Archive for the ‘Air travel’ Category

Starry, starry nights amid Indian culture in NM

November 1, 2011

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is in a remote region of New Mexico

We’ve been home from our eight days in northern New Mexico for a month now and I have two strongly lingering images – our meals and our night of camping at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

I’ve already written my piece on chile peppers, with a recipe, for the Boston Globe food section (to be published soonish), but could not sell anyone on the idea of a story on Chaco. Which is crazy! But it was just as well because that meant I could enjoy myself instead of run around interviewing people and taking notes about everything I saw.

Instead, I inhaled it all in slowly – the history, the breathtaking terrain,  the up-close petroglyphs, the unbelievably intact Indian ruins and, oooohhhhh, those dark star-saturated skies.

See the blue dot straight ahead, near the canyon wall? That's where we camped!

Thanks to Southwest Airlines’  humane luggage policy, we each got two bags for free, so used our extras to stash camping gear for our one night at the park, at Lina’s urging. (Thank you, my ever-adventurous mate!)

We loved almost every minute of our 20-hour blitz. We arrived midafternoon, enjoying the minor thrill of the eight-mile-long dirt road that leads to the park. (Take the north entrance if you don’t want to get stuck.) First we picked out at campsite in the tent-only area, amid boulders and backing up against a cliff. Heaven!!

Pueblo Bonito is famous for many things, including its intact walls and doorways

Next we high-tailed it to 2 p.m. tour of Pueblo Bonito, a Native American “great house” that was lived in from the mid 800s to the 1200s. It once towered four stories high, with more than 500 rooms and 40 kivas and is one of the most excavated and studied sites in North America, as well as one of the most intact. Although our guide went way over the scheduled time, he was fantastic and brought the history alive, and the archeology history was as interesting as the Indian history.

We toured a few other sites and then reached the petroglyphs just as the late afternoon sun was spotlighting them. They were the most intact and closest I’ve ever seen!

Up close and personal with petroglyphs

We had just a little time to set up camp and share a beer before we zipped over to the visitor’s center for what we thought would be the dark-sky talk and a chance to look through the telescopes. Chaco is the only national park with its own observatory. Well damned if the astronomers weren’t at a conference – um, thanks for letting us know? A ranger gave an interesting presentation on the Civilian Conservation Corps’ involvement in the park in the 1930s and ‘40s, but we were feeling very pouty and whiny about the whole star thing. Until….

We returned to the campsite around 8 p.m. and the sky seemed to go from dusk to black within minutes. I looked up and – WAM, BAM, LOOK AT THOSE STARS, MA’M! I told Lina, who needs astronomers? Of course I would have liked a walk-through of the skies, but wowie, zowie, they were amazing — Milky Way, of course, and shooting stars and dancing constellations. We each laid down on a bench of the picnic table, wrapped up in our blankets, and watched in awe.

Lina's "just one more," Kin Klatso great house

That night we heard the eeriest sound. The only reason I knew it was coyotes is because a ranger had warned me. Wow.

After visiting a few more ruins in the morning (“Just one more” is Lina’s motto in life), we were back on the long dirt road, headed back to the big city.


Delta does it again

April 29, 2010

I fly mostly Southwest and Delta. Seems I’m always writing love letters to Southwest and the opposite to Delta. Here’s the latest.

Wessel and I were booked on a flight from NC to Amsterdam, via Atlanta on Wednesday, with a comfy two-hour connection window. On Monday, we got word that the flight was canceled and they were routing us through Detroit, with only a 45-minute connection. That always makes me nervous, but there it was.

Sure enough, the plane left NC 30 minutes late. To top things off, once we got in, with just enough time to spare if we were quick, the plank between the airport and the plane didn’t work properly and we were stuck on the plane for an extra five minutes, maybe more. Even the pilot was yelling at the terminal workers to get moving. When the plank went down, about five of us did our best OJ sprints (remember those?) to our gates a half a mile away. (Of course I asked every Delta person I could to please advise the Amsterdam flight that we were on our way.)

