Monday 13 August 2012

Riding The Thundercloud

Blue skies on a bright spring morning, and in the west, towers of cumulus, promising all the lift a glider pilot’s heart could desire.

“It would be nice if the day of the competition would be like this,” I mentioned to the tow plane pilot. He grunted, rubbing his zapatero moustache with a nicotine-stained finger, and went over to his Cessna. He didn’t like me. None of them liked me, really. I’d long since learned to live with it. I didn’t have to be liked to do what I loved to do.

The cockpit of the Hibati Z23 was, as always, snug around my body. Even by sailplane standards, the cockpit was small and cramped, and the instruments primitive. Each time I strapped myself into it I wished I could afford a better class of glider, like one of the beautiful DG or SZD Diana sailplanes the others would be flying on the day of the competition. In my primitive little Hibati, I didn’t stand a chance, they all said, and so I should step aside and leave the field open for serious flyers.

Not a word about the fact that some of them would be in gliders even more basic than my third-hand Hibati. Not a word about the real reason, which was, of course, that I was a woman.

Up ahead, I watched the Cessna’s propeller begin to rotate, and through the canopy and my headphones I could dimly hear the engine. It sounded like one of the bees buzzing over the grass on this spring morning. The tow rope flicked across the ground and tightened, I released my brake, and began bouncing across the ground in the wake of the tow-plane.

This would be my last chance at a real practice flight before the competition, a week hence, so I had already decided I would make it as much a full-scale rehearsal as possible. The terms of the contest were to get to the designated turning point, and back to the airport, as fast as possible; and that, in turn, meant I had to find good thermals and climb high, and keep climbing, because the Hibati had a pathetic glide ratio compared to some of the better sailplanes I’d be competing against.

Ahead, the Cessna was now on its take-off run, the propeller a blurred disc, and I eased back the control column. Suddenly I was airborne, floating centimetres off the ground, but flying. It always felt a magical moment for me, the instant when I left the handicap of my land-bound existence behind and became a bird.

One day, when I was a little girl, I’d watched a hawk fly slow circles far above my family’s garden. The hawk’s wings hardly stirred, unlike the frantic flapping of the sparrows and pigeons I knew. I’d watched that hawk and made up my mind that one day I’d soar like that.

Unlike most of my other dreams, I’d kept this one.

The Cessna’s wheels cleared the ground. Automatically, my feet danced on the rudder pedals, and my hand moved the control column back and forth, maintaining position. The tow rope tightened and slackened, an umbilical cord that could not be allowed to get too tight or too loose, and I climbed behind the light plane, my eyes fixed on it, staying where I would be safe.

Someday, I would have a self-launching sailplane with a motor; someday, I would no longer need a pilot with yellow fingernails and a bandit’s moustache to help me fly. Then I could really be a hawk, free to soar, free to be what I wanted to be.

“Why do you ever want to learn to glide?” everyone had asked. “All right, an aeroplane pilot, now that’s something we can understand. Pilots make a lot of money flying for the big airlines, and these days there are woman pilots, aren’t there. But why do you want to glide?”

In the beginning I’d tried to explain. I’d told them of the hawk. I’d even described the incredible sensation of being free in the air, dependent only on wind currents and thermal lifts like the hawk. I’d described the joy I’d felt the first time I’d ever gone up in a two-seater for a demonstration flight. All I got was incomprehension, but I’d tried anyway, ignoring the amused glances and the half-heard muttered comments behind my back.

One day I’d come down after a training flight in an ASK 21 two-seater, and as we’d come to a stop my instructor had turned round in the front cockpit and said, “Well done.” That was the best praise he had ever bestowed on me, and I’d just begun to feel the glow of it when he continued, “...for a woman.” And I realised why he’d insisted on staying in the front cockpit, with its better view and easier flying.

Yes, I’d learned a lot in those days, and not just about how to fly a glider, either.

The Cessna was beginning to bank into the wind, levelling off at six hundred metres after the take-off run, and I calculated the moment for slipping the tow. The moustached pilot’s voice crackled in my headphones, reading off his height and distance from take-off. I acknowledged, moved my hand on the lever, slipped the tow rope, and was free.

Silence. The pure joy of silence in the air, only the distant hush of wind over my long white wings, and as always, I relaxed a moment, exulting in the freedom of drifting along. Then I turned away, banked, and made for the great stone hump of the ridge in the distance, like the back of a sleeping dragon.

