Passing 10,000 feet (This is long, go and make a cup of tea.)

Written by

Andrew Millar


September 11, 2007

(I wrote this story of an adventure I once had learning to fly. For whatever reason, I’ll post it… just in case you’re interested…)

There can be electricity in the air, although there’s not a storm cloud in the sky. It is always there when a tinder dry north wind finally abates. It comes with the expectation that within a few hours a south-westerly, bringing ozone rich salty air is on the way. Even when you are as far away from the sea as we were at Waikerie. The stronger the northerly, the more violent the change.

The northerly wind finally dropped in the middle of the afternoon and we had a window of a couple of hours to fly.

I lay in the tight front cockpit, (you lie in a glider, your feet only slightly below your shoulders, Formula 1 style) and waited for the tow plane to arrive. I had done all of those pre-flight checks they teach you. It is a focusing ritual to get you into the frame of mind that accepts that you’re about to put your life into the palm of your hands. You can’t pull over to the side of the road in a glider. And if you’re not set for landing you can’t go around again. You’re irrevocably committed. But having said that, once you’ve established there is no structural damage caused by a severe landing earlier that day, pre-flight consists mainly of wiggling the joystick (one can only wonder where it got that name?) to see that the appropriate bits of the plane move when they are meant to. The controls all feel very sloppy and loose on the ground, as there is no air pressure on the wing surfaces. In the air there is a very direct feeling through the sinew cables that connect you with the wind. They give you good biofeedback in the air. On the ground they are like the strings of a marionette that lies limp on the ground.

‘Doug the Tug’ arrived in a wide swinging ‘S’ pattern dragging the towrope behind the Piper Pawnee aircraft. His plane looks half insect, half spider. His ‘S’ was good enough to place himself such that the ground crew had to simply bend and pick up the towrope and connection ring. Doug had done it many, many times before. It was hard work launching gliders for 8 hours a day. The torque of the engine and prop combined with the weight and drag of the glider required him to put an enormous amount of pressure on his right leg and rudder pedal during take off. By the end of the day he would stiffly limp from the hanger to the club bar to quench his thirst with a little ‘liquid pain relief’. But he didn’t mind, he needed extra hours in his logbook to qualify as a commercial pilot

His well-practiced sweeping moves to line himself up in front of me blew dust, fumes and grass back across the glider that I had spent an hour washing that morning. This ‘show and shine’ activity is not born of vanity; it’s to keep the surfaces of the glider smooth. A day’s worth of bugs on the leading edge of the plane reduces the aerodynamic efficiency quite measurably. Gliding is all about efficiency and economy. Doug’s propeller driven north wind also fills the cockpit with topsoil from the airstrip. So for the few moments it takes for the ground crew to set themselves and the glider for launch, all the air vents need to be shut. In full sun, under Perspex that is centimetres from your head, it quickly becomes airless and the faint smell of some previous occupant’s inability to cope with the dizziness of spiralling begins to make itself known.

Gliders rest with one elegant wing tip on the ground and the final step in the launch is for a crewmember to lift it to the horizontal position. We complete our takeoff ritual inside. Part of this is a formal handover of control. ‘It’s your plane.’ my instructor says quietly. ‘I have control.’ I reply in acknowledgment, disbelieving my own words. Now my scalp tingles. My nerves tense at the same rate as the towrope stretches. On my signal, we begin to roll. And as the throttle on the Pawnee opens all the hairs on my arms stand on end.

Bumping and thumping across the field the glider seems clumsy and awkward. But just seconds into the launch, the plane settles on its wings and is lifted off the ground. It all becomes smooth and the glider happily takes to the air. With all due respect to the physics of flying I’ve been studying over the last four days, it still seems like a giant unseen hand has scooped us up.

I’m in a delicious state of controlled panic. I’m being dragged through the air at 100 kilometres an hour and I’m flying just on top of the massive volume of twisted air that is left in the wake of the tow plane. If you fly high you could pull Doug’s tail up too soon and he won’t be able to get off the ground. Too high and he’ll crash. If we fly in the prop wash the buffeting could damage the glider. This tense halfway state between earth and sky goes on until the Pawnee has enough speed to rotate skyward. At this point, I can drop the glider though the turbulence and catch my breath. The natural forces and order of the earth have been evoked and I am in control. We settle into the ‘low tow’ under the wake of the tow plane – an Australia position. They say Space Shuttle pilots don’t breathe for the first 2 minutes of a launch. I know how they feel.

