October 22, 2020

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The flight fantastic

Jen Zoratti takes to the skies with the Winnipeg Gliding Club

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/7/2019 (472 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Welcome to Jen Tries, a semi-regular feature in which Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti will try something new and report back. In this instalment, Jen Tries... flying a glider.

 

When Mike Maskell was a kid, he dreamed of flying with the birds.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Gliding Club president Mike Maskell at the Starbuck Airfield.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Gliding Club president Mike Maskell at the Starbuck Airfield.

His dad was a mechanic in the airforce, so his love of airplanes began early, but it was an episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color that made him want to fly them.

"It was called The Boy Who Flew With the Condors and it was about a boy in the Sierra-Nevadas of California watching condors and, out of nowhere, a glider showed up and started flying alongside the soaring birds. He was really enthralled by this, so he went to the local gliding club and he learned to fly.

"I was about eight or nine, I guess, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do that sometime. In my life, I’m going to be a glider pilot.’"

And now, he is one. Maskell, 58, is the president of the Winnipeg Gliding Club, an organization he’s been flying with since he was 18. Gliders — unpowered aircraft that rely on air currents to stay in flight — hold a particular fascination for him.

"For me, it’s the peace and tranquility, the quiet," he says. "And the challenge. Every time I go flying, it’s a different air mass. Every day is different. Today will be different from tomorrow."

Today is also different because he’s letting me fly (with his assistance, of course).

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Columnist Jen Zoratti with the dual-control, two-seater PW-6 sailplane, an ideal glider for training.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Columnist Jen Zoratti with the dual-control, two-seater PW-6 sailplane, an ideal glider for training.

We’re taking out one of the club’s two new Polish PW-6s sailplanes. It’s a dual-control, two seater, which makes it ideal for training. Maskell is also an instructor.

"It’s going to be a very peaceful day today," he says.

We are out at the club’s airfield near Starbuck, and it’s a perfect July day with a light breeze.

I still can’t believe people fly planes without engines — on purpose. I ask Maskell, again, if it’s safe. (Actually, I believe the question I initially asked when we started emailing about this story was, "Will I die?")

"I’ve been doing this for 40 years. My mother wouldn’t have allowed it if it wasn’t safe. It’s as safe as you make it. The thing with gliding: gliders fly when it’s clear, there are no storms. You’re not taking chances with the weather," he says.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Jen Zoratti lifts the top after trying gliding for the first time with Winnipeg Gliding Club president Mike Maskell at the Starbuck Airfield south west of Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jen Zoratti lifts the top after trying gliding for the first time with Winnipeg Gliding Club president Mike Maskell at the Starbuck Airfield south west of Winnipeg.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly fearful flier. My dad works for Air Canada, and neither set of grandparents lived in Winnipeg when I was little, so I was flying before I was walking. Now, I fly a couple times a year. Also, one of my all-time favourite shows is Mayday, a fairly graphic and dramatic documentary series about famous aviation disasters.

My absolute favourite episode, incidentally, is the one about the Gimli Glider — the 1983 Air Canada flight that ran out of fuel en route to Edmonton from Montreal due to a metric conversion error.

Captain Bob Pearson happened to be an experienced glider pilot and was able to make an emergency landing at a decommissioned RCAF base in Gimli with no fuel and few instruments — a remarkable feat made more so by the fact that the runway he was forced to land on had been transformed into a drag-racing strip.

(Imagine, for a moment, minding your own business and having a virtually silent Boeing 767 coming at you out of the July evening sky. It’s a great story, especially since it has a happy ending.)

But I have a low tolerance for turbulence of any kind, especially since it always seems to strike when it’s my row’s turn for snacks. For someone who isn’t scared of flying, I expend a fair amount of energy gripping the arm rest and willing the plane to stay in the sky through my own sheer force of will when it really starts rocking and rolling because, you know, that’s how aviation works.

Winnipeg Gliding Club turns 60

Click to Expand

The Winnipeg Gliding Club is celebrating six decades of soaring with an open house on Sunday, July 14 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Burgers, chips and drinks will be served for $5, and discovery flights can be booked for a special event rate of $125.

Visit www.wgc.mb.ca for more information, including directions.

