formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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September 15, 2015 Riding the Thermals

The Liberty Gazette
September 15, 2015
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Turning the motor-less plane slowly we searched the rugged desert terrain below, looking for something sometimes difficult to detect by human eye alone. An instrument on the panel helps indicate when we’ve found it – air rising from a sun-baked spot on the ground. We call it a thermal. As we enter this column of air our gradual descent now is transformed to a climb.

Strong thermals are easier to spot as they tend to vacuum up dust, dirt and debris and send it up into the air. During late spring through fall in the southwestern United States these dust devils can extend skyward several hundred feet looking like dust tornadoes. They are signposts for gliders saying, "Here is lift, come and get it." But sometimes they are almost imperceptible and the pilot relies on experience and training to find suitable locations for thermals that will generate enough lift to stay aloft.

On this day nearly twenty years ago I was in the front seat and Jason Stephens, my instructor, rode in the rear seat. Flying professionally, pilots will often seek new challenges in the form of different types of flying to hone their skills and keep fresh perspectives. Soaring in gliders is one way of increasing awareness of energy management and developing a keener sense of meteorology, which we use in our everyday work life. And, it is just plain fun.

We entered a shallow turn, keeping our sailplane as much in the middle of this thermal as possible. We are always on the lookout for other gliders because the lift one discovers may be all there is for miles around and if it is strong, everybody wants some. This day, there were not that many other gliders riding the air waves there in Maricopa, Arizona, but that did not mean we wouldn’t have company. Ours came in the form of a red-tailed hawk that decided not only to share our lift but liked the shady spot it found under our much larger and longer wing. Normally, I find myself dodging birds, not flying formation with them.

A magnificent hawk, with broad round wings and short, wide tail, flying alongside us, not ten feet away. As I banked in for a turn to keep circling in the updraft, the hawk’s wings deflected and changed shape, the feathers around it’s trailing claws fluttering in the air disturbed by our passing through it. The awesome bird stayed almost precisely the same distance from our wing at all times. I wish Go-Pro cameras existed then, but the vivid image is burned into my memory.

After a few minutes of this Jason suggested that we gently turn away from the thermal, warning, "It would be bad karma to hit a hawk." So as carefully as possible I raised the wing away from the magnificent bird and for a moment it followed, then broke in the other direction back toward the lift to resume its post over the wide, open terrain.

No words were uttered as we returned to the airport. The sound of air swirling about the canopy and fuselage afforded us space, insulation from human noise, as we marveled in reverent awe having soared in formation with this mighty bird of prey, as though it had welcomed us as comrades.

I picked my touchdown spot and placed the single tire right on it, making one of my best landings in a glider to date.

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