Reclining in my seat, I took a leisurely look around through the enormous bubble of the canopy. If the Hibati Z23 had one positive feature, it was the canopy, which was big enough to give the best pilot view of any glider I’d ever been in. The huge canopy extended so far forward that I could feel the sun warming my feet and legs, while in similar conditions in the trainer gliders I’d probably have had to wear fur-lined boots to keep myself warm.

If it had been the competition today, I’d have been surrounded by other sailplanes, all heading for the same ridge; white fibreglass gliders all around me, and climbing the invisible spiral staircase of the thermals to the clouds above. I would have had to concentrate much harder, and think of what others were doing as much as what I was, banking and steering to avoid ramming some clueless pilot intent on his own affairs. Competition flying is work, not pleasure, and sometimes I wondered why I’d ever decided to go in for it.

As I approached the ridge, it towered above me, and my instincts screamed at me to turn away, because I was about to fly right into its side; and then the rising air current caught me and lifted me up in a smooth arc, over the stones and scrubby bushes and the picnic area where the judges would be stationed on the day of the competition, their eyes fixed on our competition numbers through their high-powered binoculars. The ridge slid below me and fell away, and I was high over the plain, soaring like the hawk back from the days of my childhood. A road snaked below me, broad and grey and dotted with cars and heavy trucks, moving slowly along. An hour ago I’d been driving on that road, my window rolled down to catch what I could of the morning breeze.

Banking, I turned to look for a thermal. Yes, today was perfect gliding weather, for I found one almost at once, a column of hot rising air that took my glider and pushed against its wings, sending me spiralling upwards towards the blue sky and the white clouds. The road below shrank at every spiral, from a grey snake to a thread, and then to a thin line, almost invisible in the brown and green mottled land.

One day, when I’d just got my licence and begun gliding as regularly as I could afford, another glider pilot had come up to me. He’d watched while I readied the Hibati for the flight, silently, hands on hips. I’d ignored him as best I could. Then, as I’d made the final checks, he’d come over and leaned over the cockpit.

“Why?” he’d asked.

I’d looked at him, wondering what he meant. “Why?” he’d repeated, gesturing at me and at my glider. “What are you trying to prove?”

“Prove? I’m not trying to prove anything. I just love gliding.”

He’d shaken his head. “I’ll bet you’re a feminist,” he’d said. “A feminist,” he’d repeated, and stalked off, leaving me staring after him.

I had been called a feminist before, even by women, and it was never a complimentary term. I’d also never understood quite why – all I’d ever done to deserve this reproach, it seemed, was to want to do what gave me happiness, no less and no more.

Ironically it was my father, a man, and not particularly liberal in his views of the world either, who’d always encouraged me to do what I wanted. He was the only person who had never laughed at my talk of learning to glide, had always sympathised with my desire to be like the hawk, and when the time had come, he’d even paid for my training. Yet my father would never have called me a feminist. He would never even have thought of the word.

Slowly, reluctantly, the thermal cooled and began to give up its lift. I left its embrace, and instantly the variometer began to unwind as the Hibati began to sink. I wasn’t worried yet – I’d already found my next thermal, a column of cumulus that started off dark at the base with its own shadow and reached dazzling white heights high above me. Raising one wing and dipping the other, I glanced down at the earth whose bonds I’d slipped for these brief moments, and turned towards the base of the cloud.

It turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated. The Hibati’s awful glide ratio meant that I began to lose height quickly as soon as I left the thermal. Halfway to the cloud base I was already dipping dangerously low, and soon afterwards I realised I wouldn’t make it at the rate I was going. I had no desire to turn back and land back at the field to the smirks of the tow-plane pilot, and if I couldn’t make the thermal that was what I’d have to do.

And so, knowing I was probably doing something stupid even as I was doing it, I vented the after water ballast.

As the weight of the water fell away, the rate at which I was sinking dropped dramatically. I was still dropping, of course, but not nearly so fast now as earlier. As I swooped down towards the plain, I managed to catch enough of the tail end of the thermal to begin climbing, and clawed back height metre by metre. And then I was at the bottom of the cloud, and the thermal had me in its grasp, and was carrying me up and away.

I’d never been too comfortable inside a cloud. Since one couldn’t see anything outside except the white of the cloud, it was all too easy to get so disoriented that one literally forgot which way was up. It was possible to fly entirely by instruments, of course, but the Hibati’s instruments were primitive compared to more expensive gliders and I was never sure of their reliability.

In competition I’d never have entered a cloud like this, nobody would, because of the extreme risk of collision when you have some tens of gliders jostling for the same limited space, each pilot unable to see even as far as the red-painted tips of his – or her – long narrow wings. I’d have relied on someone else finding a thermal in clear air and following him up. But it wasn’t the competition today, and I was alone.

