June 2003 

by Cliff Robertson, Water Mill, New York


I have a passion for pure flight. That’s why I’ve flown gliders for the last 20 years. Up ten thousand feet in a blue sky and floating on a pillowy wind, I can soar as an eagle. I am at peace and away from the concerns of the world. It’s my Walden Pond, and in the silence I feel even closer to God.


Not long ago, looking for a break from my filming schedule, I took a few days off. With my glider buddy Bob, I traveled to the high desert town of Tonopah, Nevada, where there was a weeklong gathering of flyers like us, a kind of soarers’ regatta.


There was a long-distance gliding record I had been eyeing. No one in my class of glider had ever made it from Tonopah, in the middle of state, to Parowan, Utah, about two hundred and forty miles east. Bob and I spent a morning gathering supplies—thermoses of water, a short-wave radio, barograph recorder and a reflector to signal search planes in the unlikely event we went down. I drew up a flight plan, and then the two of us climbed into my Grob Astir two-seater, I in front, Bob in back. Parowan, here we come. We were going to get that record.


Unlike an engine driven plane, most gliders can’t take off on their own. The most primitive way to get airborne is to do as the Wright brothers did: attach a rope to the plane, and have someone pull it, like a kite, off the crest of a hill. We opted for a more contemporary method: We hired a tow plane. The pilot tethered our aircraft to his with a towline and pulled us aloft. At three thousand feet, I released the towline. We were off.


To stay aloft, a glider pilot needs to find thermals, rising columns of warm air that can lift the plane thousands of feet. You spiral up a thermal and then sail for miles until you find the next one. If you can’t find one, you’d better find a grassy spot to land.


I scanned the sky. Cumulus clouds with concave bottoms are good indicators of where a thermal might be. So is an isolated hill that can act as a ski jump, catching the wind and shooting it up to the sky. Have you ever seen an eagle circling high in the air? He’s probably found a good thermal to help him. The desert is ideal for thermals. We swooped above a moonscape of boulders, sand, cactus and gnarled trees. Our first four thermals carried us up to eight thousand feet. We rode on them for miles, until we found more.


We hopscotched across the desert all afternoon. The glider’s carbon-fiber body, painted creamy white, reflected the bright sun like a diamond. The words of Scripture came to me: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” It seemed that was just what we were doing. Five hours along, we were on a record pace and had covered two hundred miles. “Looks like we’ll break the mark,” I said to Bob.


In the early evening, though, as the sun dropped in the sky behind us, thermals became harder to find. We detoured off our route, hoping to find something to stop our loss of altitude. I searched the horizon for cumulus clouds, hills, even a stray hawk or eagle. Nothing. I eyed the altimeter. Two thousand feet . . . fifteen hundred feet . . . one thousand feet . . . seven hundred feet. I scanned the ground, desperately looking for a place to set down. There was nothing but rough desert littered with cacti and boulders.

“Bob,” I said, urgently, “do you see any place to land?”


A long silence, then: “Cliff . . . there ain’t no place to land.”

In seconds we’d hit the ground. I could imagine the glider’s thin, lightweight body being ripped to shreds by the desert floor.


Sweat beaded on my brow. Five hundred feet and dropping fast...


All at once the thought came to me: Why was I here in the first place? To clear my head. To hear God. Now, in the stillness of the glider, I listened. Look to your left. I turned and spotted a small hill, perhaps three hundred feet high, crowned by a large, flat red rock. There was no cloud above it and it didn’t seem high or wide enough to collect sufficient heat to produce a thermal. Still, an inner voice told me to head for it. I kicked the left pedal. My stomach churning, we continued to drop. I had to keep the plane high enough to clear the rock.


“What are you doing?” Bob shouted.

“Hold on,” I said.


I braced myself. We skimmed above the rock. Suddenly, I sensed a slight lift. It was thermal. Just a small one, so setting my jaw, I worked the controls with determination. The altimeter began creeping higher . . . five hundred fifty feet . . . seven hundred feet. Amazing that this patch of rock atop such a small hill could generate such a surge. The altimeter kept rising . . . a thousand feet . . . fifteen hundred feet . . . higher and higher we rose until we reached ten thousand feet. "Thank you, Father," I said, letting go a sigh.


They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.They shall rise up with wings as eagles...


An hour later we landed at the tiny Parowan airport. As we clambered out of the cockpit, other pilots rushed up. “Congratulations!” one shouted. “You guys did it!” We had, too. Two hundred and forty miles. A record.


Yet what I really remember about that flight isn’t the distance; it’s when it seemed our energy was spent and we ran out of options. For it was in that moment, that God gave us our second [thermal] wind and  we soared to new heights and went the distance.


Cliff Robertson


Have a great day!


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With Wings As Eagles

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