Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pedal and Coast

Tyrone Flyer, Ulster Gliding Centre
A friend of a friend flies gliders at the Ulster Gliding Centre down the road. I was encouraged to visit. "He used to race bikes. He restores old planes. The place is amazing, you'll love it."

Terrified of flying and armed with only the vaguest notion of what gliders actually are, I nonetheless head over there one evening. The phrase "restores old [fill in the blank]" proves to be excellent bait. In honor of the occasion, I ride a 1938 Tyrone Flyer, handmade in Northern Ireland.

Ulster Gliding Centre
Astride the 75-year old machine, I race down the winding coastal road, at length turning onto a narrow lane toward the Lough Foyle. I ride past pastures, chicken coups, a thatched cottage, and a field of parked caravans, until finally a meadow comes into view - spread out along the water's edge and littered with small aircraft. From a distance the scene resembles a vegetable patch.

Bike and Glide
By the hangar, Owen waves me through, bike and all. We exchange greetings and straight away his eyes are on the bike.

Owen
Owen used to race 100 mile time trials. He was good, right up there at the top. Then he stopped. But I can see the cycling has not left him. If he sees a bike, he can't not look at the bike. Then it's my turn to look at the planes.

Hangar, Ulster Gliding Centre
A hangar is basically a garage for aircraft. This one is dome-shaped. The interior is well illuminated. There are little planes everywhere and I wander through them as if through a forest, stepping over tails and wings as if they were felled tree branches. Some planes are colourful and others are white, some fairly new and others quite old. Owen restores the old ones.

Small Vintage Plane, Ulster Gliding Centre
I ask about the materials, the paint, the provenance. Most of the machines are British or German, WWII era. We talk about plastics, and how they've changed over the years (a topic I'm familiar with from my fountain pen collecting days). Then he shows me the cloth used for wings - stretched so tautly and painted over so smoothly, I would never have guessed it was cloth. 

Gliders!
The planes are so light and small, they seem toy-like. "I could take you up in one of these if you like?" I shake my head in horror, which I quickly try to disguise as a polite "I wouldn't want to impose."

Ulster Gliding Centre
So what exactly is a glider? Put simply, it is a small airplane without an engine. A non-motorised plane. Visually, gliders can be distinguished by their lack of propellers (although there are also motorised gliders, which do have propellers) and their unusually long wings. 

Tug Planes, Ulster Gliding Centre
Because a glider does not have an engine, it cannot take off under its own power and relies on a tow-plane to bring it up to the desired height, then release it. 

Ulster Gliding Centre
Once airborne, the glider uses streams of rising air (thermals) to prolong the flight, as the pilot steers it. In this manner, the glider can stay up in the air for hours and even travel cross-country. "Cross country without an engine?" I said, growing interested in the mechanics of the thing.

Ulster Gliding Centre
Long story short, I ended up in the glider. Owen - as most of the pilots there - has such a steady, reassuring manner about him, that the more we chatted the more it began to seem like a good idea - just a normal way to spend an afternoon. "There's no engine, so nothing can go wrong, you see. It's a bit like cycling really. Take your camera!" Yes, it would be like cycling. 

I was feeling pretty good as I approached the glider, until another pilot - Gary - handed me a parachute. "Here, put this on." I must have turned white and begun to inch my way backward (OMG why do I need a parachute??), because Gary sort of held me in place and swiftly began to put the parachute on for me, cheerfully instructing me on its usage while gently nudging me into the glider. "There. It's like getting into the bathtub." 

In fact, the thing is sort of canoe-shaped. The pilot/instructor sits behind the student/ passenger. There are duplicate controls. There is very little room, and once the top is down, you feel sealed off from the rest of the world. Once I was in it, my attitude was - If you're gonna do it, do it. Otherwise don't do it. No point being scared now.

Gary, Ulster Gliding Centre
As Owen began to rattle off a series of mysterious control-check messages into the radio, Gary grabbed the rope attached to the glider's nose and connected it to the tow-plane.  

Being Towed in a Glider
This is what it looks like to be towed along the grass runway. We are taking off toward Lough Foyle. 

Glider Being Tugged, Ulster Gliding Centre
Here is the rope.

Being Towed in a Glider
The take-off is quick and painless. Before I know it, we are being towed through the air.

Glider and Tug Plane, Ulster Gliding Centre
View from the ground.