Wessel made it there first, JUST as they were closing the door. Seriously. Not only would they not let us on the plane – here’s the totally annoying part – they said they had no record of us (thanks for alerting the gate, Delta folks) and that the computer had already rebooked us to leave the next day. (We heard different stories from different Delta people about this process.) We managed to get hotel and meal vouchers, and took an overnight kit in lieu of waiting two hours to get our luggage.

Things happen, and though this is a terrible inconvenience, causing us to miss Queen’s Day Eve festivities tonight (waaaaaaaahhhh….),  miss seeing a dear friend, and to pay for a hotel in Amsterdam we’re not using, etc., I realize it’s not the biggest deal in the world. It’s not a weeklong stay because of volcanic ash.

But what really gets to me, and what we the people remain up in arms about, is the airlines’ lack of caring about individuals. You’re a cog in the machine, and if your situation doesn’t fit their machine, even if they caused the situation, so be it.

Rant concluded.

Don’t bother knockin’ if my brain is rockin’

March 26, 2010
I was thrilled to be able to get the word out via a story in the Washington Post’s health section (reprinted below) about the crazy travel-related illness that I and others suffer from.  It’s called Mal de Debarquement, or MdDS, and is commonly (but not exclusively) triggered by going on a cruise. The main symptom is a constant rocking feeling, like you’re still on the boat. My big news is that I think the disease goddess chose to reward me for writing the story, because my “motion hallucination” seems to have finally dissipated after six months.  Read on if you’re interested in this fascinating blip of the brain, and spread the word so doctors will finally believe us!

Rare disorder makes people feel off balance for weeks or months

By Diane Daniel
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 16, 2010 

When Claudette Broyles tries to describe to friends how she feels, she likens herself to a balloon on a string, tied to a post.

“I’m constantly rocking and swaying, but the level changes,” said Broyles, 60, of Woodstock, Va. “If I’m having an average day, then it’s like I’m a balloon in a mild breeze. If I’m having a bad day, it’s like it’s really windy.”

I hadn’t heard the balloon analogy before, but I could relate.

This sailing trip in the Virgin Islands triggered my second bout of MdDS, in 2003

Broyles and I suffer from mal de debarquement syndrome (MdDS), an uncommon balance disorder that one researcher describes as “motion hallucination.” For weeks, months or even years at a time, we feel that we are rocking, bobbing, swaying, even though diagnostic tests for balance, hearing and vision show up normal. The name for the illness is French for “disembarkation sickness,” so called because it most frequently occurs after being on a boat.

Of course, many people have experienced the swaying sensations that occur just after a boat trip. But for those with MdDS, that feeling doesn’t let up; it persists with varying degrees of severity, causing everything from clumsiness to the inability to walk without some kind of support.

Just how many sufferers there are is unknown, says neurologist Yoon-Hee Cha, who this year launched a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the first time federal money has been used for research into the syndrome.

“We don’t know how many people suffer from MdDS since many people are not able to get the right diagnosis,” she said. “Until there is more widespread familiarity among physicians, we won’t know for sure.” She isn’t sure who gave MdDS its name, but she believes it was first diagnosed in the late 1980s.

Cha, of UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, uses neuro-imaging to try to identify the location in the brain affected during MdDS episodes, with the hope of finding a treatment and a cure.

“It’s a real disorder, even though patients don’t look sick. It’s still very under-recognized among physicians, so a lot of patients are educating their doctors about it,” she said.

Broyles is going through her fifth round of MdDS in 28 years. Most episodes, she believes, were triggered by boats, but the latest occurred after a turbulent flight from England. The first two subsided within a few weeks, and the other two within six months. Her most recent? It has lasted eight years — so far. The disorder prompted her to move from Fairfax to slower-paced Woodstock and has altered her life in many areas, she said.


Lugging, Hugging, and mugging on the plane

December 14, 2009

This Snuz fleece blanket is perfect for snuggling and snoozing

Covered in fuzzy orange with a pink flashlight thingie wrapped around my neck, I was quite the sight on our 10-hour flight to the Netherlands a few weeks ago. It was all in the name of work. I do very little product testing, although I get invites to do so frequently. I just don’t need more stuff lying around the house. But occasionally things appeal to me enough to check them out. That was the case with the Snuz Sac by Lug and the HUG Light from ShowerTek, both sent to me free by the manufacturers. (Color choices were mine. Can’t you tell?) 

