Harris Hill Gliderport, Elmira, New York

Free Fuel

For those who can find it

I wiggled the rudder to signal I was ready. Two hundred feet ahead, a Piper Pawnee throttled to full power and the braided rope serving as my temporary engine mount became taut.

Soon I would voluntarily, purposefully, and permanently lose my “engine.” Why would a sane pilot do such a thing? Having options is what makes flying safe, and a power source provides options.

I understand an airplane can fly without an engine — it’s called an emergency. As powered pilots, we rehearse such scenarios so that in the case of an engine failure we can maintain control of the aircraft and land safely. I’ve never been afraid of gliding, but if I don’t have an engine producing thrust, I consider the rest of the flight an emergency.

How then can so many responsible, sane, and nonreckless people find pleasure in flying gliders? I traveled to Elmira, New York — the Soaring Capital of America — to see what I was missing.


FIRST FLIGHT

“You nervous about flying with a 17-year-old?” my pilot asked as he helped buckle me into the back seat of an ASK 21.

“Not at all,” I responded. “I’m nervous about not having an engine.” He laughed, but didn’t understand. After all, he had never flown with an engine.

Ryan McMaster earned his private pilot glider certificate a few months earlier, and I had full confidence in his abilities, but as soon as the towplane tugged us forward, my emergency began.

This wasn’t a simulated emergency like I had practiced before; this was real. We had no engine.

A sky diver once told me that every time he jumps from an aircraft he kills himself. It then becomes his job to do everything he can to save himself. This is how my first glider flight felt.

As beautiful as the rolling hills and fall scenery were, my gut demanded I keep the airport within sight. When we reached a couple thousand feet, Ryan released the towrope and with it, our engine. We flew right turns and left turns, never straying too far to glide home. Never mind that he was only 17, I was impressed with Ryan’s situational awareness and coordination for a pilot of 80 hours — a testament that glider training teaches good discipline.

I also appreciated the quiet. Without an engine, there was no need for headsets. My senses were in their full natural state, and Ryan and I talked to each other in a normal voice. The wind over the canopy served as an audible airspeed indicator, and a small piece of yarn taped to the windscreen was the most useful yaw instrument I’ve ever seen.

After about 20 minutes, we had glided down to 1,000 feet AGL so Ryan committed to the pattern. A go-around is not an option being engineless, so this was the most nerve-racking phase of flight for me. Ryan brought us back to earth in a controlled, precise manner, and I soon realized that I underestimated the capabilities of these machines. They do have options — much better glide performance makes up for a lack of thrust, and the use of spoilers gives an impressive amount of altitude control.

Roy McMaster, Ryan’s grandfather, was waiting on the side of the runway as we rolled to a stop. Roy is a legend in the soaring community and offered to coach me through my first flight at the controls of a glider. I thought this flight would be just like the last one, a few turns and 20 minutes over the airport, but Roy had something else in mind. I was about to experience an aviation phenomenon I didn’t even know existed.


INVISIBLE, MAGIC AIR

“Use your rudder to steer, to stay behind the towplane; the ailerons to keep your wings level,” Roy said as we started rolling forward. Halfway down the 1,100-foot runway we were off the ground and I was doing everything I could to stay behind the towplane.

By 4,200 feet, I was ready to be free of the towplane, and I’m certain the tow pilot was ready to be free of me, so I pulled the release.

“You’ll need more rudder in the turns than you’re used to,” Roy coached.

Without any rudder input, adverse yaw caused the nose of the aircraft to naturally move left when I turned right and vice versa. To turn coordinated, I needed a substantial amount of rudder in the direction of my turn to keep the nose from darting away. Dutch rolls were a great exercise to get used to the amount of rudder needed to stay coordinated. The yarn taped to the windscreen became my new best friend.

While practicing my coordination, the magic show had begun.

Twenty minutes had passed since we released from the towplane, yet our altimeter still read 4,200 feet.

“Are we still at the same altitude we released at?” I asked.

“Yep. We’re soaring. We should be able to get higher,” Roy said. “Fly under that dark cloud to your left.”

Roy instructed me to fly faster between thermals (he called this interthermal cruising) to limit my time in sinking air, then slow down inside a thermal to maximize our exposure to rising air.

While still trying to understand what I was experiencing, I was enamored with the fact that I was gaining altitude without an engine. This was magic — invisible, yet very real magic.

It then became my goal to reach 5,000 feet. Every 20 feet felt like a victory. As we flew under another dark cloud, the variometer jumped from 0 to 8 knots, reflecting a nearly 800-feet-per-minute climb.

