Life in the afternoon - Part 1 - a story about soaring

Life in the Afternoon - a story of soaring - and reflections of that on my life.
by P.K.Odendaal. 23 October 2011.

I took this subject name from my favourite aviation writer Richard Bach. The name of one of his short stories being 'Death in the afternoon - a story of soaring'.

In glider pilot parlance, life is up here in the miracle of powerless flight and death is down there on earth - running out of lift and landing in a field somewhere when you can't make it back to base.
And on reflection - that is the story of most of our lives - and specially mine.

Important people write memoirs, but being really unimportant and liking it a million, I do not have to go that laborious, ungrateful and mostly useless route - who reads it anyway.
I was inspired to write these reflections, due to a very memorable flight on 16 October 2011 which lasted two hours and forty minutes. In terms of soaring that is not very long, as many of my flights go beyond five hours.

Part 1 - The flight starts - Loneliness and Solitude.
I am at two thousand feet above ground level - ground level being Witbank airfield at an elevation of 5100 feet amsl (above mean sea level) and I am in a thermal taking me up, so it's time to shut down that engine, being a 50 HP Wankel rotary engine manufactured by Diamond in Austria and running at 7 700 RPM on takeoff and 6 900 RPM on the climb to two thousand feet.

The time is 15h40 and I have been in the air for fifteen minutes. This is an ASK21Mi self launching glider, built by Alexander Schleicher in Germany, a dream came true four years ago when I took it out of a container at the Durban Harbour.
Soaring for the afternoon looks promising, but I can feel the thermals are small and broken up due to a fresh wind blowing out of the Northwest. I have already drifted some (nautical) miles east of Witbank with the intention of flying clear of the Johannesburg Terminal Movement Area (TMA) which ends three miles east of Witbank and the Johannesburg Control Area (CTA) which ends nine miles east of Witbank. I can fly up to 7 500 feet under the TMA,  up to 10 500 feet under the CTA and to unlimited heights once clear of the latter.
I am now under the TMA and start to stow my propeller by bringing the throttle back to idle, switching off the magnetos and kicking in the propstop when the propeller wind milling has come down to about one revolution per ten seconds. I stow the propeller to its first detent , which is two thirds down into the fuselage at the rear of the back seat behind me. It will stay at this detent until the engine has cooled down to below 80C when I will stow it completely.

I tune my radio into the Johannesburg Information North frequency on 127.4MHz and listen out for a chance to talk, but they are not very busy on this Sunday afternoon. They are responsible for advising me of other aircraft that may affect me, but I am responsible for my own separation.

ASK21: Johannesburg, good afternoon, this is Glider Alfa Sierra Kilo to the east of Witbank at seven thousand one hundred feet for ten thousand five hundred feet.
JHB: Alfa Sierra Kilo, no traffic to affect your climb to flight level one zero five, skydiving is active at Witbank, squawk six six five six and advise reaching that level.

Squawk is the code for my secondary radar. Once I punch it into my Transponder, they can follow me in plan and elevation - the glider showing up as a blip with tag ZS-ASK:GLIDER:SQ 6656:FL71 on their radar screens. Thus the stage is set for my flight. Power aircraft will give way to me and I will give way to skydivers - and my mind will take its own flight.
It is a beautiful day and the first cumulus clouds have appeared - the indication of the tops of vertically developed winds (thermals) and I will try and stay in their vicinity. Thermals are like haystacks. If you do not cling to their centres, you will roll off - so I concentrate on keeping to the centre of my present one. The air is quite clear and I can see forever, but I know that once these up draughts become very strong, the air will become very hazy due to dust contamination from the ground being whirled up.

I am alone, but I am used to it, and in fact, I like to soar alone, so that I can be private, with my own thoughts and sometimes talk to myself. It is wonderful that the English invented solitude as the joy of being alone, in contrast to the word loneliness which is the grief of being alone. I have long ago made that transition from loneliness to solitude. I very seldom take someone with me on a soaring trip, but I might invite a very good pilot friend by chance.
I grew up as one of four children with no interests at all motivating me, and my co-siblings gave up their quest to make me take any interest in farming affairs. I had to play alone and in between do very dreary farming chores, until my father bought a large truck and I became the proud driver of that, when I was ten years of age.

During my early youth I had only two toys to play with, and that I collected from scrap on the farm. The one was the top pulley with hook of a Block and Chain mechanism and the other was the connecting rod of a piston. I would hook the top hole for the gudgeon pin over the hook of the pulley and that would be my tractor and implement, and I played with that for many years, as it was indestructible.
Even when my father and the rest of the family visited other farmers in the area, I would play with these in the sand, where I would most of the time also fall asleep. Visiting other farmers with the family was very painful and I did not like it, as we siblings had to sit in the car for hours while the adults had their conversation and coffee. We were never allowed into any conversation, and that kept us perfectly ignorant.

