18 Nov

Where eagles fly

Words by
Lauren Mitchell
Pictures by
AJ Taylor

Up in the clear blue sky above Raywood, the world’s worries don’t even register.

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You expect to learn a new term or two when delving into a niche sport. But “pie cart” came out of the blue. At first, I failed to register the flying machines at the Bendigo Gliding Club for the faded 1950s International van blowing plumes of smoke across the airfield.

Turns out every gliding club around the world has such a pie cart, or a version of. The Bendigo club’s former CFA van would have to be a one-off. It’s a place to keep its logbooks, radio and communications equipment, plus to find respite on hot or cold days under the Raywood sky.

The Bendigo Gliding Club has been providing locals with wings since 1979. It has more than 40 members, from teenagers to octogenarians, and attracts all demographics. “We’ve had doctors and garbage collectors,” says flying instructor Craig Dilks. “It’s not elitist and pretty much anyone can learn how to fly.” Craig is just the one to teach them, too.

This is Craig’s 30th year in the air. “I’ve basically hung around gliding clubs all my life,” he says, having accompanied his fellow flight-loving dad as a kid. “I worked out I was crap at football and not interested in cricket, and when I could finally reach the gliding controls, I was hooked. This is my addiction.”

COVID-19 lockdowns aside, Craig is here at this green and glorious site north of Bendigo every weekend, sharing his love and knowledge of the sport. For him, it represents freedom. “It gives me freedom and a lot of stress relief. When you’re flying, you’re not thinking of anything else, you’re purely in the moment.”

Craig volunteers his time to teach others, in the club-owned tandem glider. The aim being for people to gain the skills to fly themselves. He says there have been many highlights over his years of gliding, but the biggest was his first solo flight. “March 21st, 1992,” he says. “It was only 12 minutes, but I remember every single detail of that flight.”

When club member Mark Kerr had his first glider flight at the age of 19, it was likewise an experience he never forgot. “I didn’t fly again until I was about 40, and still it never left me, all that time,” Mark says. “When I found out there was a gliding club in Bendigo I came out, had a fly, and never turned back.”

The club boasts three gliders and a tow plane. There are two large hangars, a cosy clubhouse, and plans for expansion. The club has just bought part of a neighbouring paddock to accommodate an east-west airstrip and eliminate the difficulties of landing in a crosswind. Mark says it’s about making gliding accessible to anyone who dreams of flying.

“Gliding is a good way to get airborne because it’s fairly cheap, it’s challenging and it’s good fun,” he says. “Gliding is not like anything else. It’s not like a roller coaster or a Cessna or a hang glider. It’s more like being an eagle. You’re flying with eagles, because they want to be in that thermal, the same as you.”

Once a glider is towed into the air by the powered tow plane and the tow rope is released, it stays airborne via various forms of lift, including ridges, wave and, more usually in central Victoria, thermals. Thermals occur when the ground is heated by the sun and a parcel of heated air ascends, often to many thousands of feet. If a glider is flown to stay in that column of rising air, by circling, the glider will also be swept aloft. After the pilot reaches the top of the thermal, they fly off, gradually losing height, until they reach the next one. Just like eagles, AKA “the residents”.

“This place is actually a really good spot,” Mark says on the conditions needed to glide. “The reason we see so many eagles out here is because it’s a great spot for thermals.” He says the open spaces and large farms are good for producing thermals, plus offer plenty of places to land if a glider doesn’t make it back to the airfield.

Mark will never forget the “vortex of eagles” he looked down and found sharing the same thermal one day. “I didn’t want to disturb them because they’re territorial, so I left them alone, but I’ve never forgotten them,” he says.

“Another memorable time was when the sun was setting low, and below me it looked like there were stars on the ground, and I realised it was all the farm dams, reflecting the light up, and I was just at the right angle to see it. Every flight is unique.”

Mark says it’s moments like these that take you far, far away from the world below. “It’s one of the reasons I actually fly. When you fly, nothing else takes your concentration and you leave it all on the ground, all your worries.”

Terry Bellair started gliding in 1963. He had a 30-year hiatus where he raced sailboats instead, before returning to the air. A cross-country flyer, he boasts the feat of flying 1000km in 10 hours.

“Every day’s different,” he says. “You read the weather reports, and then you get up in the air and you find out what it’s really doing.” He says in that sense, there are lots of similarities between sailing and gliding. “You have to be able to understand the weather, then you make the most of it.”