A true story

The gliders tied down in a tidy row along the runway reflected the burning hot sun of the Arizona desert. All but one were sparkling, white fibreglass. The exception was orange and it was being attended by a man I assumed was the owner. I walked closer to have a better look. He could have been sixty; he could have been seventy; he could have been eighty. He was dressed in an ancient, worn but clearly well-maintained flying suit. He had close-cropped, salt and pepper hair, and his face was wrinkled and tanned from many years in the sun. He had not shaved for a couple of days.


The finish on this aluminium glider when new would have been gleaming but had faded to very dull: well beyond matte. Paint worn away from leading edges of the wings revealed yellow zinc-chromate primer beneath. The Perspex canopy was cloudy and crazed; the cowling over the instrument panel, originally black, was now grey and covered with tiny cracks. The aircraft was clearly well-maintained but also clearly well-used and had spent many years in the sun.


My father had been a long-distance lorry driver and he said you could look at the state of a driver and predict the condition of the rig – and vice-versa. The same was true here: there was an obvious consistency between the appearance of the aeroplane and the appearance of the pilot.

I walked closer: close enough to inspect the machine but a respectably far-enough-away so not to interfere with his ministrations.

‘This looks like one serious aeroplane,’ I said.

He paused then said, gently, quietly and matter-of-factly: ‘Oh I’ve had ‘er up to thirty-thousand feet.’

As a neophyte glider pilot, I was impressed with this information. Imagine: fourteen metre wingspan, made of sheets of aluminium held together with a few rivets, along with some cables, a little Perspex, a couple of instruments, a little fabric, and some other bits and bobs, in total weighing two hundred and fifteen kilograms. Thirty-thousand feet. Oh, yes, and a small tank of oxygen and a face mask.

In conversation with a young tug pilot later I commented on this brief conversation with the owner of this venerable flying machine.

His response was almost reverential: ‘He’s had it up to thirty-thousand feet lots of times.’