The Thrill of Gliders
It’s been called the purest form of human flight. The essence of soaring in a motorless glider plane is sensing the invisible forces of lift, as eagles do, and manually manipulating the plane’s simple stick-and-rudder controls to ride currents of air high into the sky and lightly back down to earth. Although gliders can reach airliner altitudes and cover surprising distances (as far as 1,200 miles), getting high or going far is seldom the point. Soaring is more of an aesthetic experience, soundless—except for the whoosh of wind past the cockpit—and often breathtakingly beautiful. The best places to soar are usually, though not always, beside mountain ranges, where the silent planes move at speeds and at an altitude that permit landscapes to unfold gradually rather than whir past. Even familiar landscapes appear utterly fresh: folds in mountains; farm fields hidden from roads; textures, colors and bodies of water that elude the eyes of landlubbers.
It’s addictive,” says glider pilot Rick Hanson of Sugarbush, Vt. “I liken it to sailing versus [riding] a powerboat. The challenge is going where you want with only natural effects to get you there.” Pilot Gavin Wills, of Omarama, New Zealand, calls those effects the “atmospheric engine” that he parlays into “an eagle’s-eye view of wild landscapes and spectacular cloudscapes.”
Gliders ride three kinds of lift: thermal lift, indicated by puffy cumulus clouds; ridge lift, a low-altitude deflection of surface wind; and wave lift, when air flows over a mountain range, compresses and rises again quickly. How do you know when you’ve caught a wave? “When it lifts you, you can feel the g-force in your butt,” says pilot Tony Sabino, of Soar Minden, in Nevada.
Skilled pilots can ride wave lift above 30,000 feet (using supplemental oxygen, of course). But even novice pilots and passengers can enjoy the quiet thrill of ascending columns of warm air at 500 to 1,000 feet a minute—rates quicker than the powered towplanes that get gliders aloft can rise. Top-notch soaring centers offer both sightseeing flights and lessons. Many customers go for the sightseeing and return for the lessons, which are also popular with power-plane pilots seeking a purer experience of flight. There’s no exact timetable for earning a pilot rating, but 12 to 14 flights are typical before a pilot’s first solo. But most pilot guides will allow even first-time passengers to have a go at the controls, so they can experience the deft maneuverability of the plane and the visceral thrill of soaring like an eagle.
Where to Soar
In the high-desert Sierra foothills east of Lake Tahoe lies a mecca for soaring buffs who savor going high and fast. Wave lift is the main atmospheric engine here: “The westerlies blow over the Sierra, bounce down and straight up again,” says Soar Minden owner-pilot Tony Sabino. “It’s a sleigh ride. The rates of climbing are astounding.” So is the scenery—a half-hour sightseeing flight gets you above Lake Tahoe, and a longer flight takes you across the lake to the stunning azure inlet of Emerald Bay. This is a thrilling place to spend the weekend taking lessons in the art of grabbing lift so reliable that oxygen is required; you’ll fly up to 15,000 feet, a mile above Tahoe. “Even expedition pilots who come here are awed,” says Sabino. The waves flow year-round, so pilots fly out of Minden throughout the winter, when the mountains are at their most spectacular.
Sightseeing flights range from $125 for a 20-minute experience and a view of Tahoe to $295 for the flight across the lake to Emerald Bay. An introductory lesson costs $180, and a weekend of lessons, including multiple flights, is $700. For $225, you can fly to 10,000 feet with an aerobatic pilot and experience loops and rolls. The nearby Wild Rose Inn has rooms for $150. soarminden.com; wildrose-inn.com
The Green Mountains of Central Vermont may not attain the dramatic heights of the Sierra Nevada or the Southern Alps of New Zealand, but the mountains and valleys form a lovely backdrop for soaring: green and lush in spring and summer, vividly red and gold in fall. The region boasts some of the best wave flying east of the Mississippi. The local altitude record is over 26,000 feet—remarkable, considering the mountains are only 4,000 feet high. Scenic flights leave the Mad River Valley to soar above the forested mountains and the local ski areas, and views extend to the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain to the west, and to Mount Washington, 100 miles away in New Hampshire. Sugarbush is also famous for its soaring camps, which combine ground school and lessons in a condensed block of time—a sure way to progress quickly versus the more common pattern of taking a series of lessons over a longer period.
Sugarbush Soaring operates from May to October. Glider rides are $129 for 20 minutes and $169 for 30 minutes. Introductory lessons cost $160, and a three-flight lesson package goes for $456. Nearby Sugar Lodge has rooms starting at $79, and bed-and-breakfasts are plentiful in the area. sugarbush.org; sugarlodge.com
Seminole Lake Gliderport
From the air or the ground, Central Florida may appear to consist of flatlands dotted with lakes, swamps and theme parks, but a feature called the Florida Ridge is well known to glider pilots. Its scant rise is enough to provide superb ridge lift for year-round soaring. After takeoff from Seminole Lake’s grass airstrip, pilots share the sky only with birds; the airspace in the region is otherwise reserved exclusively for gliders. The ridge lift can keep planes aloft for as long as seven hours as they soar above the lush landscape, where lakes and swamps teem with alligators. And yes—gliders do get a privileged perspective on Walt Disney World. If the visual delights aren’t enough for you, inquire about an aerobatic ride with one of the gliderport’s skilled pilots.
Sightseeing flights start at $100 for a 20-minute flight towed to 3,000 feet and range to $165 for a 45-minute flight from 5,000 feet. An introductory instructional package is $160; a package of 10 instructional flights, 10 solo flights and an FAA check ride costs approximately $2,000. Onsite accommodations start at $30 a night or $18 for an RV hookup site. soarfl.com