I was always going to be doomed.
Yes, that is my dad, flying a Fokker Eindecker that he built himself in his garage. A Fokker Eindecker, for those not in the know, is a German WW1 single-seat monoplane. You can find out more about my dad's antics over on his Flickr page. I've been telling him for years to start his own blog all things aeronautical, knowing there's definitely an audience of anoraks out there who'd lap this stuff up, but he's always been a bit scared of words (insisting he's dyslexic, despite the fact that everything he ever writes is wonderfully lucid, like the rest of his thinking).
Anyway, ever since I was little, my dad has been flying planes. Not for a living, but as a hobby. He had a small plane when I was born, but was forced to sell it when my sister came along, and hung up his headset until we reached our teens, when he started again. For the last few years he's had a share in a touring motorglider - the 'Grob', and I've been flying with him on several occasions. I absolutely bloody love it. And learning to fly has always been on my 'things to do before I die' list (along with winning the lottery first, in order to fund the lessons).
But last year, realising I am now seriously getting on a bit, I asked him if I could have a trial flying lesson as a present for my birthday. He suggested that I try gliding, as opposed to motorgliding or actual flying (gliders have to be towed or winched into the air, whereas motorgliders have an, er, motor, so they can get themselves off the ground). So way back in July (I know, this post is a bit overdue) I went along for two trial lessons in a proper glider, at Lasham.
I chose the hottest day of the year so far to partake in this activity, hence the ridiculous headscarf - I would have seriously burnt my bonce in that little perspex bubble otherwise. My instructor was a very kind man, who, it turned out, didn't get paid to give lessons but was more than happy to do it as it meant free flying hours for him. Unlike my dad's glider, the glider we were going up in was tiny and we had to sit one behind the other, rather than side by side. He alarmingly told me that I was going to sit in the front. He also then put a parachute on me. I didn't like this much. Not least because it weighed a ton.
My dad has tried to give me some rudimentary instructions on flying before so I kind of know the basics - that if you want to go up, you push the nose up but in doing so you lose speed, and if you want to gain speed, you push the nose down but do it too much and you plummet to the earth. Something like that anyway. It sounds so simple when it's explained to you, but when you're actually in charge of the controls somehow it seems completely illogical. Having no spatial awareness whatsoever (I had about 60 hours of driving lessons before my instructor would even let me think of sitting my test) I find flying really really difficult. Because there's not even a road to guide you. There's nothing but sky around you and the dull threat of other aeroplanes and things in the sky that might suddenly just appear out of nowhere and smash into you.
In fact this was one thing I did like about being in the glider – it had a helpful little bleeping system that told you when there was another glider nearby.
Anyway, we were towed up by a rather cool old plane, which was pretty exciting. It literally pulls you along by a cable, which, once you've reached around 5000 ft, pings off and the plane swoops away (hence subsequent worrying that the cable would hit someone/something as it flapped about). Then it suddenly goes quiet, and you realise you've got no engine.
Once we were in the air, it was actually really peaceful. I think this is what I love most about flying in small aircraft - the quiet and tranquility and serenity of it all. Nothing like a commercial airliner, where you can feel how heavy and unnatural the whole thing is as it judders off the ground. Little planes literally GLIDE into the air, and it feels like a perfectly logical place to be.
Unfortunately my stupid camera had decided to break, so I didn't manage to take any pictures whilst in the plane. Needless to say, I didn't do too much flying, as my poor instructor kept trying to encourage me to, thanks to my constant freaking out about stalling it. He was also completely obsessed with getting lift, which is how gliders stay in the air - by seeking out 'thermals', little pockets of warm rising air, that they kind of hijack in order to stay up. So everytime I took the controls and inevitably lost height, he couldn't help himself taking over again and wandering off to find another thermal.
We had two good flights in the end - the second one lasted almost 45 minutes, and my instructor seemed very chuffed with this. But when I came down to earth, I felt a little flat. I'd enjoyed the experience, as I always do, but there was something about gliding that I found unsatisfactory.
I can only liken it to my distaste of ornaments. Weird analogy, I know, but bear with me. I don't like things that have no purpose. And gliding just for the sake of gliding seemed daft to me. I kept looking at the tow plane, thinking I'd rather be in that.
And when I go with my dad, because his glider has an engine, we can take a day trip somewhere - land, have lunch and then be home for tea. In a true glider, you go up just to try to stay up for as long as possible and then come down again.
So at the end of the experience, I left with a snazzy certificate and the determination that it was REAL planes I want to learn to fly.
Alas, the lottery win is still needed.