He had been following the coastline now for almost half an hour, working the updrafts that developed on the windward side of the cliffs. Normally, he would've been a little farther inland, seeking the thermal updrafts that came from the sun beating upon the land, but today the sky held more clouds than sunlight, and those vertical rivers of lift would not be developing. The air had a feeling of reverence to it, as the sun came through the clouds in great beaming shafts, giving the sky almost cathedral-like dimensions. The waves below were its pews, arranged in parallel by the wind, and its altar was the primal upheaval of earth and rock that were the shoreline cliffs.
One of the gifts of flight that he loved was that it required you to concentrate on the here and now. There is no room for the regrets of yesterday or the worries of tomorrow while you are flying - your attentions really revolve around the most basic aspects of flight: lift, gravity, thrust, and drag. Today, he was in need of living in that more simplistic world, for the cares of his world weighed so heavily upon him, that just not being to think about them for a short while felt like a release from bondage. He simply needed to fly. To be free of his world, and to be lost in the beauty of the sky.
As his gaze swept the sea and cliffs below, his eye caught a solitary gull, low and to his right, rising on an updraft as if it were on some divine elevator. Normally, he would have immediately slid the glider over and caught the updraft as well, but for whatever reason, he waited for the gull. As it approached his altitude, he gently moved the control stick ever so slightly to the right and performed a graceful cross-under to the outside of the gull's circular turn. With an equal movement of the stick to the left, and its corresponding dip of left wing, he stopped his crossing turn to the outside and settled into a position slightly behind the gull's wing-line. There he held his position, and as they flew, the gull looked back at him. The gull did not call a greeting, nor did he wave a hello from his plexiglas-enclosed cockpit. They only watched each other, with the only sound being the wind as it hissed over their wings.
Finally, the updraft weakened and then cast them free, leaving them 2500 feet higher than when they first met. The gull rolled wings level and took a course headed further up the coastline, searching for the next updraft. The man thought to himself, this is no ordinary gull, for no gull he had ever observed had flown above 1500 feet in altitude, and this gull was already at 5500 feet and looking for higher. Perhaps this was one of those rare creatures that appreciates the gift that had been bestowed upon it by its Creator. This gull knew the gift of flight, and was not flying to feed or evade a threat - this gull was flying for the shear joy of simply being airborne in the solitary grandeur of the sky.
He flew with the gull, keeping perfect formation one hundred feet off the right wing of his companion. As the gull turned, so did the man; and always, the bird watched him with its critical yellow eye and dispassionate frown. The gull was judging the man, and he knew it. They continued to fly together for almost twenty minutes. Sometimes the gull would exchange the lead with the man, and it was his turn to discover the next updraft. But they never broke their gaze upon each other for more than a few moments. They were sharing a gift that one was born with, the other had achieved through intellect and creativity. They flew as one, in the same sky, with the same wind, sharing the same common bond.
“What is this I am feeling with the gull?”, thought the man. He pondered this as they continued to fly together.
Those that ride horses talk of the connection that can exist between horse and rider. Where commands normally given through the reins or legs need not be given; as if merely the thought of turning this way or that was enough for it to be transmitted, received, and turned into action by the horse. But sometimes it is even more than that. More than just the animal being an extension of the rider's will. It is a true symbiotic relationship, as if it is one being, controlled by two minds, working in complete harmony with each other.
If one were to look back on the course of human history, and man's longing to fly, you can see the beginnings of the "conquest" of flight. Soon after the fastest animal that man could sit astride had been domesticated, wings were grafted onto the horse, and the dream of controlled flight was born in the mythology of Pegasus.
There are times when human beings venture into the natural environment of a particular creature, become entrained with them, and feel a connection like none other they have ever experienced in their lives. During the Age of Sail, sailors would talk of whales pulling up alongside their silently moving ship, and the great leviathan would roll up on one side and make eye contact with the curious beings lining the leeward rail and there would transfer a feeling of great intimacy and connection. Whereas the individual realizes that mere human observation of this world is not what defines it at all. That knowledge and emotion can indeed be transferred between human and animal. And the human comes away from the experience forever altered.
The man was feeling this with the gull. If the gull had felt intimidated by the 49 feet of wingspan that the glider possessed, it could've easily peeled away from the glider and returned to its own airborne solitude. But it did not. It flew in a fashion that allowed the man to remain with it, as if the gull wanted the companionship, wanted to share its gift, its joy. The man had a profound sense of message from the gull, saying "You have entered my realm, without your usual excess of speed and noise. You approach with silence and respect. Stay with me as long as you care and let us fly together."
The tunnel of visceral connection between the two was transcendent. He could feel the gull's feathers and muscles warping the shape of its wings as it would turn to stay in a rising column of air. The man would instinctively move his stick one way or another, in tiny movements, minutely deflecting his ailerons, elevators, and rudder to create the same effect on his glider. He could feel what the gull was feeling, and soon the glider melted away, until his awareness was only that he was a fellow gull, flying alongside a fellow family member, in a sky that he not only felt comfortable in, but welcome in. He was no longer an alien. He was a member of the flock, and he was eternally grateful.
The gull's feathers suddenly ruffled, and he watched the camber of its wings instinctively arch higher to compensate for the sudden loss of lift. A split second later the man hit the same pocket of air. The areas of updrafts were now being encroached upon by areas of downdrafts, as the sky and the winds were changing. The sun was sinking lower, and the sea breeze was weakening, taking with it the lift-giving updrafts that meant continued time aloft for the man. In a start, he realized that he should've stayed much closer to his landing field, but his entrainment with the gull was simply too magical not to experience. It was worth the risk, but the anxiety he now felt about not being able to get home in the dying sunlight was very real. A moment prior he was basking in the warm glow of fellowship and discovery . . .
