“Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…”
Sometimes it just takes a swift kick in the seat of our pants to make us really understand something. I had memorized John Gillespie Magee’s words because they began a poem about flight. I fancied myself a poet, and fancied myself a pilot. I thought it was my duty to know this poem that Magee, an RAF volunteer, had written home just two weeks before his death. So I had memorized it. I knew the words by heart; I could, and did, recite them to any other pilot who was sympathetic enough to remain within earshot. Yes, I knew these words by heart. But it took a kick in the seat of my pants before I understood them.
That kick came two years ago, while I was practicing for my glider rating. I already had a single-engine license, and figured that the glider “add-on” would be a pleasant way to pass the summer weekends. After a dozen lazy flights in the two-place Blanik, my instructor had turned me loose in the club’s Schweizer 1-26. For those who do not know the 1-26, it is a small single seat glider. One does not so much climb into it as simply strap it on. It was smaller than any airplane I had ever been in; I felt as though I could almost reach my arms out and touch both tips of this, this toy glider.
Sitting on the runway that first time — yes, I felt like I was sitting *on* the runway, surrounded by this close-fitting uniform of plexiglass and aluminum — sitting there, I recalled my instructor’s warning: “She’ll be a bit lighter on the controls than you expect — if you’re not gentle, you’ll be all over the sky.”
He was right, of course. After three flights, I still didn’t have the knack of takeoffs in the 1-26. Trying to hold level at the end of the towrope, I would overcontrol and swoop from 5 feet to 15, then down to brusquely kiss the pavement and back up again. Each takeoff would begin with a couple of such swoops before I could regain my timing and composure, and fall in line behind the tug for my slow ride upstairs.
Once aloft though, the 1-26 was a joy to fly. I had been accustomed ox-like to airplanes that must be coerced by sheer strength of arm to alter their pitch and heading; in contrast, the 1-26 was a playful puppy, turning and rolling at the slightest touch. I soon learned not to consciously move the controls — that would lead to a rough, brutish flight. Rather, I would *think* where I wanted to go; the 1-26 would understand, and if she were capable, would come along happily.
We had only been together for a few flights, the 1-26 and I, but I was beginning to think that there might be more to silent flight than just an add-on rating. I had, for example, read about thermals. Those mythical, invisible columns of air which the hawks and gulls can ride effortlessly all afternoon. I’d read about them, searched for them, and had, from time to time, been rewarded with a trickle of lift that had reached from below to hold me tenuously aloft. My altitude crept imperceptibly upwards, and it was a glorious feeling: I was soaring! Then, like a breath held too long, it was suddenly gone and I sank heavily to earth. Always, the hawks would look down from their lazy circles and nod in disapproval.
It was now late afternoon, and this flight was going to be like all the others this summer. Up to 3500 feet, a few turns here and there like an errant child on a snark hunt. Sniffing for that elusive thermal that might stretch my precious time in the air. Down to 1500, then set up the pattern, airspeed, trim, airbrakes, look around, and land.
A flight like any other. I was already descending through 2000 feet, creeping back to the field on the scant lift from the asphalt highway below. I had been up for 20 minutes. Not bad, I was told, for a student at my level. A turn west over the sand pit to get me inposition, and
I felt the sound before I heard it. The 1-26 jolted as if we’d been smacked from below by some divine flyswatter. A swift kick in the seat of my pants. My first reaction, like that of all good students, was panic — a midair? What had I hit? The sputter of the audio variometer rose to a shrill whine and the turbulent air rattled us like a dustpan. What had happened? I had control, my airspeed was in the green, altitude was fine, and my vertical speed was… topped out on the “up” peg. It was then that I finally realized: I had roped a thermal. I had blundered into a rising column of air that was dragging me skyward, whether I wanted to go or not.
Now, “wanted” might have been to mild a word for the situation. I had begun to dream of lift, my nights filled with visions of floating effortlessly, silently among the hawks and gulls. Yes, I wanted this thermal, and I was not going to let it get away.
The 1-26 responded even as I thought it, and cut hard left into a steep bank. (Look first! Whew, we’re clear) Nose on the horizon, bring it back to minimum sink speed, start feeling for the core…. The sequence came to me like a checklist. I had read this, and had read it well. More bank when the vario tone drops, less as it rises. The vario howled. My altimeter wound up at a dizzying rate — 3000 feet, 4000 feet, now 5000. The VSI remained stuck on its peg; I was climbing at least 1500 feet per minute and the ground pulled away like I was riding a glass elevator. Where would it stop?
It stopped just above 8500 feet. Spit me out the top into the smooth air above and there I was. I discovered, to my amazement, that the thermal was still down there below me. I could circle, lose a few hundred feet, and regain the bubbling turmoil that would carry me up again.
Eight thousand five hundred feet. Not high by any standards, but it had taken me less than five minutes to get there. It had been effortless, and now here, silent and all alone in the late afternoon, I could stay.
But I was not alone. As the green earth turned a slow pinwheel below me, I saw for the first time that I had company. Sixty feet ahead and away, casting a wary eye back at this sheet metal pretender from below, a lone gull circled with me.
Our eyes met, and it was clear that this was *his* thermal, into which I had stumbled uninvited. Of course I was uninvited — what bird would welcome the company of so ungainly a contraption? But the gull chose to tolerate my company. I was not nearly so bad as the shrieking metal machines which came and left the airport all day; I was small and quiet. For an intruder, I was fairly innocuous. I would be allowed to stay.
It might have been pathos, too. Anthropologists tell of primitive island cultures that, seeing airplanes fly overhead, built facsimilies out rock and wood. Were they built out of worship? Imitation? As a lure to bring these steel-winged gods to earth? I don’t know. But hearing these stories evoked a feeling for those people. Those who, in awe, imitated flight they could never really know. I now wonder if the gull had those same thoughts. “These featherless bipeds have created a white metal bird in my image, which awkwardly rides the same currents of air I do…. is forbearance too much to ask?”
And so we circled that afternoon. The gull, a consummate pilot, watching me, and keeping a safe distance. Me, no… us, the 1-26 and I, following around in that silent windswept world.
I said earlier that I had memorized Magee’s poem, and that I would recite it to any pilot who would listen. I thought it was unlikely that the gull had heard it before. I don’t imagine he heard it that afternoon either, separated by sixty feet and a sheet of plexiglass. But I know he understood it, just as I understood it for the first time when the words came to me then, under my breath:
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of —
Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.
I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up along delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark, or even eagle flew;
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
— John Gillespie Magee Jr., “High Flight”