At approximately 3:30 p.m., I was asked by Gary, the man sitting in the seat behind me, to pull the yellow handle that connected our 650-pound glider to the tow plane in front of us. My heart skipped a beat when I pulled and felt the handle reach a point of friction, move past it and release easily as the tow line fell away from the nose of the glider in front of me. The first thing I noticed was the ensuing silence that washed over the glider when the tow plane banked to the left and left us alone in the sky soaring over the Santa Ynez mountains. I experienced a strong feeling, which Gary would later term “birdlike,” as we banked to the right and he pointed out the Reagan Ranch in front of us and the Pacific Ocean beyond that.
After briefly explaining the mechanics of the plane, Gary offered me the controls, later stating that years of video game abuse seemed to be paying off. (Video game nerds take heed: Learn to fly.) The plane continued to move through the sky, dropping at a rate of about 200 feet a minute toward the airport, before eventually bouncing once on its single wheel and coming to a stop.
After taking a flight lesson last year for this column and surviving some extremely shiesty flights in Europe last quarter, I was still slightly concerned about embarking on a journey that would leave me in a controlled fall without an engine. When I shared my concern with Gary, he explained that gliders are much safer than small single-engine airplanes. “Almost all of the accidents that you hear about are because the engine fails; with gliders that’s impossible.” While I know that he meant that to be reassuring, the whole experience of plummeting to my catastrophic death was never far from my mind. That is, until we lifted off the ground.
The whole experience at Windhaven will set you back at least $125 with other options for longer flights that take you up to a mile in the sky before releasing the tow rope. The cheapest flight will last only 15 minutes but affords you the opportunity to get a totally unique perspective on our little swath of California. The price is a little steep.However, it is also the sort of thing that parents or grandparents are willing to shell out for as a birthday present.
In contrast to skydiving, which is very popular among our adrenaline-junkie peers, gliding is a peaceful experience that leaves you wondering if that is really how birds feel. The gliding ratio of 28:1 (28 feet forward for every foot down) doesn’t really compare with the seconds-long rush of skydiving, but is a comparable price for a much longer ride, even if it doesn’t give you the same feeling of tempting fate.
Before I left, Gary gave me the best piece of information: Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, had flown the plane from the very seat that I had just vacated. That was all this history major needed to know. I figure if glider rides are good enough for the most famous astronaut in history, they are definitely good enough for me.