Soaring the Skies

Single-seat high performance fiberglass Glaser...

George is headed for the Sky Sailing airport at Warner Springs. He isn’t leaving on a trip, he is a ride pilot. Every Sunday he takes people up in a sailplane, also called a glider, for a thrilling ride thousands of feet above the earth in a plane without an engine. Gliding is a recreational activity and a competitive air sport using naturally occurring currents of rising air to remain airborne. It’s also called soaring, which describes well the feeling I have when I’m with him, riding the air currents like a bird.
A tow plane pulls the glider up the runway and into the air, connected by a nylon tow rope, the same type used by boaters to pull a skier. The tow plane climbs to the altitude determined by the glider pilot. It is usually between 1500 and 3000 feet, depending on conditions. When the desired altitude is reached, the ride pilot pulls a release knob in the dashboard of the sailplane and the rope falls away. The tow pilot circles and lands and the sailplane is free to ride the currents as long as they last and then as the sailplane loses altitude, George, with what seems to me like magical calculations of distance and altitude, brings the sailplane back to the airport and lands it gently on the ground, often ending up right at the place where the sailplane gets parked.
While flying, George searches the sky for signs of lift. Hidden in what looks to the unexperienced eye as simply sky, are signs that the trained eye can see (and body feel) that indicate a thermal rising from the earth. Thermals are streams of rising air formed on the ground through the warming of the surface by sunlight. Sometimes conditions form cumulus clouds or dust devils to mark the thermals. Without these signs the pilot depends on skill and luck to find them, also using an instrument called a variometer that quickly indicates climbs and descents.
Climbing within the thermal is appropriately called “thermalling.” Glider pilots on cross-country flights may choose another option called “dolphining.” This is when the pilot slows down in rising air (lift) and speeds up again in non-rising air (sink.) This undulating flight path allows the pilot to minimize the loss of height over distance without spending time turning. Glider pilots can stay airborne for hours by flying though air that is ascending as fast or faster than the glider is descending. The current world distance record is 1,869 miles!
We live in the perfect place for this adventure sport. Southern California is famous for its high percentage of sunny, warm days. In addition we live in the mountains. Uneven terrain creates the opportunity for “ridge lift.” Ridge lift is found when the wind blows against the face of a hill and is forced to rise. Riding the ridges of our mountains gives George another way to stay up in the air longer.
There is one other possible opportunity for a glider pilot to stay aloft. It is called “wave lift.” “Riding the wave” is similar to floating on the waves on the surface of the ocean. As I have learned a bit about gliding I am struck by the similarities to surfing and sailing.  Air and water sports have a lot of similar terminology and it is interesting to me to notice that riding ocean waves and riding the sky have so much in common.
Ridge lift rarely allows pilots to climb much higher than 2,000 feet above the terrain. Thermals, depending on conditions, can allow climbs to 10,000 feet on flat country and much higher above mountains. But it is “riding the wave” that allowed Steve Fossett to climb to the world record of 50,699 feet over the mountains of Argentina!
Some days when G is flying I go outside and check the sky for “lenticular” clouds. These long, stationary cloud patterns lie perpendicular to the wind and mark the powerfully rising and sinking air that pilots call “the wave.” If I see them, I can be sure that G will come home animated with a story about “the wave he caught that took him soaring into the skies.”
Gliding is a spiritual experience for G. When he is up in his glider, alone with the sun and the wind, Mother Nature becomes his intimate companion. He feels her power and grace and is filled with gratitude for the amazing gifts that this life offers us, if we have the courage and the integrity to follow our dreams.

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One thought on “Soaring the Skies

  1. Pingback: Return | Source Reflections

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