This Just In -- Area Author Caught Getting High

For me, a research outing has two important functions. First off, it gives me far more accurate information than book or web research could. It fills my head with images, allows me to hear the way those involved in the activity speak, and gives me an authentic feel for whatever it is I'm hoping to describe.

Secondly, it's fun, and yes, kiddees, fun's important. It freshens our enthusiasm and infuses our work with a passion that communicates itself through the written word. Without it, writing's just another job. A really onerous job, with lousy benefits.

This past Saturday, the benefits were fantastic. Fireman Mike and I, after hanging out last week at a Houston-area gliderport, came back for a sailplane demo flight with instructor/pilot par excellence Glenn Giddings. Each of us took a turn, as that's the way things work in a tiny, two-place sailplane.

I was so excited, I awoke hours early that morning, like a little kid at Christmas. At the gliderport, we had a lengthy wait, as demo flights are squeezed in among lessons and the flights of the soaring club's regular members, but during that time, I was able to take a lot of notes as I chatted with young pilots, older pilots, students of all ages and from many walks of life. The one thing they all had in common was their passion for the sport.

When the time came for my flight, I was nervous. Would I panic upon take-off? Disgrace myself by filling all the barf bags? I'm happy to report that I did neither, in spite of a flutter of apprehension just before I was strapped in, my history of motion sickness (never sit next to me in the back of a bus), and the sauna-like mid-nineties heat.

Being pulling into the air by a towplane (cropdusting planes are most common) is rather like being the kite as it rises behind a running child (only with far less crashing, thank goodness). The glider, with its lighter weight and longer wings, lifts off before the towplane, which spirals us upward to -- in our case -- three thousand feet.

When the sailplane pilot (who is seating directly behind me for this flight so I have the best view) disengages the tow rope, plane and glider peel off in opposite directions. And aside from a bit of wind noise, the cockpit grows amazingly quiet. And cooler, as fresh air streams in through a hand hole (I'm sure this has a more official name) in the side of the canopy.

At this point, I'm in love. I wasn't a bit scared going up, the earth below is quilted green and gorgeous (we're in horse country), and the sensation of soaring is amazing. As my skillful pilot searches out a thermal beneath a cloud base to achieve lift, I feel the glider buoyed upward -- feel the thrill of knowing that what might have been a twenty minute descent will be extended. As a second glider spirals higher on the thermal, I look out to a left to see a pair of turkey buzzards riding the same column of warm air. Ungainly -- all right, butt-ugly -- on the ground, up here the big black birds are graceful aerobats, tumbling through the sky as if for pure joy. (I curse myself for not getting that photo, but some things have to be simply experienced and not seen through a viewfinder.)

For forty-one minutes, we stayed up there. I leaned with the glider's movements, looked for landmarks (a serpentine river and a fish farm, the airfield, and a distant prison farm), until finally -- damn it -- one spiraling manuever gets my queasies started. The pilot, who seems to fear being stuck in the cramped cockpit with a puker more than a crash-landing in a cow field, brings us in, careful to keep his flying as smooth as possible. (Thanks, Glenn!)

Landing is perfect, smoother than a lot of commercial flights I've taken. Once I free myself from the straps and bail out of the cockpit, I bound over to my husband (who's flying next) and say, "It's great! It's so great... Aggh, I think I'm gonna hurl."

I didn't, but it was a near thing. Mike had a great flight, too -- fifty minutes before the queasies slipped up on him, too, but we both enjoyed the experience immensely and with very little additional provocation, could get hooked.

So I'm happy to report, my mission was accomplished. Research, check. Fun quota, check, check, and triple-check! Thank you, Soaring Club of Houston!


Jo Anne said…
What a cool way to 'get high', Colleen. Now THAT's the way to do research!
TJ Bennett said…
Amazing, Colleen. Can't wait to see how this turns out in your book!

Joni Rodgers said…
Awesome experience. Thanks for taking us along with words and pictures.
Jennifer Ashley said…
Wow, Colleen! That looked great! You had nice weather for it, too. I'd be in the barf-bag category, though I'd try to shore up with bonine and wear my sea-bands (acupressure wrist bands I wear when sailing--they are amazing!) Thanks for sharing the pics and the story! You're right--there's nothing like actually being there.

Let me know which book it's in it comes out.
Kathleen Bacus said…
What a fabulous research outing, Colleen! My grandfather was a pilot (small craft) and I enjoyed rides with him in a small Cessna. I'm not certain, however, I'd be as at ease in a aircraft dependent on columns of air to keep aloft as opposed to an actual engine but I hear of more plane crashes than glider mishaps so what do I know?

I love the pictures--and your 'above and beyond' approach to research!

Atta girl!

Thanks for the attagirls, everybody. And for the excellent anti-hurling tips, Jenn!

And the glider pilots get a lot of mileage (argh- bad pun alert)saying that sailplanes are safer than powered planes because you never have to worry about mechanical breakdowns or running out of fuel. :)

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