Glider (I am in It), Ulster Gliding Centre
Finally, the rope is released. The tow-plane returns to the ground and the glider - well, it glides. I am in a small plane. Everything is completely silent. We are floating, coasting really. I am feeling fine. Calm, downright serene.

River Roe and Lough Foyle, Glider View
The landscape spreads out beneath. Familiar places from an unfamiliar vantage point. In that sense, it really is a bit like cycling. In an abstract sort of way.

Binevenagh, Glider View
We fly along the coast, then turn inland and head to Binevenagh Mountain. Owen explains how to work the controls to make the plane bank, turning it around. It makes sense and I give it a try. The plane turns. And there is Binevenagh, half submerged in shadow from a low cloud, half illuminated by intense sunshine. It looks quite tame from here, flattened out against the landscape. My heroic climbs and descents hardly seem like an accomplishment now.

On the very top of Binevenagh is a mysterious lake. It is up a rough gravel road and I've only made it up there once so far. The lake is eerie, prone to mists and unusual growths around its edges. When you're standing next to it, it looks as if it is about to pour off of the edge of the mountain.

Binevenagh Lake, Glider View
But what you don't see from the ground, is that the lake is distinctly heart-shaped. It is also nowhere near the edge of the mountain when viewed from an aerial perspective.

Glider, Observation Window
My camera is with me in the glider. There is a small window that slides open to stick the lens through. I've no experience composing aerial photos, and my 50mm lens is all wrong for the task. Even as I take them, I know that my pictures will look generic, uninteresting. But they are mine and I take them with the same genuine enthusiasm as anyone would.

Magilligan Point, Glider View
The sun fades gently in the silence. Over Magilligan Point, we see another glider in the distance and wave to them. Everything is beautiful. "You all right?" Owen asks. Yes! This is wonderful. "Want to try a Chandelle?" he says. "Oh. What's that?" It's a maneuver. A bit of fun. Not quite aerobatics, but almost. "All right!"

The glider does something that is part spin, part freefall and part loop. I see clouds. I am not sure which way is up. I feel pressure in my temples and my vision starts to go dark. A split second later, I am drenched in a cold sweat and hit with a wave of nausea. I sit very still and take deep breaths. "How was that?" Owen asks from the back seat. "Mmm hhmm hhmm!" I reply, mouth closed, worried I will puke all over the nice glider if I try to form sentences. Point taken. No more aerobatics. As the sun sets, we descend.

"Like Getting Out of a Bathtub," Ulster Gliding Centre
On the ground, I am soaking wet - hair, clothes, everything. Weird, the physical reactions we have. I don't remember feeling scared, but my body must have decided otherwise. We have a laugh about it. Then we steer the plane down the grass runway toward its next tow.

Ulster Gliding Centre
Is gliding anything like cycling? Hmm, I don't know. Maybe the feeling of landing is similar to that of a long descent. The view can be similar too. But on a bicycle everything feels open, whereas in a glider you are closed in, closed off - a bit claustrophobic for me. Not that I don't want to do it again. But perhaps no Chandelles just yet. It could be a useful skill, knowing how to fly light aircraft. 

Tyrone Flyer, Ulster Gliding Centre
Some day. But for now I get back on the Tyrone Flyer. I pedal uphill, coast downhill. That is more my style of gliding. 

45 comments:

  1. I know a scared face when I see one and that is a scared face!

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  2. This is great, that grass runway awesome. Much rather be up in one of these vs. an Asiana flight.

    How're you going to make arty shots from a plane? These pictures tell the story well.

    What's the front end of that bike like ridden over rough patches? Steering?

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    1. Forget arty, it's hard to even angle the camera in a way that points in the right direction/ at the angle you want, without a wing or something covering the shot. Takes some time to get the hang of.

      Front end of this bike is mind-blowing. Can't feel a thing, including gravel, yet it's fast - and not roadsterish, with like that stately/ delayed steering feeling that roadsters have. Could be simply because the stem is longer, the bars are lower and the TT is shorter, I don't know, but this thing is amazing. Fairly lightweight too. Early-ish grass racer.

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    2. All that puts more weight on the front, less disassociated.

      Recently changed the geo of the long tail to kick out the front. Absorbs sidewalk seams so much better, tracks well.

      The Electra Ticino has a similar thing going on, very nice action.

