Sunday, 18 September 2016


From time to time, spinning along in a car down some highway or other, I have noticed gliders in the sky. Sometimes they are being hauled upwards by small planes to which they are attached like water-skiers behind speed boats. Sometimes they are untethered, simply doing what their name implies.

I've never met anyone who has been in a glider. At least, I've never consciously met anyone who has. I suppose someone I've talked to may have been up in one and I simply did not ask the right question. On the other hand, I rather think that anyone who is keen on gliding would talk about it without any prompting. It is an activity that looks as if it requires such a lot of effort to get involved in that only those who are preoccupied with little else take part.

I wonder what makes someone decide to launch themselves in a capsule by themselves high above the earth? A difficult home life, possibly, except that there are easier solutions to that conundrum. There is a story I love by a Soviet writer called Vasili Aksyonov in which a character falls in love with flying in aeroplanes. At one point he quotes a child's song that goes like this: "Pilots sit in the sky as their aeroplanes fly and look down on the earth from on high". Perhaps that is the sensation people who get into gliders are looking for. That story, however, is about someone who loves machinery, engines, the new technology, (of the beloved Communist state, if you choose to read that implication, which I don't, as I think Aksyonov was far from being a propagandist) and I doubt that is part of the attraction of gliding, (the Aksyonov story is called Halfway to the Moon, by the way, and you can read an English translation of it here).

In fact, I think I read somewhere that a great delight of gliding is the peacefulness of the experience - which is a result of the craft having no engine at all and being extremely low tech and consequently making no sound. Personally I doubt I would find the peace and quiet that results delightful. My problem would be an overwhelming fear that the lack of sound was the result of the lack of an engine and the lack of an engine implied the lack of any means of defying the forces of gravity.

Although clearly gliders do not drop straight out of the sky, otherwise the glimpses one gets of them from motorways would be extremely brief and equally horrifying, rather than simply puzzlimg. Presumably the little planes are made of balsa wood or something of similarly limited weight. And yet they must be quite sturdy, as surely balsa wood would disintegrate on impact with the ground at the point of landing.

Or maybe it would unless it was glided (glid?) skilfully. Perhaps that is the pleasure of the activity - the delight in doing something well. But that raises the question of how, at least in the past, before the advent of machines that mimic reality, one learned to glide well. Perhaps it was simply a Darwinian survival of the fittest thing.

One reason I've always been intrigued by gliders is that as a child I read a story that until now I thought was about gliding. Looking at it again all these years later, I see that it isn't at all; it's about a monoplane, which I must have confused with a glider. All the same, I still rather like it. It's called The Horror of the Heights and it's by Arthur Conan-Doyle. It has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes but possibly hints at Conan-Doyle's preoccupation with spiritualism. I recommend it as a curiosity. You can read it here.


  1. Aksyonov was so far from being a propagandist for the Soviet state, that the state thought itself better without him. He lived many years in Washington, DC, though he returned to Russia some years before he died. A look at his novel The Burn should make his opinions clear. He was the son of Evgenia Ginzburg, who wrote Into the Whirlwind about her imprisonment during the great purges of the 1930s.

    I don't know that I've known anyone who flew regular gliders. A young man on our block in the Denver suburbs flew hang gliders. I would not have known this except that one day something went wrong and he crashed, breaking some ribs and I think rupturing his diaphragm. It was quite a while before he walked any way but hunched over. He went on to become an airline pilot, as his father had, and may well be retired now.

    1. Ha, no, you are right about Aksyonov, I just didn't think it was the moment to get into his full story. Many years ago I did a degree in Russian language and literature, and he was included in a part of it devoted to the Soviet short story. I have a cousin who injured himself equally badly as your neighbour appears to have done, indulging in the same sport. I haven't heard of actual glider accidents, but gliders seem not make the news very often, which adds to their mystery for me.