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Gliding over Deeside

Mile High Madness

Quick. What was the high point of your week?

The high point of mine springs readily to mind. It happened on a sunny midweek afternoon, a mile above beautiful Deeside. And I was upside down.

There’s something very, well, intimate about joining the Mile High Club in a two-seater glider. Altitude apart, it shares nothing with the similarly-tagged institution that certain airlines celebrate with First Class bed-chambers. But unlike what may go on in a commercial jetliner — something that can occur, let’s face it, just about anywhere — the innocent thrill of soaring a mile or more above the earth in an unpowered aircraft is a tough one to replicate.

Past airborne highlights wilt in comparison. Once-vivid memories of snatched glimpses from airliners unzipping the skies over the whitened wilds of Alaska or the gold-flecked post-dawn Hindu Kush assume a muted remoteness. The gut-clenching rush of photographing Hongkong Harbour while strapped to a helicopter, door removed, feet welded to the skids by the downthrust of fearsome rotors whup-whup-whupping overhead — even that pales in comparison to the unmitigated joy of silently soaring upside down in a plane propelled only by that most powerful of engines — the sun.

No aero dare-devil, me, I was in good hands. At the controls was Roy Dalling, Deeside Gliding Club’s full-time instructor, an ex-RAF glider trainer with over 3200 hours in his log book. Do the arithmetic: if you fly 2 hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year– it’ll take you until Hogmanay 2007 to assemble that kind of record.

This was a memorable day shared with enthusiasts whose abiding passion is gliding. Roy is the only paid flight instructor at the Club, meaning that most instruction duties fall to club members whose time and expertise comes gratis. Thus for very modest sums, you or I can receive instruction from some of the best-qualified flyers in all of gliding.  Think of another pastime employing tens of thousands of pounds in exotic hardware and in which, for a few quid an hour and in the friendliest of club atmospheres, you can learn from the best in the sport. You can’t? Funny, neither can I.

£40 buys an Introductory Lesson at Deeside Gliding Club, including a twenty- to forty-minute flight when you even get a chance to take over the controls. It also buys club membership for a month during which you can take further instruction for about £20 per hour.  If the bug bites, the first level of solo flight qualification requires roughly forty launches, which might cost £900 — or about a third of what a forty-a-day smoker devotes to self-destruction in a year.

Roy runs me through an explanation of the dials and controls, straps me into a parachute (‘just pull this handle), and while volunteers steady the £24,000 Puchacz glider, a Pawnee crop-duster tug plane takes up the slack on the rope. Take-off is effortless, if noisy, and soon I’m watching the tug plane climb in lazy circles, the Puchacz trailing like a dragonfly glued to a piece of thread.

At 3200 feet, Roy releases the tow rope and the Pawnee peels away. In the new-found silence, my eye is drawn downwards, where Deeside sprawls, a carpet of green criss-crossed by tracks and roads and hedgerows — and the mighty meandering Dee, swollen from recent downpours.

Where pilots of powered aircraft turn tail and flee from turbulence, gliders seek it out for it’s climbing power; despite weak conditions, in half an hour we gain more than two thousand feet — and Roy welcomes me to the Mile High Club. Above vast rumpled eiderdowns of candy-floss cloud, the sky is of a lush reflective blue never seen from the ground.

Below, the town of Aboyne sits like a figure in a child’s pop-up book, and the grand Glen Tanar Estate stretches as far as even our birds’ eyes can see. On a clearer day we could savour the Grampians, only 12 miles away; much closer is Mt. Morven, all 2700 feet of it skulking in cloud shadow. Roy points out Loch Kinord; from this altitude, little more than an oversized puddle.

When he is certain that it is alright by me, Roy runs a safety check, then puts us into a precipitous dive. Airspeed leaps from 45 to 120 knots, the glider’s frame juddering as we shed seven hundred vertical feet. Eyes flick to my camera, fixed to the end of the wing with yards of quivering gaffer tape. Then the plane’s nose comes up, G-forces folding me into my seat. Arms extended, I try to raise another camera that points back at us, but I give up, humbled by gravity on steroids. After climbing vertically, nothing but sky above the perspex of the cockpit, G forces abruptly dissipate, weight transfers to the shoulder straps of my 5-way harness — and the earth intrudes upon the ‘upper’ edges of vision, an inverted array of forest and fields and country estates unrolling as we momentarily hold position, upside down 4700 feet above the valley floor. I quickly hit the remote control that fires the wingtip camera (it is still there; I’ve been checking), and after a few seconds of renewed vertical dive, the horizon is back where it belongs, the 360-degree loop complete.

“Well?” says Roy, apprehensive of my reaction.

“Again?” I reply.