Flying a glider plane means soaring without an engine. A pilot must rely on updrafts or lifts to keep the glider in flight. One such updraft is a thermal, which is a warm spot that rises circularly while expanding, like the reverse effect of a drain. This kind of lift could be from the ground or the heat reflecting off a rock warm from the sun. Another updraft is an up-slope wind and resides along ridges or any kind of slope. In this case, the glider flies parallel to the ridge. The next is referred to as a wave, in which air flows over a mountain, descends, and then rises back up. One can ride a wave for a long and get extreme altitude. Finally, any time air currents merge an updraft is created. On the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains is the Pacific Ocean and the cold winds produced here constantly merge with the ones in the hot Mojave Desert. After Dale went over his lesson on updrafts, I was beginning to understand how the atmosphere and the glider plane would coincide and was ready to experience it first-hand. I had no idea what to expect.
I would be in a special glider plane called a Schleicher ASK-21 that is configured with hand controls enabling someone without the use of his or her legs to operate. Two Schleicher ASK-21 gliders are available at Southern California Soaring Academy. Dale was seated in the back with his own set of master controls to the glider plane. I transferred into the front seat with a little assistance from the crew. Weight is an important factor when riding in a glider. The weight of the front seat needs to be 152lbs to make the glider level when up in the air; weights can be added to reach this quota. The maximum weight is 242lbs. I sat on the seat cushion from my wheelchair for added support and protection. We went over what controls were what again as well as where the window was and how to work the radio. After the quick recap, a plane began towing us to the runway. In a matter of seconds, the glider plane was off the ground, still connected to the tow plane by an umbilical cord. Once the glider plane reached a certain altitude the cord would be released. Higher and higher we climbed at a rapid pace until it was time to be released. Dale pulled the cord and we were officially soaring. The first thirty minutes or so up in the air is feeling the air patterns to know what you can use to glide, explains Dale, and don’t let the wind currents direct you. They will pull you down so must work against them.
When we were grounded, Dale asked me about roller coasters, “When was the last time you were on one?” Floating in the air, it sure felt like I was on one. My stomach was doing flips like a trained seal and my heart rate began to race. I knew I was safe and that Dale was a master glider but I was still a little scared. I had never been so high up in the air with such a small object. We entered into a thermal and began spiraling upwards. This did not improve the condition of my stomach. I felt like I was on the teacup ride at Disneyland and wanted off. I was getting nauseous. I guess the expression on my face and body language reflected this because Dale decided to switch things up and get out of the thermal. “Sounds good to me,” I replied. He was always checking on me, making sure that I was doing okay and having a good time because “that’s what it’s all about” he confirmed. Now we were just sailing. My stomach was still flipping but no longer nauseous. It felt hot inside the glider which I concluded was because the sun’s rays were intensified as they passed through the glass dome of the glider and onto my skin. It was clear to me now why the crew made sure sunscreen was worn. I felt sweat dripping down and opened up the small 4×8” window to let the warm air burst inside. It was nice.
“Below us is the San Andres Fault,” Dale pointed out. Throughout the flight, Dale poetically shared his flying wisdom and geological features of the countryside, his paradise. We head in the direction of the San Gabriel Mountains. On clear a day, which is almost always the case, you can see the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. The glider picked up speed as we dove towards the mountains and then with a gentle pull of the joystick we caught a wave uplift that ascended us higher than we were before. Soaring over the mountain peaks was astounding and aroused my adrenaline. Then I saw a hawk and got excited. Here I was flying without an engine, soaring like a bird. If you see birds you know that you are in an updraft but hawks and eagles intuitively know where the strongest updrafts are and we were in it. We then spotted two hikers on the top of the mountain and they joyfully waved to us as we passed.
Dale asked if I wanted to control the plane. I completely forgot that there were hand controls to operate the glider; I was enjoying my time just being a passenger. Plus, my body was a little shaky, my hands were clammy, and was feeling light-headed; all of which are signs when my blood pressure rises so I denied the offer for now. I was hoping my body would calm down and I would feel up to the challenge. However, my physical condition did not change, and was very aware of my breath. My body was freaking out, possibly altitude sickness, and there was nothing I could tell myself to make it go away. Dale pulled us out of the mountains and into the desert where we could just cruise smoothly. I was disappointed that my body was reacting this way but it’s something I’ve learned to not ignore. “I want to try flying it,” I said with virtually my last gasp of enthusiasm. If I didn’t try I knew I would regret it, so I pushed through and for about ten minutes I was a pilot. I wanted to fly longer, do acrobatics, and more but my body urged me to stop. Dale and I cohesively agreed to head back. As we landed, the glider plane gets close to the ground, then ascends a little and finally touches the ground. It was smooth.
It’s not uncommon to get altitude sickness when flying a glider but most people do not. Despite the fact I wasn’t feeling tip-top after a few minutes of being in the air, it was a blast. I challenged myself and I’d do it all over again. Lessons are about an hour long and one can even take enough lessons to earn a flying license. Steven, a paraplegic, recently flew for the first time and was a natural as Dale recalls. Here is Steven’s reaction to the experience: “From the moment of take-off, until you land, you feel like a bird. Being one with the air and soaring like hawks makes you feel so much a part of this earth, as the natural air flow is carrying the plane to where ever you may feel. Being in such a small plane you hear the wind speed by, making the experience of flying like a bird even more real. Diving right towards the face of a mountain brings a rush of excitement, then pulling up and catching the wave updraft, whoa. Nothing else is better than to feel free of all the ground rules and to create your path in the sky. Being paralyzed and able to fly a plane is a great reminder that I can do anything I want to as long as I pursue it.”
After receiving help out of the plane I headed to the “pilots lounge,” as the crew calls it, to rest and lower my blood pressure back to normal. A ramp led up to the door and another little one was at the door to fill in the small gap. The AC was on inside and a fan was also blowing on the ground. Ice packs and cold drinks were in the refrigerator. The hallway to the restroom was approximately 3.5ft and the door frame into the restroom was about 2ft. These dimensions are on the narrow side so not all wheelchairs will find this setup accessible. The restroom was spacious once inside but had no grab bars and the sink was not a roll-up. A parking lot is on the backside of the “pilots lounge” and business office but wheelchair users should park in front of these buildings for easier access.
When I first met Dale, he had confided in me that he was allergic to the sun. At first, I thought that he was joking since we were, in fact, in the middle of a desert, but I put my foot in my mouth because it was no laughing matter. He must keep himself completely covered but insists that “I can do whatever I want just not in the sun.” Despite his physical limitation, he lives in what he describes as paradise. This was a reminder that we are all disabled somehow, it is just that some conditions go unseen. People like me, who use a wheelchair, have obvious physical limitations but this does not mean that a person who can walk has had an easier physical life. “Easier” is all relative. No one truly knows what is like to ‘walk in your shoes but you; even close loved ones. Judgment is toxic. Dale did not let his physical disability control his physical world. He could have chosen to live somewhere different with less intense sun exposure but instead, he starred down the barrel of a gun and not only survived but is thriving. Now that’s courage! Dale and I share the same outlook: I can do anything just not using my legs. It’s your destiny to figure out how to overcome the physical barriers placed upon you and realize your paradise. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (FDR). It’s time to fly!
Directions Note: Off 165th Street and right next to the admin building for the Crystalaire Airport is a dirt road. Follow this dirt road for less than a mile and on your right-hand side will be a cluster of trees and planes signaling that you are at an airport. You will see two module buildings. The first one is the business office and the second one is the “pilots lounge” where you can park directly in front.