Few sports now generate good literature: television has seen to that. Their heroes are too ephemeral, their settings too commonplace, their attractions perhaps too spectacular – the written word cannot compete with the zoom lens. Sporting events are, for the most part, simply too short, so that much of the writing is concerned with what happens ‘off the field’. Even cricket, which used to attract good writing, seems now to evoke so different an atmosphere that I doubt if it is worth reading about: but I may be wrong. There are, of course, the exploration sports, mountaineering, fell-walking, diving, even flying light aeroplanes, where one may yet spin a good yarn based on adventures and achievements in interesting and beautiful places, but it is still difficult for the word-processor to trump the video-recorder.
Perhaps sailing takes the palm: you can photograph an angry sea from the stern of a cross-channel ferry, but I imagine it looks very different from the deck of a yacht. So it is with flying gliders: I can show you an aerial photograph of a cumulus cloud and it will remind you of your last holiday – ten minutes after take-off from Heathrow – but for me it generates thoughts you would never dream of. Will I reach it? (What a strange question!) Is it growing or decaying? Will it be rough inside? Will it have lift underneath it as strong as that marvellous cloud I came across last year between Bedford and St Neots, or is it about to rain from its dark underside, to wet my beautiful wings and destroy the smooth airflow which alone keeps me airborne?
Have you ever seen Cambridge from the air? I first saw that unforgettable sight from the open cockpit of a two-seat training glider 27 years ago. On each occasion since then it has looked different. Last August I was rising gently in a late thermal over the centre of the town, after seven o’clock in the evening, gazing in wonder at the scene below, when I saw – for the first time in all those years – the sun on the north side of King’s College Chapel, throwing long shadows I never imagined could exist.
About five years ago my flying went through a bad patch, and on one particularly miserable flight I determined to give it up. I flew back to Cambridge airport, joined the circuit and, nervous and tense, forced my unwilling machine round the last turn. (When you are flying well, relaxed and happy, you are not conscious of directing your glider at all – she just flies.) As soon as I was in line with the landing area and knew that I should be able to land safely, I relaxed, and there was a brief moment left for me to glance sideways to see, for the last time from my own cockpit, that lovely scene: chapels, trees, libraries, greens, courts, spires – and then and there, in the seconds left before touch-down, I resolved that I must exorcise my demon and fly again.
Peter Scott started gliding the same year as me, and in Cambridge we used to say that the experience was reflected in the change that came over his wild-life paintings, the cardboard clouds of yesterday suddenly growing into beautiful living masses of cumulus. By 1963 he was British Gliding Champion, and in his autobiography The Eye of the Wind he devotes three short chapters to ‘the silent sky’ which, coming from the pen of a writer with his experience of outdoor pursuits (especially sailing), make an interesting benchmark against which to test other descriptions. For gliding ought to lend itself to descriptive writing.
‘Undoubtedly the most delightful part of gliding is cross-country soaring. The attractions of local flying are insignificant compared to the joys of travelling far from base, and the combination of exhilaration, worry, beauty, fear and hard work makes each cross-country flight a unique adventure.’ I have remembered those words – ‘exhilaration, worry, beauty, fear and hard work’ – as a perfect evocation of my own style of cross-country flying (at least) ever since I read them, in the first edition of The Soaring Pilot by A. and L. Welch and F. G. Irving, when I was learning to fly. That book, published in 1955, was the bible of my generation, an excellent example of clear technical writing leavened with humour and anecdote. Its successor today is New Soaring Pilot (whatever happened to the definite article?), from the same authors and publisher, but what has been gained in advanced technical information has been lost in readability. Its preface opens with the sentence, ‘This book is largely concerned with technology, for the glider is essentially a product of this technological age,’ an opening which a quotation from Saint-Exupéry does little to soften. And what of those adjectives that stuck in my mind a quarter of a century ago? ‘Worry’ has been changed to ‘despair’ and ‘beauty’ has been deleted altogether. Are modern times really so terrible?