This always lead to fighting in the car with my co-siblings. When my father returned, we all had to be punished, because in my father's eyes, if there was a fight, everybody was guilty. That was the main reason why I became unsocial - even till today - however hard I try not to be.
When I became twelve, my father decided that I should go to a school in Stellenbosch in the Cape Colony (as he called it), so that I might get a decent education, like my elder brother who was already there. There was no doubt in my father's mind that I would one day become an Engineer, in my brothers' minds that I would become a preacher and in my own mind that I would become nothing.

So I get onto the train to this far away place with my brother, knowing that I would see my parents only four times a year for very brief holidays. Also knowing that, should I come home for a holiday, my place would be behind the steering wheel of the lorry or one of the tractors for the full duration of the holiday.
When we disembarked from the train in Stellenbosch, my brother saw me off to my hostel, Secunda. He was in another hostel, the seniors one called Prima. So he told me that he would see me again on the day we left for home three months hence. I was strictly forbidden to visit him in his hostel or to talk to him at school, although I saw him at church on a Sunday. If I should be found in his hostel by anyone staying there, I will have to eat the bitter leaves of a nearby aloe tree, a dish called Prima Pudding, until I vomited.

So - it was the start of loneliness for years to come and added significantly to my unsocial behaviour.
The rigorous routine of a hostel hog, as we called ourselves, was more penal than that of a jail, although we did escape with impunity from some of our nightly escapades. But like jail birds, we always returned to our jail, only sooner because we could not be missed the following morning at roll call.

The school principal was also head of the hostel and specially appointed two wardens to help him is this tasks. They were taken from the nearby university. Naturally we did not expect any humane treatment from one of them, the one studying to be a preacher in the nearby seminary called the Angels factory. I think that if the principal had not restrained him, he would have murdered some of us - and especially me, who was thought by him and the principal to be the instigator of many a hostel rebellion.
I am just over 10 000 feet and I start to sink. The thermals have broken up, or maybe I have become too entangled in my thoughts on loneliness - maybe even shed a tear or two. I sink - and sink and sink ... down to 8 500 feet. When will this stop? Will this be Death in the afternoon? I roam the skies and look out for the slightest hint of lift which can be in the form of a small cumulus clouds, a dark patch on the earth, some dust and even leaves moving upwards in the air, a dust devil on the ground, some specially hazy vertical funnels of air or circling eagles. None.

JHB :       Alfa Sierra Kilo, Joburg.
ASK21 :   Alfa Sierra Kilo, go ahead sir.

JHB :       There is a target moving towards you. He is at 8 500 feet and climbing, but he has not spoken to me yet.
ASK21 :   Traffic copied - please keep me posted, Alfa Sierra Kilo.

Suddenly I hear Henry's voice over the air stating his intentions to glide in the Middelburg area. I know I can out climb him in any similar thermal as my gliding ratio is 50% better than his and my propeller is now fully tucked away, but I move to the south-east as advised by ATC (Air Traffic Control), and he to the north-east to prevent a possible conflict.
I entered into a compact with God when I was thirty years old, that I would serve Him, experiencing that first love and about turn in my life and singing 'I surrender all' after a church meeting in 1977. A year or two later I have become Luke warm and was falling back to my old life of sin and shame, and nothing was stopping me, however hard I tried. I visited many different churches, but found a haven in none. We had a prayer meeting at my house every week and we were praying for a haven on this earth where we could share our faith and spiritual experience - and then one year later, all of a sudden, we encountered a thermal and we got lift.

Ah, I have lift. Suddenly my variometer is showing lift of 1 meter per second - and it is increasing. I have lift !!! ... and I live again. I turn steep into the thermal and  keep the speed low at 70 km/hr to make tight turns and stay in the centre of the thermal - concentrate - you must not be pushed off into the Luke warm area again. Up.. up and away - 9 500 feet and counting !!!
I am over 10 000 feet again, as I can tell from my first breathe of on board oxygen which comes on automatically at 10 000 feet. Time to ask for further climb.

ASK21 :   Joburg, Alfa Sierra Kilo at 10 300 feet, ready to climb to 14 000 feet.
JHB :       Alfa Sierra Kilo, standby for higher.