LL Bean's LED baseball cap is a great grilling accessory

If I hated them both, I could say “Lug. Hug. Ugh.” But, OK, that wasn’t the case, so that was a missed opportunity. 

First, the light. As a camper, I’ve long been obsessed with hands-free lighting, and got a headlamp as soon as stores carried them. Later I fell in love with LL Bean’s LED baseball cap. Then along came the HUGlight  ($19). It’s a one-piece, hands-free, flexible LED light, 13 inches long when stretched out. I love them all. 

Diane appreciates the versatile HUGlight

The beauty is in its flexibility and versatility. When you wear an LED headlamp, you can’t look someone in the eye or you’ll blind them. With the lightweight HUG, you can direct the light more appropriately. Lights are at both ends and have three settings. You can also prop it up in a coil or cobra for a little mini table lamp, or hook it over something. On the plane I used it for reading at night, because I hate the too-high airplane lights, and for help in locating the numerous items I dropped under my seat. Glasses, pens, etc. 

Diane inflates her Snuz Sac neck pillow

Now, the Snuz Sac ($30).  Love the Snuz! Hate the Sac! Which means I should have chosen the Nap Sac ($28), which was an option. Here’s what they have in common — the softest fleece blanket ever! (It’s 35 x 46 inches)  Just looking at mine makes me drowsy. Touching it makes me cuddly. 

The Nap Sac has a little pouch with blow-up pillow and blankie. Pouch becomes pillowcase, about the size of an airplane pillow. Ta-da. Simple. 

The Snuz is a different story. The pouch is in the shape of a neck pillow, the inflatable type that every long-distance flyer must own. You take the blanket out of the pouch. Inside is a little blowup pillow in the shape of said neck pillow. You must cram that inside the sac. I didn’t like the feel of it, so reverted to my old, much-uglier neck pillow. The most annoying part is when you’re packing up. You take out plastic pillow, deflate it, then roll up and try to cram the blanket into a sac that is the shape of a neck pillow. Too many steps and too annoying, and who wants to carry around something in the shape of a neck pillow? 

Diane loves the blanket, but is totally faking it with that uncomfy pillow

But I loved that dang blanket and it is partly the reason that I slept a few hours on the way to Amsterdam (though it didn’t work a minute of its magic on the way home). 

I’ve never thought to bring my own blanket on a plane, but from now on, if I can afford the space, I will. I’ll put my Snuz blankie in a compression bag or Ziploc and carry my own ugly inflatable pillow, thereby making my own Nap Sac, which I should have gotten in the first place.

To Delta: it shouldn’t be so difficult

May 26, 2009

I’m fuming about Delta‘s online SkyMiles redemption, which took us 2.5 hours to complete. That was half our afternoon.

Amsterdam, a pie in the sky?

How hard could it be to get to Amsterdam on the same flight? Very, it seemed.

Wessel and I tried to book November flights to Amsterdam  by sitting side by side at our respective laptops, plugging in the same information. On most tries different flights were showing up on our screens. We’d try again and then a new set of flights would show than before, and again different on each of our screens. Ridiculous. So we called to make reservations on the phone — for $20 a pop. We were still working online as well, and voila, we each got the same flights on our screens. So we decided to go ahead and book our flights online. We were plugging in our info. and I was actually ahead of him. Just as I entered my credit card info., it said the flight was no longer available. However, it went through on his end.

Booking two Delta tickets online turned out to be a  heavy lifting activity

It takes heavy lifting to book two matching Delta awards tickets online

So now I was locked out and he had a flight. I tried a few more times. Nothing. So I called customer service and asked if we could change his flight and we’d start over with a new itinerary and book both our flights on the phone. To change his flight would be $100, they said, and they wouldn’t waive it, though they had the power to. I spoke with a supervisor who finally, after hearing me cite “total unfairness” a dozen times, said “since you booked online, the online department can void the transaction.” Um, thanks for telling me — finally!

Of course, who knew if the the online department *would* cancel the transition. Guess what? They did! I think mostly because Wessel is a “silver platinum member.” That seemed to impress them.

