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."
Yeah, and then what? After all, death is the ultimate breathtaking experience. Still, the ad hooked me. I had to find out if, in fact, no words can express soaring.
That's why I'm here in Wurtsboro, N.Y., standing by the runway at Wurtsboro Airport, waiting for my turn to climb into a sailplane and be hauled off into the sky at the end of a towrope. Now, suddenly, going up in an airplane with no engine makes about as much sense as jumping off a cliff without a parachute. Of course, people do that. They also jump out of planes. But for me, those sports—hang gliding and skydiving—cross the fine line between pleasurable excitement and terror. Once, when my brother tried to persuade me to ski a particularly challenging mountain, he said, "Don't worry, I can always talk you down." Being talked down (or up, for that matter) means the pleasure scales have tipped to terror. I'm not looking for real danger—only a hint, a reasonable facsimile. I'll take my risk with a modicum of safety, thank you.
Soaring in a sailplane seemed a reasonable compromise. The terror side of the equation is obvious: There's no engine. The pleasure possibilities offset that fear: to soar silently through the air, like an eagle or some other raptor circling as it searches for prey. Except that I would be the one carried away. Rapt and, with any luck, rapturous.
At that moment, I witness my first sailplane landing. The angle of descent looks quite steep. But what do I know? After all, the space shuttle is essentially a big glider, and it comes in on a horrifying 19-degree angle.
I notice that this sailplane has only one wheel under its belly. A very tiny wheel. As the glider touches down on that wheel, it seems to be going quite fast. As it rolls out, it comes to what looks like a fairly bumpy stop on the front skid of the nose and tips over on one wing.
"Was there a problem?" I ask the guy next to me. "No, no," he replies, "that was a pretty good landing." I suddenly feel much worse. There is obviously quite a bit to it, and not all of it entirely comfortable. An army of butterflies goes on maneuvers in my stomach.
"So," I say, "are these good weather conditions today?"
Bill Soukup, a hydro-geologist who for three years has been moonlighting on weekends as a soaring instructor, overhears this conversation and answers, rather patiently it seems to me, "There are several ways to soar. You can fly on the thermals created by the sun. Or you can fly off the winds from that ridge over there." He points to a ridge that stretches from one horizon to the other and says, "On a good day, with a west wind and thermals, you can fly along that ridge all the way to Pennsylvania, about 150 miles away, and back."
I notice that there is no sunshine for thermals and no wind to speak of, so I'm fairly sure I won't be heading for Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, Soukup assures me that this is "an excellent day for a first ride." Why? "Nothing too startling up there to shake you up." To a person who sometimes has trouble with turbulence on a 747, this comes as a relief.