“Steep right turn; stay coordinated,” Roy said from behind. “Good, good. We’re climbing.”

I flew as coordinated as I could, flying in and out of the thermal, and eventually neared the bottom of the cloud. The cloud was dome-like on the bottom because of the lift underneath it. I watched the altimeter slowly dial clockwise until we inched past 5,000 feet. This was amazing!

At 5,100 feet, we couldn’t go higher and stay VFR so we left the thermal.

“Now that we have more fuel in the tank, we can go farther. Let’s try that cloud over there,” Roy said.

I was having more fun flying than I’ve had in a long time. I confessed to Roy that I had no idea it was possible to climb without an engine (or by cashing in your kinetic energy). I always thought gliding was about being towed up, then gliding back to earth.

“Gliding is when you’re going down. Soaring is when you let nature help you fly,” he said.

Soaring is as much about being a student of nature as it is a student of aviation. At 5,000 feet in the glider, I felt as much like a hunter as I did a pilot. I was hunting for lift — studying the cloudscape, conditions, and environment to find pockets of rising air. Dark bases on clouds, tendrils beneath a cloud, pockets of sunshine on the earth were all “signs” of possible lift.

Soaring goes beyond flying the airplane; it is a study of nature and a hunt for free “fuel in your tanks,” if you can find it.


THE EXPERTS

Birds are nature’s soaring experts. I spotted a nearby red-tailed hawk while we were circling in a weak thermal and Roy insisted we go and share his lift.

Roy said he’s shared many thermals with hawks, eagles, and ospreys. They are the best indicators of where to find lift.

As I watched our variometer rise, I was again bewildered at the concept of this magical, invisible, free flying air. Roy said he’s seen corn shucks and newspapers at 5,000 feet and has even been able to smell the earth below from several thousand feet while in a thermal.

In soaring, you are part of the environment. A good soaring pilot learns to watch the clouds, study the weather, and observe nature. Roy practices what he preaches.

Every morning Roy wakes up to check the weather for a high over western Tennessee, a low over New England, and a 20-mph wind at ridge top the entire distance from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s a weather combination that happens only once every 10 years, but when it does, you can bet Roy will be airborne in a glider.

Under such conditions, Roy said he has flown to Tennessee and back twice, without an engine in a single flight — about 900 miles and 12 hours of flying.

Roy has been flying gliders for 58 years, since he was 13, and stopped counting flights somewhere beyond 19,000. He built a home that overlooks Harris Hill so he could “keep an eye on the juniors.”

“All of my family flies. And I mean 100 percent of my family,” he said. Each of his three sons learned to fly in gliders at Harris Hill. One is now a 747 captain, another a corporate pilot, and the youngest a private pilot. His oldest grandson just got his multiengine rating and is a tow pilot at Harris Hill, Ryan (who flew me on my first flight) earned his private pilot glider this summer, and his youngest grandson, 13, is already flying too, “just waiting to get older so he can make it legal.”


SOARING

We were able to find a few more pockets of lift before coming back to the airport. I again appreciated how much control the spoilers gave me on landing. The fear of being optionless in a glider was gone. To top that, our flight was the longest of the day — one hour, eight minutes.

At an airport cookout that night, I admitted to other members of the Harris Hill Soaring Corporation that I had never experienced this aviation phenomena called soaring, and now knew the difference between soaring and gliding.

David Ridding, a fellow EAA member, smiled empathetically. “We don’t come to the airport on gliding days; we come on soaring days,” he said.

“Gliding goes down; soaring goes up,” Peter Smith, president of the National Soaring Museum, said simply. The next morning Peter gave me a tour of the museum and showed me a replica of what is considered the first aircraft to soar — the 1911 Wright glider. He said it flew for nine minutes and 45 seconds. Every nonpowered flight before that was considered gliding.

Studying nature to find lift out of invisible air, then piloting the aircraft in such a way to maximize that lift and gain altitude adds a whole new challenge and reward to flying.

“You don’t need an excuse to go fly a glider,” Tom Berry, another club member, told me. “Every time you fly is a new game to find lift.”

He added that the only reason to go soaring is for pure recreation. There is no other reason to fly a glider. What I had thought on the outset was a borderline irresponsible way to fly ended up being exactly the kind of flying I enjoy most — the pure recreational kind.

Soaring is a blend of flying and nature. Anyone who soars is a student of both.

“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.” — Henri Poincaré

Brady Lane is a private pilot and multimedia journalist for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Article originally published in Sport Aviation magazine.