Good Goes Around! Really?

Delta should practice what it preaches and spread a little goodness around

So, we started over. This time on the phone. No way were we going through that online hell again. I got a totally on-the-ball agent who, after going through some similar frustrations we did, booked us tickets. Wouldn’t you know that the number of miles needed went up on one of them. Just like that.

Here’s what really bugs me. Delta charges $20 to book on the phone instead of online, but it’s impossible to book two matching tickets online. Grrrr….

Moral of story: if you’re trying to get on the same flight but paying separately, HOLD one, don’t buy it, until you know you can get the other. However, does a hold really guarantee a price? I have my doubts.

Bottom line: It shouldn’t be this difficult. It’s disgusting to charge $20 to book on the phone when booking online seems impossible. This is why I fly only Southwest when possible. No fees for changing flights. No phone fees. No second-bag fee, for that matter. I LUV Southwest even more now.

I’m back in LUV with Southwest

May 18, 2009
Diane is back in business as Southwest's ambassador

Diane is officially back in business as Southwest's ambassador

If you’ll recall from a previous posting, Wessel, and I had Southwest Airlines dividend miles we couldn’t use before they expired in early May. Then we learned that one can extend the miles for a year for $50. Not a bad deal!

When I called to extend mine in Feb. I was told that the one-year extension started the day I requested it instead of a year from the expiration date, so would expire Feb. 19, 2010. That would be in effect cutting three months off my rewards time! So I chose to wait and call back in May, so it would be good until May 2010.

Southwest airplanes at Tampa International Airport

Airplanes at Tampa International Airport

I called Wessel to warn him. Too late. Not only had he already extended his a few hours earlier, he specifically verified that the new extension date was April 25, 2010. “Are you sure,” I asked him twice. “Yes,” he said. “Well, if I were you I’d call back and check.” Sure enough, the new representative he got told him the expiration date is Feb. 19, 2010. Not only did he lose two months on his award period, they said they couldn’t change the date or issue him a refund. Even I called and pleaded his case, to no avail, though I was encouraged to write a letter to Customer Service.

Meanwhile, being a travel writer and all, I complained about the policy to a Southwest media relations person. What I loved about his response was 1) he didn’t try to gloss things over and 2) he wasn’t offering me special favors. I always hate when I’m offered a favor because I’m “press.” What I want is for policies to change for everyone. Special treatment to me doesn’t help anyone but me.

Here’s part of his reply:

Apologies were expressed for a policy not in the `Spirit` of Southwest

A forgiving customer service department honored the spirit of Southwest

“The truth is, we don’t receive many complaints about this policy, and it is very unusual for one of our Agents to misinform our Members of the expiration date. (He also later apologized for that misinformation.) In fact, we often hear from our Members who praise us for the generous policy of extending the Awards for a $50 fee. …. Unfortunately, we can’t make an exception to our rules — if we did it for one, in all fairness, we would need to do it for all, and I’m afraid that’s not something we can do. We’re terribly sorry we’ve disappointed such a long-time, happy Customer, and we hope that you and Wessel will have the opportunity to take a trip before your Awards expire.”

200905_34_SouthwestJust for fun, I wrote a letter to Customer Service anyway, as a customer not a media person. A week later, they called! They gave Wessel the extra time! They made an exception for a loyal customer! That was cool. Even the media guy was surprised when I later emailed him with the news.

All is forgiven. I’m back to LUVing Southwest. Phew.

Alas, my LUV affair with Southwest dims

February 20, 2009

There’s an update to this here. I’ll link to the new posting as soon as I get it up. Southwest is back in my good graces. Well, except for that stupid Sports Illustrated swimsuit-decorated plane. What were they thinking?

Dear Southwest,

You probably don’t know how many times I’ve sung your praises, but it’s been often and it’s been in print. Well, now I have a criticism and a big disappointment.

My husband, Wessel Kok, and I were planning to use our Rapid Rewards Awards in April 2009 before they expired. But then we had to change our plans. So we decided to take you up on your kind offer to extend the expiration date “for a year” for an additional $50. Wessel’s Award was to expire on April 25, 2009, and mine on May 15, 2009. We already decided we’d likely use them for a trip to Boston in April 2010. (We’re so happy you’re adding Boston!)

