As you rise swiftly into the air, you feel the wind slipping below you, and you ride that wind higher and higher. Those simple words describe soaring, and it’s what happens on an aircraft with no engine – also known as a glider.
Recently a friend of mine invited me to go soaring, with him as pilot and me as passenger; both of us wearing parachutes. Our flight took us over the incredibly beautiful desert and mountains of southern New Mexico.
I’ve shot the rapids of the mighty Colorado in a small rubber raft; I’ve climbed to the roof of Africa – Mt. Kilimanjaro - on a Christmas Eve not long ago; and I’ve hitchhiked through an African country that was engaged in a brutal civil war. So I can say with some certainty that I’m always up for a brisk challenge – even in my mature years.
With my restless self prodding me ever onward, I decided soaring was the new mountain to climb, the new rapids to shoot. And I started taking lessons for a license.
From the ground soaring looks easy – a graceful aircraft slipping along under the sky’s blue canopy. But “easy” it really isn’t. The glider stays up as long as the pilot knows how to manipulate and master the invisible but infinite whims of air and wind. There’s a stick to move the ailerons and two pedals on the floor for the rudders – one to go left and one to go right. Unthinkable, but there’s neither engine nor computer. This kind of flying means the pilot must give total attention to the unknowns into which he - or she - is thrust.
In fact, flying with only skill, air and wind is a definite metaphor for life. The sky is blue; the earth from above is magnificent. All, it seems, is good; but the clear air and wind that keeps you up is brimming with challenges, surprises, and even threats. And you, the pilot, must meet them alone.
One day I was practicing landing, a difficult maneuver. I did it badly and my instructor scolded me: “That was horrible,” he yelled. And it was. I had failed a test, but I refused to quit. I tried again, and again. Some might call it stubbornness; others determination.
Nothing keeps us young; nothing keeps us here for very long. But some things can keep us vital, ever ready to climb some mountain or other. Out in the New Mexico desert I found one, high above the earth, in an improbable aircraft – without an engine.