In May 2003 I went gliding for the first time ever. I'm not sure I will ever go again, for I now know that most people trying gliding for the first few times are very likely to show symptoms of what the Americans call 'gastric awareness'. But I did appreciate the appeal of gliding, which is partly the scenery but also the escapism and the technical aspects. I suppose it's more of an art than a science but being able to read the clouds, find the thermals, navigate and avoid bumping into anyone or anything - all of these are interesting challenges.
I was interested to find out how gliding might compare with parasailing (parachute) or hang-gliding (neither of which I have tried... yet). I now realize that the main difference is that gliders, being so much more aerodynamic than the others, travel at least 10 times faster (we cruised at about 160 km/hr, on average) and therefore its possible to explore a much greater area in a glider than under a parasail or in a hang glider. Plus, a glider should be able to maintain altitude more easily than the others, so it's not unusual to fly nearly all day (night gliding is possible but illegal in France). This region is one of the top 5 gliding areas in the world - it's possible to glide from here to central Switzerland and back in a single day, but the world distance record for gliding was achieved in Patagonia (South America): 2500 km (try that with a parasail).
My initiation flight was more modest of course - my instructor and colleague, Alain Dreux, had planned for us to fly for about 40 minutes. With several thousand hours of gliding experience (he is an gliding instructor at the Fayence gliding school as well as a math teacher at the CIV) he knows well that people are much more likely to get sick in a glider than a powered aircraft. I think one of the reasons for that must be what happens in the first 15 minutes of flight, for the tow-plane only drags the glider up to a fairly low altitude and it's then necessary to find a thermal (under a cumulus cloud, if there are any any) and then circle within the thermal for many minutes until enough altitude has been gained to begin exploring further a field. That 10 minutes of circling was a recipe for disaster for me - I was covered in sweat within 5 minutes and filling my brown paper bag within 20.
Alain prepares the flying torture chamber. I was in front. Although this was a two-seater, I was surprised how small the glider was in length and in the cockpit, though the wingspan in big (more than 20m).
Alain has been flying gliders for thousands of hours but has never yet had to use his parachute.
None of the controls are particularly complicated, but it's hard for a novice to be aware of them at the same time. Therefore when I briefly took control of the plane myself I was able to control the direction of the glider OK but sometimes I lost altitude and gained too much speed, or the opposite (each copilot has the same set of controls, except that I had the only radio). Glider pilots often use GPS but we didn't have that for our flight.
For take-off someone has to run next to the glider to lift the wing tip and stop it dragging along the ground until the glider has gained some speed.
As you can see in the next picture, the glider has a greater wing span than the tow-plane.
Our region is very unspoilt and this gorge is no exception. It's the Gorges de la Siagne and the brown smudge at 11 o'clock is the village of St. Cézaire which overlooks the gorge. In the right photo below are typical houses... and pools.
My not-very-successful attempt at photographing Alain during the flight. It's hard to take photos while simultaneously throwing up into a paper bag.
One of the most intriguing parts of the experience was the insect-removal ceremony that took place after the flight. Modern gliders are so close to aerodynamic perfection that the accumulation of dead insects on the front surface of the wings can reduce performance by 10-15%. So the careful cleaning of the wings after each flight is a vital part of glider maintenance.
Another interesting fact about gliding: the glider market is completely dominated by the Germans. Why? Because after WWII severe limits were placed on their ability to make powered aircraft so they were forced to concentrate on gliding technology and soon became the world leaders.