"Slipstream?" I asked meekly.
"This position," said Carris very quietly, "is called low tow. I was going to demonstrate it later, but so long as we're down here.... Well, there is an easier way of reaching this spot. First you move out to one side of the towplane, away from the slipstream. Next you push over, gently, until you are well below, then slide across into position underneath. It's a good tow position. Very comfortable, with good visibility of the towplane. The reason we don't use it more often is that in case the towrope breaks when you're down here it sometimes comes back through the windshield." I went back to high tow, evading most of the slipstream.
The air was very bumpy, and I realized that I wasn't helping any with a deathlike grip on the stick. As any pilot knows, the secret is to relax. "Relax," I told myself. It didn't work very well. "Let your lower jaw go limp," I told myself. I let my lower jaw go limp. We hit a bump, and I bit my tongue. I must have said something, forgetting that two men can converse in reasonably normal tones in the cockpit of a sailplane. "O.K.," said Carris, "I'll take it for a while."
I sat back and looked around, relaxing at last. What a lot of poetic nonsense, I thought, had been written about soaring. I didn't feel like a bird at all, gliding effortlessly on silent wings across a cloud-sprinkled sky, detached in body and soul from the grubby earth below. We weren't even detached from the towplane yet, and this had been damned hard work. Maybe it was a silent world compared to flying a power plane but not so silent as all that. The wind whistled around the canopy much as it would in a convertible driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour, and the wings rattled when we hit a bump. As for the ground, it didn't look so grubby to me. I wouldn't have objected to being down there right now. Then Carris pulled the release knob, and I began to see what the poets meant.
The towplane dived away, and we wheeled off in a great circle, alone in the sky. Without the encumbering necessity of the towrope, the sailplane felt lighter, somehow, as if it belonged up there, as if gravity no longer applied and there was no real reason why we should ever come down. With the growl of the towplane gone and the air speed down to 40 miles an hour, it was quiet. A diesel engine pulling a string of boxcars on the Erie tracks 4,000 feet below honked at a crossing; I had never heard locomotives while flying at 4,000 feet before. I grinned and looked over my shoulder at Carris, who grinned back.
"You've got it," he said.
I did some turns, then some tighter turns. The little sailplane responded beautifully to all its controls; with its light wing loading, it had a turning radius not much larger than a sea gull's. I tried some stalls, and I got the feel of the spoilers. For 10 minutes I swung through the air like a porpoise in the sea. Then I looked at the altimeter and noticed that we had lost less than 1,000 feet. "You've been getting some lift somewhere," said Carris. "There are no thermals up here today. I think we're running into a wave. Let me see if I can find it."
A wave is a rarity at Elmira. They occur most frequently in areas where strong winds blow across the mountains, and the best example in America, one of the best in the world, is on the lee side of the Sierra. There the Pacific winds blow across the high peaks and are sucked down behind. When they hit the ground they bounce back up to tremendous heights. The world altitude record for sailplanes, set by Paul Bikle last February in the Bishop Wave, using oxygen, is 46,267 feet, which is about as high as man dares fly without pressurization. No such gigantic wave as this ever occurs around Elmira, of course, where the hills rise only a few hundred feet above the valley floor, but on the right day, with the right wind conditions, there are waves. We found one that day and rode it up to 6,500 feet. This surpassed the American altitude record of 1934.
There is no physical evidence of a wave's existence, but the sailplane has instruments to define its boundaries. When we were in the wave the little green pellet on the "up" side of the variometer bubbled at the 400-or 500-or 600-feet-a-minute mark. When we ran out of the wave the red pellet on the "down" side would move up to 200 or 300 feet a minute, which is the normal sinking rate of the 2-22. Then we would turn the sailplane back into the wave, and soar again.
Eventually Carris said: "Let's go down." Since we were almost over the airport, he opened the spoilers to brake our descent, and pointed the nose down. In a few minutes we were on the ground. I realized then that my legs were cramped and that I had forgotten to loosen my safety belt or shoulder harness for comfort while in the air. We had flown 32 minutes after release. It seemed like a long time.