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 'We sent our pupils for a day a week gliding, in the months
when the gliding station wasn't very busy.'

(Extract from State School, by R.F. Mackenzie. Press here for full quote.
The Fife Fliers

Hamish M. Brown goes aloft with Braehead School and writes his impressions.
Photographs from Mr David Scott (technical department).

The heavy doors slide back to reveal a long, gloomy cavern in
which silver-scaled monsters lie limp and quite.

Then the boys and girls surge forward. The spell is broken. The cavern is a long hanger, the monsters sleek gliders lined one behind the other – awkward, for the school's "No. 286" lies in mid-line. A wave of direction and the trolley slides under the wheel of the first. Slowly it is pulled sidewards into the open, then the next: a Falke this time, a powered glider with a Volkswagon engine (the same one which recently crossed the Atlantic).

"No. 284" was next, the school's "Capstan", a stiff, angular craft, lifeless on the trolley, like a bird with cut primaries. Slowly it is pulled out into the open. Someone at each wing, for a strong to gale force wind is blowing off Loch Leven.

The scene is Portmoak, the airfield of the Scottish Gliding Union, lying beside Loch Leven in Fife with the Lomond Hills standing a couple of miles across the rich farmland. The figures, muffled against the cold, were from Auchmuty and Braehead Schools in Fife. At the latter I teach outdoor activities like mountaineering – but this was to be a new way of going high.

Every Monday Mr. David Scott and Mr. Douglas Clark are at Portmoak with the school's teenagers: garbed in pilot's suits, booted and – I almost said 'spurred' – gloved. In winter it is cold work. The north west wind was bending the hedges and holding the windsock out horizontally. The loch was washed into white horses. People muttered about 'turbulence', grinning in expectation.

Gliding is very much a team effort – right to the moment when you soar off the ground into the blue. The Capstan was wheeled to the end of the runway and held down by heavy tyres. Left alone the wind could flip it away in destructive somersaults. Responsibility starts right away when the hangar doors are slid noisily open.

The checks are gone through, panels opened to see the inards, rudder, ailerons, air brakes pushed this way and that.

     A gang came out from the club-house with parachutes slung over their shoulders.

David Scott slipped into his rapidly while helping hands aided me into mine. The perspex canopy was lifted while we climbed in. safety straps pinned us to the bucket seats. The lid closed. The winch cable was attached under the nose.

"All clear above and behind"

"Take up slack"

"A climbers phrase" I thought in the pause. The winch half a mile away down the track tightened on the cable. The grinning faces had all retreated.

"All out" (not an order to disembark)

"Flat out" might have been better. We shot off down the runway and almost at once rose into the air. The dials spun upwards: the height indicator like a watch with a hour hand pointing the hundreds of feet and the minute hand the tens of feet.

The world falls away. The only sound is the rush and the hum of wind over the streamlined body and the quite commentary of the instructor. The landscape expands, circled mile by mile, till it is map-like and distant – strangely familiar, for it is the sort of view as from a high mountain, but what an effortless ascent!

The tow cable falls away, its dark parachute drifting down again to the airfield ready for the next launching. Two gliders were already soaring above – one to go up to 20,000 ft., that morning.

"We'll go across to the Bishops now"; crab-wise we sidle across the fields.

"Quite a bit of turbulence," but it seemed surprisingly smooth.

"Now watch us climb."

The uplift caught us, the dials spun again. Four knots per second the vertical gain! Then at 2,000 ft., the stick was pushed forward. We leveled out.

The snowy cone of Schiehallion could be seen to the north. Dundee appeared on the starboard side beyond the Tay – while to port lay the Forth Bridges and Edinburgh.

"Here, you take over"


"Relax. Look at the wing. Now if you push this way it dips. Now the other – up it comes. Now try to keep it level. Gently. Now push the stick forward – the nose dips. Up again gently. Now try and keep her pointing to Castle Island….."

As well it was dual control. The touch of control is gentle and the feeling is of thrilling calm. Rather like a good ski run, where body and skis become one, so the pilot and the glider he flies is a living unit – so different from the machine in the hanger or on the ground.

The winter geese were flying in too – fighting against the gale. Over the Lomonds the grass waved in passing lines of bending colour.

Too soon we spun round to race before the wind, a tight turn and the airfield was rushing towards us, the ground wind beating over the hedges rocked us, we bounced on the small wheels and sped over the grass, figures ran out towards us, catching the wings before they tilted, the canopy was opened.

"Well sir, how did it go?"

"Great. Just great."

We had lunch in the "club-house" then I went off by car and toiled up the 1,000ft of Bishop Hill to take photographs from there. I could hardly stand in the gale. But it was well worth it. Snow buntings flew past.

Then a white shape rose from the airfield. Slow, slow it seemed from up there. The parachute fell away. Gradually the glider grew in size till it was swooshing at us, then up and away on the uplift. We exchanged waves – and went our ways.

Lucky boys and girls I thought as I passed the airfield again. "No. 286" was ready for launching again. I could imagine the conversation.

"All clear above and behind"

"Take up slack"

"All out"

And with a rush another pupil headed into the wide clear sky.

Lucky indeed.

Text by Hamish Brown and the images of the pupils of Braehead gliding at
Portmoak were donated by Mr David Scott (technical department).

Are you in any of these photographs above?
Do you know someone who appears in any of the photographs above?

Yes! Then e-mail me with the details. Thanks

Link to Scottish Gliding Centre Web site.

The Scottish Gliding Centre

The Scottish Gliding Centre,
Portmoak Airfield,
Near Kinross,
KY13 9JJ.

