I haven’t had much luck when it comes to the weather over the last year or so. In the summer of 2010, I booked a hot-air balloon flight, but due to rubbish weather (and rubbish luck) it got cancelled 8 times before I finally managed to go up.

For my 23rd birthday I got a gliding lesson from my parents. It was THE coolest present, and obviously, I was very excited. Once the weather started picking up, and I had some free time over the summer, I booked my first flight at the Surrey Hills Gliding Club.

Of course, with my track record, it got cancelled due to the weather. Thankfully though, on the second attempt I managed to get a flight – that was last week.

Flying high: going around a thermal with another glider

A glider is a small, carbon fibre airplane without any engines that can be catapulted, winched or pulled up by another plane, before being released and let out to roam the skies.

The flight I was in was winched into the air. It is a similar mechanism to getting a kite up high: the kite is on the string and you run to create a flow of air that will lift the kite up. The glider is attached to a strong cable, which is wound up very quickly at the end of a long field, creating the same lift. The glider then rises steeply into the sky until it reaches about 1000ft, and then the cable is released and you’re left to your own devices.

I watched someone else get launched up before I had my go, and it looked pretty amazing. Within 6 seconds you go from 0 to 60mph, and you are up at 1000ft in less than 30 seconds. I am a massive fan of rollercoasters so I wasn’t scared (mama was though!).

The feeling of soaring up into the clouds is one I won’t forget in a hurry. My vocabulary is pretty limited, but it was such a thrill. And so relaxing, the only sound is the wind rushing through the plane.

When flying, the pilot tries to find a thermal which is a column of warm rising air. Warm air rises because it is less dense than cold air (the molecules in air have more energy when it’s warm, and so they move about more. This means there is more space between the molecules than in cold air, making it less dense(less molecules per unit volume)). Once the pilot finds one of these thermals, they fly inside it, and let it carry it up higher into the sky. Gliders are often seen going round in circles in a thermal, which means they are letting the hot air take it up.

Think of it as being in a helter-skelter. Imagine you are at the top of a helter-skelter, and start sliding down, going round and round in a circle. Now pretend that at the same time, the helter-skelter is moving upwards, but at a faster rate than you are going down. So that overall you are moving in an upward direction. This is what happens when you are in a thermal. The glider is actually moving downwards in circles through the thermal, but the hot air itself is rising at a faster rate than you are gliding down, so the net motion is taking you higher.

There was a whole set of flight controls in front of me, buttons, gauges, the works, but all I got to play with was the joy stick. The movements required are so slight: you’d think that to get the plane to change direction would be like driving a truck, but it was the total opposite. The more you moved the joystick in one direction, the quicker the direction changed, not the more you turned.

Look, I’m in control of a glider!

At one point, the pilot behind me let go of the controls and let me have a go. I wasn’t entirely sure if this was wise, but who was I to complain? I got to fly a glider!

I was told to fly in a straight line towards the horizon, which seemed pretty simple. There was a small triangle sticker on the shield that was used as a marker. The aim was to keep the same distance between the sticker and the horizon, which meant that you were flying horizontally. If the distance decreased, you were going up. And if it decreased, you were going down.

When flying downwards, the speed of the glider increased dramatically. You could really feel the rush, and the fact that the ground was coming closer made it seem as though you were going even faster.

Because a glider isn’t allowed to fly higher than 2000ft, when they reach that height at the top of the thermal, the pilot steers the glider downwards. This doesn’t mean that it will take a nose-dive to the ground; instead the glider will stay at a pretty constant height for a while, until it needs to find another thermal to rise up again.

To navigate their way through the skies and find a thermal, the pilot uses the clouds. I hadn’t noticed this before, but the clouds were separated into little blobs, and all these blobs were lined up. It looked like they were arranged into perfect stripes: cloud, sky, cloud. To get a good lift off, the pilot waited until a very uneven, dark cloud had drifted across our path. Apparently this would have a good thermal nearby.

And just to top off an already amazing flight, I got to do two loop-the-loops, and saw a rainbow around the sun (but I’ll write about that another time).

Go to the orginal article here or listen below