Gliding On

When Simon Gault isn’t hard at work in a hectic restaurant kitchen, escaping aloft is something the famous chef has been passionate about since he was a teenager. We hitched a ride and went soaring high above the city in his sail plane.

Forty seconds into my conversation on the subject with well-known restauranteur and entrepreneur Simon Gault, I know two things about gliding:

firstly, they’re not actually called gliders. And secondly, for the uninitiated, this is a head-spinningly technical sport.

Simon does lay out some basic facts about this elegant airborne pursuit that I completely get though: gliders aren’t about size, but more about performance; you need lots of lift to go a long way; glider pilots look for big, high clouds – a clear day isn’t going to prove a great day for flying. 

“Think of it as a bit like yachting, but in three dimensions,” he says.  

And thousands of feet above terra firma, I silently add. 

The yachting analogy is a good one though. The correct term for a glider is actually a sail plane and, as you’d expect, wind is just as vital up there as it is out at sea. You can go fast and far, or you can soar around a set course, keeping the airfield below in your sights.

“You have to make the most of the weather conditions and, if you’re heading off towards the horizon you need to have a plan and a support crew,” Simon continues. 

You can scoot around the club airfield and enjoy the view, or you can take part in races and challenges that’ll take you hundreds of miles down country; it can be about out-and-out sport if you want it to be, or simple recreation.” 

Simon relates the tale of the time he ran out of good air on a lengthier journey, forcing him to land in a field next to a coastal marae. Greeted like an old mate, he feasted on fresh king fish with local families while he waited for a ride back to base. 

New Zealand offers incredible gliding conditions, he says. The obvious touchstone for even those who know nothing of soaring is the Omarama district in the Mackenzie Basin in the South Island, which is famed on a global scale for its gliding conditions. New Zealand has fielded two world champion pilots and is well-represented on the international stage. 

Simon has been gliding since he was 16. His current sail plane – a German-manufactured Schempp-Hirth Arcus M that he owns with a syndicate – is his fifth. After years in high-performance single-seater craft, Simon says the appeal with the Arcus M was its two-seater configuration.

The idea of syndicate ownership is a popular one and it underlines another aspect to soaring as I watch Simon prep his sail plane for an afternoon flight in the sun; the club scene is huge.  

We’re at the Auckland Gliding Club, around 45km south of the city, tucked in on the flat at the edge of the Hunua Ranges foothills. Boasting an 80-year history and with over 100 active pilot members, this is one of the biggest of its kind in the country.  

The large 20ha airfield is wholly owned by the club and includes a 1000-metre-long runway. The club, staffed entirely by volunteers, also owns a fleet of two-seater training and solo standard gliders, a tow plane and state-of-the-art winch. 

 

“There is a lot of camaraderie and a lot of knowledge here too,” says club member Dion Manktelow. 

“We make it easy for anyone who is interested to come along and give it a go. We can organise a trial flight with an instructor who will provide all the basics and take you up. You can have a go on the controls and learn the effects of what everything does when you’re soaring. Eventually you will learn how to take off, techniques for using natural energy to climb and all the emergency procedures too. 

“The beauty of soaring is that it can be very hands-on right from the start and all sorts of people get into it. If you get bitten by the bug, you can join the club and really get stuck in to learning the skills required. 

“Sail planes are very safe; there’s no engine to fail after all!” he laughs. 

Dion says that it takes experienced pilots around 40 minutes to set up and they’re away. Some sail planes have small self-launcher engines, but the club tow plane is in constant use today as the afternoon warms and the conditions become ideal. Simon and I started the day almost on our own, but now there is a steady stream of cars coming in through the club gates. 

“At the end of the day, if you can drive a car, then with a bit of practice you can fly a sail plane,” Simon concludes. 

“It’s an incredibly social sport and with youth gliding programmes and the like, it is a family sport too. There are kids who will be flying solo before they have a driver’s licence; you’ll find passion for soaring among all ages. 

“Flying silently over rugged Kiwi vistas on a beautiful summer’s day is utterly mesmerising. It’s challenging and it takes a lot of concentration, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun too.” 

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