When I called to extend mine I was told that the one-year extension started the day I requested it, so would expire Feb. 19, 2010. That is not good customer service! That would be in effect cutting three months off my rewards time! So I chose to wait and call back mid-May, so it would be good until May 2010.

The LUV affair with Southwest is fading

The LUV affair with Southwest is fading

I called Wessel to warn him. Too late. Not only had he already extended his a few hours earlier, he specifically verified that the new extension date was April 25, 2010. “Are you sure,” I asked him twice. “Yes,” he said. “Well, if I were you I’d call back and check.” Sure enough, the new representative he got told him the expiration date is Feb. 19, 2010. Not only did he lose two months on his award period, they said they couldn’t change the date or issue him a refund. So there goes our awards trip to Boston in April. Even I called and pleaded his case, to no avail, though I was encouraged to write a letter to Customer Service. And so here it is.

To your credit, I see that you do have something on your website (the rep helped me locate it) that says “Awards are reissued with a new, 12-month validity period that begins on the date that the request is processed.” Funny how that one rule is listed in bold type, when the others aren’t. That leads me to believe this happens to many customers, and I’m sure they’re as unhappy as we are.

The crazy thing is you also have a very generous Award policy on the flip side. If a customer doesn’t use or renew an Award, he/she has up to two years to still extend it for $50. Now that sounds like the Southwest I know and LUV. So on one hand you’re in effect giving some people extra years, while on the other hand, you’re short-changing those of us who are trying to plan ahead and didn’t read the fine print or, even worse, were given the wrong information.

What I’ve often praised Southwest for is making it easy and affordable to make changes. In this instance, you’ve fallen very, very short. At least by a few months. I’d LUV to hear how you justify this consumer-unfriendly rule.


Diane Daniel, a very loyal customer

Is that a bike in your pocket?

January 19, 2009
This folding bike can be fit into a suitcase to take on an airplane

A folded Downtube

Deciding that we were going to buy folding bicycles for our birthdays was the easy part for Wessel and me. Choosing the bikes is the challenge. For those of you who have never seen or heard of a folding bicycle, the name pretty much sums it up. Some fold quicker than others, some are more comfortable for long-distance riding, some are lighter, some fold smaller. Prices range from $400 to $4,000 and up. So many options, so many opinions! Argh….Some people use their folders for mostly commuting — hopping on and off buses and trains with their bikes in hand. Wessel and I are more interested in having them for our many travels, especially when we fly, whether domestically or overseas. The money we fork over for the occasional rental or oversized luggage shipping of our own bikes could pay for folding bikes in five years or so.

Bruce Hermann from Neighborhood Transportation came to Durham with several Bike Friday models

Bruce Hermann sets up shop

While there are many good folders out there, the Bike Friday brand in Portland, Eugene, Ore., always rises to the top. The closest BF dealer to us, Neighborhood Transportation, is a couple hours away, near Winston-Salem. So we brought the store to us and made a party out of it. Owner Bruce Hermann was kind enough to bring several bikes for us to try out in exchange for me inviting the local cycling community. Think of it as the bike version of a Tupperware party.


Diane tests a BF road bike

This Bike Friday Pocket Rocket Pro rides like a standard road bike

Folding-bike types can be a little, um, zealous, about their bikes, and so we had a nice supply of zealots on hand as well, who brought these makes: Dahon, Xootr (the scooter not the bike), Mobiky, Strida, and Downtube. Bruce also brought a Breezer folder, and our pals at Cycle 9 in Carrboro, who are Downtube dealers, showed up later in the afternoon with several models. A handful of Bike Friday models were on hand. Perhaps the star attraction was the “tikit,” which BF hawks as the fastest folder available, and geared toward the urban commuter. Did I forget anyone? (A link at the end of this leads to more photos.)

Bruce’s other thing is recumbent bikes, those low-riders that stretch your legs and let the rest of you rest, so he brought a few of those as well, both two wheel and three-wheel models. I loved the three-wheeler. No balance needed! I have several friends who ride recumbents in traffic, but I’m still not up for being that down.