Most people don’t like the landing portion of a flight, perhaps because it feels like something else more sinister, but I find the return to earth reassuring — although not reassuring enough to be one of those people who applauds.

So, when confronted by the PW-6’s shockingly narrow cockpit, which is about the width of a recliner, I panic inwardly. But I swallow it and desperately try not to hear the Mayday narrator’s voice in my head. "It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon..."

As Maskell explains, gliders fly much slower than a powered aircraft does, so you don’t feel turbulence the same way (or at all). It’s smooth flying.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Club member Doug Cameron (left) and Winnipeg Gliding Club president Mike Maskell sort out the tow ropes.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Club member Doug Cameron (left) and Winnipeg Gliding Club president Mike Maskell sort out the tow ropes.

Free Press photographer Mikaela Mackenzie is also flying today. We fill out some paperwork, and learn there are weight restrictions for gliding. Two people together cannot exceed 440 pounds. But you can’t be too light, either. Maskell asks us if we’re both over 120 pounds. Bless his heart. I haven’t been under 120 pounds since Grade 7.

It’s time. I take my place up front (oh my God) and am strapped in a complicated but confidence-inspiring seatbelt. We go over our safety checks and prepare for take-off.

"You ready?" Maskell asks.

I am not ready, but I manage a yes.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Columnist Jen Zoratti tries gliding for the first time.</p></p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Columnist Jen Zoratti tries gliding for the first time.

A tow plane drags us along the runway; think of a tube behind a boat. We hit a pothole on the ground which gives us an extra bounce that makes me want to say, "You know what? I’m good, thanks anyway," and duck and roll on outta there, but that ends up being the scariest part of the whole flight.

We’re up and away, nothing but a rope between us and the plane in front of us.

When we reach our glide altitude of 3,000 feet, it’s time to disengage from the tow plane (oh my God). With a pop and a bang we’re off.

We turn to the right, revealing a gorgeous panorama of southern Manitoba. The canola fields are blooming. Winnipeg glitters on the horizon. Puffy clouds lazily drift in the summer sky. The canopy of the fuselage is completely open, offering unobstructed views of earth and sky.

"Breathtaking" is an overused adjective, but this experience is truly thrilling and beautiful. It’s the closest you’ll ever come to truly flying.

It’s easy to forget how magical flight really is, especially when you’re on hour six of a transatlantic flight with a screaming baby and a broken in-flight entertainment system.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Inside the cockpit of the glider.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Inside the cockpit of the glider.

A plane with no engine is obviously quiet, but gliders are almost eerily so. You can hear the whistling of the air. You can carry a conversation at a normal volume. It’s like chilling in a La-Z-Boy in a sky, if you can relax enough to enjoy it. I unclench my jaw and allow myself to soar.

"You’re free as a bird," Maskell says. "Sometimes hawks and eagles will join us. I had bald eagle just off my right wingtip a few years ago, maybe 20 feet off. His wings are stretched out, my wings are stretched out, and we flew together."

Like the boy who flew with the condors.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Gliding Club president Mike Maskell (rear) glides above the Starbuck Airfield southwest of Winnipeg with photographer Mikaela MacKenzie.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Gliding Club president Mike Maskell (rear) glides above the Starbuck Airfield southwest of Winnipeg with photographer Mikaela MacKenzie.

We catch pockets of rising air that keep us in flight. On a good day, you can go pretty far in a glider. Maskell has done 450-kilometre flights over six hours.

"That, for me, is it," he says. "That’s the epitome of the sport."

Eventually, it’s my turn to fly (oh my God).

"No ‘Oh my Gods,’" Maskell says with a laugh. "There’s nothing you can do that would get us into trouble."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Zoratti tries gliding for the first time and can’t wait to do it again.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Zoratti tries gliding for the first time and can’t wait to do it again.

Gliders don’t require a heavy touch and, although I feel like it’s going to flip over when I try out (very slight) right and left turns, Maskell assures me I’m doing fine.

I fly for approximately 60 seconds before handing the plane back over to Maskell so we can glide back to earth.

But, you know what? I can say I flew a plane.

And I can’t wait to do it again.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

   Read full biography

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