Reporter gets a taste for the gliding high life
THE idea of being hundreds of feet in the air inside a small plane with no engine didn’t fill me with joy.
I guess that’s what comes from volunteering for something you know nothing about, and Google-ing it afterwards. But I’ve always been a yes man. Woman.
And gliding proved exactly why.
Although it sounds terrifying it is essentially as simple as hopping from one pocket of hot air to another with no need for man-made power of any kind.
Nobody knows that better than Claudia Hill, who will next year have been gliding for 20 years. The 40-year-old Didcot resident was one of just three Brits picked in November to compete for the UK in the biannual Women’s Worlds Gliding Championships in Issoudun, France, this summer.
Aptly nicknamed Cloudy by friends at Oxford Gliding Club based at RAF Weston-on-the-Green near Bicester, Claudia has spent more than 800 hours in the air. It was here that I met her on Sunday to see if I could be convinced.
She said: “Whenever I fly over the countryside, I feel so lucky that you can see all the views from above. Over Germany you can see pretty little villages or over France there are many little castles. What I love about flying in the UK is that you really don’t have to go very far to reach the sea. You can go east and reach The Wash, or west and see the Severn Bridge, or even south to the Isle of Wight.”
We stuck to Oxfordshire, and joined the county’s many red kites in flight after being launched 1,600 feet steeply into the air by a steel-wired winch from the other side of the airfield.
After the initial adrenaline rush, I was on the lookout for the Oxfordshire I knew, and could make out Bicester below, Oxford city itself amid still evident flooding, and Didcot’s power stations in the distance. And there was no engine noise drilling into your head to spoil the spectacle.
Flying with the kites made more sense than I initially realised. Gliders work in exactly the same way as they do – by following the hot air which pushes you up. To find the thermals of hot air, you look for the clouds which indicate hot air underneath, or follow the birds.
Claudia said: “There’s nothing more amazing than sharing a thermal with a red kite. Seagulls have saved me once too – when there were no clouds around I found a thermal by following them to get some more height.”
And it is dangerous? “No,” Claudia assured me. “I haven’t had any close misses and nobody has had any accidents at Oxford Gliding Club for more than 50 years. It is no more dangerous than riding a motorbike.”
There was a serious message to the day too, to encourage more women to try gliding. Only about seven per cent of glider pilots are women, although the Oxford club bucks the trend with about 10 out of 90 members.
“I have no idea why,” Claudia said. “It has nothing to do with physical strength. Fitness and concentration is important but not strength. ”
- Annual membership costs are £220 with £7 for a winch launch and 25 to 35p per minute flying time. So you can be airborne for £25 an hour, with discounts for juniors and students. Tuition is free. For more information, go to oxford-gliding-club.co.uk