Do not complain about airline seats, for some of us make a sport of the same conditions.


There is no sound but the whisper of wind over his wings as he circles upward and watches the horizons broaden beneath him.

E.F. McDonald, Youth Must Fly.

Join me on a journey, if you please.

Two men (or women- I am not sexist) walk out onto a runway in Nevada. It is 88 degrees Fairenheit. Said people are wearing winter parkas, boots, and fleece pants. They are also carrying the following items: 6 full bottles of water, one empty bottle, various snacks and sandwiches, a bunch of colorful maps, some paperwork, 2 silver tanks with green stripes around them and, oddly, funnels.

That which does not kill me makes me stronger.

They walk out to a plane, a glider in fact. The two people connect the silver bottles to the O2 system, stow the food and water, mark the empty bottles "urine only" and do the all-important ritual of preflight checklists. This all takes 30 minutes, in the Nevada sun, with long underwear on. Sweat is pouring down their faces. They are damp everywhere, even with the parkas temporarily off. They proceed to put on parachutes and tuck themselves into a cockpit that is 3 meters long, 18 inches wide, and generally very much like a coffin with a glass roof. All the instruments, electronics, radios, food and water have to fit in there too. It is about 1 PM, and the flying day has begin.

After they settle in, the glider is lined up on the runway. A towplane pulls up, and the glider clips onto the tow rope. Some poor, sunburnt lineboy like myself runs behind the wings and levels them while the plane starts its takeoff roll. The towplane shoves the throttle to full. Those poor pilots are sweltering in a sealed glass coffin with winter parkas on, screaming down a runway at 70 miles an hour. They love it!

Five minutes later, at 6,000 feet in the air, the pilot pulls that big yellow knob, and turns right, while watching the towplane fall away to the left. If you have the pleasure of flying in the UK or down under, things are reversed, of course. The glider quickly finds a thermal and starts climbing. It is very likely that the flight started in Minden, Nevada. Let's assume so. Here we are, over the airport, and under the approach path for Reno International Airport. The pilot just found a thermal. In a few short minutes, that glider is bouncing along at 15,000 feet. The temperature drops 4 degrees per 1,000 feet. 88 degrees on the ground drops to about 27 degrees at that altitude. The parka is important. The oxygen is badly needed. Those pilots would be lucky to last 5 minutes without the bottles. They are, however, settling in and cooling off.

Don't hit that 747!

After all that, you get to hear the whisper of wings at 17,950 feet, for the FAA castrates, and worse, takes the license of the glider pilot who exceeds 18,000 feet. They might give you permission to go higher, but one must ask far in advance. Welcome to the world of cross country soaring. How far do you want to go today? 50 kilometers? 100? 300? 2,000? How about doing that without an engine and without landing?

A decision is made: go forth north! The glider heads north along 395, towards Lake Tahoe. Flying is mostly in the details. The pilots are searching for lift, sometimes finding it as thermals under clouds, sometimes as "wave" coming off a mountain top. Math is crucial, as the mountains pose a threat to low flying gliders. Altitudes and GPS results most be constantly interpreted. They occasionally have to empty their bladders with the tools described above. This phase of flight is boring to most people, but the most challenging. There is a huge amount to remember. Speed to fly in particular is important, especially in racing.

You take my breath away

As the pilots find lift going north, they pass through 14,000 feet. They turn on the oxygen, so they don't pass out. After passing into Reno International Airport airspace, they ask for clearance to fly through. They turn off the oxygen after falling below 12,500 feet, as they only have a few hours of it in the bottles. These activities continue for the next few hours. Both pilots engage in friendly banter, partly out of friendship, and partly to make sure the other isn't suffering from hypoxia.

At about 2 PM, the pilots fly over Pyramid Lake. The greenish-blue waters are surrounded on all sides by a crust of dry desert dirt. Animal bones bleach along the shorelines under the juxtaposition of the rich flying white man over the abject poverty of the Pyramid lake Indian reservation.

Airing one's dirty linen never makes for a masterpiece.--Fran├žois Truffaut

At 2:30, the pilots start back and immediately hit trouble. There is so little lift, that they might not be able to get back to any airport. The pilots are afraid of several things. Landing out, away from an airport is risky at best, but well practiced amongst experienced pilots. The glider might be damaged, they might have to spend a night among coyotes, and they will be stewing in their depends with nothing to change into. They start eyeing good patches of desert on which to land.

Alas, for the purposes of this story, they must make it home, so lift is found right after the passive voice, at about 700 feet from having to land. The pilots take it to a comfortable 10,000 and head back best they can. It is 4 PM, and the clouds are dissipating, meaning the lift is as well. After nursing the glider back to Carson City, they find a hot Wal-Mart parking lot that is boiling from the day's heat in the cool evening air. They hitch a ride on the rising hot air and make it to 5,000 feet, enough to make it back to Minden and land.

Final approach in a glider is scary. Power pilots practice "touch and goes"; they can try landing again if they screw up. There is no second chance in a glider. The pilots line it up carefully and touch down. As 6:30 rolls around, the glider rolls to a stop on the runway having made a slow, day long 300 kilometer flight. The pilots hop out, tired and stiff. They just saw the beauty of the desert from the quiet of a sailplane in the air. Life is good, and they even have a near-miss to brag about.

Sources: Me, several amazing pilots, and Cross Country Soaring by Mr. Helmut Reichmann.

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