Monday, June 11, 2012

Thrill ride

I don’t remember too much about my first glider ride, but I do remember that it was a thrilling, slightly overwhelming experience.

Then, as now, they assigned one of the more experienced pilots in the club to give the introductory lessons. Since then, I have become one of those pilots. I enjoy giving rides, but I confess that I am more interested in flying the single seater than in pointing out the local sights to tourists in the two-seat trainer. It gets a bit old after a while.

The single seat glider was ready to fly yesterday, and I was having these selfish thoughts when I was approached by one the spectators at the field.

"We were hoping my father could get a ride today."

I was trying to think of a more polite version of "Sure, go ask someone else" when she continued, "He’s 96." That got my attention!

A moment later, I was shaking hands with an amazing gentleman named Lafayette Noda, and I decided that getting him up in a glider on this fine June day would be my highest priority. I finally realized that most of the spectators standing around were his friends and family members, and that they had all walked across the airfield to cheer him on.

"Are you really 96?" I asked tactlessly.

"At present, yes," he replied. An answer delivered with a big smile and scientific precision. It turns out that he actually is a scientist, but I didn’t learn that until later.

With surprisingly little assistance from his family and his growing coterie of glider pilot fans, Lafayette clambered into the front seat of our club trainer. Here’s a picture of Greg helping him with his seat belt.

Before takeoff, we explained a little about the glider’s instruments and controls. Sometimes we had to repeat ourselves because Lafayette’s hearing has faded a little in the past 96 years. I told him that he might have to move his left knee out of the way of the airbrake handle when it came time to land.

We took off, and we both watched the towplane during the climb to 3000 feet. It was impossible to communicate over the air noise at 65 mph, but I was hopeful that we would be able to talk when we slowed down following the release from tow.

I was unsure of what to expect in terms of Lafayette’s sense of balance and orientation in this new three-dimensional environment. He was looking left and right, taking in the sights. You’re not supposed to swing your head around like that - but he was smiling the whole time. I figured he was feeling fine.

Off tow, I found that by loosening my shoulder straps and leaning forward a bit, I could indeed communicate with my passenger. We flew into a patch of rising air, and I described to him the indications on the instruments. We watched another glider fly by underneath us, and Lafayette concluded, correctly, "He’s going down."

In fact, the other glider was entering the landing pattern ahead of us. We found some more rising air and circled in it, climbing 500 feet while waiting for our turn to land. Finally, I reached for my airbrake handle and tapped him on the knee with the other handle. He moved his leg out of the way and said, "OK, we’re landing now."

Back on the ground, we shook hands, posed for pictures, and congratulated ourselves for a few minutes before I realized that I never taught Lafayette how to unbuckle his harness. He was trapped in the cockpit, still smiling good-naturedly.

Before he was a glider pilot, Dr. Lafayette Noda, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Dartmouth Medical School, was a blueberry and Christmas tree farmer. Before that, he was chairman of the Biochemistry Department at DMS. Before that, he established a non-profit fund to provide scholarships to Asian-American students. Before that, he was a research biochemist. Before that, he was wrongly imprisoned by his own government. You can read about him here and here and here and here.

Dr. Noda, who has studied the natural world for so long, knows how to enjoy it, too. It was a thrill for me to introduce him to our solar powered sport.

Update: Dr. Noda passed away on February 9, 2013. The Noda family has published an obituary.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent story. Well done (and the story, too).