I open all the air vents and the final remains of Doug’s dust storm whip through the cockpit. My instructor sneezes. That reassures me he’s still there. For the last three or four flights he has said little and left me to it. Apparently flying with his feet crossed over the controls and his hat over his eyes. I can’t see him from my position. Occasionally I had had little waves of fear that he’d dozed off or died and left me to get back down by myself. I didn’t feel ready to solo but I took his silence as a vote of confidence. I don’t think he would give me anything I can’t handle.

I did all the usual stuff of checking instruments. I turned on the Variometer or vertical speed indicator – a gauge that informs you of your rate of climb. It has a gauge in the middle of the panel but it also informs you by whistling. The higher the pitch the faster you are climbing. Lower tones indicate your speed earthwards. It whistled quietly to itself until at 2000 feet I pulled the large orange ball on the instrument panel to detach the umbilical. With a bang, the towrope spiralled away from the nose of the glider and we peeled off to the right to open free sky. By tradition, Doug peeled to the left and dropped into a slow downward turn back to the airfield. For him it was time to get feeling back into his leg. For us it was time to play.

The closest analogy I can think of for gliding is that it’s akin to surfing in the sky. You paddle around finding a swell to ride – our wave is a thermal current, usually columns of rising air that are hotter than the air that surrounds them. Sometimes they appear as long rows that pilots call streets. As the air rises cooler air skits in underneath and we have ground winds. But this day, the wind was extremely hot which meant that any thermal we might find would be strong. And it didn’t take long to find one.

All that previous week, thermals had introduced themselves by subtly lifting a wing tip. Then you would turn and fly back to see if you could find it. Once on, you’re locked into a series of tight turns and hopefully you could scrape a little extra height with each turn. However we came on this leviathan of hot air with a thump. You could almost see it in front of you like the depiction of a time travel portal in a cheap sci-fi film. It shimmered and made the world behind look watery. It looked like we were about to head into a massive mirage.

The Vario simply began screaming at it’s highest. We had flown in an elevator and we were on our way to the roof top cafe.

‘Just go into a slow right turn.’ was the quiet comment from behind. It was good to know he was still here, though I worried that his voice was overly calm. ‘Don’t turn too steeply. This thing will flip us into a flat spin. And you’ll never recover from that.’ ‘This is not good Maverick!’ I quoted Top Gun at my instructor. ‘Pardon?’ he replied. People who wear towelling hats by choice usually don’t watch Tom Cruise movies, no matter how much flying there is in them.

We passed through 4000 feet with the Vario still at its highest pitch. We were surfing a tsunami. We were buffeted and shaken about. Gliders struggle to grab altitude where they can… anyway they can. And rather than nibbling and snacking, on this rare occasion, we were being force-fed.

I could feel our vertical speed increase and decrease but the pitch of the Vario never changed which meant we were climbing at more than 10 knots. We were off the scale.

We passed 7000 feet with no sign of letting up. Air rises until it reaches a layer of air at the same temperature. There is a limit to how high you can go. Each day Doug’s first job was to do a temperature flight. He’d take off, usually with one of us squeezed into the little space behind his seat, and he would check the temperature of the air at thousand foot levels. This was graphed and each day we were briefed on the ceiling for that day. 4000 to 6000 feet were usual during the week. Today we were flying without that knowledge. To us, there was no ceiling. Literally, the sky was the limit.

‘We’d better start looking for a way out.’ was the advice from behind. ‘We’re not carrying bottled oxygen.’ Above 10,000 feet it is BYO air.

