Having jumped out of a plane at 15,000 feet, I was pretty pleased that challenge 41 involved a plane I could remain firmly seated in, even if it didn’t have an engine…
Fellow musician Ashley Benjamin phoned me up one day and said ‘I challenge you to meet me down at Lasham Airfield in Hampshire, go for a flight in a glider, and complete three loop the loops with a trained instructor!’ Sounded fun; I was happy to accept.
After several weeks of beautiful blue skies and fabulous weather, I picked a really grey and overcast day to join the gliding enthusiasts at the airfield. Typical! These guys are committed to the cause, though, so they didn’t let a bit of murky cloud deter them.
Daily ops briefing
The day started at 8.45am with signing up to club membership for the day, then a much-needed coffee. At 9am, we logged on to Zoom to watch the daily ops briefing for the airfield and surrounding airspace. Then we made our way to the hangar to start bringing out the gliders ready for their daily safety inspections.
My first rookie mistake was to offer to help with wheeling them out (they’re so light you can literally just pull them). I thought I was keeping the wings level, but it turned out that the person pushing the wing is actually steering. There may have been a tiny weeny brush up against the nose of a plane that was static outside the hangar. Only a tiny weeny one, honest.
Once each of the gliders had been thoroughly checked over and any concerns dealt with, they were individually towed behind buggies over to the runway in the middle of the airfield. This was where I committed my second rookie mistake – I walked diagonally across the airfield behind the gliders and was quickly told that I must only walk either in parallel or at right angles to the runway. (As any plane or glider that was coming in to land would have a better chance of navigating around me.) Oops!
With all the gliders lined up at the end of the runway, we just had to wait for the weather to improve. By late morning, the cloud base had lifted enough for the fun to begin. My instructor, John, had another student to take on a few flights before me, so we helped move gliders around the airfield and I took a zillion photos. Ashley explained everything that was going on throughout the day so I developed a good understanding of how the airfield worked; who did what and in what order.
Climb into the cockpit
Then the moment came – it was my turn to don the parachute and climb into the cockpit. Bizarrely, I sat in the front seat and John sat behind me. Of course, this meant that I got the best view! And what a view it was. Even with the murky weather, I loved my bird’s eye perspective on this little patch of Hampshire.
We were towed up on a cable by a tug plane, and once we hit 3,000 feet, John released the cable and we were left to our own devices. The poor weather meant there weren’t so many thermals around for us to make the most of us, so we had to make the most of the height we’d gained in the tow.
The challenge was to complete three loop the loops so John got straight to work! He’d explained beforehand that we’d remain in positive G for most of the time, which meant my bum would stay in the seat and I wouldn’t feel the upside down pull of gravity. He also promised to take us into zero G for a while so that’d I’d experience what that feels like (incredible!)
After the three loops, John then took us through a series of other aerobatic manoeuvres – a Quarter Turn, a Chandelle and a Stall Turn, I do believe – and at the end of the flight, he told me we’d hit 4.5G at one point. I definitely left my stomach behind up there!
The whole flight was over in around ten minutes and we came safely in to land. John’s been flying gliders since 1959 – just a few years, then – and I felt extremely safe with him given that we had no engine and only his experience of navigating a lightweight bit of fibreglass around the skies to get us safely through the manoeuvres. It’s really a bit mind-blowing if you think too much about it.
My dad would have been very envious of this challenge – he loved anything to do with aviation, and spent a lot of time at airfields and airshows over the years. I started the day with a lump in my throat thinking about this but I had to put those thoughts to one side as I don’t suppose bursting into tears mid-flight would have been a good move.
Anyway, big thanks to Ashley for setting me the challenge, and for making it all possible. It really was quite the adventure!