A Day in the Life of a Soaring Pilot
Soaring is the art of staying in the air without the use of a motor. The soaring pilot uses rising air currents called thermals much like a sailor uses wind to power a sailboat. This can allow un-powered aircraft to not only stay aloft, but also travel cross-country for miles and miles by jumping from one thermal to the next. However there are no guarantees of accomplishment because weather can change and ones skill may not be up to the task. A typical day might look like this:
The launch area is always full of people in different states of anxiety. It is like a hospital waiting room, with all of us waiting for the birth of our first baby, a cumulous cloud. The newbies ask one question after another: “Does it look good today? Which direction should I go? What time should I launch?” The old salty pilots hide their feelings by telling stories: “There I was, thought I was going to die….” The gadget freaks are rushing around to find batteries for their gizmos and the few pilots with significant others are having their first argument of the day: “What do you mean I have to sit by the radio all day?”
I launch before noon and look up to see the first puffs of a “Q-me,” which is our endearing name for a cumulous cloud. Minutes later I am approaching the same altitude as my little white Q. While I was climbing, it has grown and inspired many other cumulous which dot sky above the crest line of the majestic mountains. It was 100 degrees on the ground, but up here it is chilly enough for me to roll down my sleeves and curse the perspiration now freezing against my skin. Now I am up high, only the growing clouds interest me. My eyes remain skyward; for it is here I plan to remain. It is time to push forward with as much speed as I dare and discover where these streets of clouds will take me.
I am not really thirsty, but while I am flying straight this is a good time to have a drink, check the map, adjust my private area, and get ready for the long haul. I check the time and make a plan. I must get home again because there is no one following me who can retrieve me if I land out somewhere strange. I roughly calculate if I turn around and start home at four I should make it.
The lift is strong and it is really fun now. The only mistake I make is going too fast at one point and get down low in a mountain pass where I scratch along warm rocks begging for lift. I finally find the birthplace of a powerful thermal, which takes me back up to cloud base. I wipe the sweat from my brow and push on. The view is awesome and there is time for a few pictures. I will love each one, but they will be hard to share. The girl friend will say the same thing as always: “What? Another picture of a cloud, big deal.”
After flying for a couple of hours, I run into another soaring pilot. I look at him and he at me as we dance around each other in circles, wing on wing – I wonder if I will see him again. The lift has been great, but maybe too good. The same lift that shot me skyward a couple of hours ago has now filled the clouds with moisture and they bulge at the bottom in an effort to drop their load. Some already have streaks of virga, which is rain that doesn’t hit the ground. They blot out the sky and shade the earth; ominously forecasting the trip home will be more challenging than the trip out.
Halfway home the clouds have been replaced with one big monster fifty miles across. To one side is sunshine but there are high mountains and no landing areas in that direction. The other side is shaded by the cloud, meaning there might not be lift there. Before I decide which way to go, I sneak up on the beast and feel the edge. Although the virga falling out the middle of the cloud means there is no lift there, I find booming lift on the edge of this behemoth and climb right to the base. What if I just go straight? The shortest line between two points is a line, right? It just means flying through the virga and a little water never hurt anyone.
Miles and miles I glide with out a hint of lift. I think of all the safe places I can land which is comforting, but then I think about how long it will be to find some help to get home. Oh, I have done it this time. I will be safe, but it will probably cost me another friend to get home. We will be out past midnight by the time I get the glider ready to travel by car and they drive out here to get me home. In desperation I circle in anything that resembles lift. It is slow going but I do climb. It takes what seems like forever to gain a few hundred feet and I worry I am running out of time. The sun will set and all the lift will be gone. As the day dies down one needs the most amount of patience, but the stress of having to get home conflicts with this fact of nature in a most detrimental way. It is now that a pilot’s character shows. It is in this late day struggle that real talent is tested. It is during this slow death of a beautiful day that grown men cry.
I eventually do get back up to cloud base. Three or four more thermals latter and I can make it home on a glide even if there is no more lift on the way. It was good day. I won a battle or two, and gazed at the wonders of creation from horizon to horizon while surfing the super highway of eagles.