Finally today, five weeks later than I had hoped, I completed challenge 30, the last in my list of new things I have never done before during the last year.
I could have chosen something simple and did it on my birthday to finish off the year, but I had an idea in my head for the last six months. You know what I’m like when I get an idea in there!
I wanted to do something exciting that would take me out of my comfort zone, would be lots of fun, and something memorable. I wanted to end on a high, and that is exactly what i did!
At 12 o’clock this afternoon I drove with a friend into the Ulster gliding club in Limavady, just over an hour from where we live, and close to the beach where I had gone surfing last September. It was full of enthusiastic people who enjoy flying and gliding for a hobby, and are keen to share it with anyone who wants to try, even if they have a disability. The gliders are small, so the weather needs to be really good, which is why I couldn’t do it until now. We got the warmest day of the year so far, and it was almost too mild to glide because there was not much wind. I didn’t take Sibyl, but really should have, as there was a bit of waiting around before I went, and she would have had lots of fresh air and walks outside. Everybody was friendly and encouraging, and excited for me to try gliding.
I had a chance to feel the glider before I went. It’s basically like a small plane without an engine. It is attached to a small aeroplane by a rope about 150 metres long, which pulls the glider, bringing it into the air to a certain point before disconnecting, at which point the glider is flying almost silently. The aircraft has to be evenly balanced, so they had to add extra weights because I’m so small. To my surprise, I sat in the front seat while the instructor sat behind. This felt a bit strange at first, like I should know what I’m doing! We both had the same controls, so he had full control at all times, but could let me fly on my own at certain points. Another surprise was having to put on a parachute before I got in. This was more for comfort like a cushion to fit in the shape of the seats in the aircraft, but obviously it was a safety feature too. I was hoping I’d never have to find out exactly how it works!
My instructor was called John, and he was fantastic at his job. He had 25 years flying experience, and he was also a teacher, which put me at ease because he explained everything brilliantly. I was the first blind person he had ever flown, but I never would have guessed from how well he described things. He strapped me in, did the pre-flight checks, and then the plane took off, pulling us behind it. The first ten seconds were a bit bumpy, but when we left the ground, it was totally smooth and relaxing for the whole trip. You can feel the glider moving, but I was expecting the movement to be much more obvious than it was. I was fascinated by how fast it goes, even though it didn’t feel that fast. We flew to 2000 feet, at 60 miles per hour, and covered a good distance in a short time. We flew to the edge of a cliff, where people stood waving at us.
The best moment of gliding is when you feel yourself moving upwards, hear the noisy plane in front, and then the instructor disconnects the rope from the plane. The plane turns right, you can feel yourself turning left, and then it just goes almost silent. The sound of the plane fades away, and you’re in the sky, gliding along in an object that has wings and no engine. The idea of that just sounded crazy before, but when you’re in it, it feels totally safe. John gave me verbal directions how to steer the glider, which is something he said I was actually very good at. Who would have thought?! It is easy to feel the change in direction as you move the stick left or right. Moving it away from you points the nose of the plane downwards, and you can hear the change in the sound of the air. Moving it towards you brings it back up again. It was great to be able to feel these changes and experience that part. Being blind definitely has its disadvantages when you go gliding, because the views are amazing, especially on a lovely day. Everyone says that’s the thing that gets people adicted and makes them want to keep coming back. Ulster is a very popular club, with lots of people from all over Ireland regularly coming up to fly their planes whenever they can. I did feel like I missed out on a bit of that experience by not being able to see it today.
We landed safely and smoothly, and the people were excited to know what I thought. I definitely enjoyed the experience. It was similar in many ways to the plane I had flown in before, but the idea of it having no engine made it more relaxing and intimate. It is brilliant that flying clubs can offer opportunities like this to people who might think it is impossible. Although I would say gliding is definitely a very visual thing in many ways, it was an exciting thing to try, and having a great instructor made it very worthwhile. It was definitely a different way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and a brilliant end to an interesting year of doing new exciting and challenging things.
I’ll post the complete list soon, but for now, I’ll enjoy relaxing my brain and being back on normal ground again.