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    3. The Electra Ticino, isn't that the bike Bicycle Quarterly used as an examplar of early 20th century racebike geometry and behavior in an article a few years ago?

      I would sorta like to spend a day on something like that on some of our gravel roads to see if my impression of early racers is close to reality. It seems like if there was an environment where those bikes worked well once than they might still. The article made it sound like a useful bike for some types of riding, especially if you wanted to indulge in some epic Alfredo Binda fantasy rides... Fixed single speed, spare tires around your shoulders, filthy woolen kit and aviator goggles. Maybe a flask of absinthe in your pocket for when you end up in a ditch with a lung hanging out and just want to end it all.

      Spindizzy

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    4. I just learned to cycle no hands. I noticed the handlebar on my Brompton M-type vibrates a lot if the tyre pressure is high. I imagine it would vibrate less if the stem was shorter, because it would have less of a whiplash effect.

      Would love to know more about the smooth-going bike.

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    5. I could see it with fatter tires and drops - I rode the stock and found the ride quality very nice. Good balance with rider, ALU frame steel fork.

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  3. Bikes and planes have gone together from the beginning almost -- the Wright brothers and all -- and it's wonderful that you've taken up both. It's almost like flying! Oh, wait...

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  4. You should be hired to promote tourism for Northern Ireland; what a beautiful place.

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  5. Another excellent post! I know very little about gliders, but now I am motivated to learn more and perhaps give this a try.

    As a side note, I am surprised you are afraid of flying with all the traveling you do. Do you take medication for it?

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    1. Well, I am aware that my anxiety is irrational (statistically commercial air flights are safer than driving, etc.), so I fly anyway. Fearfully! But it's not as bad as requiring medication. I just try to relax and distract myself.

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  6. These are not exactly generic, uninteresting pictures ;) Your viewing point was much too unique for that to happen!

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  7. With such a lovely subject, it is hard to take bad pictures anyway. Very beautiful country.

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  8. Christopher FotosJuly 17, 2013 at 5:41 PM

    Damn, after reading about all your enduro-rides and pacelines, I thought finally there was something I'd be willing to do that you weren't!

    Great post, congrats. Having piloted light aircraft (the kind with propellers), I can say for anonymous that commercial airliners and little things like that gorgeous glider are comprehensively different experiences (and V, while I was reading that, before I got to your answer about chandelles I thought hey, first I'd ask the guy if he minds if I throw up. Not an uncommon response.)

    Velouria, if you ever have a chance to fly in an open-cockpit aircraft, typically a biplane these days, seize the day. A bit noisier but no claustrophia.

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  9. Awesome!

    I guess living in Boston you know about the MIT Daedalus, a pedal-powered airplane. There's a NOVA documentary about it on Youtube.

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    1. I have not seen the documentary; will look it up - thanks!

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  10. ScottUKEireloverJuly 17, 2013 at 6:04 PM

    Your a braver person than me!

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  11. A lot of small plane pilots have folders. I'm just sayin'

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  12. Wow! That looks like so much fun! I grew up being toted around in small planes (Piper Cubs and such). My dad (formerly a cyclist turned recreational pilot... sensing a trend...) used to take me and my sister up quite a lot. He even let me have a go at the controls sometimes! I've tried hang gliding too. That's loads of fun. Probably more like cycling, since you aren't enclosed in a capsule and use your body to steer.

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  13. I've been grinning all afternoon at this. Flying slow off of a grass field is a fantastic feeling.

    I've never been in a sailplane, but have done a modest amount of flying in light planes like that blue & gold Cub.
    (Ï've wanted to build a j-3 Cub replica for ages. Might have to just do it at some point, like you say...)

    Chandelles are risky for the new flyer. Tummy gets out of sorts on the spinny part, eyes reinforce it, and up she goes.

    So, about that bike? Geometry looks much like your 30s ladies'roadster. Is it as fast as the step-through BSA you rode last visit?

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    1. Taking off from and landing on a grass field is very nice!

      The bike is an early grass track racer. Don't let the angles fool you, it is fast. My favourite vintage bike to date (even better than the Royal Enfield, yes!).

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    2. Ah, my mistake. I forgot that it was a Royal Enfield and not a BSA. They both made the same rifles for a long time.

      I had no doubt that the Tyrone Flyer was fast; I'm guessing a hair lighter and a bit stiffer on the pedal downstroke than the Royal Enfield.
      We both know a slack-angled roadster can eat up the miles!

