David Patterson always wanted to fly. As a pre-teen, he shuttled between parents in Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif., on PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines), the “smiley jets.” Although the trip lasted only an hour, Patterson thought the view out the window was spectacular. The summer after his 10th-grade year, he called a friend, Jeff, “just to catch up.” Jeff said he was taking a summer school course on aviation careers at the local airport, and as part of the course, the school district was paying for two hours of flight lessons. Patterson promptly signed up for the same course.
Fast-forward 20 years: Patterson is a commercial airline pilot and although he still loved to fly, the duties of a pilot had become “too procedural.” He looked for an inexpensive way to get back into the “spirit” of general aviation. The pilot admits “soaring” had always been in the back of his mind. (Soaring is defined as the sport of flying a sailplane or glider — a motorless aircraft — through the air using gravity or air currents instead of engine power.) Through an internet search, Patterson discovered a soaring club right here in the Metroplex, Texas Soaring Association, one of the largest soaring clubs in the United States with 60 years of history. TSA owns several gliders and operates from of a private airfield in Midlothian where they charge $100 for a 20-30 minute flight (there are size and height requirements). For youth and adults who wish to learn to fly, the association also offers classes. No experience is necessary. Information on flights and requirements can be found at texassoaring.org.
Here, Patterson shares his experience.
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One fine Saturday I drove down and signed up for a flight, and life has never been the same. I spend my weekends soaring with the birds, listening to air brush by the canopy, enjoying the cool air at 6,000 feet, usually with my kids along (they’ve been soaring since they were 5 and 4, and are now 18 and 17). All your worries and concerns seem to drop away as you make lazy figure eights in the sky.
The sport of soaring features high-performance fiberglass and carbon-fiber sailplanes that can cost upwards of $100,000 -- and that don’t have motors (some do, but they’re only used part time). These are fully enclosed planes, not hang gliders. Typically, they have much longer wings than airplanes. These wings have rollerblade wheels on the tips so that, as they slow down after landing, if one of the wings scrapes the ground, the rollerblade wheels take the impact. They connect by rope to a tow plane in order to get pulled up into the sky. The tow plane goes as high as the glider pilot wants, and then the glider pilot pulls a release knob in the cockpit and the tow rope falls away from the glider. The tow plane then goes back down to get yet another glider.
Meanwhile, the glider pilot looks for rising air currents called thermals. By using these thermals, a pilot can stay aloft for hours on end and, if desired, even fly hundreds of miles. We’ve got folks who do it every week for a majority of the year. They even have contests to see who can get around a course of GPS “waypoints” in the least time, again, often covering hundreds of miles.
How do you find these rising air currents? Easy. Look for the little cumulus clouds that usually dot the Texas sky. Underneath each one of them is a thermal. But sometimes there isn’t enough moisture in the air to form clouds. In that case, you can look for dark brown fields on the ground. They absorb more sunlight than the green fields do and usually produce good thermals. Another good indicator is turkey buzzards and other soaring birds. It’s not uncommon to be in the same thermal with several birds at the same time. Once you find a thermal, circle in it to gain altitude. It’s as easy as that. Repeat as necessary until the sun starts getting low in the sky (or until you have to go to the bathroom.) If one thermal peters out, head for the nearest cumulus cloud or dark field. Thermals can last 10 to 30 minutes or so. They tend to drift with the winds aloft.
But what if you don’t find a thermal? No big deal. These gliders typically have glide ratios of 1:34 or better. That means for each foot of altitude lost, they will go 34 feet forward in still air. This equates to an altitude loss of only maybe 126 feet per minute at about 41 mph. So if you’re at 2,500 feet above the ground, you’ve got a good 18 minutes to get back to the airport, which is more than adequate. It’s probably more gradual than a leaf falling from a tree.
Do people ever land away from the airport? Yes, sometimes, but you’re only landing at about 44 mph and these planes land fine in a plowed field. They are easy to disassemble and put in a special trailer and tow them back to the club. But usually the tow plane just comes and gives you another tug up into the sky. There are hundreds of small private airports you can land on if you ever need to. They’re literally everywhere.
How do you land without an engine? A sailplane has airbrakes that pop up out of the wing. When you are on the downwind leg of the traffic pattern, at about 800 to 1,000 feet, abeam (or adjacent to) your intended landing spot, you put out about half to two-thirds speed brakes, using a lever you control with your left hand. You plan your landing approach using this extra “drag.” If you end up being too low, you merely put the speed brakes back into the wing by pushing the lever forward, and it’s like adding power. If you are too high, you pull the lever further aft and get more speed brakes, which helps you go down faster, while not accelerating. So it’s really just like having an engine. It doesn’t take long to learn and anyone can do it. If you can drive a stick shift, you can fly a glider. If you can’t drive a stick shift, you can fly a glider.
My favorite thing about soaring is the wonder of doing something that man longed to do for thousands and thousands of years, which is to soar like the birds. Now we have the ability to do it, but only one percent or less of the population ever does it. So take a ride in a sailplane or glider sometime. I guarantee you’ll be hooked!
Go to ssa.org for more info on soaring in the United States.