‘It looked so effortless’, I thought as I sat looking out across the valley at Dedham. A bird of prey was riding the thermals, which carried him across the span of the heavens in front of me. I wondered, ‘How do they know where the thermals are?’ Similarly, how does a glider pilot know where the thermals are – or the surfer know which wave will give him the most exhilarating ride?
I went home and researched the flight and the thermals used by glider pilots, only to find that they have no techniques. Rather they need the ability to feel, to watch where other gliders are and to feel the movement of the wind. I gleaned the following from my friend’s son, an RAF pilot whose first solo flight was in a glider:
‘The glider pilot will either be winch launched up to about 2000ft, but without any thermalling you will only have the time taken to descend from that height (circa 3/ 4 mins), unless you can find rising air (thermals). Pilots find these on warm, convective days (bright with bubbly Cumulus cloud, ground warmer than the air) just below the cloud layer. They will basically fly along until the aircraft indicates and climbs (via an audible beep which increases in intensity/ frequency with rising air), and then rapidly roll into a turn and basically spiral up using the column of rising air. Gliders can easily do this in the UK up to 10,000ft or so, but they can go higher depending on the aircraft equipment/ conditions. Thermals don’t go on indefinitely and pilots will often lose them, so then they will fly off to find more, descending as they do so until they find another.’
I have often sat on the headland overlooking a surfing bay in Cornwall watching the experienced surfers paddle out beyond the breakers and wait for the wave of their choice to carry them to the shore. When their wave comes, they paddle in the direction of the incoming wave, stand up, amazingly keeping their balance, and hoping to have a long effortless ride back to the beach.
I reflected on the view that the bird of prey, the glider and the surfer would have. It would be a laser-beam for the bird of prey, a panoramic view for the glider and a focused view for the surfer. We need all three at different times. The bird of prey looking for a tasty morsel, the sheer enjoyment of the glider who will be taking in the amazing detail which makes up the overall panorama. We dare not think of the consequences of the surfer if he shuts his eyes as he hurtles towards the beach where there are swimmers, other surfers, rocks and children playing.
The interesting thing is each one flying the skies or surfing in the seas will need a good feel to get the most out of their experience. Head knowledge will simply give an understanding of the basics, that is location, equipment and conditions. Should you miss the thermal and glide back to terra-firma in a couple of minutes, you will need to be flown back up to the thermals and cut loose again. The bird of prey will need to fly up to the high ledges again and the surfer that falls off prematurely will need to paddle all the way out again. Our focus will need to be staying in the flow once we have found it. We can either spectate or participate in life – we cannot learn that from a textbook. We might have to dare to be different.