Heavens, I feel sick! My body was just shot in three seconds from 0 to 100 Km/h forward and 400 meters in the air. Or more precisely: towed. And even before I realized what was going on, I was already back down again. "Well, was great, or?", the pilot asked me with an inviting grin. I smiled back. I would have liked to stammer "no idea". In the seven minutes up there, one thing became crystal clear to me: I had no clue what was coming up. But I wanted it so.
Saturday morning 07:30. In the early morning fog I stand in front of the clubhouse of the HAC, the Hamburg Aero Club. Here I want to see how flying without fuel works. Gliding is the cheapest way to take to the air. And the greenest. Only at takeoff the winch consumes some fuel or the towplane gasoline. The glider itself flies with 100 percent renewable eco-energy. And the newest sailboats have an electric motor on board.
The cardinal mistake even before the first glider takeoff
To experience this, I stand here, only no one comes. Before the course has even started, I have already committed the first beginner’s mistake: ignoring the weather forecast. Fog and gliding do not get along. The start is postponed to 09:30. All have noticed it, only I not. Nice prelude.
Two hours I walk through the so-called Boberger dunes at the edge of Hamburg. A heath landscape interrupted by big sand dunes and in the middle of it: the airfield. 1300 meters long and 300 meters wide. 60 gliders are in the hangars. In summer, the sky is a hive of activity. Two riders trot past me and the first joggers make their rounds. The dunes are a nature reserve, recreation area and "air base" all in one. I will be here almost every weekend for the next two years. That’s how long the training takes on average. After the first leg in half a year, I should be able to take off a glider on my own and land it again after a circuit. Can not be so difficult, I thought to myself. A few weeks later with gusty crosswind I should see it differently.
It also goes much faster to the semblance. If you spend your annual vacation at a flight school and are lucky enough to have stable flying weather, you can have your license in your hands after just twelve weeks, provided you have a little talent. In the club it takes longer, but is cheaper if more time-consuming. It remains to be seen whether one can fly afterwards. Flying is a continuous learning process, say long-time pilots.
Team sport is when one has fun and five work together
Of the eight flight students on this Saturday morning, I am the newest. A strange feeling of not knowing anything. Not even how to open the cockpit canopy or where to touch when pushing and where better not to touch. It is cool and wet. Within minutes the shoes are through. We pick up the parachutes, the aircraft logbooks and the battery blocks for the instruments.
Noisily the truck with the two winches drives to the end of the runway. Right behind him: the Lepo. Lepo is Opel backwards. The wizened Omega has long since been banned from the road. But for its task here on the field it is just right. He drives the ropes that pull the planes into the sky a good kilometer back from the winch to the launch position again.
Lepo, Kuller, winch – what?
While winch and Lepo rumble out of our field of vision, the briefing takes place at the launch bus. The launch manager explains the weather and wind conditions. Tasks are distributed: who is launch recorder, launch helper, lepo driver and retriever? I don’t understand a word, but slowly it dawns on me why gliding goes under the label "team sport.
Gliding is when five out of six in a team work so that one has fun. The takeoff recorder records the takeoff and flight times for later accounting. The launch director communicates with the winch, the launch assistant hooks the winch cable to the aircraft and keeps the wings level for launch, the Lepo driver retrieves the cable from the winch back to the launch site after launch with a special car. He is the only one of the crew to see the winch operator, who is working lonely at the end of the runway – important and invisible at the same time. And whoever has nothing to do at the moment, pushes the landed airplanes back into the takeoff position
Environmental and climate protection concerns us all. This contribution is part of the project "Let’s get started!" of the Bertelsmann Content Alliance, which includes the star as part of Gruner + Jahr heard. With the combined power and reach of our journalistic offerings, we want to create maximum awareness and impart knowledge – for one of the most important topics of our time. #PACKINGWIRSAN
Germany is the land of glider pilots
Since I can’t do anything, I’m left out for the time being. I, however, deserve the honor of the first flight. "Well, have you ever flown? We call the first flight a familiarization flight," says Olaf – one of the club’s 30 flight instructors. It helps me into the parachute. Uncertainly I stow myself into the front bucket seat of the ASK-21. The glider from German manufacturer Alexander Schleicher was a sensation when it was unveiled in 1979. No angular fuselage of fabric-covered wooden ribs, but as one of the first fiberglass constructions in the lines elegant, sleek, but at the same time good-natured in the air.
Germany is the land of glider pilots. In 1911, gliding was invented as a recreational sport on the Wasserkuppe when students flew down the treeless hill in the Hessian Rhon in open gliders. Twelve years later, the world’s first gliding school was founded there. The big brand names in glider construction still come from Germany: Grob, Stemme, Scheibe, Schempp-Hirth, DG – and Schleicher.
