctively as we pass through it. The grassy ground in front of us speeds up, turns into a blur that makes me dizzy.

"This bumpiness will quit as soon as we get off the ground," says Jim. But it really doesn't. The glider gives a kind of lurch upward, then continues to bounce and slew. The bounces and slews are of longer duration, but even greater extent. The tow plane rises off the ground, and we rise behind and slightly above it.

I am overwhelmed. The roar of the towplane and the sound of rushing air fill the cockpit. The glider lurches up and down, one to two seconds a lurch, my stomach lurching a heartbeat behind. The towplane rises and falls in front, out of synchrony with the lurches. We roll from side to side, less extensively than we lurch, but still out of sync with the towplane. We slew back and forth, and now the towplane is adding to the chaos by starting to turn right.

"We want to keep the nose aimed at the outer wingtip of the towplane," says Jim, from the back, in the most normal sort of tone. I had forgotten all about him, forgotten that someone was actually flying the glider. I think with astonishment that my sense was that we were just being dragged willy nilly behind the towplane. "...keep the towplane wings level and lined up with the lower edge of the canopy," Jim is continuing.

"How you doing?" he asks.

"I'm OK," I say trying a little rueful laugh that comes out more like a shudder. "It's just...all so fast," and I want to add, "so extreme: so much motion, so many forces." But I sense that Jim only wants to know if I am in imminent danger of throwing up, or something that would require action. He is not interested in my impressions.

I barely have any sense that we are "high," that we are in the air. I look down briefly but don't have any visceral reaction. It might be a video background. There's just this incessant lurching, rolling, and slewing, now more, now less, and the towplane rising and falling, banking and intermittently turning, always slightly below us, the towline arcing yellow from its tail to my feet.

"We're passing through twenty-five hundred feet," announces Jim, and I look down at the panel, taking a moment to locate the altimeter - upper left - noticing as I scan that the variometer needle is halfway above horizontal, into its "up" range: yeah, we're climbing. Sure enough, the little white hand of the altimeter is on the white "2" and the big hand is sweeping slowly past "5."

"When we get to three thousand, reach out and pull the tow release, the big red knob," says Jim. I'm a little crestfallen that he added that last instruction. "Give it a good yank. We'll do a right turn then, and the tow plane will do a left."

The big hand is not quite to "3" when Jim says, "OK, pull it." I do, making sure to use to use my left hand, as I will when I have to fly the glider with my right. There's a loud metallic bang, and four things happen what feels like at once, all of them disconcerting to me. The tow line turns from a smooth arc to a series of s-es, disappearing below us; the towplane falls away to the left; my body lurches up and forward, my stomach following an instant later; and the glider falls over in a right bank.

Before I have time to worry, it rights itself, levels out, and everything is a lot smoother. The noise is considerably less, there's no lurching and slewing, and nothing is moving in my canopy-enclosed field of vision. It's just the blue sky above and green earth below. I am conscious that my heart and my breathing are fast. My muscles are tensed; I am trembling slightly. I take a deep breath.

"Notice the horizon," says Jim. "Take a little Kodak snapshot of it." By this I know he means, "Freeze the image in your mind's eye." He used the same phrase this morning in our instructional talk, and I thought he was actually going to take a polaroid picture at this point, to give me to keep for a reference.

What I notice is that the horizon is about one-third of the way up the pitot tube just in front of me, outside the canopy. There's a tuft of yarn blowing from the pitot tube, the "yaw string." The horizon is a little below that. I freeze the description, if not the image.

"That's about 50 miles per hour," says Jim, "the air speed for the best glide ratio of this glider." We covered that this morning. I look for the air speed indicator: upper right. Below it, the variometer says we are going down. The altimeter says 2500. We've already lost 500 feet.

"Now I'm going to make a left turn," says Jim. The glider banks sharply to the left, then the stick comes back smartly into my upper right thigh. The glider levels out.

"Look down," says Jim. "Can you spot the field?" I see it right away, to the left and in front of us. I point, sort of lamely. Jim can't see me pointing, I know.

"We want to stay out here, upwind of the field," he says. "Now we're going to make a right turn."

The glider banks sharply right, the stick comes back smartly into my upper left thigh, and suddenly we are thrust upward for a long second. My stomach lurches downward; my whole body slumps downward.

"Boy, that's a strong thermal." Jim's voice indicates some genuine enthusiasm here, and I am grateful for this slightly out- of-the-ordinary circumstance. The gap between his all-in-a- day's-work nonchalance and my overwhelmed state is a little discouraging to me.

