The High Note
Soaring the Tetons with opera singer-turned-pilot
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Pilot Kristine Ciesinski stands next to a glider and points across the airfield at the dirt devils swirling in the distance. “Rising air,” she says.
My stomach roils, but I force a smile. I like my air smooth.
The sailplane looks elegant, like a trumpeter swan with a large head. Its white body is long and slender, its neck and wings outstretched. The fuselage is constructed of aluminum about the thickness of a beer can.
We strap into the cockpit, Ciesinski in the rear seat and I in the front. The first point of contact if we crash, I think. A 180-horsepower Husky pulls the tow rope taut. The pilot throttles up and both the glider and tow plane roll and lift off.
Ciesinski raises her voice above the wind. “I have to fly in tandem with the tow plane.” Her words must be code for “or the Husky will take us down with it.”
The plane pulls us to an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level, over the heart of the Tetons and right past the Grand. The peaks float by so slowly that I’m not sure whether they or we are moving. I could throw a rock and hit them.
If wind shear blasts us, neither the Husky pilot nor Ciesinski will have time for correction. A small air pocket sends me grabbing for the armrests—but there are none.
“You see that yellow handle?” Ciesinski asks. “On my count, pull it. Three, two, one ...”
I pull the handle, and my fears fall away with the tow rope. All is quiet. We are soaring like a bird.
Soaring is new to me, but not to Ciesinski, who has been a pilot since 1998 when she chose flying as a second profession. A world-class dramatic soprano, she has performed in many of the world’s finest opera houses: La Scala in Italy, the Munich State Opera, the Paris Opera, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Although she still performs, the Tetons are now her stage, the glider her voice.
“[Soaring] is the most amazing way to get close to the mountains,” she says.
The glider banks to the right and away from the peaks. The wings come level with the Big Hole Mountains. Far below, the valley bursts green as if transforming into Ireland.