The company, located in Hesse near the Wasserkuppe, created the training aircraft par excellence for glider pilots. Even the US Air Force ordered some for pilot training back then. But actually this is not an airplane, it is a sports aircraft. It may look elegant from the outside in its highly polished white, but inside a Spartan spirit reigns supreme. Exposed control cables, pulleys and greasy guide rails. No matter. I am sitting and have strapped on the glider with the five-point harness.
Glider: roller coaster is a child’s plate
We close the hood. Anyone who is even slightly claustrophobic should look for another hobby. The sky may be boundless, but the cockpit is not. Despite the almost horizontal sitting position, there is only four centimeters of clearance between my head and the Plexiglas canopy. "Pretty tight", my voice echoing as if I were sitting in a barrel. Olaf replies dryly that this is still spacious compared to other patterns. I remain silent. "Latch on, please" Olaf nods to the launch assistant, who disappears briefly under the fuselage, hooks the launch rope into the aircraft and then goes to the end of the left wing, lifts it and then stretches his arm upwards.
As if it had a life of its own, the rope twisted through the grass like a snake. It tightens, pauses for a second. Then we are pulled forward. "Oh, that’s still possible. ", I wanted to think, but I only got as far as "Oh…". 1200 meters in front of us the winch driver bravely stepped on the gas. I tensed my neck muscles, the world in front of me briefly became a tunnel of green and gray. Roller coaster is a child’s plate.
No, that was not the great feeling of freedom. I had seen these videos all the time on the net of people flying with a "Geil!"and a big grin on their faces as they returned from their first flight. I was slightly nauseous, had a headache and the panic that both would remain forever.
After ten hours on the field, I didn’t want to go on. I plopped into the car, drove home resignedly and went straight to bed. But the next morning at 07:30 I was again in the hall and rolled the planes out of the hangar. Seven hours of running, pushing, pulling and only 20 minutes in the air. In the late afternoon I swallowed a headache tablet, suppressed the nausea as best I could and fell asleep on the sofa at eight o’clock in the evening. What a shitty hobby I thought. But just a few weeks later I could hardly get enough of flying without an engine. I got to know the thermals.
The gas station of the glider pilots
"Hold on to the cloud", shouted my flight instructor Jorg at the start. We shot into this wonderful blue sky wadded with finest cumulus clouds. When I reached 400 meters, I disengaged and initiated a right turn. The plane shook slightly. An invisible force lifted the right surface.Thermals! A hose of warm air masses rising upwards. The refueling station for gliders. "I’ll take over," said Jorg and quickly tightened the turn, made the circle again and then turned tightly again. Don’t throw up, I thought. "We have thermals here, not exactly defined, but something is going on here", came from behind me. You mustn’t get sick here, I thought as we descended, climbed and descended again. It was my first encounter with rising warm air masses and for the first time I understood what Benjamin Stowe in the MOMA weather report means by air masses. Air has weight, quite a lot even – 1000 liters about 1.3 kilograms. Consciously I had not felt this mass force yet. But it just kicked me in the butt pretty good.
Below us, a few heated cubic meters wafted upwards in a hose. The art of gliding consists in circling inside this tube and letting the air mass carry you upwards. How much does our ASK-21 weigh?? With the two of us inside, maybe 600 kilos. We caught the thermal at its edge, already it presses slightly in the stomach, with four meters per second we were suddenly pushed upwards.
Then the pointer of the variometer sank again, we were out. So enter the tight turn again, ease off a bit and enter the turn again with a spirited aileron and rudder. The e-vario whined like an out-of-control smartphone ringtone. High, short tones indicate rising, low tones falling. The sound of the air mass, so to speak.
Flown for an hour – without a drop of spirt
I didn’t think about nausea anymore, I sat there "feeling" the controls and didn’t know where to go because of my fascination. So this is gliding. I got an idea of why this should be a sport. My flight instructor literally fought for every meter of lift. At a good 1200 meters we had to call it a day. 2000 would have been possible. In the vicinity of the Hamburg airport we are not allowed to go higher. A good kilometer of altitude without an engine. Madness. Flying can hardly be more environmentally friendly. And not quieter at all. Gliding fits so wonderfully into the green zeitgeist.
After 67 minutes we had flown our altitude, went into a counter-approach parallel to the runway, turned in, jetted at 100 mph 30 meters above the Boberg dunes dotted with walkers, and touched down gently. I am infected.