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The Glider

A childhood reminscence

Martin Raff 24 September 2006

It's not only mad scientists that can lose control of their creations

I was about fourteen years old by the time I had accumulated enough confidence and cash to buy the glider, and I spent the entire winter building it

I had various hobbies as a child in Montreal, but building model gliders was one of the most sustained. I began with small gliders, assembled from kits and made entirely from balsa wood. They were cheap, and it took only a few hours to cut out the parts and assemble them. I assembled and sanded each one lovingly, as if it were a piece of art. These planes flew beautifully when thrown into the air and provided days of pleasure before fragmenting in a final crash.

My enchantment with gliders came to an abrupt end, however, in a dramatic way. For over a year, I had my eye on a magnificent glider for sale in the model plane shop that I visited regularly. The picture on the cover of the box was truly inspiring: the wingspan of the assembled plane was six feet, and the intricate balsa wood scaffold was covered with painted paper, giving the plane a wonderfully realistic appearance. I was about fourteen years old by the time I had accumulated enough confidence and cash to buy it, and I spent the entire winter building it.

I carefully followed the detailed instructions. I cut out each of the hundreds of pieces and sanded them to perfection. I then assembled the pieces and glued them in place – starting with the fuselage and ending with the wings and tail. Next, I covered the frame of each of these structures with bamboo paper, often undoing and redoing the process many times before the paper was taut and wrinkle-free. Finally, I painted the paper with excruciating care and then assembled the various parts.

The finished glider was even more magnificent than the picture on the cover of the box. For days, I just looked at it from various angles, admiring its lines and sheer size. I found it hard to believe that I could have built anything so remarkable, even though I had only followed the detailed instructions that had come with the plane.

Now that the winter snow had melted, I was ready to test the glider's performance. My excitement was overwhelming. My brother and I walked to a nearby park for the test flight. We spent much of our out-of-school time playing football, baseball, or ice hockey in this park, which was very close to our house. Standing at one end of the football field, I held the plane at shoulder height and gently launched it. To our delight and amazement, it glided the length of the grounds, over one hundred yards, hovering several feet above the grass, before gently landing at the far end of the field. This spectacular performance was beyond anything we could have imagined, having never seen a glider of this size in action before.

For the next test, we walked to the top of a small hill in the park, which served as a ski slope in the winter. This hill had a special place in our lives, as it was here that we skied for the first time each winter, when the first snow fell. As before, I launched the glider from shoulder height and watched it soar from the top of the hill. It continued to soar – across the street at the bottom of the hill, across another street a quarter of a mile further south, across another park about a mile away, and, eventually across the St Lawrence River, many miles south. As we watched with a mixture of amazement, excitement, and ultimately horror, my beloved glider disappeared as a speck over the horizon. For all I know, it is still in the air somewhere over the United States, or perhaps over South America.

In any case, it was the last glider I ever built.