Diane likes this BF New World Tourist

Diane likes this BF New World Tourist

For overall style, I loved the Bike Friday Pocket Rocket Pro, which really is more a road bike than touring bike, and I really need a touring bike that can go on a variety of terrains. So forget the Pocket Rocket, which starts at $1,700. Just as well. For me it’s down to the New World Tourist, which starts at $1,100 and the Pocket Crusoe, which starts at $1,400. The PC does a little more of what I want, but, oh, I just can’t decide. Much customization is available, meaning more options. ARGH…. Custom colors are another $150, which I think is way too much. But I so prefer purple to red. The only way I can justify any of this spending is to not look at my end-of-year financial statements. I will add that cycling is by far my top activity, and my newest bike is 12 years old. Does that help? Of course I could check out used BFs, which means even more research. Maybe by my next birthday I’ll have my folding bike.

Wessel, who is both more budget-minded and less name-brand inclined, is likely going with one of the Downtubes, which costs around $400. And it’s orange! Of course it would make so much more sense if we both had the same bike, but since when do we do things because they make the most sense?

Click here for more photos of folders, recumbents, and friendly folks modeling during our folding fest.

Can strawberries earn dividend miles?

January 13, 2009
Moveable Feasts paperback cover art

"Moveable Feasts" paperback cover art

I’ve been meaning to write about “Moveable Feasts,” for, um, more than a year. This wonderful book recently came out in paperback, so there’s my hook. It’s a travel book, food book, history book, and transportation book all stirred into one sophisticated stew. Subtitle: “From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat.” The author, Sarah Murray, a regular Financial Times contributor, has a longtime fascination with shipping containers and the transport of goods. While that may sound odd, think of it this way: look around you and consider how probably everything within your sight was shipped in from somewhere. Now can you understand her fascination? She said she wrote about the shipment of food because it’s a tangible thing everyone can related to.

Moveable Feasts by Sarah Morgan

Murray’s book coincidentally came out when the notion of “food miles” — that is the distance that food is shipped — was starting to be talked up. Two beliefs that have come out of that movement are that having food shipped in instead of locally grown is a modern concept, and that the miles food travels is of the utmost factor in regards to environmental issues. While Murray wasn’t out to counter those arguments, two points she makes in her book in effect do. Food has been transported for centuries, including the ancient Romans shipping in olive oil from other Mediterranean areas. And individuals driving their cars to farmers markets, for instance, potentially produce more carbon than one large food-filled shipping container crossing the ocean. I’m not asking you to buy that one without more information, but it’s an interesting point to ponder.

Sarah Murray; photo Paul Morgan

Sarah Murray; photo Paul Morgan

But what I love most about “Moveable Feasts” are the stories Murray shares from around the world, from the crazy and efficient lunchbox distribution system in India to the harvesting of strawberries in space and the travels of Norwegian salmon to China for deboning before being shipped back to Norway for eating. I also enjoyed the chapters on grain elevators and modern design, old Soviet planes being used to deliver  UN aid food to southern Sudan, and airplane food in general. An aside in the airline chapter really resonated with me — an observation by flight attendants that passengers, whose palates are dulled by flying, break out of their normal drinking habits, often by drinking Bloody Mary mix or tomato juice. Indeed, on every flight, Wessel orders tomato juice. I’ve not seen him drink it anywhere else, and we’ve never had it at home. I’ve always thought that was so weird. Now I discover that his quirk is hardly unique. Too funny.

I attended a reading by Murray in Durham at the Regulator and was riveted by her show-and-tell presentation. She started with a “tiffin tin,” the Indian lunchbox, and I was hooked from there. She told us her next project is a book on funerary customs around the world, which includes not only funerals but the set of beliefs and practices a culture uses to honor and remember the dead.

I emailed her about her progress not long ago and got this reply: “I’ve been doing a lot of travelling for the new book — Mexico for Day of the Dead, Bali for the most spectacular royal cremation; Palermo, Sicily, to a macabre catacomb of fully dressed 19th-century Italian mummies! And next, to Iran for the Ashura mourning festival and the ancient Zoroastrian Towers of Silence.” OK, Sarah, get that book finished so we can read it!

