Someone new had turned up at the airfield and came over with our groundcrew man; Gray had promised him a ride. So we pulled the craft back on to the runway, waited for our plane to taxi on out and off it went again on the end of the tow rope. I spent about 20 minutes watching the glider twist and turn. When it landed I thought that was it, but when Gray pulled up for the second time he invited me up for another time. It was just as magical as the first and although we just circled over the city there was so much to absorb that it felt like no time at all before we descended.
I helped Gray tow the plane back to the hangar, he wiped a few things down, locked what needed to be locked and we closed the hangar door and headed back to his car. I was so full of thanks and buzzy enthusiasm; it was like he had turned me back into a teenager. But the afternoon was not over yet and I was keen to squeeze every morsel out of my day off so while the light held I wanted to explore more. Gray picked up his old black dog from his house and we drove about 20km north west to a state park. I say we drove north west, but of course given the grid pattern of tracks we had to do substantially more to reach there. The terrain was similar farmland as I had been seeing all week but rather than finding it monotonous I sought out the little details in the landscape; every little creek with a cute cluster of trees, all the individual building styles. Like neighbouring Minnesota, there had been a sizeable immigration of northern Europeans over the last 150 years and they brought their lifestyle with them and tailored the landscape to feel homelike. I’d see huge Dutch barns , some with ornate barrel shapes on their ends which could have sat handsomely in a street in central Amsterdam. They were painted those deep autumn colours that make them stand out in the snowy depths of winter – and in the fall light were glowing maroon.
Dutch Barn but not painted the usual deep red
Gray mentioned to me that he had made a promise and we had an appointment. It being a Saturday afternoon, a college football game was underway at the University Stadium. I had already spotted it on the northern side of town and although the players were probably padded giants they looked like gnats on a pond from up here. The game had just reached half time and the players were streaming off the field, so Gray swooped down to a lower altitude, stalled the glider over the field, made it nod then dramatically swoop away to the right. I could not be certain but it looked like every face was looking up at us. The movement lost us considerable height and Gray looked around for thermals. The sky was still clear and it was not obvious if there were any natural thermals around on this cold day, but that did not concern Gray. He headed to the out of town shopping area and picked up some hot air rising from the car parks and malls and we soon regained most of our altitude.
We were just in time. The two military planes that we had seen earlier were heading straight for town and did a dramatic low level fly past over the stadium. The crowd were getting their half time show from us.
Over the pitch
All too soon Gray said that we didn’t have that much altitude left to play with. I was sorry not to head out in to the country, but for a first flight it had been a full event. We circled a couple more times over Brookings and I could see down at the excavations going on at the airport. Gray said we would not land on the runway, instead we would find some grass. He chose a square just to the right of the runway from which we had taken off. It was a pocket handkerchief sized plot and hindered by some orange temporary fencing held in place by tall metal rebar posts. Gray did not want to overshoot the grass to the taxi way beyond so tried to come in as low as possible above the fence to maximize the length of grass. He timed his approach perfectly and the wheels must have passed inches above the posts, then we bumped harshly on to the grass and almost immediately came to a halt.
I detached myself from the seatbelts and waited to Gray to guide me out of the plane; I could not conceal the broad grin on my face. I thanked him profusely. He, with his usual humility said not at all, it was a pleasure.
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.
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.
Preparing for take off
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.
Gray’s pride and joy