A Glider - and a Crowd - Lifted on a Sudden Rush of Air

MY daughter and I stretched out on the platform overlooking the valley below, happy and tired. We had just climbed the three-mile trail up the mountain and had reached this delightful lookout point early in the afternoon on a beautiful, cloudless, weekend in Vermont. A few other people were there and we shyly asked someone to take our picture. Everyone looked out across the valley far below. The mountain was an oddity, thrust up from the flat land surrounding it. Someone speculated it was an old volcano, long extinct, with its summit worn down into a triple peak.

The talk around us turned to the obvious function of the platform we were sharing. ``I would love to fly a glider but I could never jump off that edge, could you?'' Others wondered aloud, too. No one thought they could actually fling themselves from the top of the mountain. I laid my head back, a stone for a pillow, and closed my eyes, no thoughts of flying, content just to have conquered the mountain.

There was a stir in the group around us. Out of the woods marched four young men. Three of them carried a long blue cylindrical object which we recognized immediately as the rolled up form of a packed glider. They laid it on the ground and the four of them strode up to the platform and looked out. The fellow who had been leading them stood at the edge. A few words were spoken about winds.

The leader was a few feet away from me. He was rather tall, slender, but plainly athletic. He could have been in his teens, maybe early 20s, no doubt one of those who loves a dare. Like those who jump from high rocks into little pools of water for the thrill. And yet as he quietly stood feeling the wind and watching the wind sock nearby, I felt as if an eagle had swooped down from the sky and landed beside me. He was not satisfied with the winds and spoke of an alternate launching site nearby. The four of them trooped off together.

Some of the hikers decided to follow them. I was content to rest. I had seen gliders fly before and I could imagine what it was like for them to launch. After a few minutes, my daughter convinced me to join them.

At the launch site, a small crowd of 15 or 20 people had gathered. The glider lay on the ground partially constructed. The young man, bare chested and in dungarees, moved about the glider bracing, tensing, sliding slender metal rods into key places. He worked silently, not hurriedly. His companions seemed to have disappeared. I recognized one mixed in with the crowd. The talk in the crowd was light and divided between curious speculation and downright skepticism. Everyone was waiting patiently for the launch, perched wherever they could find a seat.

Someone spoke a little louder. The word ``altimeter'' reached the young man. Silent until now, he turned to the crowd. ``Yes,'' he smiled, ``I have an altimeter and a vertical speed indicator, too.'' Now, the ice was broken, and a few moved closer.

A dialogue began between the man and the crowd - questions about his craft and answers. He plainly didn't mind having a crowd watching his preparations. The scattered pieces of glider, carrying cases, and other paraphernalia were quickly thinning out.

There was an efficiency in his movement that impressed me. And, it was turning out, he was very good with the onlookers. He had an easy, affable manner and stopped what he was doing if he needed to think about an explanation. The work with the glider and the work with the crowd seemed to blend together.

We discovered that he had met his companions in the parking lot and had recruited them to carry the glider for him. With remarkable efficiency he recruited others. A young woman asked him about the few items still on the ground. ``I take everything with me in the glider.''

``What about your truck, then?''

``Well, usually I find someone to take it to the bottom of the mountain for me. Would you like to?''

``OK, I will.''

One man who had asked many questions was instructed how to start an automatic camera the young man was hanging on the wing. Another was recruited as a second ``wire man'' to steady the craft until he gave the ``clear'' signal. He talked about the winds and what he was looking for to have a good launch. Phrases like ``five-minute cycles'' and ``thermal bubbles'' mixed in with the hand signs he taught his volunteers.

He donned a thick nylon jacket and pulled the aerodynamic bag in which he would ride over him. As he gave clear, crisp commands he was looking less and less like the brash youth I had first pictured and more like what he identified himself as being - a hang-glider pilot. He spoke knowledgeably of the other pilots in the area as he fastened radio gear to his suit and adjusted helmet and goggles.

He smiled at the crowd and told us it was time to change places. We moved out of the way as he hoisted the glider, wire men at each side, and approached the launch - a rocky slope about five strides long, a drop-off, tree tops below that, and the valley stretching for miles beyond. As he stood poised on the rock, I snapped a picture. The man in front of me heard and reminded the wire man to turn on the automatic camera. I felt we were all working together to help this young man take off.

The wind sock turned and filled in occasional breezes. Again he was waiting, watching, telling us what to look for. The wind sock had to be just so; the tree tops below would ripple and give away the wind he was looking for. I felt no tenseness but anticipation and joy.

Then came the command, ``Clear.'' The wire men let go the wires and with a sudden rush of motion the airman and his craft charged the edge of the mountain and flew off. The craft, flying slowly at first, swooped down toward the tree tops, then swooped up into the sky. We were beside ourselves with delight and admiration.

I probably will never fly a hang glider, but I'm glad that someone has. I used to think that people who flew such craft were doing it just for themselves, for the excitement, the thrill. But I don't think that anymore. We need people who can show us those qualities of the human spirit - courage, kindness, sharing with strangers - in a way we can easily see and understand.

Oh yes, I saw him land, too, through binoculars, perfectly as his launch. It wouldn't surprise me if by the time we had climbed down the mountain he had recruited a farmer to drive him home.

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