At 3,000 feet (914 m) behind the controls of a Blanik L-13 two-seater glider, with the wings pitching wildly and the nose pointed straight at a nearby farmhouse, it is obvious I’m not a natural born pilot.
Twenty minutes earlier I’d been in the pilot lounge chatting with Jim Confer, a member of the Chilhowee Soaring Association Inc., which is a glider club located between Knoxville and Chattanooga in southeastern Tennessee.
Confer, a former serviceman who’d flown reconnaissance in Laos, had been filling me in on the area known as the Tennessee Overhill. Situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it was once a gritty industrial hub for copper mines, railways and textile mills.
These days, following decades of economic decline, the region is capitalizing on its diverse landscape of densely forested mountains and fast-flowing rivers to reinvent itself as an outdoor adventure destination. It has become especially popular among wind-sport enthusiasts due to exceptional air currents.
“In the spring and fall, we get such ideal ridge and thermal lift we can stay airborne from morning to night,” explains Sarah Kelly, the owner of the club, which offers year round glider instruction and orientation.
Our flight plan sounds exhilarating. A Piper Pawnee former agricultural spray plane will drag our engineless glider into the air using a towrope. Once the desired altitude is reached, we will disconnect the rope and rely on air currents to keep us airborne.
Despite the daredevil sound of it, the experience is designed for safety. The glider has dual controls so while the student experiences the adventure of flight in the front seat, a certified instructor seated in the rear provides direction and takes control when necessary.
The reality is that, when crammed into the cockpit under a Plexiglas dome in 95 (40 C) degree heat, and parked on what looked like a farmer’s hay field, I feel more like a hot house tomato than the Top Gun fighter pilot I’d originally imagined. A few bumps across the grass runway later, we are airborne. The tow plane chugs noisily ahead.
“Pull the yellow release cord,” shouts Kelly.
“Now?” I think. The cars on Highway 411 below look like motionless Tonka toys. The air speed indicator reads 65 mph (100 kmh). Closing my eyes, I give the cord a yank.
The cable tethering us to the tow plane drops away. We dip, level, and then float silently above the clouds as light as a moth in summertime. Minutes pass.
“Ready to take over the controls?” asks Kelly.
As I grab the control stick, we hit an invisible bump and the plane lurches to the left. My stomach does a quick flip. But the plane is surprisingly responsive, leveling in seconds.
“Think of it as though surfing an ocean,” explains Kelly. “Some waves are small while others are more like white water rapids.”
It makes sense. Gliders are also called sailplanes. In still air, a glider descends. When the surrounding air rises at the glider’s descent rate, the glider maintains altitude. If the air rises faster than its descent rate, it gains altitude. Although the aerodynamics sounds simple, glider pilots must be licensed as commercial pilots. Stalls can lead to spins if not controlled expertly.
With no engine noise, the flight is totally silent. Wisps of clouds swirl below us to reveal a patchwork of green pasture and Amish farmhouses. We bank past the Chilhowee Mountains and the western edge of the 640,000-acre (259,000 hectare) Cherokee National Forest, the largest tract of public land in Tennessee.
Stretching northeast along the North Carolina border, the forested landscape is the heart of the southern Appalachian Mountains and supports outdoor adventures such as hiking, horseback riding and fly-fishing. It is also becoming a top site for national glider events. As I gaze at the shamrock green Hiwassee River snaking across the valley, I daydream of lazy days floating downstream on a raft.
All of a sudden, the glider begins to wobble. The wings pitch left and then right. The nose points up and then plunge downward. The earth seems instantly closer.
“Would you like me to take over the controls?” Kelly asks in a calm voice. I realize that, lost in reverie, I had forgotten about steering.
As the horrifying thought sinks in, Kelly easily takes control of the glider and makes a runway approach. We bump our way across the tufts of grass to a stop. As I head to the pilot lounge to settle my shaking knees, I pass a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) security poster advising, “Report all unusual and suspicious activity.”
I can only hope my novice flight maneuvers have gone unnoticed.
If You Go
Chilhowee Glidersport is located east of Interstate 75, between Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. A 20-minute flight costs $95 (US).
Chilhowee Soaring Association, Inc.
Tennessee Overhill Experience
Michele Peterson is a Toronto-based writer who contributes to several national and international publications. Watch for her in travel anthologies such as Sand in My Bra: Funny Women Write from the Road and Go Your Own Way: Women Travel the World Solo or visit her website at www.michelepeterson.com.