"The soaring pilot makes an aerial excursion, not an incursion. His passage leaves a whisper, not a shriek. "
Down an unassuming lane between Brentor and Mary Tavy, a small, hand-painted sign points the way to a clearing and some surprisingly well hidden buildings. It’s only when you get a little closer that you realise these relatively industrial looking structures doesn’t belong to any of the number of farms that surround the area. It’s early morning on a sunny Saturday, and members of the local Gliding Society are putting plans in place for a day of soaring above the Dartmoor countryside.
Drifting, soaring, spiralling, rising - the poetic resonance of gliding vocabulary suggests a calmer, gentler approach to getting a different perspective on the world around you. It’s a sport that has inspired for generations, the famous Cornish artist Peter Lanyon’s famous series of gliding paintings taken from images above the west Cornish coast showcase a creativity and spirit that often eludes powered flight. A love of gliding had a huge impact on Lanyon’s work, and his desire to ‘experience the landscape as fully as possible.’
Gliding is creative in its approach to the club mentality, too. ‘It’s a team sport, you’re here all day and you’re multitasking. ‘On an average day it takes 6 or 7 people to launch a glider, so it’s a different commitment to flying a powered aircraft,’ says Mike Sloggett, a visiting instructor from nearby North Hill airfield. It’s easy to see what Mike means while meeting people at the club, too. Homemade lunches were packed, thermos flasks and bottles of water at the ready. It was clear for many this is just as much a day out as it is a chance to fly, and there’s a suggestion that this is the only way the club works as well as it does. A camaraderie and togetherness is obvious.
Indeed, a welcome as a visitor to a gliding club is quite unique, and it wasn’t long before, cup of tea in hand, I was invited to get involved. All working together, gliders are brought to the launch site in custom-made trailers and assembled in-situ. This usually means bolting the wings on and checking all elements are safe and ready for flight. It’s jovial and the atmosphere is breezy and friendly, but not without an air of professionalism and safety. Gliding is accessible and a relative inexpensive way to experience aviation, but it also attracts its fair share of pilots from other walks of life that use it as a way to unwind. Safety and diligence is built into their way of life. It’s both impressive and reassuring.
Early in the morning, I had an opportunity to accompany Steve, the gliding society’s treasurer, on the first flight of the day. Apprehension of trying a new form of flying for me was easily circumvented by the natural ease Steve talked about his sport, ‘you’ll be pleased to know I’ve done quite a few of these,’ he claims cheerily, ‘I think last year I racked up about 200 launches.’ The cries of ‘all out,’ suggested that the winch had tightened and we were ready for the off, and rapid acceleration twinned with an impressive rate of climb opened up the majestic Dartmoor countryside below us. As the nose drops and the winch is released and is parachuted back to earth, a quiet and a stillness descends. Searching about for rising air, it feels like an complex form of dancing, twisting in and out of currents and always looking for the next bit of lift. It was a calm, benign summer morning, and the sense of calm and peace was tangible. ‘It’s the closest thing to being a bird,’ Mike tells me later, ‘you have an unassailability, nobody can touch you.’ From my brief experience, that’s exactly how it felt.
The way that the club’s members talk about their gliding experience is refreshing and honest. Tales of bravado or extreme flying is kept to a minimum, and there’s a humble attitude to the sport that puts the natural environment, pilot’s inherent empathy for their gliders and an appreciation of the world around them at the forefront of the activity here. A visiting pilot from Kent commented on just that - ‘can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be flying around here.’ ‘Just look at where we are!’ Even in the complex world of recreational aviation, the grandeur of Dartmoor National Park reigns supreme.
That’s not to say that gliding doesn’t require a huge amount of technique and skill, and it’s inspiring to watch the pilots go about their day at the club with professionalism and adept handling of these beautiful fibreglass contraptions. The sense of enjoyment is something that is catching, and at the end of the day, it’s hard to accept it has all come to an end. Talking to club member Stephen Fletcher, who owns his own glider here, he says that he enjoys the fact that the Dartmoor Gliding Club is friendly, approachable and a little club where everyone know everyone. ‘I like this feeling,’ he says after being asked to describe how he felt after his first trial flight.’ The smile on his face and nods of approval from other club members give me no reason to suggest he’s telling anything but the truth.