When most people think about flying, their first thought is probably some big metal Boeing that looks like it shouldn’t get off the ground. But to me, flying is about soaring. I don’t want to stick an engine onto a big wing and call it good; I want to soar like a hawk. I could watch hawks soar for hours and climb higher and higher without once flapping their wings. They know how to get around.
Back at home, I was a member of the Philadelphia Glider Council. This club owned five different sailplanes, which are like highly efficient gliders with long, narrow wings and a narrow body; one is actually hanging from the ceiling in Commons Dinning Hall. The sailplanes are designed to take advantage of thermals, hot air rising off the ground, to soar like hawks. Once I experienced a flight in a sailplane, I knew I would never enjoy powered flight quite as much.
On the days that I could, I would be at their grass runway helping with general operations, hoping to get some lessons from the senior pilots; one afternoon I actually managed to get a lesson with the club president. At that point in my flying career, I had really only learned the basics: what the instruments did, what take-off and landing felt like, and how the aircraft handled in the air. Originally, our plan was to get towed to 2,700 feet, practice maneuvers until we ran out of altitude, and return to earth. However, this pilot had been in and out of sailplanes all day. Earlier in the day, he noticed some lift over the parking lots of a shopping center. At 2,700 feet, I pulled the yellow release knob, banking right to avoid the tow plane and setting us free into the sky.
Inside the cockpit, the altimeter has an audio cue so you can tell how fast you’re sinking without looking at the instruments. In the first few seconds after release, I didn’t hear anything except the wind rushing over the wings. In a few more moments that silence was broken, not by a drone of decent, but by the slow beeping sound of lift. I started another turn and held it steady as we made slow circles above the parking lot, gaining altitude just like a hawk would.
I watched the altimeter climb back up to 2,700 feet, our tow height, and then past it. When we reached 3,000 feet, I really understood why these pilots prefer sailplanes to powered aircraft. All of my previous flights had been nothing more than what they called “falling with style.” This time I was actually soaring. Using just the thermals rising off the ground, we maintained our altitude and actually got higher than where we had been let go. Knowing that all you have to work with are the changing air currents is an exhilarating feeling. Where a power pilot would increase the throttle to gain altitude, a sailplane pilot must rely on his or her skill to keep their aircraft soaring. Powered flight just doesn’t compare for me.
If you ever get the opportunity to soar in a sailplane, you should take it. In my experience, the beauty and grace of unpowered flight has been unmatched. Although college has made flying too much of a time commitment, the freedom of soaring is too much to resist, and I know I’ll be back one day.