First Solo

The Sky’s the Limit by Greg Forward

Reared (?) in Malmesbury, I’ve known Nympsfield as synonymous with gliding since early childhood. However, I’d assumed being a simple country boy, that only clever (and rich) people glid.(sic) Although I’d often dreamt of it, I never dared believe that one day, I’d be let loose in a flying machine – on my own!

It was late March when I chanced to pass the Bristol and Gloucester Gliding Club with a ‘friend’ and decided to drop in to check it out. A very comely wench in the office soon persuaded me that what I really, really wanted, was an aerotow! She took my dosh and pointed me in the direction of a mature, athletic gentleman in a flying suit. I half expected him to introduce himself as Bond, but far more impressively he said “My name is Smith . . . ERIC SMITH.”

So off we went. I was subjected to the now familiar soft, reassuring tones of our hero, “We have no engine . . . etc. etc.”; and before I knew it, was aloft in a DG 505 above the lush Gloucestershire fields. I experienced aileron drag, and then all too suddenly, the orgasmic-like rush of landing nearly overwhelmed me, or at least, nearly did my pants! Just like my first sexual encounter, it was all over before I thought it had started; but equally, I was hooked.

Shaken, and somewhat stirred, I climbed out of the glass ship beaming all over. Eric however, remained inscrutable, routinely enquiring if “the wife” would like to have a go too? I dared not tell him she was someone else’s wife as he seemed so respectable. She in turn graciously declined, telling us she’d just witnessed a winch launch and was convinced all glider pilots are crazy. The very next day I submitted my forms and fee; I wanted to be crazy too.

Some days later I found myself heading up towards the airfield via Frocester. In my mirror, looming large, was a 4×4. I dropped a cog into 2nd, turned the music up loud to drown out the protesting engine and careered up the winding hill at 50. Minutes later I turned into the car park, so too did the 4×4. A portly, though nimble gentleman with money management written all over him alighted and gave me a Sumo wrestlers stare. I guess he was afraid I might want to fly?

But fly was what I was there to do. So after enquiring where, I made my way to the launch point. I was looking for ‘God’, and sure enough there was a bloke with white hair, younger and slimmer than I expected, but also a little thin on top! ‘God’ was very busy, so a pretty young lass with nice air-brakes took me under her wing. “Would you like to learn to ride?” she asked. “YES PLEASE” I ejaculated triumphantly . . . . . . I was shown to the quad bike. Glider retrieval was to be my first lesson; and my naive purity remained regrettably untarnished.

Later on ‘God’ took me flying. I soon learnt that god was a northerner who took the piss ever so gently. I also learned there was a greater ‘God’, the C.F.I. ! – and he really did command Respect!!! Learning to be a pilot was obviously going to involve a lot of piss taking from a variety of gods, hence my background handling the mountain gods was sure to come in handy. I’d been sent to the newsagent for a copy of ‘S&M’, so it was already one nil to the glider pilots. [I thought the straps might be handy, but couldn’t quite see how the nipple clamps would improve my flying.]

Inexperienced, so utterly incompetent, I found pre-solo gliding remarkably similar mentally to my previous experience of aviation, rock climbing (well it is if you fall off). That is, putting oneself into a potentially dodgy situation, staying there a while and maybe pushing the luck just a little, and then getting out of that situation, hopefully in one piece. Climbers do this with well co-ordinated physical outputs to defy gravity; whereas glider pilots stay up with well co-ordinated control inputs, or so I was told. Either way, allow the imagination to take over, i.e. panic, and the whole thing can go tits-up! A climbing fall arrested by the rope equates to a spin or stall, and a ground fall (a ‘Desmond’, after Desmond Dekker of Israelites fame) to a pancaked plane. But gliding I’ve decided, is ultimately the more dangerous as there is no top rope rescue to hand, only a bag of laundry on your back. Gliding therefore, is akin to soloing a climb with the crux move at the very end of the pitch, having made an irreversible move near the bottom. Take off; reverse that if you can: then land; avoid that if you can!

Maybe ‘the wife’ was right; perhaps this is crazy? Sliding through the air in a green house with some other silly sod in the back who can’t resist scaring the crap out of you from time to time. “Lay off right immediately after rotation” . . . to allow for the 20 knot gusting cross wind. Sure enough the cable snaps at 200′ and we go nose over down into the wooded valley. OR, a near VNE dive on final approach. My lap strap was too tight to lift a cheek, but it didn’t matter, the 5g ‘easing’ back of the stick at 50′ into a winch take off attitude saved the day. And then for good measure, given back control for a simulated ‘awkward’ cable break. The ‘wife’ is pretty bright really.

Some days later, after drug therapy and counselling, I found myself back at the launch point for more treatment. 4X4 Man was there; very tactfully he drew me to one side . . . . “Some people don’t think that ‘people’ like you should be here” he said grimly. How on earth did he know? I hadn’t told anyone about the under age goat! Then he went on. “Some people think, and I’m not one of them, that ‘Fixed Price to Solo’ should only fly when” . . . there’s a blue moon or something? I didn’t quite catch the last bit as I was so relieved my little secret wasn’t out. Anyway, who ever heard of a flying club where members shouldn’t fly? He seemed quite happy having got that off his chest and we all carried on as before with our jolly old therapeutic manoeuvres.

Springtime passed into summer and much lumpy air traversed the field at vast rates of knots making exercise flights almost impossible. ‘Conditions experience’ became the excuse to fly and many epic finals were accomplished inches above the clubhouse and/or a gnats cock from the end boundary. Cables snapped, round-outs didn’t happen in horrible wind gradients, and nearly 80 flights were clocked up (or was it cocked up?), before solemn voices in sinister tones would be heard to say “It’ll be soon now”.

The great day duly arrived and my first solo was actually quite pleasant; especially as the girl with nice air-brakes was there to see me off. I spent 23 minutes aloft soaring to 2000′, then threw away over 500′ with proper air-brakes to get the 13 back for another student to use. I had to turn in a little early because of sink, so I finally rolled up outside the clubhouse. Soon I was wishing I’d landed out, or in the trees, or something.

I sat there just a while with the canopy open, feeling self satisfied, then began to wonder what to do next. I’d never been alone in this situation before. I’ll get out I thought innocently. Straps off, leg over. “STAY THERE ! STAY THERE !!” a voice hollered menacingly. Streaking towards me from the clubhouse I saw a stout figure. Was it Superman? Was it Swingford Christie? Pants were obviously on the inside and this bloke was red, so no! Goodness me, it’s portly but nimble 4X4 Man again I observed, about to give me a real bollocking judging by his urgent gait. “STAY THERE, STAY THERE” he puffed once more whilst I mentally rehearsed my CPR skills just in case. I felt such a prat when finally he rounded out having covered the 50m in 6 seconds, for all he wanted was my picture. But not just any old picture . . . a picture of me with ‘God’.

Greg Forward

13 January, 2015
All images and written works by David Forward are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License