If The Soaring Pilot was our bible, Philip Wills was our bard. That remarkable man had started gliding in 1933 (how close to the Wright brothers that is beginning to seem!), and by 1939 had not only established himself as the leading British pilot, but had shown in those few years that it was possible to fly the length and breadth of England without an engine: on 30 April 1938, he had flown from Heston to St Austell, a distance of 209 miles. After the war he epitomised British gliding, and to everyone’s delight he became World Champion in Spain in 1952. The following year he published On Being a Bird, which quickly established itself as the most beautiful gliding book ever written: for Wills could not only draw on the experiences of an astonishing twenty years which took gliding, and him with it, from a broomstick-and-bungey affair at the Wasserkuppe and Dunstable Downs to flights over unheard-of distances and a World Championship – he could also write divinely.
On Being a Bird replaced Terence Horsley’s Soaring Flight as the romantic’s introduction to gliding, and it has never been equalled. It is difficult to see how it could be: even the title is unbeatable. There have been many books on gliding, in many languages, both before and since, but nearly all are instructional or technical manuals – the difference is between learning to fly gliders and putting that knowledge to use to soar long distances or to great heights – and those few that include descriptions of flights cannot match On Being a Bird. Probably the best pre-war equivalent is Kronfeld on Gliding and Soaring, which was a translation of the reminiscences of the German pioneer Robert Kronfeld, but although it provides an interesting account of the early development of gliding, it stops at the threshold of the really outstanding progress of the next twenty years.
On Being a Bird is largely a descriptive book, with some charming attempts at technical explanation, leavened with anecdotes and not a little philosophy of life: Wills’s character shines through every page. There is humour, pathos, courage (of those twenty years, six were taken up with war), tragedy and triumph – friends lost in accidents, and a World Championship won. Wills wrote two further books to much the same formula: Where no birds fly and Free as a Bird. The last one, in particular, was dedicated to the preservation of the freedom for glider pilots – and, by implication, others – to pursue their chosen activity with the minimum of state interference necessary to protect third parties. He discovered John Stuart Mill, and warmly applauded him. Wills’s trilogy spans forty years of British gliding: but it is the first twenty that fire the imagination, and On Being a Bird that captures it. That famous flight from Heston to St Austell in 1938 is described in Chapter Ten, and Wills tells us that his account ‘was written by me just after the flight on that day’. I have no famous flights to describe, but it so happens that last September I was moved by a flight I had just made in Shropshire to such a degree that I wrote a description of it the next day:
‘The morning dawned clear with a light south-westerly wind, but soon small cumulus clouds began to form and drift over the field. Pilots found conditions much more difficult than they looked, however, and not until noon was anyone able to stay up for long. Then the scramble for launches began, my turn coming at 1.08 p. m.
‘I was launched to 1500 feet under a good sky, and turned west over the valley to join three other gliders under a cloud. The lift was initially two knots, but I soon found four-to-six knots and arrived at cloud-base (4300 a. s.l.) first.
‘I had intended to fly south to Shobdon, but during the morning some showers had developed to the south and west, menacing the Mynd though not actually reaching it, whilst to the north and east the clouds were smaller, some lying in north-easterly streets. In particular, my cloud seemed to be at the head of one such street reaching past Caer Caradoc and the Lawley towards the Wrekin, bathed in sunshine nearly twenty miles away.
‘I set off under this cloud-street, flying downwind with little loss of height. It ended at Acton Burnell, 11 miles out, where I squeezed 4500 feet from it. All around was sunshine, the nearest good cloud being eight miles east just beyond the Ironbridge power station. One of my plans had been to soar along Wenlock Edge and back, and since Ironbridge sits on the River Severn at the end of the Edge it would have been the turning point. So, cutting away from my ladder back to the Mynd, I set off across the blue gap to Ironbridge.
‘The cloud proved to be beyond Ironbridge, over the new and sprawling town of Telford, but with a little thermal assistance on the way, I arrived under it at 2500 feet and climbed up to cloud-base at 4300 feet. To the west, the River Severn passed the power station and on up to Shrewsbury, while to the south it flowed through the Ironbridge gorge, cutting through the golden fields of harvest-time like a green snake with Bridgnorth at its head. South-west, the Clee Hills grew out of the sun, and to the east Wolverhampton was beginning to appear, looking quite clean and elegant in the sparkling air.
