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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I play with the controls for a couple of minutes. Then I see it. "There's a plane in front of us," I say with rising panic. "Why don't you fly now." With that, my hands-on soaring experience comes to an end for the day. My flight has reverted to a demonstration ride.

No regrets, though, because flying and riding are two separate and worthwhile sensations. I liked concentrating on the controls, on the attitude of the plane, feeling the wind and responding to it. But I also like floating, free of tension, along the ridge. Instead of the sounds of instruction, I hear only the sounds of the wind, which are varied.

The ride is over too soon. We head back for our "box turn" landing. With no thermals or winds to speak of, I wonder why we haven't dropped more rapidly. Says Getter, "These trainers have a glide ratio of about 23 to 1. That means for every foot of altitude they lose, they go forward about 23 feet. Theoretically, having been released at 2,500 feet, we could travel for about 12 miles with no thermals or wind at all, just air. On a day with strong thermals, you can climb about a thousand feet a minute. But today, with no thermals or ridge lift, we're just riding air."

The air we happen to be riding suddenly seems a lot closer to the ground. And now Getter is talking about the mechanics of landing.

"If you'll look down underneath the wing, either wing, you'll see a little flap. See that?"

I give a perfunctory glance, but all I really see is the ground coming closer. "That's called a dive brake," Getter says. "Since we don't have a motor, we always come in higher than we need to. Once you know you're going to make the field, that enables you to increase your angle of descent without picking up any speed."

"Say, Bill, uh, what kind of angle of descent are we looking forward to here?" I ask. My voice seems to rise as we go lower.

We hit a patch of what Getter calls "moderate turbulence." I notice that the yaw string is a bit off to the right. I feel compelled to mention this.

"That's all right," he says, "we're just doing a bit of a slip as we come in for the final approach." A slip, I'm told, can increase drag and steepen the descent.

I remember one other thing about the space shuttle. "Because it has no power," says the tape playing in my head, "it has one shot at landing. There is no go-around." We're now into our one shot at a landing. I think of that little wheel and wish I hadn't. The wind gets louder as we get lower and then: clunk, clunk-clunkety, clunk. The sailplane's wings bump along the runway. My body, made of softer stuff, bumps along with them.

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