I planned to hop from cloud to cloud, from thermal to thermal, building up some height each time until I was high enough. Then I’d make for the turning point, navigating over open country by the map on the board strapped to my right thigh, and turn round it and head all the way back to the airport in a fast straight downward glide going as fast as I could go. But first I had to build up the height.

Being in a cloud always reminded me of a day, long ago, when I was a very young girl and I’d been lost in a heavy fog. I’d been visiting relatives with my father and had gone out for a walk when the fog rolled in. I’d been not just alone but unfamiliar with the locality, and it was a deserted and heavily wooded area. I’d absolutely no idea where I was going – and yet I’d had the conviction that my relatives’ home was only just round the next corner. Ultimately, I’d got so tired that I sat down on a large rock by the roadside, and it was there that my father, finally, had found me quite by accident while out searching. I’d not called out even once because of fear – I hadn’t told anyone that I was going out – and because of a mulish determination to see the thing through. Afterwards I found I’d walked several kilometres and was headed in a directly opposite direction to where I was supposed to be going. It was that kind of fog.

As I rose, spiralling, the colour of the mist outside lightened as the mass of vapour above lessened and cast a lesser shadow. The sun reappeared, a vague, diffuse glow far above. I checked the altimeter, and found I was already at two kilometres, and still the thermal let me climb it. For the moment I let it take me as high as it would. Once I got out of this cloud I’d have a long glide to the next thermal, and it was a hundred and fifty kilometres to the turnaround I’d set myself. On the day of the competition, it might be twice that.

I came out of the cloud at nearly three thousand metres. The transition from whiteout to dazzling sunshine was so sudden that it was almost painful, and I squinted my eyes momentarily against the glare. Cautiously, I opened them again to see where I was going.

I was above a city of clouds; low humps of cloud, domes of cloud, tall spires resembling church steeples, an entire architecture of cloud below me, of white and grey and all shades in between. And across a gulf of clear air, on the other side of that cloud-city, were great columns of cumulonimbus, dark with water vapour, rising pillars of heated air, laden with promise of as much lift as I could ever want.

It was a strange feeling, gliding over that cloud city. I’d seldom flown over an actual city, because the thermals were uneven and dangerous, hot air rising from the tarmac of parking spaces and from metal factory roofs, and the ride was always rough and uneven at best, but even so it was always far more interesting than flying in a powered aeroplane. One could feel exactly what a hawk like those I’d watched in my childhood would have experienced in similar conditions. Now, above that bizarre and unexpected cloud architecture, I found myself wondering what kind of beast might inhabit those vaporous constructions, and almost expected to see a flip of tentacle or the pulsing of an airborne gas-bag, as of some creature made of light and air.

As I fell across the cloud-city in my long descending glide, I saw a distant flicker of lightning over on my right, among the cumulonimbus. That wasn’t good; it was far from good. But the lightning was many kilometres away, and I had to get among the clouds again for lift, like it or not. I’d just about finished thinking this when I plunged into the bottom of the cumulonimbus.

It was like walking from high noon into a dark room with the curtains drawn. The dark, clammy cloud closed around me, heavy with unshed rain. Then I hit an unexpected pocket of cold air, and the sailplane sank like a stone.

It was only a brief descent. Once, back when I was in school, we’d been on a class picnic. I’d been climbing down a hillside when the ground had collapsed under my feet in a shower of pebbles and loose earth. I’d begun to slip, like this, helplessly, hearing the alarmed cries of a couple of my friends; and, unthinkingly, automatically, I’d thrown myself to the side, off the slipping earth and onto the hard ground. All I’d suffered was a bruised knee and a slightly twisted ankle. Afterwards I’d just gone on climbing again.

So it was now. As I fell, I pulled sharply at the stick and banked the Hibati to the side. It was like hitting a wall, as I left the air-pocket and slammed into the thermal that sustained the cloud, an impact that pushed me against my harness until it bit into my shoulders and thighs hard enough to make me wince. And then the thermal had me.

Giant hands caught the sailplane, hands full of gentle and irresistible force, holding me and taking me aloft, so quickly that I felt as though I was in an express elevator, my insides left some way behind. The altimeter needle was crawling along the dial like a live thing, and the variometer told me that I seemed to be going almost straight up. Around me the cloud was a dark slate-grey, and tendrils of it slipped into the cockpit through the ventilation openings, dark fingers of mist that vanished instantly in the still relatively warm air inside.

