Okay, I made up that word (because I’m a bit psycho), but when we booked our trip to Hawaii (see “P is for Pu’uhonua”), we bookended the flights to Honolulu with stops in Los Angeles to break up the long flights from the East Coast. On the first of those LA stops, Judy and I decided to check off a bucket list item with soaring lessons!
As a private pilot, all my flying has been in planes with motors, but soaring in a glider has held a certain appeal…matching wits with nature in search of thermals that will take you to new heights, rather than just gliding “down hill.” I reached out to Jeff Jewell, one of my LA-based flying buddies who had spent some quality time flying gliders, for some advice. He pointed me straight in the direction of the Southern California Soaring Academy in the high desert town of Llano. He also let me know that on the day we were planning our experience, he would be flying the tow plane!
We arrived dressed for the desert – shorts and t-shirts – but were met by breezes and cool temps. That didn’t dampen our enthusiasm as we were met at the door by Julie and introduced to our instructors. Judy was shown to her glider first and after she and Jim pre-flighted, a golf cart towed them to the end of the runway. Dale gave me a thorough rundown of the instruments and controls of the ASK-21 sailplane we would be flying, the difficulty we might have finding thermals this particular day, and the procedures we would follow when being towed into the air. We, too, were then towed out to the end of the runway, where Jeff taxied-up and the crew hooked up the tow line. When the line was taut, we waggled our rudder indicating we were ready to go, and Jeff firewalled the throttle in the Piper Pawnee tow plane ahead of us, and we quickly lifted off right behind.
A truly masterful instructor, Dale walked me through the tow procedures, one of the hardest parts to learn when one is getting their glider rating, as I followed along with my hands and feet on the controls. As we approached the mountain ridgeline south of Crystal Airport, we dropped the towline. We were soaring! Flying within just a hundred feet or so of the treetops, the view and the sensations were exhilarating, and maybe a bit intimidating. A pilot in a powered aircraft like I fly would never get that close to a mountain, Dale said, and I can certainly attest to that. We skimmed along the ridge, looking for the slightest amount of lift created by the winds rising up the mountain (called ridge lift or, in meteorological terms, orographic lifting) … lift that could be felt in the seat of the pants and seen in the very sensitive vertical speed indicator called a variometer. There wasn’t much, but Dale found some (Judy’s instructor would quip that Dale “could find a thermal in a fart”) and he racked the tiny aircraft with the incredibly long wings into a spiraling turn to stay in the thermal.
Then it was my turn. Flying that glider was unlike anything I’ve ever flown before. Dale was constantly urging me, “More rudder!” Unlike the Pipers and Cessnas I usually fly, where only a bit of rudder is needed to coordinate the turn, sailplanes with impossibly long wings experience a LOT of adverse yaw. But I got the hang of it, and soon Dale was showing me how to use speed in a dive to build energy to climb. We found a small thermal in a place dubbed “The Chimney.” I did my best to stay in it, spiraling in a steep turn as we climbed ever so slowly.
Soon, it was time to head back to the ground. I had long lost sight of Judy and Jim, but I was too mesmerized in my own experience to really notice. I did some stalls and steep turns to get a better feel for the bird, then Dale demonstrated the aerobatic capabilities of the ASK-21 with a wing-over! I flew the pattern toward the airport with Dale working the spoilers to lose lift in a glider that would rather fly than be on the ground. Nevertheless, we nailed the touchdown and coasted to a stop. Our first soaring flights were done, but they won’t be our last!
There’s a whole world out there, waiting to be explored. See it from the air!