"I'm going to hold this right turn a little and slow down. Let's see if we can't gain a little altitude here." The right bank makes me feel slightly like I am falling. But the force upward tells me we are rising. It's a daunting mix of sensations. As I try to process the mix, we lurch more strongly upward, and Jim says, "Whoa. We just gained six hundred feet." I look at the variometer instead of the altimeter, but do notice the hand above horizontal. The big hand of the altimeter in the opposite up corner of the panel points to "9" I see.

"So, my first thermal," I say. "My first flight and I'm already soaring." I try to sound a little thrilled, but my voice is shaky. I hope it doesn't sound sarcastic. I know that I am supposed to be thrilled: this is my lifelong dream! People who write to the magazine all say they were thrilled on their first flight. But I am just too shaky. I don't exactly want it to be over, but I have a sense of just kind of holding on. We level out and fly straight for awhile. Though the sky is completely blue and there is no sign of any activity in it, every three or four seconds we balloon up or down. I think that I had no idea, all these years of looking up at the sky, that there was this much going on up here. The sailplane balloons up, and all of me goes down, stomach first, everything else following. The sailplane is crushed down, and all of me rises, stomach in the lead. All I can think about is my body and my stomach. But Jim is pointing out landmarks.

"The field is down to our right. You can see the clubhouse about half way down it. At the end is a church. See it?" I look at the end of the field, a clutter of buildings. It takes me a second to make any sense of them.

"Oh yeah. I see the steeple," I say.

"That's going to be important to us," says Jim, a little portentously. "Across the road there is an open area we call the horse farm. There really are horses there, but that doesn't matter. It's just a way to identify it. And here on the right is what we call the gold mine." It's a big open-pit, manilla- red layered gash in the green ground. Hard to miss.

What Jim doesn't mention is what seems to me the most obvious aspect of the landscape: an enormous curtain of purple- brown smoke some miles away, arising in a line from the ground and going straight up, until the top is blown away diagonally.

"What about that smoke over there," I ask, when it is clear Jim is not going to bring it up.

"That's probably a controlled burn from the wildlife area," says Jim. My mind is flooded with questions: "what wildlife area? Why a controlled burn on such a windy day as this? State or federal area?" But I don't ask any of them.

"Probably a big thermal over there with that," says Jim. Everything is to be identified according to its role in the soaring scene, I think.

I ask, "Wouldn't you have to worry about toxic fumes or something in the glider if you went into something like that?" Again, I ask it less because I want to know - certainly I already know what sort of answer one would give - but to show I am thinking, am engaged in the experience, and not just thinking about my stomach.

"Maybe. But when you get desperate, you'll look for lift anywhere," intones Jim. Sounds like the voice of one who might have been desperate once or twice. In any case, the smoke is not a landmark, not relevant to our situation right here. We will ignore it.

We make some more turns. This is all lasting a lot longer than I thought it would. And every turn is an adventure: the initial bank, with my stomach sinking into it, the stick opposite, back against my thigh, the level out, the little release of tension.

"Now we're going to be aiming right at that church," Jim says, and I am suddenly aware that we are beginning a landing approach. I had been paying no attention at all to the altimeter, and could not have said that we were particularly lower than we were however long ago.

The nose of the glider points down a little. There is a slight rushing sound in the cockpit. The frequency of lurches and slews increases.

"I'll pull the spoilers out a little." The rushing sound increases, the glider decelerates, and I feel my body falling forward. We are headed straight to the church. I fix my gaze on

"We want to be at about 800 when we pass the clubhouse," says Jim. "The clubhouse? Oh yes, it must be straight out on our right." I detach my eyes from the church, look over the right side. There is the clubhouse. I look at the altimeter, but we are already well past the clubhouse by this time. The big hand is below 8. Where is the little hand? We are almost over the church.

"We want to be at 500 when we get to the church," says Jim, in the same even voice, always the same even voice. "Should I look at the altimeter again?" The church is right below us.

"Now we're going to make kind of a steep right turn," he says, already beginning what clearly will be the most dramatic maneuver we have made the whole flight. We tilt crazily over. The nose is pointed way down at the ground. My body feels like it is just flat falling out to the right. The ground is coming up fast.

"We'll go down the road a little," says Jim, and I look down for the road. "And make another right turn." I have barely absorbed the road and the glider is already tilting crazily over again, nose pointed even more sharply down.

"I want to be sure I clear the trees," intones Jim, way above the trees flashing below us, while we sink like...like what? It feels like we're not flying at all, just falling like maybe a big soggy leaf.