There was something weirdly hypnotic in that ascent, so much so that it was a very long time before I realised that I was in very serious trouble. The first indicator was when I began to feel cold around my feet and legs. I had no warm clothes on and the Hibati didn’t have the luxury of a heated cockpit. Even as I realised this, the darkness outside turned blazing white as an enormous fork of lightning slashed through the air to my right. The crack of thunder that followed was so loud it vibrated through my sailplane.

Frantically, I tried to turn the glider away to port, away from the lightning. It was of no use at all; the updraft was a malevolent entity, an evil dragon that held me in its jaws. It carried me upwards, into the heart of the storm, up to where its haunts were, where the air was too thin to breathe and the cold would freeze the marrow in one’s bones.

Lightning began to pulse all around me. It was as though I was climbing up the centre of a cone of lightning, and as I spiralled upwards I began to expect that at any moment one of those gigantic discharges would strike me. And it finally began to rain, too, hard drops smashing into the canopy like bullets.

By now I had lost all sense of direction, and I could no longer trust the compass or my other instruments to tell me where I was heading. It was time to swallow my pride.

“Pan, pan,” I called, and twisted the tuning knob of the radio, running through the frequencies. Pan was the second-highest level of emergency. I got nothing – only static. Another lightning flash, so close I could smell the ozone, and the crack of thunder was strong enough for me to fear that my wings would snap right off the slim fuselage. And still I was rising into the heart of that storm.

“Mayday,” I screamed into the radio, to be rewarded by static or silence. Either the conditions had wrecked radio reception, or my radio itself was shot, which, given the Hibati’s primitive instruments, was perfectly possible. So I wouldn’t even have the doubtful benefit of communicating my plight to someone, anyone, somewhere, anywhere. I was on my own.

“It won’t be for the first time,” I muttered to myself, aloud. My feet, in sneakers and nylon socks, were almost numb, and my bare forearms covered with goose pimples. I had begun to shiver uncontrollably. The rain was a deluge now, crashing down from the towering layers of cloud above, smashing into the glider, breaking up the thermal, pushing me from side to side. And, yet, I was still rising.

If I’d had the extra water ballast now, I thought, I’d have been that much heavier and I could have beaten the updraft. It was a bit late to think of that, and late to curse myself for having dumped it, but at least I had the other tank. If I got down in one piece, I vowed, I’d think long and hard before dumping ballast prematurely again. But that was a big, big if. And at least I still had the forward tank.

“What should you do if you’re in an impossible situation in the air?” an instructor had asked once. “One should consider bailing out, shouldn’t one? After all, one’s life is slightly more important than the possible loss of the craft.” All very nice and well said, I wanted to tell the instructor now, but the problem was, of course, that I wasn’t carrying a parachute. And if I had been carrying one, that thundercloud might well have sucked me up in its vortex, parachute and all, until I’d have frozen into a block of ice. It had happened to people many times before.

Finally, then, I began to consider the possibility that I was going to die. Without heat, without an oxygen supply, and unable to break out of that deadly spiral, I could only last so long before I’d freeze or black out. And then, when the updraft would finally give out, down I’d come in an uncontrolled dive, falling unconscious like a dead bird through the kilometres of air, until I’d slam into a field or hill or house like a winged meteor and scatter my shattered sailplane and broken body over the landscape. I’d probably rate a mention in the eight o’clock news on TV, unless of course some actress had got married again or a hedge fund manager was arrested for large scale financial fraud. My demise wouldn’t be a catastrophe or even a disaster. It would be filler news.

And with the realisation that this might actually be it, came a surge of emotion. No, I did not begin to pine for the lovers I might have had whom I’d never sleep with, or the countries I’d never visit, or the books I’d never read. I didn’t think of the will I’d kept putting off making, and I didn’t cry for myself, about to die, young and alone and helplessly due to a blunder utterly of my own making. The emotion I had was steely, cold anger. I thought of the instructor who had said I’d done well “for a woman,” sitting in the front cockpit so he could take over if I should suddenly forget how to fly. I thought of the glider pilot who’d spat “feminist” at me. And I thought of the tow-plane driver with the moustache, and I imagined his nicotine-stained teeth exposed in a sarcastic grimace as he talked about how my death proved that women should never be allowed in gliders. No, I thought, that is not going to happen. I am not going to give them the satisfaction.

Suddenly, the thermal gave out.

It had been weakening, of course, as I rose and the air cooled, and it had been cooled further by the rain. Even so, its abrupt end took me by surprise. The rain was still coming down, and the lightning still flashed to starboard. I began to sink, down into the cloud, where the thermal waited to catch hold of me and bring me right back up again.

