Gray climbed into the back seat and closed up the windows – all but one which he used to signal to his ground crew. He had a brief word to the control tower on his portable radio, then, all signals given, the tow plane started to move forward and the rope took up the slack. All at once we were moving forward and the glider, which had been tilted to one side so a wing was touching the runway, levelled off and picked up some speed. The aircraft rose gently in front of us and we followed a few seconds later. Losing the noise of the wheels on the ground, all we had with us was the engine noise in the plane up front. Our ascent was shallow and we circled several times over the runway to gain altitude. I could start to appreciate the land below, both the tight urban landscape of Brookings itself, and then the never ending prospect of fields stretching out over the Great Plains.
Onwards and upwards we went for many minutes. Eventually, Gray spoke to me through the headphones and asked me to get ready to detach the tow rope. On his command I pulled the big wooden knob towards me, and we felt a sharp jolt as the glider was sent off on its own trajectory and the plane dropped away quickly, retracting its rope and heading for the runway.
We were there on our own and the only accompanying noise came from the roar of the wind and my quickened breathing. It was spectacular. For a geographer to have the opportunity to glide like a bird of prey over the country, and to help identify where to go next, was fantastic. Yes, we can all look at Google Earth these days, but it does not give you that experience of being in the atmosphere above the areas you are observing. Yes we can fly in planes, but they are on set routes, often above the clouds, and pushy stewardesses insist on you closing the blinds to allow others to watch fantasy films when the majesty of real life is passing below you.