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


Spot The Imposter 2

5 11 2008



One is Venice.


One is Vegas.



Which is which.





(answer tomorrow)




 Photos and post by:


Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: No. 23

30 10 2008

“No photos please, the Skywalk’s very shy…”   (Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona)

A perfect photo opportunity isn’t necessarily a perfect photo opportunity.


Leaving behind the bright lights and clanging slots of Vegas, we headed south past the Hoover Dam and through towns still advertising for one-horse. Trailing mighty clouds of dust, we bounced along rough desert roads dodging tumbleweed and cacti and rounding flat-topped mountains before finally arriving at a remote airstrip on the edge of the great void known as the Grand Canyon.


Having only one day to visit this wonder of the world, we had chosen against the scenic flights assuming they would stay well above the canyon and not guarantee a window seat, and instead thought the best photographs would be at the west rim and the newly-opened Skywalk. Upon arrival at the airstrip, we were transferred to buses to cover the last few miles to Eagle Point.


During the short journey the driver explained that the Skywalk was constructed of one million pounds of steel and had exceeded all engineering requirements by more than 400%. It could withstand winds in excess of 100 mph from eight different directions, an 8.0 earthquake and support 71 fully-loaded Boeing 747s – should they all just happen to be looking for a short semi-circular landing-strip jutting out of a cliff face 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.


The coach stopped near the incomplete visitor’s centre and like lemmings we all traipsed to the edge of the gorge and started snapping away furiously. There were no fences, but there was a very severe drop to the canyon floor below. Now, I’d say I’m pretty good at judging distances whether in feet, metres or football pitches, but trying to picture a drop of 4,000 vertical feet was a challenge. You can hear that it’s three Eiffel Towers, 711 Paris Hiltons, 12,000 Mars Bars or 40 centipedes all you like, but it’s still just a number….until you peer over the edge and watch microscopically-small helicopters fly past 3,000 feet beneath you!


The Skywalk shot out from the rim just to our left. It was a perfect horizontal arch that extended 65 feet from the canyon wall before looping back in and, apart from its support and a railing, was constructed entirely of 4-inch thick glass. As I eagerly strode forward I was already mentally formulating my photos and angles:


         A nice wide shot taken from a low vantage point to capture the view through the glass floor as well as the horizon through the glass wall and the vast desert sky above.

         A shot of my feet standing on the glass and the devastating drop beneath.

         A self-portrait lying on my back on the transparent floor as if falling through thin air…smiling non-chalantly, of course.

         A shot looking straight down between the Skywalk and the canyon wall using both as a frame.

         …and several thousand shots of the magnificent canyon itself.


We entered the Skywalk’s temporary visitor centre to be greeted by a large symbol of a camera with a line drawn through it. “No cameras allowed on the Skywalk” a security guard with a hand-held metal-detector announced, directing me to a wall of lockers.  I stammered my objection, but it was clearly pointless. It wasn’t the first time I had encountered something like this. Usually, there was an option to purchase a ‘camera pass’ or ‘video pass’ for an additional fee…or visitors could instead opt to buy over-priced photos at the gift shop. Believing I was being fleeced by yet another cynical tourist extortion, my back stiffened and I headed for the manager under a puff of indignant steam.


“We have to protect the glass floor”, she explained sweetly as my bubble of ire evaporated. “We’ve already had to replace several panes because of scratches” she added to rub it in. “But we do have photographers on the Skywalk who will be happy to take your photo for you” she finished, completely draining my resistance. I nodded, smiled meekly and relinquished my camera bag and creative independence.


The Skywalk was impressive although the thick glass made the drop rather surreal. The staff photographers were busy snapping and said the digital photos would be available at the gift shop. At least they were making an effort to accommodate disappointed visitors after unfortunately having to deny them their own photos, I mused. Having completed the circuit we were channelled into the gift shop. A helpful and selfless soul stood by a bank of computer screens eager to assist in finding and printing your own photo.


The pictures were nice and very similar to the angles I had envisaged. They had two packages on offer: a 5×7 of our favourite mounted in cardboard, or a memory stick containing all six photos they’d snapped of us, a few of their all-time favourites – plus a free coffee mug. The price?


“$29.99 for a single photo…or $107 for the memory stick and free coffee mug” he smiled ernestly.


I re-boarded the bus and returned to Vegas where the casinos at least say thank you before they steal your shirt.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Spot The Imposter

28 10 2008


One is Venice.



One is Vegas.





 Which is which?





(answer tomorrow)


Photos and post by:

Simon Vaughan