Trying to get as far from the lightning as I could, while I still had the luxury of the slack air, I banked to port, throwing myself into a turn so sharp my attitude indicator showed that the sailplane was almost standing on one wing.

In another instant I erupted out of the cloud into open air.

Incredulously, I gasped at what I was seeing.

It was like an immense pillar, a cylinder of clear sunlit air surrounded by a roaring, spinning vortex of cloud. I was spiralling down the inside of that pillar, sinking earthwards while staring open-mouthed at the sight before me. The eye of the storm was whirling all around me, carrying me along with it, and if there was one thing that made the whole ride worthwhile, it was that sight. I wasn’t going to die, but if I did, at least I’d have seen that and the morons mocking me wouldn’t have.

Unbidden, a memory flashed into my mind; a visit to a small visiting circus with my father, back when i was still a schoolgirl. We’d stood at a railing over the Wall of Death and watched a motorcyclist roar round and round the inside of that cylindrical well, coming up right below us, and even though my father had explained the physics that kept him safe in his seat I was white-knuckled with fear for that young man. But he’d got down safely, merely by reducing throttle. It would be a bit different where I was concerned.

Then, far below, I saw a mottled patch of green. I leaned, resting my forehead on the canopy, and stared. Yes, there was a patch of brown and green, formless and hazy, but it was there, and I was spiralling down the side of that funnel of cloud towards it.

It grew as I watched, turning from a haze to dark green vegetation and dark brown earth, still a long, long way below, but I knew now that I would live. That was something, that knowledge. I would get out of this, and my corpse wouldn’t feature on some TV bulletin.

I fell out of the cloud at three thousand metres, into a world of driving rain, rain that blurred vision and rammed into the Hibati’s fibreglass fuselage so hard that the entire glider shuddered with the force of it. But I was out, I was out of the storm, and quickly I tried to find out just where I was.

The map on my thigh was utterly useless since I had long since lost my bearings. I didn’t know what to look for, and the storm could have carried me a fair distance in the time I’d been inside it. I turned the glider in a wide circle, looking for a landmark – any landmark. Anything would do to orient myself. And as I turned, there was nothing.

I could of course set down in any of these fields in an emergency landing, After that I’d have to collect the glider and pay to have it transported back to the airport, of course, and endure the same sneers and innuendo that I’d been afraid of when I’d thought I was going to crash; only this time it would be untinged with even the faintest trace of sympathy. The stupid bitch would have deserved what she got, and what do you expect if women mess about in a man’s sport.

Then – in the distance, just as I was completing my circle – I saw it, a sprawl of huge white buildings with red roofs. Incredulously, I banked the glider towards it, peering downwards, but there was no mistake. I could even see the tiny yellow and white oblongs of the containers left outside the warehouse complex. The storm had brought me to the turning point I’d planned on all along.

Turn, then. Steeply and fast, and now I knew where I was, straight and as near level as I could manage. The Hibati, for some reason, going smooth as glass now, ignoring the rain that was still beating down, and we, my glider and I, were as one now, our wings spread and flexing slightly in the air currents, our control surfaces tasting the air, racing across the green fields and the stands of trees.

And there below us now, the black rain-washed cord of the road, traffic crawling along in the torrential rain which the weather people hadn’t forecast. We’re going so fast that the road whips by underneath, and there is the ridge, still far enough below us that we aren’t going to scrape ourselves off on it. I pull the Hibati’s nose up slightly to make sure, and she responds wonderfully, like a thoroughbred, and we are over the ridge and there’s the airport to the east, and I’m high, too high to get down in time in a straight glide, but not so high that I can come round again and land.

No, I’m not going to crash and give anyone the satisfaction. Not now, and not ever.

I cross the controls, hard, opposite stick and rudder, and the sailplane sideslips like a dream, skipping downwards toward the grass landing strip. Here we go, on the final approach, and the rain is down to the drizzle, the storm now far away. I vent the forward water ballast tank in a cloud of spray. The spoilers are up on the wings, and my speed bleeds away, the grass below turning from a blur to a carpet drifting past, and I lower the undercarriage and pull my nose up for landing.

Oh the sweet touch of the landing gear on the grass, the sailplane running true, and I put on the brakes, and we are slowing, slowing, men watching from near the yellow and white Cessna, the Hibati moving slower and slower until we stop and the right wing slowly tips down until brought to a halt by the wingtip skid.

We’re down, my glider and I. We’re home. 
Copyright B Purkayastha 2010/12


  1. I love your writing but I hate hate planes!! Great story!

  2. That was one of the first pieces of yours I read. It's good to read it again.


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