Soar like a bird, if you dare

November 10, 2008
Diane in glider plane with pilot, Philippe Heer in back seat

Diane in glider with pilot Philippe Heer

Here are some things I’m pretty sure I’ll never do: hang glide, skydive, parasail, scuba dive. OK, maybe I’ll scuba dive, but you get the idea. The Ferris wheel is my idea of a thrilling carnival ride. So, when offered the chance to go gliding, or “soaring” as it’s called, why did I jump at it? I have no idea. Except that I’m not afraid of flying, and I have pondered, in a very distant and random way, taking flying lessons. And, oh yeah, it was free.

The hatch is closed to prepare for take off

The hatch is closed to prepare for takeoff

A glider ride was offered as an activity option during the annual convention of the Society of American Travel Writers, held last month in Houston. The club that sponsored the rides, the Greater Houston Soaring Association, wants to get the word out that 1) soaring is cool and 2) Texas, with a large number of thermals, is a great place to do it. What’s a thermal, you ask? Well, it’s not underwear. In short, thermals are columns of warm and therefore buoyant rising air. They’re what birds use to fly for days without stopping. You can read more about them here.

Glider plane is ready for take off

Similar glider is ready for takeoff

A glider, which has no motor, operates on physics. Once it’s hoisted into the air (in our case, towed up by a Cessna), it can move much farther horizontally than vertically. The more aerodynamic the plane, the longer it can stay aloft. Our “training planes” could go 28 feet horizontally for every 1-foot vertical drop. For more advanced planes, the ratio is 60 to 1. That’s without the help of thermals.

But, the fun part is “thermaling,” where the plane catches a thermal and stays aloft even longer. Thermals are energy sources, so riding one is like filling the gas tank. There are other forces that help keep the “ship,” as hobbyists call gliders, in the air, including heat and even mountains. The physics behind this stuff is truly fascinating. The guys at the Houston-area gliderport (just east of Wallis) said the record for a glider is 2,500 miles in flight, in the Andes. Whoa!

Cessna pulls glider plane as seen from Diane's position

Cessna pulls glider as seen from Diane`s position. Note the red yaw string.

The ships come with a stick and rudder, altimeter and barometer and air speed indicator. But experienced pilots say you can feel everything that’s happening and don’t really need the instruments. What they do watch is direction of the “yaw string,” usually a piece of yarn taped to the front of the plane. We were amused to see gliders worth thousands of dollars sporting little pieces of yarn attached with duct tape.

So, what was it like up there? There were about 35 of us going up, and the vast majority loved it and wanted to do it all over again. And then there were a few who said, “never again.” Guess which side I was on? As soon as the hatch closed and we took off, I thought, what the hell am I doing in this little fiberglass tube? I don’t do things like this!

Diane in front of two-seater plane

Diane takes the controls (not really)

I was in the front of the two-seater, with my patient pilot, Philippe Heer, suffering through my operatic near-screams (I did warn him) every time we banked or bumped over warm air pockets. We had time to catch just one thermal, and I could feel us rise up almost 2,000 feet. Intellectually I was totally excited. Physically, I was ready to get back on terra firma. It was a smooth ride, relatively speaking, and I wasn’t at all afraid of crashing, I just didn’t like the effect on my stomach.

When I compared notes with my fellow fliers, most of them had gleefully taken over the controls for a brief time, but I wasn’t remotely tempted. One of them was thrilled to be treated (upon request) to “negative G force,” or weightless flying for a short period, without gravity. Ugh.

Plane returns to grassy landing strip

Coming in for a landing

From the ship, the view was lovely and setting was peaceful, and I can understand how flying by the law of physics could be an addictive hobby. If you’re interested, visit the Soaring Society of America website and find the gliderports nearest you. Most places offer short rides to the public, for around $75. Me, I’m sticking to bicycling.

(A tip o’ the hat to my SATW colleague Kari Bodnarchuk for taking photos of me. Kari, by the way, loved the flight. She’d glided before and couldn’t wait to go again.)