      I have a friend who gets to fly a De Havilland Gypsy Moth from a grass field. He says it's as good as it has ever gotten
      for him.
      (Also, Spindizzy sounds like a he could be a long-lost brother. )

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    3. I really like that Tyrone Flyer bike. I'm intrigued to read that it was built for racing, though. Certain of its features strike me as odd in a racing bike, like the pump pegs, the fact that provision has been made for mudguards (eyes on forks and rear dropouts) and for brakes (drilled fork crown and rear seatstay brake bridge), and the provision of an oiler on the bottom bracket. I suppose the explanation for these would be the likelihood that the owner would have had to ride it on the road to and from racing events, and it would have needed to be road legal. Maybe it was his only machine, so it had to get him around as well as serve as his racing mount. Is anything more known about the Flyer?

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  14. I love bikes and cycling but I am so insanely besotted with little airplanes that I have to be careful how big a hit I let myself take at any one time. Old Cubs, homebuilt WW1 replicas, Vintage Waco and Stearman Biplanes and any other scruffy old stick and string crate, OH MY WORD I LOVE AIRPLANES SO MUCH I COULD CRY.

    I made a few choices in my 20s that mean I have to mostly leave them alone for now, I will never own a vacation home, swimming pool, new minivan etc. etc. but I'm going to have an old Cub, and I'm going to get a Glider rating and I think driving around in a Glider Tug launching people over and over on a hot day for 8 hours would be better than laying on any beach anywhere.

    I'm so jealous...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Oh man. Thank GOD I am not "besotted with little airplanes!"

      Where do you keep all this anyway, on your property or is there a club nearby?

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    2. I don't actually have much Airplane stuff of my own, some bits and pieces around the house(a Curtis Jenny wing rib on my bathroom wall, the control stick handle from an F 105 on my drawing table etc. etc.)but I have lots of airplane friends with hangersful of airplanes and little strips on their farms, that sort of thing. My circle of friends includes other guys like me who combine cars, bikes, planes and stuff in various combinations. It's bad.

      The closest thing I have to an actual plane of my own is the 2 home-build Biplane kits my friend Les is storing in my rafters. The plan is to eventually build them both, sell one and share the other, we're really good friends but are we THAT good friends? Time will tell. There are still a jillion old Cubs and they're variants about so maybe I just find an old rubbishy one and make it nice when I "retire".

      Spindizzy

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  15. Bicycles are the most efficient form of ground transportation. Gliders take that to the next level - ultra efficiency in the air. The best pilots are outstanding glider pilots - like Captain Sullenberger! The other wonderful thing about gliding in Ireland is . . . Ireland! Love the website - keep up the great work.

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  16. This is very good. Congratulations. You do get around, don't you?

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  17. That is a great article, and a fabulous advertisement for gliding. Your photos show what a beautiful part of the world we live in. It was a pleasure to meet you at the gliding club, you were certainly a breath of fresh air in that place. I'm sure you will be flying again, even if it's only a powered plane, flown gently, by a responsible adult!

    Best regards,

    Andy

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    1. Hello there, responsible adult with (transparent!) powered plane - thank you again for the wonderful ride : )

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  18. Riding a recumbent bike is closer from the glider sensation

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  19. Perfect: bikes and aeroplanes a delicious combination. Delighted to see your experiencing all our little island has to offer. Will your tour take you down south at all, say Dublin or Galway?

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    1. Nope. I'm not on a tour, so same place the entire time. I did visit Dublin when I was over last year, and here's a post about Dun Laoghaire.

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    2. Oh, well you must visit the West of Ireland some-time. It's so very different from Dublin. More of the wild and windswept land you've encountered in the North and a different personality from Dublin and NI. Safe riding !

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  20. I'll bet you do this again!

