“I’m sure the way to enjoy life is to live in obscurity with frequent escapades” –Freya Stark, late 19th Century explorer
Cochise County: May 12, 2012
I arrived at the airport near my mom’s house with Tony the Amazing Tour Guide and Charles, another person who wanted to fly that day. I was a little nervous. I’ve been in many small planes and I love flying in general, but I’d never been in a glider before. I’d never flown in the air without benefit of the almighty engine.
The Sierra Vista airport in Cochise County is the most versatile airport in the country, my sources say. It is utilized by military, civilians, border patrol, and fire fighters.
The airport was quiet this Saturday, and we quickly found John, one of the pilots and partners in Southern Arizona Flight Services. His partner, George, was bringing the plane around.
John and George’s motorized glider sits on the tarmac at Libby Field–“Libby” to those who know it on a first name basis.
Despite the monsoon-like storm a couple days earlier, the May day was already hot. It was a little after noon as Charles prepared for his flght.
Charles, left, gets the 411 on the glider ride from George and John (right).
When Tony told me that George had been flying for 50 years, and John for 40, I had to admit the word geriatric came to mind. I was quickly humbled. Whatever ages these gentlemen are, it is the new 50.
George was a pilot in the army before he retired and started Southern Arizona Flight Services about fifteen years ago. Here, he quickly pulls the hatch down and starts the engine.
When Tony first told me about the glider ride, I pictured a hang glider and immediately thought: My mom will freak out! Many people first conceptualize a hang glider, Tony and John both told me. John reminded me that the typical glider is towed by a small engine aircraft, then released in mid air for the float down. But Libby won’t allow operation of that kind of glider, so they went with this Austrian motorized machine. The pilot (George today) will cut the engine at about 12,000 feet.
Charles (left) and George ready for the taxi out.
This baby is all wing.
Charles and George were gone from our landscape in a moment, audible only through the occasional radio transmissions that came through John’s walkie talkie while we waited and chatted about Southern Arizona Flight Services. In addition to helping out the military by shadowing its UAVs, the two entrepreneurs run a burial operation called Final Flight, complete with a CDU (Cremains Dispersal Unit) that George designed and the FAA approved. John, unlike George, came from a civilian background; he was a commercial pilot for decades before retiring. He’s also Coast Guard certified and in his spare time, if he’s not SCUBA diving, is a tennis umpire for the the professional circuit. (He’s officiated over John McEnroe’s games.) When I asked John why he and George chose to invest in the motorized glider when it’s a small, fiscally insignificant portion of their business, he replied without blinking. “For the love of it,” he said. “To share with people the joy of silent flight.”
Charles landed safely and I took his seat, remembering the thrill of being in a small plane, and thinking, as I inevitably do in such situations, about perceived risk.
George’s wings reminded me of my father’s. It’s fascinating to find put your life in the hands of a complete stranger.
I got the feeling that George could fly all day every day and still have this smile on his face.
George started the engine and the propeller quickly became a blurry circle directly ahead. It was noisy, hot, bumpy, and exciting.
leaving the tarmac for the hazy desert sky
We flew over the outskirts of Fort Huachuca and the town of Sierra Vista.
We traveled toward the Mexican border and the Huachuca Mountains.
9,500 feet and climbing
We almost have the altitude we need as we approach the Huachucas.
The bits of verdant green on these high desert mountains were encouraged by the early monsoon three days before.
Bird’s eye view: The Huachucas
The desert as it wanders into Mexico
We climbed and climbed, glimpsed the border and the Coronado National Monument as we peeked over the Huachucas. I watched the altimeter complete circle after circle with its two hands–like a clock gone mad. I wondered how it would feel in my body when George cut the engine.
12,500 feet. it’s time.
George pulls down on the throttle. The engine stops, but the sound of the wind is almost as strong. The propeller freezes and I stare at it whimsically through the windshield. It’s a strange, exhilarating feeling.
There we were, hovering over the mountains I love, a tiny plane with two people, riding the wind.
The propeller rests as we begin our very gradual descent over the Huachucas.
The closer we nestled into the land, the more I felt that impatient feeling I remember from my childhood. I did not want this to end. I wanted to hover above those mountains and never come out.
Before I knew it, we could see Sierra Vista and the tarmac. George spoke to John over the radio: a bunch of numbers and of course “Libby”.
We glide in for the landing.
John and Tony watch us taxi in. Another glider ride; another enthusiastic passenger.
Although my glider flight lasted about an hour, the afterglow lingered for days. It is a privilege to see our world from a different perspective. A few years ago my friend Holger took Mr. Lightcap and me up in his Cessna. It was mid winter and we asked him to fly us over our house and then up into the high country we love so much. We saw Lake Faucherie snowed over, Jackson’s Meadow a luxurious white canvas, sleeping deeply. Then, here in Abbey Country, I went inside the hills that protect Kartchner Caverns, and said as I still often do, that I will never look at a hill or mountainside the same way again. “It pleases me, loving rivers,” Raymond Carver said, but it is the mountain that is my greatest lover, and seeing one from the sky or from the inside out is beyond breathtaking for me. The morning after my glider ride I enjoyed my usual sunrise walk, complete with a view of the Huachuca Mountains. As I gazed up at them I felt a deeper kinship, a kinship that came from riding the wind.
The Huachuca Mountains on my sunrise walk.