Cable break

The thought of learning to fly did not leave me for weeks. Once my stomach had recovered and forgiven me my dizzying first glider flight, my eyes wishfully returned to the sky. I did not want to give up this easily. I did not want to feel defeated, despite my only opponent being myself, my fear and my proneness towards motion sickness.

But most of all, flying had become the only link to those days I spent in April. It seemed, if only I continued, I would give that brief episode some sort of value. So I returned to the airfield. In my hands I was carrying the membership form for a three-month trial period. That, I hoped, would give me enough time to find out, if I had what it takes. Or enough time to let go.


I let my eyes wander over her features as she lay there, tilted with her left wing resting on the ground, while the right loomed towards the blue sky.


I found myself admits what would become the weekend companionship for a good part of my summer weekends: moody teenagers and ill-tempered pensioners, my closest in age ten years younger or older, not a woman in sight. And even before the briefing had started, I knew, this was going to be fun…

The sailplane instructor of the day read the weather report, counted his protégés, negotiated on which end of the runway the winch would be placed (9 – taking off against today’s breeze towards the East) and delegated tasks. Another newbie and I were to check our sailplane – under the briefing and watchful eyes of our instructor.

We rolled the ASK-21, the two-seater I remembered so well from my first flight, out of the hangar and were eager to begin our check. “Come back here”, the instructor called. “Take a look at the plane.” I let my eyes wander over her features as she lay there, tilted with her left wing resting on the ground, while the right loomed towards the blue sky. She resembled a dragonfly with her slender long hull and the wide wingspan stretching far to each side. “Are all her features symmetrical?” Yes, perfectly. “This is the first thing you need to check. A rough landing can distort the tail and rudders.”


Now that my turn was approaching I felt my confidence sinking, slipping through the ground and vanishing below the fresh green grass.


We checked her for loose parts in the front and back part of the cockpit, we tested the rudders, control-stick and foot pedals, the dive breaks, the radio and battery, the tire just below her pointy nose and the one at her centre. She was in good shape – attested by our instructor. So we fetched the parachutes and rolled her to the runway. It was time to get her up in the air.

The pre-check had calmed me down. Yet, now that my turn was approaching I felt my confidence sinking, slipping through the ground and vanishing below the fresh green grass. My predecessor reached me the parachute, which I strapped tightly around my thighs and chest. Then I climbed into the cockpit in the front.

Step for step my instructor guided me through the check-list, which was stuck to the instrument panel: was the parachute secured, the seatbelt fastened, could I reach all control devices, did the rudders move smoothly, were the dive breaks retracted and secured, was the radio on and set to the right channel, was the canopy securely closed, was the air space free for launching? And finally: Was the procedure for a cable break known? “No need for you to worry about that at this stage.” I just had to feel the movements of the control stick and pedals as my instructor launched, turned and landed the plane.


I heard a loud clicking noise just underneath me.


He gave a sign to one of the students, who attached us to the cable, while another one called the winch, which was facing us at the far end of the runway. The cable was retracted. At first slowly, straightening the bends and open loops. And then I felt the pull. The plane began to roll. A student holding our left wing run along side for a couple of steps, until our speed increased. We darted forward and within a split second upward. Airborne. Again.

And again. And again. Each student was to fly three times before the next took over. So I climbed into the cockpit for a third time, went through the checklist, saw my fellow student run, felt the sailplane lift, carrying us off the ground. Higher and higher into the sky opening up above my head. Then I heard a loud clicking noise just underneath me.

I held on to the control stick. Upward. We need to continue upward, was my only thought. “Push and release!” My instructor called from the back. “PUSH!” Why would I push? Point the plane’s nose to the ground, loose altitude and rush towards the unwelcoming ground? “We’ve had a cable break.”


I knew I was lucky to have been in the plane and not to have witnessed my first cable break from the ground.


My instructor safely returned the plane and us to the ground. “Push, release, think.” That is what I had to keep in mind, when the cable broke (or in future as an instructor would simulate a cable break). Push to take up speed and to enable the plane to glide once she forcefully was abandoned by the cable that was supposed to carry her to safer heights. Release to throw of any access cable parts that might still be attached to us – putting us and people on the ground at a risk. And think: how high am I, where does the wind come from, should I go straight and land in the field or do I manage a shortened round around the airfield?

By the looks my fellow students gave me, I knew I was lucky to have been in the plane and not to have witnessed my first cable break from the ground. Now I was aware of what it felt like and that it was manageable – that is, if I got my instinct to push instead of to pull the control stick…

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