Gliding into a one-off travel adventure
WATCHING your son be towed into unknown skies in a country where he doesn't know the language as a thunderstorm brews is pretty heart-stopping.
But that's exactly what Mudgeeraba's Kathy Stewart and husband Ron had to do as crew for their son Ray, with his wife, as he competed for Australia in the 35th World Gliding Championships in Poland.
Australia came fifth across the three classes with 861.46 points out of 24 teams, behind first-placed Poland on 931.17, Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic.
"They weren't expected to finish that high: they beat a lot of European teams who were used to the conditions," Kathy said.
Flying in the Standard Class, this was Ray's first world titles, one of four Queensland pilots in the Australian team of five, so as Kathy said "Queensland was punching well above its weight".
The Aussies had one week of practice before two weeks of competition, which would see 137 gliders launched into the sky nine abreast within an hour, and up to 50 gliders in a single thermal.
Each day pilots were given at least three tasks to complete - co-ordinates to pass at given heights, with points allotted for accuracy and speed - before returning to the base.
Those who didn't finish usually landed in farmers' fields - an "outlanding" - with 85 of the 137 gliders which took off "outlanding" on the day of the storm.
Ray was among them, his canopy streaming with so much water he could barely see and his navigation aids affected, forcing him to land.
It was the worst conditions he had seen in his 33 years of gliding, having taken up the sport in South Africa at just 14 - before he could legally drive.
Having sat out the storm, he walked through the mud into the nearest village in search of help, only to have a door closed in his face by the first two elderly women he encountered, despite carrying written information in Polish as to who he was and what he was doing, for just such an eventuality.
He was luckier with the next person, a younger woman who spoke a little English and was able to alert the crew where to find him - a two-hour drive from where they were.
After detaching the glider's wings, both they and the fuselage had to be manhandled across the boggy field to the waiting truck, with the crew eventually returning to the airport as the sun set about 10pm.
But it was the gliders' return, en masse, which Kathy said was "awe-inspiring"; like huge birds appearing silently out of nowhere and landing every few seconds, and crews running them out of the way to make way for the next landing.
"It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Kathy said.
But they worked for it, with Kathy and Ron undergoing training first at Kingaroy to prepare for launch, landing and every eventuality in between, including how to rig up the radio and mend punctures.
They shared a single suitcase for the trip, with their other 23 kilos of luggage comprising vital parts and tools for the glider.
Language was an issue at meals, with little English spoken in rural Poland, so the crew was never quite sure what they would get, with menu translations including "chicken gallstones" which, understandably, no-one was game to try.
However, Kathy said her lasting impression, beyond the beauty of Warsaw, the courage to rebuild towns and cities decimated during the Second World War, rural poverty and the confronting cruelty of Auschwitz, was admiration for the resilience of the Polish people and an empathy for all they had been through and the challenges they continued to face.