“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, quickly swallowing a bite of my sandwich, “the tow plane has rear-view mirrors?”
Rio, Lisa, and I were eating in the car as we commuted from Rio’s new home airport back to the Plane Tales home airport at Santa Rosa. Thirty minutes before, Rio had just completed his first training flight in Bravo Golf, the lanky sailplane that’s his new best friend. He and his instructor were towed to three thousand five hundred feet above the New Mexico prairie and were cut loose, where they soared around the sky, riding thermal updrafts for forty five minutes while Rio began to get the feel for the big bird.
Lisa and I couldn’t hear enough about the experience.
What was the view like, Lisa asked? What did it sound like, I queried? What was your favorite part, Lisa wanted to know? Which instrument was the most useful?
Not his usual taciturn self, Rio was positively talkative and gave us the cockpit view of the whole experience. Of course Lisa and I had watched the takeoff from the ground, and it’s quite a process, involving a tow plane, a lineman, a very long steel cable and a ton of communication using a secret dance of arm and hand signals that would put the Masons to shame.
First, Rio, his instructor, and the lineman pushed the sailplane out onto the runway. Next the tow plane, a faded yellow retired crop duster that reminded me of a down-on-his-luck Dusty Crophopper, fired up and pulled into place well ahead of the glider. A cable between the two was secured and the tow plane inched forward until the cable was taut. When everyone was ready, the tow plane’s engine roared to life and off they went down the runway, both planes picking up speed.
In three breaths, the anorexic seagull shook off her lethargy and lifted into the air, hugging the runway, her tow still glued to the ground in front of her. Rio later told us the instructor had to hold the sailplane down, keeping her close to the runway. Her instinct was to rise, and if she rose above the tow plane, the glider could flip the tow plane onto its nose.
Finally the tow plane lumbered off the runway and off the pair went, the sailplane obediently behind and below her ride, like a faithful dog following her master on a leash for a walk in the park.
Up they went, then around the pattern to the left, finally passing right over our heads. The ugly duckling in the lead, followed by the sailplane, now in her element, full of grace and power.
And then off they went into the western sky, smaller, smaller, smaller until they were only two points of light: One white and one yellow. Then they were gone and Lisa and I were left alone on the ramp, no sound but the wind.
After a time, the tow plane returned. It swooped down onto the runway and briskly taxied to parking. The pilot climbed out and left for lunch, leaving Lisa and I again with only wind and sun for company as we scanned the cobalt sky, painted with high wispy white clouds, waiting for the anorexic seagull to return from on high, wondering what it was like for Rio up there.
Full of questions we couldn’t wait to ask.