On Freedom's Wings By Jennifer L. Branda
"Closed!" A muffled voice echoes "Closed!" as I release the small red wooden knob situated in the center of the instrument panel. The knob slams against the panel with a loud thud. I grab the knob once again and pull it toward my body as I yell "Open!" The plane inspector reiterates, "Open!" from outside the domed plastic canopy. He drags the end of a long metal rope to the nose of the glider and inserts it into the release mechanism. Finally I release the red knob for the last time and yell, "Closed!" He gives me a "thumbs-up" signal, and I return the gesture with a wide smile.
The inspector walks slowly to the left wing of the plane which currently rests on the grass. Upon his arrival to the wing tip, he bends down and lifts the wing off the ground with surprising ease. I feel a slight roll to the right from inside the cockpit. An airport assistant walks to the right wing tip and helps to level the plane as best he can.
The anticipation grows to an intensity that I have never felt before. The moment that I have waited for my entire life is about to occur. The inspector gives the tow-plane pilot the "throttle-up" signal, and the once soft-sounding engine roars with power. It starts to accelerate down the grassy runway, and the long tether quickly uncoils like a snake that has been interrupted in its sleep. The tether snaps taut, and the glider abruptly comes to life. The two men holding the wing tips off of the ground run faster to keep up with the glider until they can no longer continue to pace it. They both let go at approximately five miles per hour; at that speed the glider can sustain its own balance much like a bicycle in motion. The airspeed indicator's needle slowly increases from zero to five, then from five to ten. All the while the jolts caused by the uneven terrain of the runway become more frequent. At around fifty miles per hour the glider reaches its takeoff speed and takes to the air gently. Since the tow plane has not yet reached its takeoff speed, it remains on the ground while the glider flies above and behind it. From the ground, the takeoff must look like a kite being flown by a running child. Finally the tow plane lifts off, and the altitude build-up phase of the flight commences.
My flight instructor, Irv Soble, says that I should try to "box the tow plane", which means that I should not fly directly behind the tow plane because of the invisible air wake created by it. Boxing the tow plane is harder than it sounds. When Irv relinquishes control of the glider to me saying, "You have the controls," I barely touch the flight stick, and the glider becomes unstable. Irv takes the controls and returns the glider to the correct position saying that the stick is highly sensitive and reminds me that a glider is not a fighter jet so I don't have to put all of my strength into moving the stick around. He lets me try again and tells me that I have the controls; once again I move the stick too far and I lose control of the glider. He takes the controls and flies the glider back to its correct position again. As he does this, I state, "This is going to take a little getting used to, I guess." He responds by telling me, "No one becomes an ace on the first day, you know, but you're doing fine."
I had lost total track of altitude while I was learning how to move the stick, so I glance down at the altimeter and notice that the glider is about to reach the three-thousand foot mark. At three-thousand feet the tether is to be disconnected, and the glider will fly unaided by the tow plane. I prepare to pull the red knob, to release the tether. Irv tells me that I can pull the knob and I do. I hear a loud mechanical noise for a split-second. I look forward and watch as the end of the tether floats away from the glider, as does the tow plane. I realize how Chuck Yeager, the first human to break the sound barrier, must have felt as his bright orange airplane, the Bell X-l, was dropped out of the bomb bay of a B-29 Stratofortress, and he and his airplane were catapulted into the record books.
Irv says that I have the controls and that I should try to keep flying straight without changing altitude or turning. I grip the stick tightly and keep it centered. Irv starts clapping from behind my seat and asks me, "Do you know why I'm clapping, Jen?" I reply honestly, "I have no idea." He states, "Well, if I'm clapping, then I can't be controlling the glider, can I? It's just to let you know that you are controlling the glider without my help. You are flying all by yourself." I kept flying straight for a while, and it wasn't that complicated.
Irv says that I should try to make a controlled turn to the right. He also says that I should watch all of the instruments on the panel and notice any difference that occurs throughout the turn. As I ease the stick to the right, I turn my head and enjoy a breathtaking view of the ground looking past the right wing tip from twenty-nine hundred feet high. I turn my head to the left, and I get a spectacular view of nothing but white billowy clouds with patches of blue seeping in between. From behind, Irv asks me if I am noticing any difference in the instrument readings while the glider is banking to the right. I quickly check each instrument on the panel and notice that the glider is losing altitude ever so slowly, the compass is turning, and the airspeed is increasing. 1 relay this information to him. He says, "Good, now roll out and fly straight as you were doing before the turns." I maneuver the stick to center it once again; this takes a little time because I didn't want to overcompensate and turn the opposite direction. Finally the wings are fairly level with the horizon, and I keep holding the stick in that position. Irv says, "OK. Now look up through the canopy. Do you see a small piece of yarn stuck on the outside of it? That is there to aid you in making coordinated turns. Now turn to the left and try to keep the string from moving to either side." I think this will be simple; all I have to do is bank the airplane. WRONG! I can not keep the string from moving no matter how hard I try. This is another future lesson in piloting that I will learn to master, I guess.
I look at the altimeter, and it shows that I am about 1200 feet above the ground. At that height, it's time to find the airport and line up with the runway. In all of the excitement I had lost track of where the airport was. Except for some large shiny hangers, the airport looks like every other field in the vicinity. I ask Irv, "Irv, do you know what happened to the airport?" He says, "Look over the left wing. Do you see the long narrow field down there?". I reply, "Oh yea, I see it now." Irv says, "Fly towards it."
As I fly over the air field, all of the airplanes on the ground look like toys that I had played with when I was in elementary school. Irv says that we are going too fast and that I should apply some spoiler. He tells me to pull up on the blue-knobbed lever located on my left side. I pull up on the lever with a little effort, and the spoiler rises up out of the middle of both wings with the sound of metal scraping metal. I see a marked decrease in altitude and airspeed as I apply the spoilers.
I make a one-hundred and eighty degree turn and line up with the grassy strip which has orange cones marking the boundaries of the runway. I'm approximately fifty feet above the ground and falling fast. At this time I think that Irv will take over the controls and land the glider for me. Instead, he starts clapping again which lets me know that I'm going to have to land it by myself. Fear doesn't have time to creep into my mind. As I'm trying to keep the glider flying parallel to the runway a cross-wind starts to push my tail to the right. This does not help an already stressful event. I ease the glider onto the runway and my flight ends the way it began with a series of jolts. As the glider comes to a stop, the left wing hits the ground which spins the cockpit around the left wing tip.
The inspector, airport assistant, and my father walk towards me to get my reaction of my first flight. I tell them all about it with a grin that reaches from ear to ear. Before I have a chance to leave the cockpit, my father holds the camera ready to take a picture of me. I give him a very enthusiastic thumbs-up sign!
I'd like to thank everyone involved with Freedom's Wings International, a non-profit organization run by and for people with physical disabilities. F.W.I. provides the opportunity for those who are physically challenged to fly in specially adapted gliders as a member of the flight training program. This program has given me the once-in-a-lifetime experience to join the exclusive fraternity of pilots.