Living the high life
September 17, 2011
ESPNscrum's Graham Jenkins poses with Richie McCaw's 'other coach' Gavin Wills © Getty Images
"We're all mad around here. It's a prerequisite really."
Despite his fondness for flying at heights of around 30,000ft in and out of remote mountain ranges and without the luxury of an engine, Gavin Wills is far from insane - just passionate.
The 63-year-old life-long gliding devotee welcomes me with a warm smile and handshake having agreed to offer me an insight into how All Blacks captain Richie McCaw gets his kicks off the field. His passion for the sport is clear from this first meeting and he is eager to convey what it is about flying with only nature's help that has him and McCaw hooked.
We take a seat in the terminal building that houses his business and that offers spectacular views of the region that will be our playground for much of the afternoon. With the sun beating down on the freshly dusted mountain tops, there could not be a more glorious day to crash land in the Southern Alps - but any fears of the unknown are soon forgotten. His passion and enthusiasm are strangely reassuring and soon I have no qualms about joining a man I have just met for a joyride at 15,000ft.
"To you it might look just like a cloud but to me it says get your arse in the air and start flying," he declares pointing towards the skies. But first I am keen to learn more about the man and the machine so we sit and chat in the morning sun.
He does not hesitate when asked to extol the virtues of our surrounds and explain their attraction. "We are lucky here for a variety of reasons," he explains. "The glaciated landscapes have created flat valley floors that make the mountains accessible. Secondly, New Zealand is very windy and I think we may well be the windiest inhabited place on earth because of the 'roaring 40s'. And when that wind and the mountains interact there is a lot of up draft which creates a lot of lift."
But it is not just any old lift. "It's not the only place where you can get it, but perhaps one of the greatest place where you can - it's called mountain lee waves and it is actually what is happening today."
I can see he is itching to get in the air. Me? Not so much.
These optimal conditions make this quiet little town in the middle of everywhere a gliding mecca. The legendary adventurer Steve Fossett was one of those to be lured to Omarama in search of gliding records - eventually reaching the stratosphere to record a height of 50,727 feet alongside another aviation hero Einar Enevoldson. Distance is also no object in the right conditions with one local pilot notching up over 2,500km in criss-crossing the country last year.
"There are no two days the same," he reveals but I am banking that his 50-odd years of flying experience should stand us in good stead when it comes to the unexpected. "You have to work things out each time but you do develop instinct when it comes to finding lift. Flying a glider is like driving a car," he offers perhaps sensing he lost me on a lee wave. "A racing driver can drive a car but when he's racing he doesn't think about driving that car at all. He thinks about gaps, things opening up, being in the right place at the right time. A glider pilot does the same thing but perhaps not with the same intensity."
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw indulging his other passion at the controls of a glider © Getty Images
At last it is time for me to sample this for myself. But my curiosity gets the better of me and I ask what exact dangers lay ahead. "I've been flying here since 1972 and we've had maybe five or six fatal accidents in that time and it's generally pilot error."
On that note we head to the airfield where our glider awaits. "You sit there," he says gesturing to the front seat in a small two-seater glider, "that way you'll hit the mountain first."
There is a surprising level of comfort considering the interior offers about as much leg room as the inside of a bullet. But my anxiety returned within moments as a thought struck my host. "I really should show you how to use the parachute," he says with a chuckle. To this point I hadn't really given much thought to getting out of the glider unless it was on the ground and having glanced towards the mountainous skyline around us I decided to maintain that train of thought - or lack of.
There was no pre-flight safety film featuring the All Blacks to advise how to exit the aircraft, surprising perhaps considering Richie McCaw's frequent flyer miles, just a calming word and a pat on the back from Gavin. Safe in the knowledge where the rip cord was, I chose to ignore it for the duration of the flight - out of sight, out of mind.
Within moments we were off, thundering down the grassy runway thanks to a small aircraft used to get the gliders airborne but a couple of minutes in to the flight we were on our own - the tow rope falling away.
It was soon clear that age has not withered Gavin's enthusiasm for gliding. Laughter emanates forth with every successful quest to find lift while each sudden plunge is also welcomed as part of the on-going battle of wits between my pilot and the elements. You sense they have a friendly rivalry but there is no easy ride. Every action Gavin undertakes whilst in the aircraft is to further the experience. Nothing is wasted and there is little time or inclination to sit back and enjoy. There is only one, slightly nervous, passenger.
Thankfully waves of nausea were brief with amazement and awe much more welcome travel companions as we touched heights of around 14,000ft on an amazing rollercoaster ride in and out of the many peaks that punctuate the vista and even upside down. It was simply breathtaking. Three and a half hours flew by if you will pardon the pun.
"Do you think Graham Henry would let Richie do this if he was here right now?" asked Gavin as we skimmed off yet another mountain ridge into the valley below. It is safe to say that I don't think Richie will be taking the All Blacks' coach up anytime soon.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
"I had a couple of injuries before but this was different." Tom Hamilton talks to Scott Williams about the O'Driscoll tackle, Wales and Scarlets
"To be the best it's not about the flash stuff, it's actually about everything done at a very high level." Tom Hamilton on the England squad
Huw Richards rewinds to 1864 to mark the birth of Welsh rugby's first authentic star - Arthur Gould
Michael Cheika has succeeded in becoming the Wallabies coach under his own terms, writes Greg Growden