My friend Mang is moving to Berlin at the end of the month, and so he’s doing all the things that he won’t be able to do anymore once he’s no longer in the Bay Area. One of those things is to take his friends soaring.
He’s a member of the Norcal Soaring Association, which is a club for glider pilots. These gliders have a metal body and enclosed cockpit, but no engine. Their broad wingspan helps them glide long distances while losing minimal altitude. A powered plane tows you into the air, and once aloft, you look for thermal updrafts and other favorable wind currents to give you altitude boosts.
I sat in front and Mang sat behind me, explaining that it was easier to pilot from the rear seat, sort of like how it’s easier to aim a long-barreled gun. We got towed to around 3500 feet, detached the tow rope, and then corkscrewed tightly inside a thermal to climb another 500 feet.
After having watched my roommate go up first, the glider dwindling to a speck, then, minutes later, swoop gracefully toward the runway, I was surprised by how rough the ride felt once I was inside. Mang jokes that glider pilots are the opposite of other pilots: instead of avoiding turbulence, they seek it out, because that’s where you find lift.
From riding motorcycles, I’m used to a sudden kick-in-the-pants force pulling me forward; but never upward, or sideways, or both at once. So a struggle with queasiness accompanied my first experience of viewing sun-browned California farmland from on high.
Back on solid ground, I half-napped alongside the runway, in the shade of a golf cart’s plastic roof. The radio chirred a few times as nearby pilots announced their presence, but it was otherwise silent as I awaited the return of the third flight. The heat discouraged thinking. It was easy to go blank in a place like this, compared to the city we’d left. To dissolve across the asphalt and into the vast volume of air above.