I hear him talking to a pilot in distress somewhere near the East Rand, whose engine temperatures have gone up and whose oil pressure has gone down and who needs help - poste haste. ATC acts as a link between him and his aircraft maintenance engineer advising him what to do. I have to wait and I will wait patiently for any pilot in distress, as I have been through some of them myself. I can understand it, feel it, sense it.
When my wife and I went into distress spiritually after making a compact with God, and we were sinking, her family was very impatient with us, and blamed us for it all, as we have now joined the sects and our end would be catastrophic. Did we not tell you so?

The glider climbs and I cannot stop it - and I have not been advised of traffic above me. I push the nose forward to stop the climb, but she keeps on climbing. I am now at 180 km/hr and climbing !!!!! Eventually, after what seemed to be  ages, Johannesburg clears me to 14 000 feet, whilst I was already at 12 000 feet. I do not think that ATC knows that if you are in a strong thermal, there is now way you can hold her down.
I am now under a large developing cumulus cloud and it sucks me in at 6 m/s. I should not be sucked in totally, as I will lose all visual reference to the earth, and I have no blind flying instruments on board. If I really get into trouble and am sucked in too fast, I can leave all flying controls, put out the air brake fully, and she will tumble a few thousand feet without exceeding maximum speed limitations.

Voltage 11.5V. I have developed a battery problem, as the voltage on my two main batteries have dropped too low. This is too low to start the engine again, should I get too low before reaching the airfield. As I reach the underside of the cloud, I say goodbye to it and get into the sunny air where my solar cells can charge the batteries again. As a glider pilot one never say farewell to such a strong up draught voluntarily - one merely says goodbye to it and may return for another rendezvous with it later, when you have lost some altitude.
I cannot stay in the sun for long, as the cloudless sections of the sky are becoming less and less, as the clouds are becoming overcast. My batteries also do not want to charge normally and may be defective. I change to my emergency battery - same story. If I do not solve this problem during the flight and I run into altitude problems, an out landing may become a reality. But life must go on - back to my host, the cloud and making up again for the three thousand feet I lost during my rendezvous with the sun.

I think of my rendezvous with the SON. Since I made a compact with God, His Son has shown such mercy, love, beauty, grace, direction and support to me and have lifted me to such heights that are difficult to comprehend, since my aspirations during childhood was none. There have been times when I went into sink, but most of the time my batteries were charged again when I came into contact with the SON and I could face life again.
I notice the ground underneath me has become somewhat unfamiliar and I know that I am already well past Middelburg moving towards Hendrina, but I cannot see it. despite my height, the air has become very hazy and I can only see a few miles in each direction.

JHB :       Alfa Sierra Kilo, Joburg.
ASK21 :   Alfa Sierra Kilo, go ahead sir.

JHB :       There is traffic going into Middelburg. please contact Area on 126.7 for further information.

ASK21 :   Area on one two six decimal seven, Alfa Sierra Kilo.
... switched over Area Control

ASK21 :   Area, Alfa Sierra Kilo, good afternoon.
AREA :     Alfa Sierra Kilo, can you maintain at least 13 000 feet?
I am at 14 500 feet and there is strong lift all around me now.
ASK21 :   Yes sir.

AREA :     There is a King Air flying into Middelburg and he will pass below you 12000 feet - keep a lookout.
I ponder my conversation with ATC. I have never seen them, but I know they exist because they talk to me over the radio, and I must listen to them and have faith in them for guiding me safely through the skies.
When I learned to fly, I was told that there was something called ATC who regulated airspace and all flights in it, in this case from Johannesburg. If I was ready one day for my first cross country, I would have to tune the radio to their frequency and talk to them and be guided by them. I do not know whether this is true, because I have not seen them or talked to them, but I trust my instructor and I take it in faith.

Since then, however, I have spoken to them countless times and I trust them and I have the full knowledge and assurance of their existence. I have no doubt and I do not have to take it in faith anymore.
When I made a compact with God in 1977 to serve him, I did not know whether he existed, but someone told me about Him and I took it in faith.

I have since similarly talked to God over the heavenly radio, and I know He exists because He talks to me and I listen to Him, because He will guide me safely through this life and through the one to come.
In 2002 I had a personal meeting with Jesus Christ, and on that day I saw the light, similar to so many other people having had their Damascus moment. Since then I do not take it in faith, because I have the full (blessed) assurance.

How many people and friends of mine, have told me that they do not believe in God and He never talks to them.
Well, my friend, if I had not tuned into the correct ATC frequency, they would also not have been able to talk to me ; and could I then safely presume that they do not exist? I do not think so, and I do not want to fly the skies without their guidance and direction. They know what they do and that is enough for me.