I straightened up and levelled the wings to the horizon by looking left to right. (You tend not to use the Artificial Horizon on the instrument panel. You are taught to fly more by observation, than instruments.) The horizon was much further below the wingtips of the glider than I was used to. Under normal circumstances and correct speed, straight level flight creates a slow descent. Using this you can travel long distances in a glider by using thermals to gain height then breaking off and flying in a straight line. You’ll slowly descend but travel with good ground speed. When you’re getting low, say 2000 feet, you hunt for another thermal, gain altitude and then fly on again. With the right conditions you can trave l000 kimetres in a day. Some pilots had left Waikerie in the morning, flown over Broken Hill and returned over Mildura. There was a little camera mount in the cockpit to photograph town landmarks and as long as they were all on the same strip of film you could claim your trip as legitimate. The strip of film gave you brag rights.

I expected to fly out of the turbulent column at any moment and looked for the drop in tone from the whistling instrument for confirmation but the Vario keep its voice. The arm on the altimeter crossed through 10,000 feet mark. Under normal solo circumstances pilots who reach 10,000 feet are honoured with a badge and a handshake. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. It had taken half an hour of flying like a corkscrew and here we were cruising high above the earth.

However, we had one small problem. The Vario had not changed tone. We were still climbing. Either the thermal was flaring out as it rose and we were still to find the edge, or we were in the midst of a massive block of hot air, which could be kilometres wide.

I flew on looking for the edge, west towards Morgan. I could see the river twisting along the countryside with its shoulder strip of fruit blocks and townships. Roads formed borders along wheat paddocks before spearing off in straight lines through lifeless desert either side. The country dies off quickly as you move away from the muddy river.

The clock hands of the altimeter passed 10,500 feet.

We tried a wide series of sweeping turns to drop altitude, slewing like the Space Shuttle does on re-entry. There is a very complicated instrument installed in our glider to indicate the angle of slew… it’s a piece of knitting wool stuck to the top of the canopy. When it sits straight back in line with the centre of the glider you are flying straight. If it is at an angle, you’re flying sideways. By sliding side to side to make the plane fly as inefficiently as possible and we should descend but when we returned to normal flight the Vario howled again and up we went.

If someone had told me this story before I did this course, I would simply have suggested the obvious. Planes can fly up and down. Point the stick forward and fly down. The reality is that this is impossible and we have Newton to thank for this. Gravity would love to welcome us back with open arms. The trouble is that we have stored an enormous amount of kinetic energy. This energy stored in height would need to be converted into something else for us to descend. And that would be speed – speed that would increase until we needed to slow down to prevent the wings being ripped off. By pulling the nose back up some of the speed was converted back to altitude. Like a roller coaster ride we’d almost end up back where we started. And as the air was still rising we’d probably not lose anything. And that would take time. And it was getting late. We’d been in the air just under 2 hours.

‘Put your brakes on.’ came the backseat solution. All planes, gliders included, are equipped with the seemingly impossible… air brakes. You’ll see the wings of passenger jets open up like umbrellas on landing. In this way the wings stop being wings and start acting like brick walls to slow the plane. Gliders are no different, just less complicated. Rather than the complex set of flaps, the airbrakes are simply metal fences about 30 centimetres high and a bit over a metre long. With the action of a lever, they emerge from the centre of the wing to create drag.

At my left elbow sat the blue brake handle. I moved it forward and from the smooth centre curve of each wing these fences emerged. The plane began to shudder and groan. Quite clearly it did not like the idea of returning home. Whilst it protested, the Vario dropped several semitones and the altimeter slowly began to unwind.

We were slowly descending back to our familiar terrestrial home. All be it, under a flag of protest from the plane.

We shuddered our way back to 8000 feet and tried to return to flight with the brakes retracted. The Vario’s reaction was emphatic. It’s shrill scream returned once more. And back we went, climbing upwards.

We were going to have to descend the hard way – brakes on all the way. And I felt sorry for the plane. It was so clumsy and awkward on the ground. It was totally reliant on others for mobility. On the ground it was lame. Inanimate. Lifeless. But up here it was alive. Here it was in open sky free to do what it was conceived and constructed to do. It was free to wheel and glide like its organic relatives, the bird. And today it had altitude in the bank. Where could it go? How far? What graceful ballet could we perform high above the earth… an elegant white plane against a vivid azure background.

And here I was clipping it wings.

It shuddered on, resenting the intrusion. It hated its elegant form being reduced to the aerodynamics of a brick. It felt wrong. I felt I was destroying something beautiful.

