Three Diamond Sparrow
Stomach churning – and thrilling! My maiden flight with glider pilot Jock Proudfoot.
When Orangeville’s Jock Proudfoot invited me to soar with him in a Grobe Twin II Acro, I knew it was an invitation for which most people would give their gold fillings. But I also knew that if I were meant to fly, I’d have been born with wings on my back. Still, Jock, retired after 30 years as an international flight pilot with Air Canada, was the one pilot I’d trust to take me off the ground in an engineless plane.
Our flight was scheduled. On a glorious sunny day Jock’s wife, Sandy, drove me to the York Soaring Association near Arthur, where Jock was already on his second hour-long flight of the day. Awaiting his return, I watched with trepidation as gliders and small aircraft bumped and jumped on the grass runway in front of me. When a tow plane approached the runway sideways, literally at a 45-degree angle, I almost had a heart attack. This wasn’t what I had expected.
Sandy directed me to a dimly lit office where a man handed me a sheet of paper and a pen. “What am I signing?” I asked. He leaned back in his chair, staring across the desk at me as if I were a week-old offering from a fishmonger, a cigarette balancing precariously on the edge of his lips. “You’re signing that your family won’t sue us if there’s an…accident,” he said. I scribbled on the paper. When he began rummaging through a side drawer, I slipped out, glad to breathe fresh air in the form of a gentle, warm breeze.
Jock had landed. The 58-foot wingspan on the two-seater, fibreglass glider, owned by a ten-person syndicate of which Jock was one, was impressive even to me. I felt twinges of excitement when Sandy told me to climb into the rear seat. Jock harnessed me in, then sat on the edge of the wing and patiently pointed to the dials.
“The air speed indicator reads in knots,” he said. “The variometer is the vertical speed indicator and it’s ten times more sensitive than the ones in ordinary airplanes.” He was unable to imitate the sound, but warned me that the electronic variometer audibly indicates if the glider is rising or sinking.
“And this…” he pointed to a circular dial on the right, “tells you the altitude.” He rubbed his hand on a small metal handle on the inside edge of the fibreglass, where I instinctively wanted to hold on. “Don’t touch that,” he said quietly but firmly. “Doing so could cause the canopy to fly off.”
A moment later, Jock was sitting in front and I was looking at the back of his head as the Perspex canopies were lowered. Jock was shown, and approved, the towline. The left wing was manually raised and we rumbled down the runway tethered behind the little tow plane. In mere moments, the world fell away and we were being pulled though the air. I had an astounding rush of exhilaration. It felt as if tiny effervescent bubbles were exploding throughout my body. My brain was clear and totally focussed on the departing earth, when Jock spoke. “What’s our altitude?” he called back to me.
I gulped hard. He didn’t say there was going to be a test! Altitude. Far right. “Fifteen hundred feet,” I called, and prayed I was right.
“We’re going up to 3,000 feet,” he said.
I looked around for something marked “parachute,” but found nothing.
“What’s our altitude now?”
“When we reach 3,000 feet, you have to pull that yellow toggle to release us from the tow plane,” said Jock.
“What!?” Everything below was becoming smaller and everything up here noisier. Engineless aircraft, gliders push against the air as gravity pulls them toward the ground. If the air under the glider is a thermal – that is, warm air which pushes upward – then it pushes the glider up. By finding and riding these thermals, a pilot keeps the glider airborne. I fixed my eye on the dial. Almost 3,000 feet. Almost, but not quite.
“Pull the toggle,” called Jock. As I reached for it, there was a thump. The towline had been dropped, and Jock said, “We’re free! We’re up here flying with no engine! We’re free!”
I heard a loud rumble as warm thermal air rushed past the tail section, making a surprisingly loud noise – not at all the smooth, silent soaring I had expected when watching from the ground. I looked at the back of Jock’s head for a sign, wondering if the glider was about to fall apart. But Jock only said, “There’s a red-tailed hawk.” I didn’t see it. “There’s the Arthur sewage treatment plant,” he said. My eyes followed where his finger was pointing.
“You meant those ponds, those little things that look like swimming pools?”
“And there’s Grand Valley,” he said, pointing out the village where I had lived for eight years. I strained to see the picturesque village, but couldn’t pick it out of the landscape.
Suddenly, Jock flipped the glider to the right. I looked down as we pivoted on the point of the wing, and got a splendid view of the gorgeous local countryside. The wind continued to rumble against the tail section; the electronic variometer had kicked in.
Round and round we went as the variometer screamed and wailed. I began to think about the time my family sailed to Canada from Scotland. My seafaring uncle had warned us that if we felt seasick, to stand on deck and breathe deeply. As it turned out everyone on the ship was seasick and we stood shoulder to shoulder at the deck rail, vomiting as one into the Atlantic Ocean.
I began to feel very hot, yet cold, and my eyes seemed to swim in different directions. I looked at the back of Jock’s head. It was bobbing around, looking left, then right, then up, full of energy – reminiscent of an inquisitive, cheerful little sparrow.