I also trust in God - He knows best and that is enough for me.
At this altitude with all the clouds around me, it starts to become difficult to see the horizon and I must mostly trust my own intuition and compare it to the status of my peripheral vision. I fly the glider's attitude in relation to the horizon. Any climb, descent or turn, I can control in relation to the horizon, if I can see it. In fact, I do not even think about the control movements, so ingrained they are in me. Sometimes I might look directly at the horizon and sometimes I only need to be conscious of its presence.

I am back at my first flying lesson. We have taken off and my instructor has started explaining to me how I can judge the aircraft's attitude with relation to the horizon.
'Do you see the horizon running all around us? That is our Bible. Every movement we do with the aircraft, we do relative to that horizon. If we keep the nose four fingers below the horizon, the aircraft will fly level. As soon as we lift the nose, it will start to climb and our airspeed will diminish and vice versa for the descent. It we bank (tilt) the aircraft's longitudinal axis, so that the nose or the top of the instrument panel is not parallel to the horizon, the aircraft will start to turn. Even a very slight deviation from parallel will start the turn, although you might not notice it at first. That is why you cannot keep it straight. Can you see its turning, whilst I asked you to fly straight?'

Those first few hundred hours, I flew the aircraft according to the 'book' and the thousands of facts, directives, regulations and laws contained therein. Almost too many to think of. This type of flight is so restrictive, I do not think I will ever enjoy it fully.

Ten years later ....
I am practising aerobatic manoeuvres with a Zlin 50LS aircraft - an aircraft specially built to do almost everything from flying vertical up and down to flying inverted and flying backwards.

I notice that when I fly the aircraft vertically upwards, I cannot see the horizon - what now? I look ninety degrees to the left and see the tip of my left wing standing straight up and rectangular to the horizon. Oh, that is how it works, because I looked in the wrong place to find the horizon. I make a loop and three quarters through it, I find I have to throw my head over backwards to see the horizon starting to appear from the direction of the tail fin.
At last I am free and I LIVE.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, - and done a hundred things
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Poem by John Magee - Pilot.
There have been times in my life when I could not 'see' the face of God, but later, after some reflection, I have always found that I was looking in the wrong direction. When I was flying this life upside down or doing a loop, I needed to adjust my sight to new vistas that God wanted to show me.

I also had to keep my life's eyes fixed on the horizon, the Bible, and even if I did not look directly at it, I had to be conscious of its presence and its guidance, so that I could adjust my attitude towards life and towards other people according to it. Just the slightest deviation from parallel would develop a turn away from the Bible, and although it is indiscernible at first, it inevitably develops into a turn away from Scripture until I realise, almost too late, that I am not on the straight path anymore.
I again try and establish accurately where I am now. My on board computer says that I am 50 km from Witbank and moving away towards Hendrina, and that if I return now to Witbank, I will have one thousand feet altitude spare on my final glide into Witbank. It shows me that the wind direction and speed is 300 degrees   at 45 km/hr. That is a strong wind compared to my normal gliding speed of 80 km/hr and it will take me more than an hour to return to Witbank. It is getting late and I must return and I doubt that I can maintain this 1 000 feet safety buffer.

The computer system I have on board is very sophisticated. It tells me everything I need to know about the flight - and it is so small - the screen being only a 100mm diameter dial. It shows me airspaces, airfields, where I have been for the past two hours and at which altitudes I flew, but it cannot show me what happened in my past longer ago than these few hours.
I think about my own introduction to computers in 1968 at the Engineering Faculty, University of Pretoria. It was a mainframe and we were programming in Fortran IV, with the aid of punch cards. Every statement we wanted the computer to execute, had to be punched in on a punch card, and we talked to the computer by way of these holes in a card. A large program, like the one I developed for my final year script, had more than a thousand of these cards. It seemed quite a large program for that time, but these days my programs run easily over  10 000 statements. I am glad the days of punch cards are over - and people nowadays do not believe me if I tell them I talked to computers by way of punch cards more than forty years ago.

It is getting late and I have gone out too far  ... I must return. The strong wind has blown me too far east to safely return to the airfield, and in my joy and admiration of flight and life and creation and beauty, I have overplayed my hand.
Next time - Part 2 - I must return ....


  1. I had thought that Richard Bach was the originator of Death in the Afternoon, but it was actually Ernest Hemingway who wrote a non-fiction book by that name about Bullfighting - expounding the issues of fear and courage, as I have tried to do in my blog. Not being a bullfighting fan, I was not aware of this, and whilst Ernest Hemingway might have found bullfighting fearsome in 1932, my exposure to it in 2007 was more like the controlled murder of helpless bulls, in which their chances of survival was less than about 0.00001%. In fact, I shuddered at their cruel slaughter of these helpless animals who were more merciful than the matadors and crowds were.

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