We trembled on, clawing back the ground in a big square flight path. Flying the compass I called it. As we descended dust began to fill the air, stirred up by ground winds and carried higher by the thermal. The suddenly, the air became clear. We flew out the other side and straight into a setting sun like I was flying into the end of the world. The pure light in the clear air was blinding for a second.

I retracted the offensive airbrake and the plane settled again. The Vario dropped to a low mournful tone. Quite a marked contrast to the bright chirp I was used to. My eyes adjusted to the light and it remained clear and bright. I could no longer smell dust, but cool clear air. I turned the plane from west to fly south and back the way I had come. Against the backdrop of a dark approaching dark south-westerly change and side lit by a setting sun was a tower of dirty air boiling away. It looked like the aftermath of an explosive office block demolition you see on the evening news. It looked ominous. It had been awesome. And it was fading away as the cooler air was approaching.

The sun was beginning to set and I turned east to follow the river back to Waikerie and the airfield. Our tail plane swung its shadow across the cockpit and remained there for the rest of the flight. Three hours had elapsed since we had taken to the sky. It had seemed like no time at all. My thirst and the stinging in my eyes told me otherwise. We had not planned to be up that long and had not prepared for such a tiring flight. So I was glad to finally ‘join the box’ over Waikerie. ‘Joining the box’ is the term for beginning the descent to the airfield. You literally fly 3 sides of a square shaped pattern over the field losing height on each side until you are ready for that controlled crash called a landing.

Landing is the tricky bit. You actually have to stop the plane flying, just as you arrive at a point about 10 centimetres above the ground. You can’t just fly in. Chuck Yeager, the first official super-sonic pilot, set about proving that you can’t just fly into a landing. Though he did it at the speed of sound over a saltpan in America. What if he had been wrong? It is difficult to learn the exact moment to settle the plane back on the ground. Flaring is the name for the controlled stall they call a landing. And it is the bit I have most trouble with.

The landing field looked different in the late afternoon light. Not brown and dusty any more, but smeared across with the ethereal golden light of the setting sun. The stubble looked like gilded grass. We too were reflecting the lustrous yellow light. The shiny white gel coated fibreglass was picking up the ambient and I was flying a brilliant auric glider.

I felt unsettled, as eerie wave came over me. All that morning I had waited until the wind had stopped, passing the time reading Roald Dahl stories about flying. One crept back in a weird way to spook me now. The story told the tale of a pilot returning from a Second World War battle. He had become disorientated in a thick fog. Eventually he struggled to a welcoming airfield and set the plane down safely. As he rolled to a stop, a squad of his comrades approached him. He recognised them but slowly drew the connection that all of them were currently listed as ‘missing in combat’. At first he thought they’d be malingering; hiding from the Armed Forces, as they didn’t want to fight any more. And then he realised, when he saw the shell hole near his engine that should have destroyed him. His encounter with the enemy was not a lucky escape – he too had joined the ‘missing in combat’ list.

The golden airfield below me was deserted. Everyone had packed up and the hangars were shut. The office and briefing room were closed. There was not a sign of life anywhere.

Was this Waikerie or my Valhalla?

‘I could do with a beer’ came a voice from under a hat behind me.

My instructor’s voice was the voice of reason. Physically, we were right back where we had started. But things were different, for me at least. While the flight was not a life threatening, it was life altering none the less. It was a challenge. It was an adventure. It was the experience I had come to have. I am not an Adrenalin Junkie. I am driven to learn new things. I did not come to qualify to be a toweling hatted ‘man in the back cockpit’. I came for the experience and shear joy of learning.

It would be 15 years before I returned to the front seat of a Grob Twin Astir Gilder.
But that was my choice.

We made our final approach and touched down a little heavily on the grassy field. I let the plane roll to a stop, as close to the hanger as possible. The final sigh from the plane was to drop the left wind and settle to a final stop – the dying swan.

And silence. I needed a moment for my soul to re-enter my body. We both paused for a second. All three of us needed to get used to the stillness and the quiet.

The only sign of life I could see was a light in the back row of buildings, The Club Bar glowing brightly.

My earthly Valhalla called.