Riding the wind beneath my wings
Gliding always looks like such a benign sport.
Small planes floating serenely above soft fluffy clouds, silently spiralling on wafts of air to glint as tiny white crosses in the upper atmosphere.
I had seen gliders being towed aloft by light work-horse planes while growing up near Paraparaumu Airport and used to watch when the tow was cut and the glider left to find its own way down - or up.
Recently I was given the chance to climb into the cockpit of one of these cinder-light craft and see what it was really like.
The offer came from Nelson Lakes Gliding Club publicity officer Fred McKee. I took it up - why not, I thought. I'd never been gliding. I don't like heights but enjoy small planes and helicopters and it seemed a civil way to spend a Saturday.
The 52-year-old club took up the lease of a long paddock between St Arnaud and Kawatiri owned by the McConachie family of Lake Station about 15 years ago. Before that it operated from Nelson Airport.
A long-drop toilet, a small clubhouse, a shed and a clutch of glider trailers that are used as on-site storage for the planes dot the narrow sheep-shorn paddock.
I met chief flying instructor Rob Corlett, and listened into the day's briefing where he introduced me, Czechoslovakian pilot Lenka Hajkova and Nelsonian Adrian Parlane, who had been given a flight voucher for his birthday, to club members.
Mr Corlett discussed the weather, the day's plans and told club members not to fret too much if the V8-powered tow seemed to lift them aloft too quickly.
The club boasts two single-seater and two dual-seat gliders along with a membership of 50, who range from those with an interest in the sport to others who compete nationally. Everyone present on a flying day lends a hand to get the chores done to keep the club aloft.
As club president Jeremy Glasgow put it . . . "we depend on each other's efforts to out the gliders together and run the winch - it's a co-operative effort".
Once member Peter Mundy had headed towards the launching lift at the other end of the 1500-metre steel tow ropes the day's action started in earnest.
The tow runs two ropes and are slowly dragged back to the launch start by a four-wheel-drive. The owners of private gliders can launch and leave for the day - or however long the thermals last.
Club members have to wait their turn.
Watching the first launch was an eye-opener. The light planes seemed to head skyward at a huge rate of knots and a 45 degree angle within 50m of the tow's start. Mr Glasgow said the gliders can almost leap off the ground with a head wind and climb to 610m in 30 seconds. It was my first indication that benign may not be the right adjective to describe gliding.
Soon it was my turn.
Tightly strapped into the rear seat, heavy work camera clutched in both hands and instructions on how to open the canopy and get out of the seatbelt ringing in my ears. The canopy was closed, Mr Corlett ran through the checklist and radioed Mr Mundy to apply full power on the tow.
What a blast. The glider skipped across the sward on small wheels, launched and was hauled what felt like vertically upwards. The world fell away and there was only blue sky. At 800m the tow spiralled to earth under its own small parachute and we were on our own.
I never really realised how noisy gliding was. No engine - no noise I had ignorantly assumed.
Wind noise, buffets, pockets of air, updrafts, downdrafts, rising thermals to catch and ride, sinking cold air. The first impression was the similarity with a bad aircraft landing into Wellington Airport.
We spiralled wing-down to rise with a warm thermal. Seagulls below were doing the same.
Mr Corlett mentioned he has been challenged by native falcon which rode the warm air quickly upwards to glare at him through the thin plastic canopy.
We wound and wound and wound ourselves upwards until Mr Corlett deemed us at sufficient height to make a course for the distant Mt Robert.
While the variometer wooed or beeped in time to our falling or rising altitude Mr Corlett worked the skies, chasing rising air and dodging downdrafts as we skipped skywards towards the balding, brown scree face.
Catching rides, dropping into cold holes of air, slewing sideways to the noise of the wind, the bleeping variometer and the clicking of my camera. Stomach churning as my vision sought a normal horizon not skewed by camera zoom. Watching Mr Corlett as he made instant decisions to skilfully ride the sky - at that point I decided gliding was definitely not benign.
The final trip over the mountain's ridge, the ground dropped away and Lake Rotoiti spread below like a dropped blue blanket, Mr Corlett lowered the nose and the glider sped back to the strip at warp speed - it was then I decided gliding was an extreme sport.
I now take my hat off to the glider pilots. The skill they need to ride the wind long distance, the judgment calls they have to make while being buffeted through the skies. It's not silent, it's not peaceful. It's fantastic. Next time I will not take a camera.
Surprisingly, for the adventure appeal the cost of gliding is not extreme. Annual club subs are about $150 with some additional fees to the New Zealand Gliding Association. Club members using club-owned gliders are charged a set fee per launch and a minute rate to use the gliders.
An instructor on hand during a day's club flying is ultimately responsible to the Civil Aviation Authority. Those interested should check out the club's website glidingnelson.co.nz.
The Nelson Mail