Recently I was asked a strange question by a young nephew. He is about 10 years old and, according to his parents, overly energetic. They said a teacher in his school had given him a whack one day. I said he probably deserved it, whereupon he angrily asked his question: have you ever been slapped by a stranger, that too in front of others? If so when was the last time?
I thought back and realised I had been whacked only twice. Once was when I was caned by the headmaster for laughing during the morning prayers. I was 13 at the time. The second time was in 1978 when I was 27 years old — and about 1,000 feet up in the air.
It happened like this. My girlfriend had dumped me a couple of months earlier. As a result weekends which I used to look forward to had become a terrible burden. In the 1970s there was absolutely nothing to do except mope and drink. Moping was free but drink cost money, of which I didn’t have enough.
A very close friend of mine who was a pilot got worried and suggested I become a member of the gliding club to learn the basics of flying. “It takes so long to get your turn that the weekends will go by quickly,” he said. “Also, it is very cheap and you can easily afford it.” So that’s what I did by filling a simple form that asked only for my name, address and hundred rupees as membership fees.
Suddenly the glider’s nose was pointing down, and from the front seat I saw the ground rushing up at me. I almost passed out with fear when the thing quietly righted itself, and we were floating gently down to land.
The first two weekends were spent on ground instruction which consisted of how to tell wind direction — you just looked at the wind sock — and how the controls worked. The rest was doing coolie work of pulling the gliders out from the hangar, wiping them, and helping to attach them to the winch that pulled them up into the air. I must say I enjoyed it all very much.
My turn for my first flight came on the third weekend. The instructor was a tough, no-nonsense man. He asked me to get in on the front seat and he took the back seat. The glider had an open cockpit and dual controls. He showed me the speed meter and the altitude meter and finally gave the sign to the winch man to pull us up. And off we went, up into the cold December air. Believe me there’s nothing to beat that soft hiss of air rushing past, no other sound and everything below you, floating by silently. The only other sound was the occasional sound of a car horn. It was blissful — till the third flight.
As soon as we had got up to 800 feet, the instructor asked me what would happen if I pulled the stick back. I should have said the nose will go up but I said we will climb. OK, said the instructor, let’s climb. I pulled the stick back, the nose went up — and after a few seconds, we started falling towards the ground like a stone. I was frightened out of my wits but worse was to come. Suddenly the glider’s nose was pointing down, and from the front seat I saw the ground rushing up at me. I almost passed out with fear when the thing quietly righted itself, and we were floating gently down to land. It was then that I got the stinging slap, wham! “That,” said the instructor, “will help you remember that a glider has no engines and if you pull the nose up, it will stall.”
I told my nephew the story and told him that he too would stall if he didn’t remember to do well in tests.