Up In The Air

This has nothing to do with being Heathen, or even with religion. But it does have something to do with life and dealing with it, so maybe it's a good Heathen piece after all.

I used to fly gliders. Not models. Not hang gliders. These are real airplanes, but without motors, intentionally. They look a little different from your standard airplane. They behave somewhat differently, too: they actually fly. Once you release the tow hook, there is no motor dragging you through the air. There is only physics, and your understanding of it, keeping you from going splat on the ground. To fly one of these, there are certain things you must understand completely, and certain mistakes you simply must not make. Yes, the same can be said of powered planes, but the degree of focus on basic principles seems to me to be more intense in a glider, because you have no throttle and propeller to help make up for inadequate skills or poor judgment. You only get once chance to land a glider, and it's better if that happens on a runway.

Meet John, my instructor. He is young, intelligent, good-looking, and extremely direct. Not impolite-direct, but everything he talks about has had all the fluff and softness taken away. His job is to teach me how to not die in an airplane with no motor, and enjoy doing it. You'll quickly notice that one of John's favorite things to say is: "Now, watch what happens when I do this."

On this particular day, we are a few thousand feet over the city of Fremont in one of the airport's workhorse rental gliders. It is not elegant or beautiful like some of the others we left back on the ground, but it is inexpensive and it flies well enough. Part of what John teaches me is how to minimize the shortcomings of this venerable old boat. Another part of what he teaches me applies to anything I might ever fly. Some of what he teaches me seems to transcend the flying of airplanes, reaching into anything I will ever do forever after.

John rolls the plane up into a steep bank and pulls back on the stick. We are now going in a circle. This is one of the standard maneuvers: find a chimney of air going up, circle into it, and prolong your time in the air. We are in no such chimney today, though. He just wants to show me something. I hear his voice over my shoulder from the back seat, and I get the feeling he is about to say his favorite thing. He does. "Now, watch what happens when I do this."

He pulls back on the stick a little more, which tightens our turn. It's no big deal. I keep waiting for something dramatic to happen. The only thing I notice is that I feel heavier in my seat. This is because of the G forces resulting from the turn. We continue flying. The G forces slowly increase.

"This is called a spiral dive," he says. We aren't really diving, but that is apparently beside the point. He goes on. "Notice that you're getting heavier and heavier. That's because this kind of turn slowly tightens itself without you having to do anything to make that happen. Do you feel it?"

I nod and tell him that I do. I notice that I'm looking up through the top of the canopy. This makes sense: what is ahead of us is now effectively up that way, although, watching us from the ground, you would say it was to the side, inside the turn.

"Now, get us out of this," he says.

I do the obvious thing: pull back on the stick. It's obvious because the G forces are giving me this overpowering sense of down, and I want to get away from that. The plane responds, and the turn tightens. The G forces are now stronger, but there is no sense of release, no indication that I'm getting out of what I sought to escape. So I do more of the obvious, more of the thing my body is telling me must be the right thing to do: I pull back harder. The turn becomes tighter still, and the forces increase again. I am beginning to feel just a touch of panic. What I'm doing is so ordinary: I'm turning the airplane. But I feel like I'm in some kind of trap. The glider is starting to make groaning noises. From the back seat, I hear John's always-even voice:

"If you don't get us out of this pretty soon, we will exceed the maximum allowable wing loading. That will rip the wings off the airplane and we will die."

The panic is real now. I'm doing what every fiber of my body is screaming at me to do: pull up. But I can't seem to pull up fast enough. If only I could exert more control.

"Would you like me to show you how to get out of this?"

"YES!"

What John does next makes no sense. He doesn't pull back on the stick. He pushes it forward. There's some rudder action in there, too, hard against the turn, but only for a moment. The result is immediate. We are flying straight and level again. The excess G forces are gone in an instant. I feel like a fool.

"Don't feel like a fool," he says. "Think about what your body was feeling, and what that was causing you to do. Then think about what the problem really was, and what I did to fix it. Usually, your feelings and sense of the obvious are good guides. Sometimes, they will kill you. In those cases, they will also kill anyone who is in the airplane with you, and anyone who is underneath you when the airplane you destroyed hits the ground."