(extract from 'State School' (1970), written by R.F. Mackenzie)

We sent our pupils for a day a week gliding, in the months when the gliding station wasn't that busy. Some of the pupils had included this study in the work they were doing for the Duke of Edinburgh Award. For our youngsters, aiming at the Bronze Award, this meant proficiency in ground handling of gliders, launching procedures, signalling, the pre-flight cockpit check, and instrument reading and setting. It meant also five instructional flights, a knowledge of the rules of the air, and making a model glider and using it to demonstrate normal flight, the stall and the effect of trim changes.

Being under sixteen, our pupils were not permitted to go solo. On each visit to the airfield they got one flight. But they were kept busy throughout the day driving the tractor and assisting in the routine of launching. They took a responsible part in this drill, realizing that safety was involved and that the more efficiently the drill was carried out, the more the flights that would be launched. Pupils labelled 'difficult' in school (which sometimes means that they are not so docile as their fellows), pupils who resisted attempts to teach them quadratic equations or the exports of the Philippines and who, strangely enough, took no interest in the marital adventures of Henry VIII, sprang into lively activity when faced with the launching drill. Their instructors, members of the school staff (able glider pilots with a background of service experience, and not easily pleased), were delighted with the reactions of the pupils.

Flying was the thing. Then, when the delighted and fearful shock and thrill of the first flight was broadening into a relaxed understanding of the requirements of successful gliding, the instructors introduced the classroom work. But flying came first.

We asked the pupils to write down how they felt on their first flight. Nearly all of them were, before the trip, 'sort of nervous' or had 'butterflies in my stomach', and had the feeling of having their stomachs coming out of their mouths as they were being launched into the air. They all enjoyed the smoothness when the cable was released and they were released and they were airborne and independent of ground ties. One boy wrote, 'It was the most exciting think I have done. The first thing you feel when you climb into the cockpit is of being scared but when you have been reassured that it will be all right, it is better. The instructor tells how to manoeuvre the glider and then you are hauled up. Once you have released the cable it is quite a feeling to be dependent on yourself. When the glider dives you get a funny feeling but it was a very good day.'

As an English teacher I was interested to see if the pupils would be able to put vividly on paper a new a memorable experience. Most Scottish primary schools are absorbed in teaching pupils the rules of writing and they damp down or indeed quench a youngster's delight in the bright ring of words. I have often thought about the contrast between the wooden, lifeless and timid way in which they handle written words and the confidence and enjoyment with which they handle print. I had put the contrast down to the fact that primary schools do so little art that pupils come to the secondary school without any prejudice against a paint brush. I had thought that if teachers in the primary school wearied pupils with art as much as they now do with English, then their painting would be as dull as their writing. But a distinguished Scottish poet told me that using words is quite different from using paint and, if I understood him right, that you can't hope to use words vividly until you have served an apprenticeship in the feel and relationship and value of words, in the craft of writing. This is a question to which I hope we shall be one day able to give a clearer answer. In the meantime here is part of an account written by one of the boys:

'After the signal was given to the winch, the glider started to move. Then it left the ground and soared into the air. The glider rose steadily, until it reached the length of the cable, the cable was released and the glider rose gracefully like a huge bird over Loch Leven. There was a wonderful view of a few islands sticking out of the mist. You thought the plane was hardly moving. It turned gently sideways towards the hill. It flew over the airfield, turned, and landed smoothly. Each of us handled the controls, and flew the glider. It was great.'

As a contrast, here are extracts from what the girls wrote. One of them, who, the instructor said, had what seemed like a natural gift for flying and handled the controls with relaxed under standing, wrote this:

'What I found very extraordinary was how long the wire stretched which pulls the glider into the air. I never would have believed it but when I was in the air I didn't want to go back down again.'

Another girl wrote:

'The views were lovely. We saw swans flying overhead and also boys bringing in turnips in the fields below us.'

Back in school, the pupils learn something of the theory of flight. It is no longer a remote, academic question, how a body which is heavier than air can stay in the air for so long. The study of weather becomes relevant. If it's your day for gliding, the approach of depressions, warm or cold fronts, the forecasting of the weather, is something intimately intertwined with your happiness. If you want to become a good glider pilot, you have to try to learn about thermals, from a few short lessons, as much as a seagull gets out of a life's experience. And experience of gliding gives the pupils the ability to envisage the third dimension when he looks at a map. When he looks down on Fife from a thousand feet and sees Loch Leven and Kinross, roads and a railway and cars and farms and woods and a river, and the Lomond Hills strangely flat-looking from that height, he may begin to take a new, lively interest in maps, seeing them not as diagrams but as a kind of bird's-eye view (or glider's-eye view) of the earth beneath. And it is a wonderful experience for a fourteen-year old pupil to see a large part of his home county not as a series of snapshots taken from a bus run or a cycle run, diminishing in clarity the farther it gets from the main road, but as a whole, and to realize that this is the part of the earth's wrinkled surface on which he has his being.

Coleridge said that is was one of the functions of poetry to let people see things freshly and with a sense of wonder. He could have said the same of education. We have to use everything that lies to our hand to tell our pupils of the earth's wonders. Our pupils, playing with the computer, had discovered what was for them a new truth, that multiplication is merely repeated addition. Gliding has a similar effect, and after even one trip, they return to school seeing life with a new freshness. And I think that getting their heads into the clouds once in a while has helped them to put their feet more firmly on the ground.

End of extract from 'State School' (1970)

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