Gliding, not racing, is the sport of kings; well, perhaps not. They mostly would not dare.
For those who do dare it is the most exhilarating sport. I have just returned from a weekend camp, twice having flights of over an hour, reaching almost 10,000 feet above sea-level.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining. Mine was laced
with gold. The decision to give up squash-racquets was not an easy one.
For thirty years, playing at a tolerably high level, with much pleasure
and many comrades, it was a tough call. But the recurrent episodes of lower back pain were a serious warning of what was to come if I didn't.
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This page was last updated by Bernard Preston on 18th December, 2021.
"All my life people have told me to have great experiences because, whatever you may lose, no one can take away the memories. It is true. No one can."
- Wessel Ebersohn
Actually it's a decision that all sportmen and women have to make. When is the right time to hang up your boots? Before the heart attack or back operation or after it? It should not have been difficult, but it was. Every match for the last three months, was followed by three days of lumbar pain, no matter how much warm up and preparation I did, proper cool down and training; so I quit.
And found pure gold.
Glider pilots do it for the lol, but for Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger his hobby of soaring the skies turned out to be a matter of life and death. He gave credit to all the years of flying planes without engines after safely landing an Airbus in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.
Only once before has a commercial jet been
successfully landed with no loss of life, also with a soaring pilot at the helm. A stint in gliders should be mandatory for all pilots.
Yes, Airbuses and Boeings are also able to go gliding.
There were 155 people on board Flight 1549.
Their Airbus hit a flock of geese at 3000 feet after take-off and lost both engines. Quick thinking is what flying is about. And when you don't have the option of an engine, you do not have the luxury of time to consider your options.
Well done, Sully. Who says men of 57 aren't still in their prime?
Sully Chesley Sullenberger started flying at 16 years of age, joined the airforce and was selected to join the cadet gliding program. He had been a solo soaring pilot for four decades when his quick thinking and skill saved his and 154 other lives. Read the inspiring story of his life on Wikipedia.
In Frog in my Throat I tell of soaring at 14 000 feet in my ancient German plane with the incongruous title Baptiso To immerse and of the heart-breaking scene in which in my birdy was nearly destroyed, and miraculously I was not injured, so I won't bore you here with those tales. Instead today here I will tell you of my last flight. My 500th in fact. Exactly.
In total I have enjoyed 501 flights in a glider. Actually the 501th wasn't such a pleasure. I made my Dutch friend sick, so I decided to call it a day too, and stick to my next pure gold discovery. The bicycle, but for that you will have to spend the princely sum of $2.99 on my third book of anecdotes from the coalface, Stones in my Clog.
Let's get back to the 500th. Schlepping planes around South Africa was not my idea of fun, but every year, when the list went up for the annual club outing to Harrismith's Platberg, my name was on the list. Harrismith and its surrounds has amongst the best gliding in the world. Championship pilots regularly do 1000 kilometre flights! I was not one of them.
Apart from anything else, you need a $ 200 000 glider to do that; not for the average DC. The longest I ever made in GEA, undoubtedly one of the top ten memorable experiences of my life, soaring over very rugged forested and mountainous terrain, rising to above 14 000 feet you can read about in Bats in my Belfry.
It was very batty actually. There was absolutely nowhere to out-land should the elements have turned against me.
Just look at those clouds. Rising to 30 000 feet they make the Highveld of South Africa the place that soaring pilots the world round dream of.
Harrismith's Platberg or, flat mountain, didn't look that imposing from our B&B, Mount Roses, but the closer you get, the more you begin to appreciate the fierce nature of this range rising to 10 000 feet asl.
The west wind strikes the sheer face rising thousands of feet straight up, taking those who dare with it.
Can you imagine the sense of awe looking down at this mountain, knowing you have no engine, and only the power of fickle turbulent air to keep you aloft. Sigh; it's the sport of kings. For those who dare.
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What makes Harrismith so exciting for pilots is that the air is always surging either up or down, and you with it, your heart in your mouth. One moment you are in rapidly sinking air, in transit towards the centre of the Earth, terror-struck, and the next you are soaring towards the moon, awe-struck. Every moment is a flip-flop. Will I make it home?
I didn't after making a wrong decision, flying downwind of another smaller mountain towards my goal, Sterkfontein Dam, I hit cold air that just kept sinking.
And sinking yet more causing me to drop at an alarming rate. Fortunately I spotted the long grass around pylon carrying high tension cables and landed safely in this field.
My ancient Ka6, more than 50 years old, looking dejected. Of course, she's a little younger than me, not by much, and I was feeling far more out of sorts than old GEA. After more than three hours of intense struggle with the elements, I was the loser. GEA has outlanded many a time, on this occasion without mishap or injury. She too carries her scars.
The Harrismith farmers are the amongst the most hospitable people in the whole world. They helped me dismantle my precious birdy, and when my clubmates arrived we, total strangers, were invited to supper and a long night. Mampoer, homemade peach brandy (highly illegal) kept us very merry as we celebrated my safe return to Planet Earth. My last flight in GEA.
Bernard Preston in the green shirt; fingered as usual.
The widow maker is the term Bernard Preston gives to all planes. Boeings are pretty safe, but they still crash, mostly because of the madness of men. Gliders are pretty safe, but still accidents happen.
The widow maker is the story of Bernie's return to gliding after a ten-year hiatus.
All glider pilots need to watch out for too much sunshine; and gardeners too. It's dangerous and skin-cancers are not to be messed with. In particularly, malignant melanoma is usually fatal if not caught early.
Perhaps the greatest danger in gliding is exposure to too much sunshine.
For a few more details about prevention of melanoma, and a good wash of the back after a day in the sun, acne body wash and melanoma.
Interesting research shows that those enjoying a diet high in onions and dark-green leafy vegetables have far less to fear from the sunshine.
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Few books have touched me recently more than "In Touching Distance" by Wessel Ebersohn. Every animal lover, and certainly every South African should read it; a gem.
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