In addition to his years with Air Canada, Jock spent seven years in the air force as a fighter pilot and flight instructor, and also spent a year flying for the U.N. in Egypt. Now, Jock was the caged bird that had just been released. He was babbling away looking at this and looking at that. I hear him say “Grand Valley” again, and I looked but still couldn’t see it.
Suddenly my stomach flipped up to my throat. My eyes spun like ball bearings in a pinball machine. I groped, unsuccessfully, for a paper bag that wasn’t there. Jock was reciting aeronautical poetry, an epic ode to flying, with all the animation, fervour and passion he could muster, which was plenty. My arms were lifeless at my sides. My eyelids refused to open.
“See those clouds?” I didn’t dare attempt to answer. “Let’s go over to them,” twittered Jock excitedly. He was happy. Even from the rear, Jock was more animated than I’d ever seen him on the ground. I breathed deeply and tried to focus on the horizon.
Above the noise of the variometer, Jock chirped about thermals and clouds as the sun beat down on the canopy and fried my brain. I felt as if my body temperature were 200°f, certainly hotter than any human had ever survived.
When I was four years old, I had my tonsils removed. I was strapped down to the hospital bed. Each day, just out of my reach, a bottle of cold, fizzy pop was placed on the bedside table. I watched the condensation running down the outside of those bottles and felt utterly parched. Inside the glider, fresh air felt just as elusive. I didn’t dare reach for the tiny window to open it. It was right next to the metal gadget that could cause the canopy to fly off. If I bumped it and released the canopy, the sparrow would have a heart attack. Better when we land that I’m the one found bright red and stiff than for Jock to have a coronary because I pitched the canopy.
Jock was humming. Singing. Tra-la-la-ing. The back of his head had never looked so alive. He was emanating joie de vivre. If I could have seen his aura, it would’ve been an ongoing display of fireworks. Jock Proudfoot was born to fly as sure as sparrows are.
I was weightless, floating. The only thing keeping me in my supine seat was my seatbelt. My tongue began to loll. I was drooling. I felt truly ridiculous, yet unable to pull myself together. “Well,” said Jock. “You get the T-shirt! You’ve been up here for a full hour.” It wasn’t possible! We couldn’t have been airborne for more than 10 to 15 minutes! “Do you want to go down, or would you like to stay up a while longer?”
I inhaled deeply. Carefully, I parted my dry, fused lips and mumbled something incoherent. Jock laughed. “Great! We’ll stay up,” he said with gusto. I didn’t mind. I now dreaded landing more than being airborne. At least up here I could be ill in private. On the ground people would crinkle their noses if they saw me dragged out of the glider, retching and moaning. Now I wanted to stay up here forever.
Rivulets of sweat raced each other down my back. I thought about the time I flew with my dog and a child on Air Canada from Toronto to Vancouver. I asked if we could see the cockpit, and in those days a generous pilot could allow you to do so. The purser introduced us to Captain Jock Proudfoot and his crew who were surprisingly willing to tolerate us gawking stupidly at the tiny window and maze of instruments.
I informed Capt. Proudfoot that my beloved dog was in the baggage compartment and I didn’t want him overlooked in the event of any mechanical malfunction or crash landing. In Vancouver, we touched down so smoothly that we’d been on the ground for several seconds before anyone was sure we’d landed. It was years later before I met Sandy and discovered we were neighbours, living only a mile from each other.
Now Jock was saying we’d been up for one and a half hours, and were going to descend and land past those black Angus bulls in the field below. I licked my parched lips and looked down at the rapidly approaching bulls, dreading the bouncy landing I’d seen the other gliders make, afraid my stomach would fully succumb.
You’d have to thumb-squeeze the information out of Jock, but he’s a rare Three Diamond pilot, each diamond being an internationally recognized symbol for an outstanding powerless flight. But if ever he earned his diamonds it was on our landing. The wheels touched evenly on the ground, bit into the sod, and we rolled to a smooth, straight stop as if we’d just landed by way of Rolls Royce. Ours was a landing in a class of its own. Even I recognized that.
Having survived the flight, I should set the record straight. Had Jock even suspected I was feeling queasy, he would have landed immediately. I knew that. A single bleat from me or a wave of my limp hand would have done it. He will no doubt be surprised to learn I wasn’t in fine fettle during the flight! But I knew if I caused the flight to be cut short, I’d be discarding a fabulous experience with one of the best pilots in the world.
Jock had offered me the opportunity to do what most people dream of, and I was determined to see that flight through to the end. I’m glad I did. Thirty-six hours after we landed I stopped listing, the buzzing left my head, and I had a phenomenal adventure to remember.
The York Soaring Association, located at 7296 5th Line, Belwood, is a 200-acre airfield with five runways. It offers introductory glider flights, beginner and advanced flying lessons with licensed instructors, and youth programs, as well as a program called Freedom Wings, which provides disabled people the opportunity to fly. For more information, see yorksoaring.com