As we get nearer the ground the feeling of falling is overwhelmed by the visual impression of fierce linear speed: the ground is running beneath us madly, the grass a gray-manilla textured blur.

"We look down the field as we get close to the ground," says Jim solemnly from behind me. I am tense all over. I have never gone this fast this close to the ground, I think. I try to look down the field, up over the rise to the clubhouse on the left. Suddenly the wheel touches with a cacophony of muted banging and bumping, and we decelerate more quickly than I would have thought possible. As we slow, the tail of the glider comes up behind us, the nose goes down. We stop smoothly, and as the glider slowly tilts over to the left side to rest on the wingtip, I see the maroon and white truck. We are back where we started, very near the end of the field. "How could we have used so little field in stopping?" It is quiet, and still.

My body doesn't know what to do. The sudden quiet and still is almost as disconcerting as the overwhelming sensations that preceded it. I feel weak, limpid, transparent. I am struck by the hard constancy of the glider. It is solid, immovable, the metal sides and panel hard and bright, the instruments official black and white. It's unfazed, the same as when we left; but I am not. I am a jellyfish, inconsequential. The whole flight... so much; so fast. How is it possible to take it all in, much less control it? I think of the immense distance in coordinated experience between where I am now and where I need to be to fly the glider. Where Jim is, who has taken it all in no-sweat stride. All of this takes, maybe, three seconds.

"Was it fun?" Jim asks, in a friendly way.

"`Fun' is a word, that...that doesn't even begin to...to have any relevance to it," I stammer. I want to say that it's a category error to apply the word "fun," but recognize that philosophical jargon would be wildly inappropriate. "It's all just so fast, so many things happening, so many forces involved. I just...I just didn't think it would be quite that...much of everything."

"You want to go again?" Jim asks, being helpful, surely at least a little aware of how blown away I am.

"Sure," I say, a little bravely. "At least I'll know a little better what to expect this time."

Jim gets out of the glider behind me. Gil has come over, in his dark pants and blue nylon coat, zippered all the way up to the top. He stands to my right, looking in to the cockpit.

"How was it?" he asks. Is he looking at me a little bemusedly? "Do I look zonked?"

"It's overwhelming," I say. "A whole lot happens really fast. There's a lot to do all the time. The air is much more turbulent than I had any idea of. This is going to be some kind of a thing." It comes out in a rush. "I'm going to try it again. You OK?" I have a little energy left for fatherly concern. "I know it's got to be cold, just standing around."

"It's cold out here," says Gil, matter of factly. "But I'm OK with it."

The towplane has come chuffing over, is making its sweeping turn, left-to-right in front of us; Jim has come back too. Gil produces from his right coat pocket an odd-shaped, hand-sized metal wire implement flying a bright pink strip of nylon. He trots over to the yellow towline, picking it up in the implement, a kind of hook, I see. Where did he get this? He holds the line up in the hook and the towplane roars off, the line passing through the hook in Gil's hand, the tow hook on the end of the line approaching rapidly from Gil's left, bouncing along the grassy ground, flinging up pieces of grass here and there. Abruptly Gil stoops, in an unnatural sort of way, and the towplane instantly stops. I realize that this is a signal. Gil must have learned all about this while I was flying.

Gil brings the tow hook over to the nose of the glider and he and Jim fumble.

"Pull the knob out," says Gil. I pull it out, hold it out. This is already familiar, from the first flight.

"Let it in." I do. Both Gil and Jim stand up. Jim comes to get back in the sailplane while Gil looks out at the tow plane. The slack snakes out of the tow line. Gil abruptly stoops again, and the towplane stops. Gil moves off to the left wing tip.

We go through the check list again. I read and respond essentially the same way as before. Amazing how much less I think about every detail this second time.

"Give Gil the thumbs up," says Jim, and I look over at Gil and do. He raises the wingtip all the way to wings level this time. Holding the wing with his right hand, he looks down the field at the tow plane and windmills his left arm. I look down field too at the little blue and white plane, hear the engine roar up, see the dust and chaff kick back behind it, and feel the sailplane start to move. I move my legs up a little as the stick flails back and forth. The bumps are less dramatic. The slewing seems more controlled. My stomach is still lurching up and down, but the asynchrony with what I'm seeing is not so bad. The grass becomes a blur again, but I look up before I get dizzy. We lift off in no time. "Already, just the second run, this is going to be a lot easier, "I think.

Posted: 5/12/1999 By: Roger Jones

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