A flight into family history

Personal histories sometimes intersect at unexpected points and places. Just as my uncle’s and mine did on Thursday at the airfield of Ljungbyhed, a former military drill ground in the South of Sweden.

More than half a century ago, my uncle did his military service here at the 5th flying corpse of the Swedish air force. He never set a foot in one of the planes, as he was part of the ground support staff. Yet, he still tells lively stories of those days – full of mischief, hard work, good deeds. And death.

In the 13 months he spent in Ljungbyhed, he buried more than one friend. Crashing and colliding above the fields surrounding the base. In my mind, Ljungbyhed thus emerged as a dark and gloomy place, just like the fragment of an old blurred recording of military planes launching into a grey war-torn sky. Certainly nothing like the peaceful little village, nestled into a landscape of soft hills and lush forests, that appeared before my windscreen on this sunny summer day.

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The houses, once part of an old monastery before becoming residential home, offices and storage space for the military, were now mostly abandoned. Thick grass covered former gangways and parking spots my uncle pointed out to me. Horses grazed on the field one of his comrades was killed in a flying accident. And heavy doors were tightly bolting off the shed my uncle once saw his first glider.

We drove past long lines of red tree houses, the former hospital, the church and the officers’ buildings, before we were closing in on the point that would become part of my personal history: the airfield. Now home to the flight training centre of Lund University – and a gliding club.

I had been told that I could simply drop in as the club was currently having its summer camp. As long as the weather was flyable, I would be able to get a lift into the sky. After some forth and back (and daunting minutes, in which it seemed I would have to leave flightless) someone was found. That someone – once airborne and circling in thermal winds – it turned out, had been part of the Swedish national team at this year’s gliding world championships in Benalla, Australia.

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(The self-launching glider in front is by the way not the DG 1000…)

His name was Kay and he was a big man. Currently in charge of feeding a bunch of hungry glider pilots at the end of each camp day (with warm-smoked salmon and home-made burgers with a 300 grams meat patty each), he had been kept on the ground for almost a week. So he was eager to climb back into the cockpit of his favorite glider, a DG 1000.

I had simply nodded and said “sounds good” as the flight manager had told me, which plane I would fly with – being an ignorant fool as so often, when it comes to soaring. The DG 1000, I quickly realized as I approached the glider, was a Porsche compared to my beloved ASK21. And soon Kay would demonstrate just how sporty – and fast! – she could be.

Once I was installed in the front, the glider was attached to a Robin DR 400, a French wooden sport monoplane. Our plan was to get towed up to 1000 meters and then to find some thermal winds. (Ljungbyhed’s gliding club just launches via air tows and I received some pitiful glances as I told them about my usual winch release heights of 300 meters.)

If the ASK21 was a riding school pony, the DG 1000 would be a top-notch dressage champion.

Kay flew the entire bumpy air tow through stirred air masses and then handed the controls over to me. The sky was dotted with puffy clouds and so the task was to find rising air masses underneath one of them. “Did you feel that we just lost much height here? That was probably the downwash before the rise.”

He was right. We hit a thermal, carrying us up 4 meters per second. I pulled the control stick to the left, while pushing the left pedal. The DG 1000 reacted instantly. She turned smoothly to the left and started to encircle the rising air. If the ASK21 was a riding school pony, needing some firmer rudder movements, the DG 1000 would be a top-notch dressage champion, listing to the smallest hints.

As we had gained further height and flown straight for a while without loosing much of it, Kay taught me how to “dolphinate”. He directed me towards a street of cumulus clouds. “Lower the gliders nose and accelerate, when we were loosing hight and lift her up, slowing her pace down as we are rising.” And so we flew wavelike along the military camp underneath us towards the Baltic Sea, which appeared on the horizon.

He accelerated, until we darted towards the airfield with a speed of 250km/h, the index of the airspeed indicator lingering at the far end of the scale.

After some 40 minutes in the air, we were told via radio to slowly descend. Slowly was the bit Kay chose to over-hear. “I take the controls”, he informed me. The pushed the control stick forwards and the DG 1000 accelerated. And accelerated and accelerated, until we darted towards the airfield with a speed of 250km/h, the index of the airspeed indicator lingering at the far end of the scale. Then he steeply rose her towards the sky, turned sharply and landed on the grassy runway.

“I could not let it be, to fool around a bit.. You don’t look too pale!”, he said and gave me a pat on the shoulder. I deeply exhaled before filling my lungs with the fresh air. I was close to throwing up. Just let me sit for a minute more, I begged him. “I hope I did not scare you!” No, he had not scared me. On the contrary, it had been an amazing approach. Yet, my stomach had not quite been up to the task.

“When we said you should come down, we did not mean that fast!” One of the fellow pilots said as he walked towards us. “Yes, but she can go that fast!”, Kay replied. “She can, but she does not have to. You made the glider sound like a jet plane!” I suspect that Kay took that as a compliment – and I took it was a legitimate reason to sit in the DG 1000 for a couple of more minutes, while regaining color and strength.

Even sitting behind the wheel 15 minutes later, I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my body, making my hands and knees shake. But once I had inhaled my lunch and topped it with an ice-cream, I would have been up for the next dive with Kay.

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(My uncle and me.)

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