Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Release!

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.

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Take off

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Preparing for take off

Having never worked in a hangar, I hung back while Gray cleaned his windscreens, tested the flaps, ensured all the wires and controls were operating, and then he released the cables that were holding the glider still in the hangar and asked me to help guide the vehicle out into the open.

I took hold on one wing while Gray steered from the middle.  I was amazed just how light and controllable the glider was.  We steered it gently through the doorway and out onto the road.   A friend of Gray’s turned up – he was a research assistant at the university and often helped Gray out as groundcrew.  Then  from an aircraft parked up behind us, another guy stepped out and as we shook hands, Gray explained that this was to be our pilot and he had just emerged from our tow plane.  We worked together to run the glider over to the main runway at Brookings.  At least it was the main runway (12) when we used it.  The usual main runway was being completely dug up, extended and resurfaced.

It took a while to sort out the tow plane so Gray decided the best place for me was in the cockpit.  He allowed me to sit in the front seat, strapped me in, closed the windows then returned to the tow plane to walk a rope back to the glider and attach it to the nose.  I took the opportunity to recce the instruments in front of me.  It all looked remarkably simple.  A basic altimeter on the left, some gauges to measure how quickly the glider is rising or falling, the variometer, the airspeed indicator,  and something to monitor the banking and rolling and tilting that the glider might do.  Taking centre stage in the middle of the dashboard was a large wooden knob.  I avoided touching anything and sat patiently but totally excited waiting for this new experience.

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Preparing for take off

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – The Glider

We also had a wander around the botanical gardens.  Although small, it was in full colour – the fall was probably in its finest week before the snow which had threatened earlier in the week finally took hold and made the leaves drop. It was getting close to lunch time by now and Gray had a surprise for me, but first we decided to eat and met up with his wife at the town library.  The strip we had spent most time on so far was in fact just the main road out of town and because it was close to the university campus, had a range of cafes and boutique shops.  The real down town was that one Main Street with the bank and hotel and all the other important buildings.  The library was tucked at the back of this.  When we emerged, Gray looked up at the sky; which was almost completely blue, and said “I think we are going to get a good view.”

We drove a mile or so past a small industrial estate south west of town and drew up at the entrance to Brookings Airfield.  No commercial flights come in and out but it had a bustle of industry which you do not see in small airfields in the UK.  Plenty of small two-seater planes, a helicopter or two, and many large hangers were scattered around.  Gray drove to one of these hangars and unlocked a small door, stepping inside to start up the mechanism to open the larger hangar doors, which rolled up into the roof.  Inside were a bunch of boys’ toys.  Several antique and vintage cars, another biplane and, taking up most of the central space, a fixed wing glider.  This was Gray’s pride and joy – he had been a pilot for many years.  In fact he had told me of a trip once to the UK where he had flown – turned out he had been at a gliding club on the North Downs less than 20 miles from my home.

We’d chatted to a couple of guys dressed up in old leathers who were looking at their own valued toy at the other end of the hangar.  It was an old fighter plane – I was never told whether it was an original refurbished one or a modern remake, but it looked the part.  It was apparently one of the US Marine Fighter Squadron, and it roared into life and was taxied out into the open air, round several hangars before taking off.   A second biplane went up in the air while Gray prepared his glider.

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Gray’s pride and joy