. . . now he felt a cold shudder of fear ripple through his body.
He had followed the gull because it had called to his heart, leaving his calculating mind with its flight-monitoring responsibilities 20 miles behind him when he had joined with the bird. Head and heart. Sometimes one is faced with having to choose between the two, and sometimes there can be very real consequences for making the wrong choice. The pilot wondered to himself if he had made the wrong one in choosing to follow the gull farther up the coast. Had he followed the path of Icarus and flown too close to the sun in joining with the gull? The man felt the icy grip of fear melt away quickly in the heat of his anger and self-loathing. “How could I have been so stupid?!”
However, the gull seemed to sense the man's anxiety and continued a gentle, graceful arc to the left and rolled out heading towards the pilot’s home field. The secret to airborne endurance in flying gliders it be constantly looking for, and then flying to, rising columns of air - the thermal updrafts. One is constantly jumping from one elevator to the next. The trick is to fly to each rising air mass, turn in a tight spiral within the upward moving column, and then after it weakens, fly off in the most direct course to where you think the next ride up will be. However, as the sun continued to sink, the pilot became increasingly worried as he saw the sources of those thermals shut down.
Head or heart? Again, the question confronted him. Make a straight-line course back to the field and hope for a miracle, or remain with the gull and continue to trust in its innate abilities to keep him airborne? The choices felt analogous to the struggles in his own life: do I live under the guidance of what is known, or do I cast myself free and trust that the path of the unknown will indeed provide? Head and heart – both are important. Usually they are best when equally balanced, but sometimes one must lead the other – especially when change is to be fostered. Which one has the lead in your life, pilot? Your life is right here, right now! Decide!
He stayed with the gull.
In a complete act of faith, he felt the gull knew of his plight and would know what to do. That tunnel of trust flowed both ways now. For its part, the gull suddenly felt an infusion of importance in its connection with the man. One of the flock was in distress, and needed its guidance. The gull flew with not only skill, but with purpose now, and gradually, the man too saw the genius in the gull's flight-path. It avoided the cool areas of downdrafts such as forests and water, and sought out updrafts over terrain features that had been absorbing energy all day and now were releasing that energy in the form of heat – and heat rises! Blacktop parking lots, shopping malls with their asphalt-covered roofs, and the up slopes of large rock formations were all small oases of lift. What had initially looked like a meandering path was actually the most efficient form of gliding the man had ever witnessed, and the gull was teaching him more than any lecture could ever impart. His learning was felt deep in his senses, as well as deep in his heart. The pilot knew that, whether he suffered the indignation of landing in a farmer's field, or made the most feather-soft touchdown at his home airport, the experience gained through this encounter would last him a lifetime.
The man relaxed. And in ceasing to care where the actual landing would take place, he felt his own being become lighter. His flying felt more buoyant, and while gravity was still quite present, it was no longer something that was reaching up with clutching hands to pull him down into the trees. He stopped making nervous glances down at his instruments, for his senses had replaced his cockpit instrumentation. There were no mental calculations of glide ratios to be made. He just simply knew, innately knew, that his wings would continue to support him.
The gull also saw the man relax in his cockpit, and felt his faith in what was being transferred to him. The smoothness of the pilot’s flying now returned. They flew on together, weaving a path of both beauty and efficiency. And as they flew, the man felt something more. He could feel the relationship between head and heart, perfectly illustrated in their conjoined flying, as the ascendant path for his own life. He didn’t know the details of its application - but he knew the feeling, and how it would apply from this day forward. Again, he smiled at the peace he felt within. Finally the gull, after staring back at the man for a long moment, looked down and called out to him. The pilot glanced down and saw that he was directly over his home field, and with plenty of altitude to spare.
He pressed his left hand against the canopy and splayed his fingers out in a gesture of gratitude towards the gull. It seemed to nod back in understanding, then drew its head back and called out with the most regal of gull-calls, as if to announce the man's arrival overhead to the aerodrome below. And with that, the gull pulled up and away, leaving the glider continuing on straight ahead, set up for the most perfect of downwind entries into the airport's traffic pattern.
The earth, shadowed below, was a patchwork of indigo and charcoal smudges as the man banked his two final turns from downwind to base leg and base leg to final, bleeding off excess airspeed as needed with a series of slips and skids, much in the same way that a skier will modulate their speed as they "S" turn their way down the mountain. Finally, he rounded out his descent a foot above the runway, the glider seeming to hover as if it were reluctant to be earthbound once again, and with a staccato chirp of blue smoke, settled onto its single main wheel half tucked up into the fuselage.
The rollout after touchdown is fairly short in a glider, owing its low flying speed to its efficient wings. He used his rudder pedals to steer his aircraft clear of the landing strip and into the short grass that was just off the runway edge. After he came to a stop, he sat in the cockpit for a long moment, savoring the gift he had been blessed to experience. Some would've felt lucky just to be down in one piece, but this pilot was now different. Without care or thought, tears of gratitude came streaming down his face; happy tears of newly gained insights and skills that were now planted deep within. The synchronistic sharing of the sky with the gull would forever change the man. He had been touched by grace.
He raised the canopy and felt the coolness of the early evening spill into his cockpit. As he puffed out his cheeks in a long and grateful exhale, something caught his eye, and he looked up. It was the gull, passing over him and heading back towards the coast. He lifted his right hand up, to visually transmit again his heartfelt thanks to his saving mentor. The gull looked down at him for one long, lingering moment, then looked to the sky ahead, and was gone.