SI Vault
Judy Muller
October 02, 1989
Why am I here? Here being in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where I am about to be dragged into the sky in an engineless airplane. Actually, I know why. It was that newspaper ad I read: "The ultimate gift. Our pilot takes your friends for a breathtaking motorless soaring flight no words can express. Towplane ready. Rope attached. Towed high above the earth, rope released."
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October 02, 1989

From Chicken To Eagle

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"Tell me about thermals," I ask, wishing that on this cool day I were wearing some. Soukup explains how the thermals he was referring to occur when the sun warms the ground and that warms the air above it. "The warm air rises in columns," says Soukup, "but not evenly. It's just like water boiling in a pot." On a sunny day with puffy cumulus clouds, he tells me, you can hopscotch your glider from one thermal to another.

"How do you know where they are?" I ask.

"Follow the eagles," says Soukup. "They know where the thermals are." A wonderful answer, even if he is putting me on. But I think not. Everyone else I've been talking with shares a similar, almost poetic, vision of the sport.

However, as I watch the Cessna yank another glider off into the wild gray yonder, I wonder whether I've made the right decision by signing up for a lesson in operating a glider—as opposed to merely a "fly and ride"—the first time out of the gate. But I can always change my mind midairstream and revert to a demonstration ride.

My turn is next. I'll be flying a two-person trainer with dual controls and a wingspan of about 52 feet. "These aircraft," reads the Wurtsboro Flight Service pamphlet, "have an unparalleled reputation for safety and performance." I hope the instructor has a similar reputation. No history of heart trouble, for example. Visions of being "talked down" dance in my head.

When pilot Bill Getter finally appears, he seems healthy enough. In fact, he looks rather dashing, in a Red Baron sort of way, complete with scarf. The very picture of cool experience. Later, when we are airborne, the 55-year-old Getter tells me he has been soaring for only a few years and that it took him 40 years to work up his nerve to try the sport. "I was chicken," he says.

But as I am being strapped into the sailplane, I don't know that. It's just as well, because I am beginning to get the same sensation I get when the safety bar is pulled down at the beginning of a roller coaster ride. My mind screams let me out! but, for some reason, my mouth doesn't utter the words. Frozen with fear, I suppose.

Sitting behind me, Getter must sense what I'm feeling, because he says, "I do the takeoff and the tow. Once we get up to 2,500 feet, there's nothing you can do to get us in trouble."

"There's nothing I can do to get us in trouble," I repeat, mantralike.

"There's absolutely nothing you can do to get us in trouble," he says. A pause. "Unless you freeze on the controls." Oh, god.

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