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  21. Wow,
    Each read here brings something new!!
    Not only the content but all you commenters are the best! Maybe there will be a big group meetup one day! I wanna hear more Spindizzy stories too!
    I used to take flying lessons from Tom Murphy in a 1947 PA-11 cub. 65hp N4615M. In Coram, NY then Bayport Aerodrome in Suffolk County Long Island. Some of the best times were riding the big Electra Glide from Brooklyn to the airfield in the morning. A bunch of people would be there to fly ahead of me. $50 an hour w/ Tom and $40 an hour if it was just the 'aeraplane'. Everyone would fly, we'd go to Burger King, have lunch and get some auto gas and gas up the planes and do some "ground school" or shoot the breeze. Airport stuff.
    At Bayport there was a couple of Stearmans, 3 AT-6s, A Cessna 195 (with the "Shakin Jacobs" radial engine), a few cubs, a Tri Pacer, some homebuilts, a Stinson, an Aeronca, and my favorite, a dark green Staggerwing Beech... enclosed Cabin 4 seat biplane. A lot of those planes are in different places now and folks have moved around. A cool site Airfields-Freeman.com has histories of abandoned little airfields across the US.
    Grass - "Alright pal, land it next to where they seeded so we don't put tracks in the new runway". Grass / dirt was the best.
    Alas, Tom passed in 1996 and well, I am into cheaper stuff, like boating and old bikes(!). I dock across Flatbush Avenue from Floyd Bennett Field. Another storied place where all greats flew out of in the '20s to the '60s. Tom flew out of there in the 1930s when he did single airplane skywriting over Times Square - "Drink Pepsi Cola 5c". That stopped during the war. He had great penmanship though.

    Now I have to go look at some of those old pictures.

    vsk
    Vic Kaminski

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  22. great article, you are most welcome at ulster GC! {owen}

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  23. Wonderful article. I really enjoy reading your blog.

    Sometimes when I'm ridng my bike it feels a bit like flying. It's a fine line between feeling free and close to a disaster. I wonder if flying can feel like that? I like how your friend says "nothing can go wrong". That's what I like about bicycles versus cars. At least there are fewer things that could go wrong.

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  24. Thanks for the enjoyable glider story. Reminds me of the experience, two summers past, when a friend said, "Wanna go flying in my helicopter?"
    Who could turn down such an invitation? Off we went to the Friday Harbor Airport, where his leased R2 'copter awaited. After explaining the seatbelts and donning life jackets, he said should we lose power and hit the water, the first thing to happen would be we'd flip over and go down upside-down. He wanted me to understand and know how to quickly vacate the open cockpit machine. Then off we went for a glorious flight around the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound on a perfect sunny and windless day, swooping over farmers' fields and hovering above rocky outcrops covered with sea lions. It was not an experience for those with a fear of heights, with no doors; held in only by nylon webbing belts I could lean out a bit as we swooped and climbed. A day to remember.

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  25. Hi
    Fantastic account. My uncle used to glide from the Ulster GC - about 15 years ago we all went to watch him take my grandmother for her first (and only) flight as a 90th birthday gift!
    Ian

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  26. I'd love to know more about the Tyrone Flyer. It has that "je ne sais quoi" which quickens the pulse of the vintage enthusiast. Which company made it, I wonder? The only bicycles I associate with Northern Ireland are Rudge. That hand cast into their chainwheels is supposed to be the Red Hand of Ulster. Is the Flyer a fixed wheel, single-speed or flip-flop? As for gliding, I think I'd rather have an engine, although it must be a very serene experience if you can overlook the fact that it's a long way down. In about 1970, I often cycled past the American air base at Burtonwood in Lancashire. My father had worked there in the fifties when it was fully operational to fixed-wing aircraft. I believe Elvis Presley's aeroplane stopped there briefly on the way to Germany. Anyway, by 1970, fixed-wing flights there had ceased, because the main runway ran across the road, which had to be closed by level-crossing gates. There were still helicopters, which looked like the ones they used in Vietnam, and gliding took place there as well, mainly to instruct members of local air cadet squadrons. For reasons already mentioned, the gliders were not launched by towing aircraft, but were hitched to a long cable behind US Army jeeps, which seemed to get them airborne in a very short distance. I suppose the pilot then had to find a thermal in order to gain height. It's hard to believe that hardly a trace of that base now remains, just houses and stores.

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  27. You write very evocatively and have a great capacity for accurate observation. In my glider instructor days I took hundreds of members of the public aloft but I doubt many could be as articulate as you about it. And your description brought back to me the early sensations of flight. Believe it or not, one gets used to it, the whole-body rush that you felt disappears after a a hundred hours of flight training or so. Good thing too, nobody could manage cross-country flights lasting a full day or advanced aerobatics if the somatic reactions remained so strong.
    The glider you flew is nice but you will be blown away by the lightness and swiftness of the controls of a modern single-place racing glider. A bit like going from a citybike to a Time or Colnago. Good luck!

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