‘The wind was ever pressing me north-eastward, at fifteen knots or so, and it was a time for decision. My Ironbridge cloud turned out to be the tail of a cloud-street running – like all the others – south-west to north-east, but upwind it was beginning to rain. Should I return northwards to my old street, or fly south to the next one, which I could now see passing south of Bridgnorth in the direction of the Clee Hills? Mindful of the old adage that one must cross between cloud-streets at right angles, I hedged for a while by flying under mine towards the rain. By the time my wings were wet I had decided: go to the south and return to the Mynd over the Clee Hills.
‘So south I went, into the sun over Bridgnorth with the warmth soon drying my wings and removing the rumble from the controls. Not until I had nearly reached the Sutton reservoir four miles south of Bridgnorth did I find lift, which took me up to 4200 feet again, but when I tried to fly upwind along the cloud-street it simply failed to work, except for the odd burble, and since, with no retrieve crew organised, I wanted to stay airborne at all costs, at 2500 feet or so I whipped round and headed back for the cloud that had last worked. By now it was quite close to Halfpenny Green airfield, and it let me down. I therefore flew north towards Cosford airfield where some lift seemed likely, arriving at 1800 feet – or about 1500 feet above the ground.
‘Slowly but surely some lift collected itself together, and I stuck determinedly to it. It gave me 2000 feet in 15 minutes (only just over one knot), and by the time I reached 4000 feet I was sitting near the edge of the Birmingham Airway (with my map folded so that I could not see the details). I had reached Belvide Reservoir beside the A5 north of Wolverhampton: Not only Wolverhampton, but the whole of Birmingham was now spread out before me for inspection, skyscrapers glinting in the sunshine; and all the best clouds were down there too, whilst upwind towards the Mynd I could see only gaps of endless blue and the occasional fluffy cumulus – and, of course, the Mynd itself, an impossible distance away. I had remained airborne, but at the cost of finding myself 30 miles downwind of home.
‘It was nearly 3.30. I hauled myself up to 4500 feet, gritted my teeth, and set off into the sun on my hopeless task. If I could get home it would be one of my most enjoyable flights.
‘During the next three-quarters of an hour I edged my way back to Ironbridge operating between 3500 feet and very nearly 5000 feet. But it was desperately slow. Perhaps I could have hurried more, though the most important thing still seemed to be to remain airborne. No doubt the wind was stronger than I had supposed – the power station smoke streamed unhelpfully away without climbing. At 4.30 I left Ironbridge for the last time, grateful that I would at least land on the home side of Wenlock Edge, but at 2700 feet one of the dying clouds hauled me back up to 4500 feet, but so slowly that by that height I was on the verge of being blown back across the Severn again. 4500 feet was only 3100 feet above the Mynd and there were 14 miles to go into the wind. I set off without much hope, but reaching from the Mynd towards me was a decaying cloud-street, and it might just be enough. For nearly fifteen minutes I toyed with it, occasionally circling but mostly creeping forward, just over 3000 feet a. s. l. Unless I could climb to cloud-base I was lost, for I could hardly contemplate a final glide low down over the north end of the Mynd.
‘Could I perhaps creep into the Onny valley by Bridges and try to regain the top by slope soaring the Mynd? After all, I knew the fields at the bottom. As I edged forward, I could see I was gaining because the hills beyond the Mynd were revealing more and more of themselves. But suddenly, as I passed the gap between the Lawley and Caer Caradoc, the hills started shrinking, the sink dictated a speed of 70 knots, and the northern slopes of the Mynd rushed up to meet me. The only possibility seemed to be to return to what little lift I had just left, so I went round in a 70-knot turn, and all was lost – no lift reappeared – and I landed, after four hours flying, at the bottom of the Lawley, six miles short.
‘I did well to get so close. On reflection, to retreat was to admit defeat, and I should have carried on a few more seconds just in case the sink presaged some good lift. My field was already chosen, so it would have been safe – and quite possibly successful.’
I suppose all of us who have experienced climbing several thousand feet in a thermal under an English summer sky feel that, bereft of the experience, we would have been immeasurably the poorer. We are not many: we take our pleasure silently and for the most part unobserved, and we can only share it by writing. Perhaps we should try harder.