We have all been to airshows and watched the best of the best fly planes in ways that should not be possible. Flying straight up into the air, slowing until the plane is just hanging by its teeth from the propeller, falling in a faint to the side with just enough rudder to push the nose over. The whining of engines, the Doppler effect and skillful adjustments to power changing constantly the pitch of the engine. The noise and the smoke and the tumbling and the chaos.
But not in a glider.
A pair of us in our club also belong to the Greater Boston Soaring Club and fly gliders out of Sterling just north of Worcester. Two or three times a year, we take turns running the field coordinating the launch and retrieval of gliders and towplanes and ropes (you can’t fly gliders without a lot of friends on the ground). Today was my day. It was a cold, gusty, New England fall day with broken layers of clouds at 4 and 7 and 10 thousand feet, with breaks in one layer exposing the next, and every now and then the breaks lining up to show a patch of blue at the top.
Waiting for people to show up, I watched a beautifully restored Cessna 120, forest green on white, practice landings in the grass. Soon a Cessna 172 arrived to practice short field landings on the asphalt, those massive flaps and strong headwind and a skillful instructor combining to give a forward speed over the ground so low the plane seemed simply to step out of the air onto the smooth surface and stop. And then gliders started flying, and then a Piper Cub, and then a Citabria, all peacefully sharing space together on the grass. This is the glory of aviation, of pure flight, seen most vividly within the close family of community aviation at a small airport. But the wind was cold and strong and burned the skin on my face. I was longing for the fun to end.
And then two instructors launched to practice aerobatics in the Puchacz, a two-place aerobatic glider called “the Puch” within the club. With everyone watching, they took a tow to 4,000 feet and released. Watchers on the ground took turns narrating. “Okay, clearing turns.” Wait. Wait. Wait. “What are they going to do?” Wait. Wait. “Okay, there it is.” The glider dipped its nose twenty degrees. “Picking up speed.” Wait. “There they go.” The glider lifted its nose, closed its eyes and spread its fifty-foot wings wide, exposed its stomach freely to the heavens, and simply reclined onto its back and completed the loop. So effortless, so graceful, so gentle. So quiet.
After putting everything away, a friend heard the incessant hooting of an owl off in the woods. Puchacz is Polish for “Eagle Owl.” And, of course, that’s a guy who really knows how to fly.