It wasn't easy. I had plenty of altitude, enough to fly up and down the track, repeatedly, over which Carris and I had soared that morning with such success. Once in a while the little green pellet would jump up and hang there, and I would gain a few hundred feet. But I always lost whatever mysterious gust had sent me aloft, and I would descend. I flew away from the ridge, I flew atop it, I crisscrossed back and forth. I hoped some magic road sign would appear in the sky. But nothing happened. I sank and I sank, slowly and gracefully but surely, toward the ground. I was down to 1,200 feet and resigned to returning home when it happened.
I felt a boost, a strong boost, under the wings of the plane. The variometer leaped up, to 800 feet a minute, and my altimeter began to whirl, to 1,500 feet, to 3,000, to 3,500, finally to 4,000 feet, far above the point where I had released. For the first time I was really soaring. There must have been a silly grin on my face; there would be a silly grin if I were to experience it again today.
For this is the thrill of soaring. Discovering that you can climb into the sky without a motor and stay there. With only your own skill and knowledge and the slender wings of the fine little aircraft which carries you, sailing along over the patterns of the earth below, across the contours of the valleys and the hills, on and on and on. I realized then why people write poetic nonsense about soaring—and why it is not really such nonsense after all.
I flew up and down that ridge for more than an hour. Daring, I ventured away and then turned back, confident that I could find the ridge wind again—and I always did. I looked for the hawks so that I could sneer back. I saw another sailplane below, and I rocked my wings in comradeship. I was having fun.
I returned to the airport only because I wanted to. I had been up that day for almost four hours, and I couldn't sit anymore. I was stiff when I climbed out of the plane—and a little proud. Carris grinned. "I thought we were going to have to come out there," he said, "and shoot you down."
I spent seven days in Elmira and, except for Friday when it rained, I soared every day. Most of my flight time was in the 1-26, a lovely little sailplane more sensitive, more responsive than the 2-22. I learned how to direct a towplane without radio communication by sliding far out to one side on the rope and pulling the towplane's nose around in the direction I wanted to go. I learned that by proper use of the spoilers and by side-slipping I could land a sailplane on a dime. In the seven days I learned a great deal about thermals, for this is the way a man can always soar, where there are no ridges, where there are no waves. When warm air rises in the sky and cools to the condensation point, cumulus clouds are formed, so it is wise for a sailplane pilot to look for cumulus clouds. It is the round, firm cumulus that you seek, for then the cloud is still forming; the cumulus is disappearing when it begins to send out telltale wisps and shreds, and no lift is to be found there. Some days, when the vapor content of the air is too low, there are no clouds, even though thermals exist. Then you search for light ground areas, plowed fields, where thermals like to form.
I learned that a thermal is conelike in shape, narrow near the ground, increasing in diameter as it rises, and that a good sailplane pilot circles tightly inside, like a soaring buzzard. Thermals move with the wind, and one that starts here may culminate in a cloud over there, downwind, two or three or five miles away. I learned that you stay with a good thermal, which may register 1,000 or 1,200 feet a minute on your variometer, until the rate of ascent drops down to 300 or 400 feet, then you leave it and look for another. Unless you are desperate, when 200 feet a minute, 100 feet a minute, anything will do. Especially in flying cross-country. Carris and I flew cross-country to Endicott one day, and I was desperate most of the time.
We flew the 2-25, a famous old two-place competitive sailplane that the Schweizers built for experimental purposes in 1954. It has been in soaring contests all over the world, and once it held the two-place altitude record of 44,000 feet. It is a beautiful thing, so large that it dwarfs most sailplanes, but as maneuverable as a butterfly. The Schweizers had painted it recently, a gleaming aqua and white, and they rolled it out of the hangar on a Saturday morning and turned it over to Carris and me.
The thermals were light that morning, and there was a strong wind from the northwest. But we picked up a little lift over the ridge and then we headed into the wind, toward Corning, and we found a light thermal or two to keep us going. Then the lift ran out, and we sank to 800 feet.
"I guess we're going to have to land," said Carris, who has done this a thousand times. "See if you can reach that little airport over there beyond that hill." So I turned—and ran through a thermal. I turned back to get into it and evidently turned the wrong way, like a drunk looking for his hat. This happens frequently, and the only thing to do is try to find the thermal again by turning in the opposite direction. When I did we hit it and went up to 3,000 feet.