Chris Begemann received his award in 2019. He is an Ontario native who has a passion for aviation like no other. Since he was a child he knew this was what he wanted to do, when has was only the age of 12 he took his first flight. Since then he has accomplished a lot, his first solo glider flight was when he was 15. And more recently his goal was to go on a 5-hour glider ride, using hot air to propel him across his journey. This is his writing on the adventure he took part in:
“Life is about exploring your passion. Ryan’s passion happened to be skiing, mine happens to be flying, I have always known that I belong in the sky. Happiness comes from following your passions and making them your life. My passion is gliding- it takes flying to an artform, soaring with eagles and hawks, using the elements to propel you. This past summer I had set myself the goal of flying a 300km cross country flight in a glider- an airplane less the engine. It was a bit ambitious considering when I set the goal I had yet to fly out of gliding range from the airfield. It ended up challenging me to be a better pilot and person.
This past summer was a journey spent exploring my passion and challenging myself. Flying days start long before each flight, I’d arrive at the airport at 9 am to check weather reports and assemble the glider. The glider stays in a trailer- the wings and tail come off to be put alongside the fuselage (body) of the glider so it can be transported and stored easily. It’s a three person job to put the wings on, each side is slid into the fuselage and a pin is inserted into the middle of both wings at the point which they overlap, to make sure they don’t come out while you’re flying. Lots of preflight checks are done to make sure the aircraft is assembled properly, then tape is put on the points where the wings and tail meet the fuselage to make the glider more aerodynamically streamlined. Gliders have performances which range from 1:20 to 1:70, meaning that in air which isn’t rising or sinking, for every foot high you are, you can go 20-70 (respectively) feet far. The Jantar, which is the glider that I fly, is a 1980’s Polish glider with a performance of about 1:35. It’s made for tall people, and the cockpit- where I sit, is akin to a reclined lawn chair. Being 6’5” this was a much appreciated feature when sitting in the glider for five hours. After mapping out my route and bringing a sandwich, I’d hop in the glider and strap it on. The lightweight of just over 1000lbs and the nimble controls made me feel like I was strapping on the glider rather than hopping inside. I’d sit on the runway in a traffic jam of other gliders waiting for the tow plane to come launch me. Just before noon, the sun had just enough time to heat up the dark spots on the earth and kick up thermals; rising pockets of air which gliders use as our fuel. Just as the first thermal kicks off, four towplanes come out and hookup all the gliders, towing each to 2000 feet at the nearest thermal.
As the towplane lines up on the runway ahead of me, a runner would grab the rope and tether the tail of the glider to a releasable ring on the nose of the glider. I’d close up my canopy and signal to the wing runner, someone who will run while holding onto my wing to keep my wings level until I have enough airflow over my control surfaces to keep my wings level, that I’m ready to go. As the towplane goes full power I can feel the glider begin to leap off the ground. Because the gliders are much more aerodynamic than the towplanes, they tend to take off earlier, meaning I need to fly just feet above the ground to keep the glider lined up with the towplane. At risk of the rope breaking as I climb up, I need to prepare which field I would land in at what point in the takeoff, and when I would be high enough to have enough altitude to turn back. I follow the towplane which I’m attached to by a 200ft rope, making sure I’m not too high or too low by aligning the wheels of the towplane on the horizon relative to me. The tow pilot points me at a cumulus cloud- the ones that look like popcorn, and sends me into the thermal underneath it with the other gliders as I detach the tow rope.
I climb up right to the base of the cloud, creating a mental picture of how the thermal is shaped, where it’s strongest and looking ahead on my route for the next thermal- often marked by other gliders, birds, cumulus clouds or by looking for dark spots on the ground ahead of you. As I go along the first leg of the flight, about 40km from the airport, I drift low over the ground after a streak of not being able to find thermals, at about 1400ft feet above the ground. This leaves me only 400 feet to find another thermal before I divert my focus to landing in a field. Last time I got that low, I ended up in a cow field knocking on a farmer’s door after my phone died. As I picked a field to set my glider down, I found a little bubble of lift picking off a dark field below me. I made one turn, planning on shooting for the field if it died out. Doing little more than maintaining my height, I straggled around for about 10 minutes, only gaining about 500 feet, before I decided to leave the safety of the weak thermal, betting that the next one was stronger. Every second you spend ciciling in a thermal, your ground speed is zero, because you aren’t moving forward. Climbing as quickly as possible makes up most of the soaring game, but if you fly to aggressively, passing up weak thermals, you could end up in a farmers field. Luckily, I had climbed away after being low, a gratifying feeling, however it had slowed me down and I had lost valuable hours of sunlight which would help me achieve the distance of 300km. As I reached the top of cloud base, my heart rate slowed and my grip on the controls relaxed. I turned onto the next leg of my flight, hoping I wouldn’t get that low again.
On rare occasions, thermals will align right along your path of flight, and a pilot can bounce along them, gaining height while making forward progress, increasing the average speed. On my first leg, I had to decide whether it was worth deviating off my course to pick up a thermal and climb higher, or to proceed onward and hope for one closer. The second leg I was more fortunate, and a stroke of good luck meant I was able to shoot a straight line to my next turn point. The thermals were stronger, and the top heights of the cloud bases were higher, meaning I could gain more height in the thermal before shooting to the next one.
As I was proceeding along the second leg, I noticed the sun was setting quickly and the thermals appeared to be deteriorating faster than I expected. I decided to cut the corner of my track and head home rather than ending up in a field. As the field came in sight I got one final kick from the sky gods and ended up at 1100 feet just 10km from the field, not high enough to make it back. I spent a while climbing up to the cloud base one last time, the final thermal of the flight. I came over the field which I had taken off from just 4 hours ago, and took the time to admire the beauty of the flight. I planned out how I would approach the runway and after completing the pre landing checks, I entered the pattern. A smooth touchdown marked the end of my final flight for the season, as I was heading up 1600 km to college the next day!
Aviation is the embodiment of pure adventure to me. I still have so much to learn and so many more challenges to face. It’s a constant battle to stay up, finding the rising air to lift me and trying to fly the farthest and fastest. It’s sheer beauty, exploring new clouds and chasing birds. Life is about the journey, and if you don’t stop to appreciate how far you’ve come you might get lost. 230.7km isn’t 300km, but it’s a stop along the way and a whole lot better than 0km. Although I certainly would have much rather come out above 300km, there is a lesson to be learned through failure and it marks a step along the way to reaching my goals.”
We really feel like we’re up there with you Chris, and we’re so proud of you!