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Issue 11 - A bird's eye view

Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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A bird's eye view

Louise Gilbert has already viewed Scotland from a balloon. Now she's upping the ante and taking to the air in a glider.

The command to bail out of the glider is “Jump, jump, jump,” the instructor tells me. My parachute is strapped on and I’m listening intently. “You must be clear about this. I will not repeat it. I’ll jettison the canopy and I will be out before you can blink. Then you must follow me.”

OK, I’m clear on this but I’m starting to wonder if I mislaid my senses the day I agreed with the editor to do this story. I’m not meant to be parachuting. I’m here to sample the delights of powerless flight at the Deeside Gliding Club and I have no intention of hurtling towards the earth at 200 kilometres an hour, which by the way, my instructor assures me is the reason my parachute needs to be strapped on so tightly. Hmm, a comforting thought... Wojciech Schiller has been gliding for 20 years and his experience shows. In addition to the full safety brief, Wojciech gives me a detailed guided tour of the glider, explaining how it works.

“The glider is called Puchacz, which is Polish for owl, a soaring bird.”

I’m glad about this. There would be nothing worse than it being named after the ostrich.

Wojciech also points out a variety of instruments within the cockpit, “compass, altimeter, accelerator, rudder.” To a novice like me it looks complicated.

“Not at all,” he replies. “It’s much easier to fly than it is to drive a car.”

Soon the tug aircraft, a Piper Pawnee, pulls across the field and lines up in front of us, a rope is attached to the nose of the glider and one person stands on each side of the runway, steadying the glider’s wings.

The tug-plane moves slowly forward, with our glider following obediently, our speed accelerates and within seconds we’re off the ground. My heart lilts a little. Things are getting interesting.

After the “jump, jump, jump” introductory session, I have to admit to a few butterflies flirting with my innards. But a few minutes after take off and we’re talking bats.

Yes, you read me right. There is a huge school…flock….no it’s a raging herd of black bats partying in my stomach.

The turbulence outside is causing the glider to bubble and skid over the air, dipping so that my stomach feels that I’ve left it on the roof. We’re climbing into the sky, 600 feet, 800 feet, bump…skid…, 1000 feet. It’s a rocky ride.

The ground is dropping away from beneath us and I’m trying to admire the spectacular view and ignore my white-knuckle hands. I’ve just realised that when we reach the launch height of 2000 feet, the tug-plane will set us free. We’ll be on our own. No engine. No power. It’s an interesting concept.

I watch the altimeter. 1700 feet, 1800, 1900 and at 2000 feet a loud clicking sound signifies our release. I close my eyes and take in a sharp breath of air. I’m waiting for something – a rapid descent, a wave of turbulence but I feel nothing.

My eyes creak open and I’m greeted by an indigo world of boundless blue skies. The noise of the tug-plane’s engine has evaporated and we’re soaring smoothly, gliding like a bird. My hands begin to relax. Hooo-hah!! This is amazing.

The glider banks to the left and below I can see Deeside, one of the prettiest parts of Scotland. The town of Aboyne looks like a country version of the monopoly board with wee grey houses lined up in rows.

The River Dee meanders between meadows and cotton-ball sheep graze in their flocks. A white castle sits grandly on a green throne of fields and a forest of pine trees are standing like sentinels, saluting our achievement.

What a remarkable experience, 2000 feet in the air and only mother nature to power us. A sense of euphoric freedom washes over me. I’m gliding! The butterflies and bats have flown away with the tug-plane. I’m soaring like a puchacz.

When my feet finally touch the ground, I discover just how much there is to learn about gliding. As a passenger, it may have felt like a free and easy experience but for the glider-pilot, each flight requires a high degree of concentration and knowledge.

Roy Ferguson-Dalling is the staff instructor at Deeside Gliding Club.

“Learning to glide is a lifelong commitment,” he says. “There’s quite a lot of skill and judgement required. There is no engine to fall back on as a safeguard. In a glider, we are basically riding the weather and we have to learn to read the conditions.”

The conditions of the area, including cloud, wind, sun and terrain, all provide various clues about the sort of air currents available for gliding.

For example, a fluffy white cumulus cloud is evidence of thermal lift, a bubble of hot air rising from an area of ground warmed by the sun. A mountainous terrain may provide hill lift, which results from wind blowing onto a hill face.

Wave lift is also common in mountainous areas. It is these various natural air currents that allow the gliders to soar silently upwards.

“You need the right terrain to provide the right gliding conditions and within the United Kingdom. Scotland is perfect,” says Roy.

“The beauty of Deeside is that we get a very good mixture of all the general types of soaring conditions and because of this we can continue soaring all year round. We have one of the highest sunshine records in the UK, there are few air restrictions and when you add the unsurpassed scenery to that, we just can’t lose.”

It is certainly the combination of all these factors that make Deeside an unrivalled area for gliding. In fact, the Deeside Gliding Club attracts visitors from all over the world. “We currently have a French tug-pilot and a Polish course instructor. We also have a regular group of visitors from Holland and in the past, people have come from as far away as Australia, Canada, USA and New Zealand. It’s a very cosmopolitan little place,”

In addition to mingling with international visitors, the club can boast a brush with royalty. Roy explains,

“Last year, during the mountain soaring competition, a couple of our gliders dropped in on the Queen. The gliders were out completing competition tasks when the conditions deteriorated.

“The pilots made safe decisions for a perfectly normal field landing and brought the gliders down in what turned out to be Balmoral Estate. The glider pilots were greeted by a group of burly gentleman, wearing large jackets with bulges in them and despite their appearance, turned out to be perfectly pleasant and extremely helpful. Obviously, the Queen was in residence at the time and she had been taking tea on the veranda. She took quite a lot of photographs and was quoted as having been quite amused!”

Another claim to fame for the club is the achievement of the highest altitude flight record for a British two-seater glider, set in 1995 at a height of 37,730 feet. But height isn’t the only aim for glider pilots. Distance and speed are also important.

The current distance record from Deeside is 850 kilometres and speeds can reach up to 130 miles per hour but the typical speed is 50-60 miles an hour.

For the more adventurous, aerobatics is also an option. The two-seaters are fully aerobatic and capable of flying downside-up, spinning, loops and rolls.

Now this kind of frivolity might not be something you want to attempt on a first flight, but gliding is something that everyone should try.

It’s the closest we humans will ever get to feeling like a bird. And if you’re still nervous about powerless flight versus gravity, then keep Roy’s assurance in mind. “Gliding is safer than cricket. More people are injured playing or watching cricket than gliding!”

Deeside Gliding Club is on the A93 Aberdeen to Braemar road, 2 miles west of Aboyne.

A gliding lesson costs £50. You will fly with a qualified gliding instructor and can expect to be airborn for about 20 minutes at approximately 2000 feet.

Deeside Gliding Club is recognised by the Scottish Sports Council as a specialist facility. It is a BGAmember and Is directly affiliated to all
Scottish Clubs.

The Secretary
Deeside Gliding Club
Aboyne Airfield
AB34 5LB
Tel: +44 (0)1339 885 339