The Right Stuff

13 01 2009


 “Luke, follow my light-sabre, Luke….”               (Gliding near Las Vegas)


One of my favourite film scenes has legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (portrayed by Sam Shepard) walking across the Mojave Desert away from the flaming wreckage of his aircraft. The earlier sequence of his crippled jet spinning and tumbling helplessly through the heavens was real edge-of-the chair stuff, but there was something even more dramatic about his laboured walk away from the wreck. Quite why I chose this moment to recall the scene I had no idea, walking as I was across a Mojave Desert airstrip towards an aircraft with no engine that was about to take me several thousand feet into the hot sky.


The metal glider seemed far too basic to be towed, never mind carry us high into the sky, soar around for a bit and hopefully return us safely to earth. I climbed in, sat down and faced the Rubic’s cube of seatbelts. There were canvas shoulder straps and waist straps, heavy metal hooks and clasps, locks and bolts. I quietly tried to figure it all out, wondering if it had been designed to restrain the first monkeys that flew into space. The pilot asked if I needed a hand. Requesting assistance with a seatbelt was similar to asking for directions and I shook my head…until I pictured gravity smearing me against the Perspex canopy, my feet twisted over my shoulders and wrapped around the back of his head, and nodded gratefully.


The canopy was pulled closed and locked. I noticed cables running along the floor.


“Make sure your feet don’t get in the way,” the pilot instructed, “or you could affect my control.” I snapped my legs together obediently.


Ahead of us a small propeller-driven cropduster, revved its engine. Our pilot radioed that we were ready and our tug moved forward. The tow-line tightened and suddenly we were moving along the runway. Within seconds we were off the ground and soaring into the wild blue yonder. We climbed in wide, gentle circles higher and higher, following our escort’s lead. Considering that we had no engine, it was remarkably noisy as the wind banged and buffeted at the canopy.


“There’ll be a loud bang when the cable’s detached” the pilot warned.


I nodded in understanding but still jumped a mile when the loud clanging-snap echoed through the fuselage. I quickly checked to make sure that both wings were still attached. The tug banked to one side and disappeared from view as we continued our gentle climb.


The Mojave stretched away as far as the eye could see in every direction. There was nothing but endless desert, dry lake beds, ragged mountains and the occasional arrow-straight road. As it was still early, the view was crystal clear.


“That’s California” the pilot pointed out just ahead of us. “Those hills are in Arizona” he gestured off one wing. “That’s Utah” he added on the other side. “It’s early so we shouldn’t hit any thermals, but keep your belt tightly fastened just in case” he added unnecessarily given that I couldn’t have removed it with a chainsaw.


The Mojave and Sierra Nevada offer some of the best soaring in the world. As the ground heats up, hot air thermals rise from the desert floor providing almost endless lift for gliders. It was possible to soar from thermal to thermal along the ridge lines all day, he explained. In fact, many world records for duration had been set in this part of the world.glider-2mw3


The glider gently banked over, one wing raised and then the other. Despite the rush of the wind, it was remarkably serene and wonderfully relaxing. The warmth of the sun through the canopy, the clear blue sky above and the stark beauty of the desert below were utterly captivating and I never wanted the flight to end. It was hard to imagine that we were powerless and simply coasting with the wind. It seemed the most natural way possible of flying.


We swooped over a ridge and received a solid thump beneath our seats that jolted us upwards.


“A thermal!” the pilot announced excitedly. “It’s early for that, but it’ll give us a bit of extra air time.” he added with a smile.


We continued to coast and bank, gently circling high above the airfield, one wing raised and then the other. Gradually, the cars on the road became larger and our orbits dipped below the mountain tops. The pilot radioed for clearance to land, and we swung around in an enormous arc until the runway was directly ahead. Our nose aimed down and we lined up with the centre of the landing strip. It was only as we neared touchdown that we regained any sense of speed as the ground rushed by just feet below.


Touchdown was smooth and quiet…until the metal fuselage also regained terra firma with a loud banging and grating sound. We quickly slowed and coasted off the runway. The canopy was opened, my seatbelt miraculously released and I climbed free, caressing the yellow fuselage affectionately. There was no plume of smoke, no mushroom cloud of fire and no weary airman striding from the mayhem…but my hour spent slipping earth’s surly bonds had been even better than “The Right Stuff”.



Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan




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