Soaring

This is not my Halloween costume. In this picture, I am flying a single seat sailplane at an altitude of 27,000 feet, to earn a Diamond altitude badge. Few pilots in the world hold this award.

Gliders have no heaters. The temperature in the cockpit pictured above was well below zero. Gliders are not pressurized either, so you have to use supplemental oxygen above 12,500 feet. Most glider flights in the Northeast happen below 8,000 feet. That's about as high as thermals (warm rising currents of air) will take you on a really good soaring day. To get higher, you need to fly in wave lift, which is readily available in Minden, Nevada, not far from Lake Tahoe. Here, wave lift can carry a glider to world record heights (currently about 50,000 feet for a glider). Winds coming across the pacific hit the mountains of California and are deflected upward into a wave like flow. I rode this flow up to 27,000 feet.

I got my first pilot's license in sailplanes, which are motor-less, sleek, fiberglass airplanes with fantastic glide ratios. I learned in Central Pennsylvania, where we had immediate access to the Appalachian Ridge. The ridge is about 1000 feet high. Prevailing northwesterly winds blow into the ridge and are deflected upwards to create ridge lift. Ridge lift happens at much lower altitudes than wave lift. Ridge, thermal and wave lift are the three natural forces that will keep a glider aloft.

On a good day you can ride ridge lift for hours. Thus we could fly great distances in powerless flight with only a short tow from a motorized plane. If you've seen "The Thomas Crowne Affair," the ridge gliding footage was shot in Central PA, in a glider from my home gliderport.

My longest glider flight was about 250 miles. It took all day. The biggest ridge running challenge is jumping gaps in the ridge; you have to ride a thermal upward before you attempt to fly across the area where there is no ridge deflecting wind upward. If the thermals are weak, you do your best to milk the lift for every foot of altitude and then you make a leap of faith that you are high enough to fly across the gap. If you are wrong, you land in a farmer's field in the middle of the gap. Then you call your friends and ask them to drive down with a glider trailer and pick you up.

Glider wings come off for easy transport (only when you are on the ground) but I was fortunate to never have to ask my peers to make a long drive to retrieve me. I found it invigorating to be a long way from home in an airplane without an engine and to know (hopefully) that natural forces could guide me home.

For more information about soaring, visit The Soaring Society of America at: http://www.ssa.org

Don't try what this guy really did (though it was quite an adventure!)


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