Thousands of feet below, the bustling city is going about its daily business. But up here all is serene. The only sound is the rush of air and the occasional comment from the glider pilot sitting behind me.
‘That’s Whale Island on the left and there’s the port, and to the right of that you can see Warrior and just make out Victory.’
I’m 4000 feet above Portsmouth and from here landmarks are tiny and have to be searched for – or pointed out by helpful instructor Tony World.
I get my bearings, somehow find a head for heights and settle back to enjoy the experience. And I decide gliding is the most peaceful, beautiful and smooth way to fly.
‘I think people become very closeted driving along the roads. It’s difficult from that viewpoint to really understand just what we have here,’ says Tony. ‘Obviously we have some very intense housing, but past that just to the north and it is just fields and trees, miles and miles of countryside. Up here you really start to appreciate that.’
The biggest benefit of gliding is catching stunning panoramic views in an atmosphere of tranquility.
Thanks to the absence of any kind of engine or motor, you can take in the sights in silence. And as the instructor sits in the back of the dual control glider and the canopy is glass, it can feel like you are alone and enjoying the same viewpoint as the birds.
As the glider soars and turns, catching the rising air currents to stay airborne, a glorious view stretches into the hazy distance.
Our island city, Hayling Island and Chichester Harbour are set out like a map and in the distance lies Selsey Bill. Surrounding the cities and towns are a huge stretch of green fields interrupted by the startling yellow patches of rape field.
Ships and other vessels make their way in out of the Portsmouth Harbour, the foam in their wakes creating white lines across the blue sea.
A little to the north Portsdown Hill is something of a surprise. From this viewpoint it looks flat. As we glide over, the hill forts are laid out like their original plans.
It’s a beautiful blue day but the heat is causing haze in the distance. Tony says that on clearer days he has seen Brighton to the east, the New Forest to the west and Basingstoke’s AA building in the north of Hampshire.
It’s a view to die for, but hopefully I won’t. Tony has 31 years of flying experience, we have been through the safety procedures and I’m harnessed up with a reassuring (or alarming, I can’t quite decide) parachute.
Hardly anyone has ever had to use one of these, I’ve been assured – but it has happened. Should the unthinkable occur I’m to jettison the canopy, roll out and pull the cord. Tony will only leave the aircraft when I’ve waved goodbye. Then we’ll both be parachuting – but that’s the subject of a whole other feature and not one I’m planning to cover.
The safety talk has taken place at the start of my flight with Portsmouth Naval Gliding Centre. The next step is to take off from Lee-on-Solent airfield with an aerotow (a tug aircraft towing us into the air).
As we hurtle along the runway, it’s tempting to let my nerves and natural fear of heights get the better of me but by this time there isn’t a lot I can do about it.
Once we’re up, it’s surprisingly smooth and easy to adjust to this new and wonderful viewpoint, if a little harder to understand how we’re staying airborne.
After the glider has been released by the tug aircraft, we begin descending by about 150 to 200 feet a minute. The force of gravity is pulling the plane towards the surface of the earth and just like a paper aeroplane the glider moves forwards as it descends.
In order to stay in the air, we must catch the thermals. The currents of hot air rising from the ground will keep us airborne for longer. If the air ascends at 150 feet a minute then the glider will not descend at all and if the air rises faster than this then the glider will actually climb.
Tony explains that by finding thermals, gliders can stay in the air for several hours. He has covered 350 miles in one flight and stayed airborne for more than five hours.
Tony explains why he loves taking to the skies. ‘I think it’s the fact that it’s man versus the elements, using my skill to basically find the best areas of lift to keep me airborne.’
There are plenty of other skills to utilise. Reading the weather is a must but the glider must also be controlled.
The glider pilot uses a control column which is connected to small moveable surfaces on the ends of the wings (ailerons) and the rear of the tailplane (the elevator).
Moving the column changes the angle of these surfaces and deflects the air flowing over them, which in turn moves the wings to roll the glider or changes the attitude of the glider so that the nose points up or down.
There are also foot controls for the rudder to prevent the glider from swerving.
Of course one of the most important lessons is landing safely. Another instrument is the airbrake lever, which is applied when landing.
This seems like the tricky bit but Tony assures me a glider pilot has plenty of control – enough in fact to ‘land on a handkerchief’.
It’s all very reassuring, until he comments: ‘You have to get it right though, in a glider you have one chance.’
But I shouldn’t have doubted a man with 31 years’ gliding experience – Tony lands perfectly.
And I’m left with an experience that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
Pilots praise the feeling of utter freedom as you fly around
‘It gives you a sense of freedom, it’s like the difference between power boating and sailing, you’re using the elements to get yourself around the country. You’re harnessing the natural environment to get somewhere.’
That’s how Andy Durston, chief flying instructor at Portsmouth Naval Gliding Centre, explains the appeal of his chosen hobby and sport.
Andy, a naval lieutenant who used to fly Harriers, is responsible in his spare time for the flying instruction at Portsmouth Naval Gliding Centre.
He has also flown in contests and won his class in the Interservices Gliding Competition in 2009.
Competition gliding disciplines include aerobatics, cross country and racing (or competition flying).
Glider pilots will also travel all over the world for new experiences, and to try areas that provide the most lift.
One of those is the Cairngorms in Scotland where, because of the way the air currents interact with the terrain, gliders can achieve heights similar to those experienced in modern airliners.
Tony World, 54, club manager at Portsmouth Naval Gliding Centre has climbed to 20,000 feet after being released at 3,000 and the highest he has ever reached is 27,000 feet. For these heights pilots need oxygen.
And he has travelled as far afield as South Africa for what is a lifestyle as much as a hobby.
FIRST-TIMER IS HOPING TO MAKE IT A CAREER
Lily Brettell’s ambition is to be a pilot and gliding lessons are giving the teenager her first experience of flying.
Controlling a glider is very different from flying a powered aircraft but Andy Durston, chief flying instructor at Portsmouth Naval Gliding Centre, says it can be a useful step towards a pilot’s licence.
‘It isn’t as complicated as power flying, but in some respects there is more to think about. It’s really back to basics but someone with a certain amount of gliding experience will get a private pilot’s licence in much less time.’
Lily is taking her first course of lessons as part of a training week at the Daedalus airfield with the Fleet Air Arm Officers’ Association. The organisation offers scholarships to young people for gliding training, which is being provided by Portsmouth Naval Gliding Centre.
Lily had been up in a glider before but had never taken the controls and didn’t know what to expect.
‘It wasn’t actually too bad, it’s fine once you get the hang of it,’ she says. ‘The hardest bit is to start with, on the aerotow, keeping the wings parallel and not going too far to the side.’
The centre, which primarily gives training to servicemen and women, also offers flights to organisations and individuals.
A single trial flight costs in the region of £70 and it is up to the individual how much they do during their first gliding experience. A lesson isn’t only for those who want to go on to powered aircraft or take up gliding as a hobby and most people operate the controls during their first lesson.
‘Some people just come for a flight but we always endeavour to give a lesson,’ says Andy.
For those who would like to go a bit further, an intensive course of lessons is a good idea. It typically costs about £450 for a trainee to learn how to fully operate the glider and fly it by themselves.
Those having lessons are required to take up temporary membership of the club and some people find themselves staying.
For further information on trial lessons, courses, the centre, directions, gliding and whether it’s for you, visit pngc.co.uk or book on 0845 600 8518.