Get High and Stay High

Dawn broke crisply at Crazy Creek, as yellow streams of sunlight brightened crests of the ridge across the field where wild turkeys and pigs ducked through the brush.  This is a small private airport near Middletown, CA, about half an hour drive north of the Napa Valley.  A beautifully restored blue and tan TravelAir biplane and several sleek, bright white sailplanes waited by the runway.

I had camped out, to get an early start on what weather charts had promised would be a good day.  I got in an early morning run, a hearty breakfast with good friends and started preparing my ship.  By nine o’clock the first folks with eager grins climbed into the front two seats of the 83-year old biplane for an open-cockpit thrill.  The throaty purr of its Wright Whirlwind radial engine recalled the early days of barnstorming.  Captain Bob, a 60-year old retired airline pilot, deftly guided the singing craft into a clear blue sky.  A dozen of us, pilots and would be aviators alike, stopped what we were doing to watch and dream a little.  We all imagined ourselves smiling in the slipstream, listening to the hum of the biplane’s wires.

This ideal of simpler flight drew a steady stream of adventurous and enthusiastic people to this valley on this brilliant morning.  Some came for a biplane ride, others to soar on the silent wings of gliders, spectacular, sexy and astonishingly efficient aircraft.

Gliders are the earliest form of winged flight, and from Galileo’s crude wooden and fabric approximation of bird wings, engineers and aerodynamic inventors have created amazing carbon and fiberglass works of art, with impossibly narrow and thin wings that stretch more than 60 feet from tip to tip.  Gliders continuously fall through the air, but by seeking rising air, good pilots have flown more than a thousand miles.  From 5000 feet, the best of these can glide more than 60 miles without any other lift.  My glider is not that efficient, nor am I yet capable of attempting anything like such an all day flight.  But when I fly I feel a mastery of the air that’s hard to describe adequately.

I am very eager on this day to  get my ship up into the warming morning sky.  A little before 11 o’clock, one of us pointed to a ridge west of the airport.  Without a word, it was a signal understood by soaring pilots worldwide.  The first of what would be a sky full of puffy cumulus clouds began its wispy existence.  They are markers of rising air known as thermals, sun-heated mushroom-clouds of air lifting themselves skyward.  It is time to fly.

I help another pilot put the wings on his sailplane.  It is a shiny, white fiberglass single-seater he keeps in a trailer.  It’s a German, factory-made glider with 48-foot wings.  It takes about 20 minutes to pull it out of its earthly home and get it ready to go soaring.

My glider is already assembled.  I pull on my parachute, spray on a little sunscreen and put on my funny hat.  Glider pilots all wear funny hats.  The sun is brutal when you sit under a canopy for hours.  I remove the ropes holding my sailplane to the ground,  and a couple of other pilots walk over and ask if I’m ready.  They help me push it out to the runway and point it into the wind.  I slip into the cockpit, as the towplane idles toward me.  One of the pilots pulls out a 200-foot rope from the towplane’s tail, and connects it to a hook in the nose of my glider.  I do a quick check, lock the canopy, give a thunbs up to the man holding my wingtip off the ground, and hear the towplane’s engine wind up.  We start to move.

In about seven seconds, my glider lifts off the ground, and the towpilot pulls me, climbing steadily, toward a 3800 foot high mountain that’s dead ahead.  Before we get there, rising bubbles of air buffet us both.  They are begging me to release from the towplane and use their energy to lift my glider without connection to an engine.  I pull the release handle and feel the sudden freedom of soaring.  I turn immediately into a strong thermal that takes me 3000 feet higher in about five minutes.

This is what eagles feel.  Indeed, many of us share thermals with eagles, hawks and even pelicans, wheeling upward in these invisible bubbles of air.  It is a very sensual experience.  I can feel the air heaving and roiling around me.  It’s a living, bucking beast booting me in my seat and small of my back.  Every burble, bump and boost from the thermal lifts and rocks the glider.  I grin as I rein in its energy and harness its power for my soaring pleasure.  It’s like surfing a really big wave.

Upward, ever upward I climb and turn, feeling the air, working it, turning tighter then wider, always searching  for the strongest lift in the changing shape of the thermal.  I also feel the hot sun on my face and arms, and hear the wind whoosh as the lift strengthens and then quiet as it eases.  There is the constant beep beep beep of my variometer, a sensitive electronic device that measures changes in my total energy, in other words, my height and speed.  It’s now a satisfyingly rapid ditting, and I glance at the instrument showing seven knots (seven hundred feet per minute) climb.

Directly above me hovered a forming cumulus cloud.  I can feel the moist coolness of the air as it reached its dewpoint and began to condense.  From here, 6500 feet over the ridge near Mount Saint Helena, I clearly see San Francisco, the Bay, Point Reyes and the Pacific Ocean, and into the Central Valley and the Sierra foothills.  I leveled out my turn and dove to gain speed, setting my flaps for high-speed flight, aiming for the next growing cloud about three miles away.

In this way, climbing turns followed by high speed dashes, I covered about 50 miles in two hours.  That is pitifully slow by competition sailplane standards, but I was loafing, drinking in the wonder of motorless flight and the stunning view through my canopy that had me literally sitting on top of the world.  Just me and the eagles, powered by the sun.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnFowlerTV


4 Responses to “Get High and Stay High”

  1. Chuck Coyne Says:

    Thanks for providing a wonderful description of soaring flight and sailplanes.

  2. jona Says:

    That was a nice read

  3. precha Says:

    great article. thanks!

  4. prasquantum Says:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: