Leap of Faith

Coming home to quiet flight

June 1, 2002

On tow, the calm surrounds me. I'm relaxed behind the Piper Pawnee as it leads me in the Schweizer 233A on a racetrack pattern skyward. The wind rushes around the canopy as we sluice through the Arizona air, faster at 80 mph than we'll be at any other time during the 16 minutes we're aloft. We go up 3,000 feet, and soon it's time to leave the tow. Back stick, forward stick, pull the release, snap, right turn.

I'm soloing a glider, logging solo time in anything as a student for the first time in more than 14 years. But it's every bit like coming home.

The soaring world envelops those who find it, but those holes in the fabric through which you must slip to enter this world appear like mirages on the desert floor. Only in certain areas of the world are conditions conducive to steady, year-round operations. As a young pilot learning to fly airplanes in Iowa, I never registered glider flying as a possibility. But while working as a flight instructor in Boulder, Colorado, I shared the pattern with gliders and flew with a chief flight instructor who was a glider instructor first. Over time, and now watching gliders soar near my new home base in Frederick, Maryland, I have come to realize that perhaps it's what should have come first for me as well. Even if I couldn't rewrite history, I could close the gap in my experience, and I did, taking the opportunity to acquire my glider rating last winter.

Where to start?

While glider operations take place in nearly every part of the country, there are certain locations viewed as ideal because of their situation relative to terrain, local and regional wind patterns, and the thermal-generating potential of the surrounding area. The Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, the Appalachians, and Hawaii are all well known for good conditions, depending on the time of year and what type of soaring you seek.

The thermal activity really cranks up in Arizona in the spring and summer, but weather conditions remain favorable throughout the year. "Weather is seldom a factor. Two to three times a year, though, students may not always be able to fly," says Bruce Stephens, owner of Arizona Soaring at Estrella Sailport about 25 miles southwest of Phoenix. Though you may not be able to sample all the flavors of lift (thermal, ridge, and wave) during a glider course in the winter months, student flights are typically best achieved in smooth air anyway while experience is built. Also, as it was pointed out to me by Roy Coulliette of Turf Soaring, another well-esteemed operator in the Phoenix area, "January or February is a fine time to come to Arizona," especially if you are coming from Maryland as I was.

You can make the transition to gliders in the same way you may have pursued your airplane rating: A couple of sessions every week for a month should be enough for a private add-on, perhaps a little longer for commercial privileges, depending on how quickly you accomplish the solo flights. For many, though, it makes sense to take a concentrated course. Since I had a good base of knowledge and some familiarity with soaring going into the training, I felt I would benefit from a focused effort on the rating. I decided on a one-week course at Arizona Soaring to add a glider rating with commercial privileges onto my pilot certificate. Arizona Soaring specializes in intensive courses, pairing you with an instructor with whom you'll spend the week making flights, doing ground instruction as needed to solo, and then preparing for the checkride. The cost? Roughly $2,000, plus any travel expenses.

But there are trade-offs for acquiring the block of training in a limited stretch of days. During my course, the weather would be fairly consistent and therefore not truly test my developing skills; I would miss seasonal variations in the lift conditions; and I would easily fall prey to losing the information quickly if I didn't keep my hand in after leaving Estrella Sailport. These were the holes that would be left in my experience, but I found them acceptable since I felt I was embarking upon another lifelong journey within aviation.

"The technical ease of the transition does not represent the depth and complexity of the sport itself," says Keith Reinert, CFI and former glider instructor for The Cloud Base (now Mile High Gliding), in Boulder, Colorado, and current check airman for a regional airline. Although learning to maneuver the glider, seek lift, and plan for a committed landing every time lends a level of skill to a new glider pilot, there is an art to the sport that has no limit. "Soaring has an infiniteness to it, like playing an instrument," says Reinert. Working with nature to exploit its gifts — turning lift into airspeed and airspeed into climb — can engage the glider pilot in a lifetime of seeking.

First solos

Bruce Lachot, a dentist and nascent glider pilot working on his rating at Arizona Soaring, benefited from continuing his training during the summer months. In fact, his first solo, in a high-performance Grob 103, took place last August and gave him the opportunity to work some nearby thermal lift. "I released at 3,500 feet [msl], and I stayed up for one hour and 11 minutes, soaring up to 8,400 feet [msl]. That was a lot of fun," Lachot remembers. "What I need is two or three days in a row to ice the landing of the Grob 103. The rating is just around the corner."

As Lachot and fellow glider pilots have found, soaring is often a haven for those who seek freedom from the demands of their time-and-space-constrained lives. Tony Jobusch, once a vice president with the Broadway division of Macy's department stores, shed his cell phone and stepped off the corporate track three years ago to teach soaring full time. He would be my instructor for the week, and it turned out to be a good match.

Although my eyes felt like peeled grapes after the early morning trip from the East Coast in a Southwest Airlines tube, I started flying the afternoon I arrived in Phoenix. Jobusch and I spent an hour reviewing field rules and the course of training, and then we headed out to the runway where the Schweizers sat, waiting to fly. The familiarization flights rehearsed almost all of the maneuvers required by the practical test standards: takeoff on tow, slow flight, steep turns, stalls, traffic pattern entries, and landings. Aside from a few emergency procedures and cross-country planning, that's about all there is to a glider rating. I was awed by its simplicity.

One of the students with whom I traded tows throughout the week, Karen Felder, took a break from her airplane training to finish her initial certificate in gliders with the intent of continuing with her airplane rating once she returned home to Massachusetts. "My airplane and glider experience complemented each other really well. I could feel more and set the glider for attitude flying rather than being fixated on the instruments, which I had a tendency to do in an airplane," says Felder. Between her husband, who just received his airplane rating, and her mentor, Father Mike Nagle of the Roman Catholic Parish of Martha's Vineyard, she has plenty of support to enjoy both airplanes and gliders. "After soloing in a glider first and then going back to a plane, I felt much sharper, more in tune with the total picture outside and inside."

The night before my initial solo flights I woke up in a panic — what if I land off the airport in a cloud of embarrassment? Or worse yet, well, what is there that's worse? While accidents happen, soaring is a genuinely safe sport: With so few ways to hurt yourself and the slow speeds at which training gliders typically maneuver and land, the accident history appears mild when compared to that of airplanes. I calmed myself with this knowledge and set forth to complete my solo flights.

For private privileges, a transitioning pilot need only log three hours in a glider, including at least three training flights with an instructor in preparation for the practical test and 10 solo flights — if you already have 40 hours of time in heavier-than-air aircraft. Commercial privileges require 20 flights in a glider as pilot in command (read: solo) and three hours — or 10 flights — of training (for pilots with more than 200 hours of time in, for example, airplanes or rotorcraft — which includes most pilots who have received their initial commercial pilot certificate in airplanes).

Because I had 20 solos to accomplish, Jobusch suggested I fly some of them in the 233A and the rest in a Schweizer 126. A single-place aircraft? To my delight, and vast relief, I did indeed know enough about gliders in 10 flights to make the transition smoothly.

Since I was accustomed to moving between various aircraft and drawing parallels between them, it made sense for me to do some airplane flying while working on the glider rating. So I joined Jobusch several times on his daily trip in a Cessna 150 from Estrella to Chandler Municipal Airport near his home. The conversations we had — as two flight instructors sharing stories of our past hours of dual given — rounded out my experience. I'll take that much more to the cockpit when I teach because of the parallels we made.

During one of our cross-desert commutes, Jobusch offered the following to assuage my fears of not making it back to the airport during my solos: "It's not if your engine quits, it's when your engine quits. I think flying gliders makes you listen to and feel sink rates, and makes you more likely to not stall it in if you have to go in with no engine. The panic and fear factor go way down with the confidence that you can land dead-stick without a scratch — I've done it 3,400 times!" The pitch control I developed over the week, with no power to throw in to save me on final if I was too low, eased my trepidation. But I wondered if I would put myself into a bad place while maneuvering in the pattern for a landing. After all, when the engine quits in an airplane, one extra turn can put you too low to make your original aim point.

Then, as I was up on a solo flight in the 126, I had an aha moment that melted my worries in the sun streaming through the plexiglass. I can do a 360-degree turn and lose less than 100 feet. Like magic, that realization gave me enough wiggle room to maneuver in the pattern and set myself up so that I made nearly the same approach every time. Landing out — glider pilot jargon for an off-airport landing — is a fact of life if you soar enough. But in training it isn't likely. I sailed through the rest of my solos, my arms extended into the wings of the 126. I still had a tendency to approach high, though, keeping a little too much altitude in the bank to balance the fact that I could not go around.

"The single most important thing to remember is that a glider is not an airplane without a motor," says Reinert. The glider is optimized to stay up, sink less, and maximize the natural lift — unlike an airplane, which is normally designed to maximize speed and efficiency in conjunction with the engine up front.

I finished my solos and studied for the practical test. With an airplane rating in hand, I didn't need to pass a written — but with my CFI background, I knew the examiner would expect my discussions of weather and aircraft systems to be concise and complete.

Terry Brandt, the examiner, turned out to be multifaceted as well. He commutes to Estrella in his Cessna 210, and he holds an airline transport pilot certificate with single and multiengine airplane ratings and commercial seaplane, gyroplane, helicopter, and glider ratings. Though he was a teacher for nearly 20 years, Brandt's current day job has him test-flying the Hawk, a cutting-edge gyroplane, for the Groen Brothers based in the Phoenix area.

Back to that aim point. Brandt and I planned two flights for the checkride. During the first, the maneuvers were going very well, and my position for the landing was good. But I let the glider stay high and get a little fast turning onto final — and I deployed the spoilers too late for a stabilized approach. We rocketed down in a full right slip, clearing the proposed obstacle by 100 feet and landing, just barely, within the "box" — a set of four cones within which I needed to land for the test. I hauled on the hand brake to stop just before the final set of cones. Not my best show.

Brandt asked, "What do you think?" I replied, "I was high." "Yep. Let's go back up." Whew!

What we take away

Bruce Stephens started flying airplanes in college, and he owned a Helio Courier, which he used to fly supplies and people to job sites for his construction business in Alaska. When a friend suggested he look into owning a glider operation, Stephens researched the business and purchased Arizona Soaring in May 1987 from Les and Betty Horvath without ever having flown a glider. A leap of faith? Sure, but one that has paid off in deep personal fulfillment. Now Stephens is building a home in Alaska, with plans to spend the summer months up north, leaving his son, Jason, to run Arizona Soaring while he reacquaints himself with the joys of the Alaskan backcountry.

Betty Horvath stayed on to run the front desk, and she keeps diligent track of operations. There's a lot to watch, too. While the tow pilots write on Post-It notes the altitude of each tow they give, the sailplanes used for training have no electrical systems or engines from which to run a Hobbs meter. Even on a busy Saturday she notes how long each student stays up after a tow to the Little Ridge Foothills or the White Spot, two prominent landmarks in the Estrella Mountains, which lie within a few miles of the sailport.

And the mountains beckon to the pilots as sources of lift beyond the desert floor. Jason Stephens, a regional aerobatic champion in gliders and an accomplished airplane pilot, offers some insight into what skills he and his father have found that translate from soaring to powered flight, and backcountry flying in particular. "Soaring has helped me understand and better predict the flow and behavior of air around mountains so you know which are safe areas and which are more risky. Flying sailplanes conditions you to constantly and accurately evaluate your position and glidepath relative to suitable landing areas, which is important if you have an engine failure."

It's a telling fact that most — if not all — of the instructors and tow pilots at Arizona Soaring are both airplane and glider pilots. The cross-platform qualification serves everyone at the operation, allowing the pilots to help each other earn ratings and grow their experience. Tow pilots such as Ken Talarico, taking a break from his commuter airline job during my week at Estrella, spend the bulk of their time in the Pawnees. But most can hop in a glider and give rides should the need arise. And one of the line staff, Joe Flies, was hard at work on his commercial airplane rating. Having already soloed nearly everything soarable on the field, he took any opportunity he could to fly the operation's powered aircraft and gather insight on maneuvers, such as lazy 8s, with the experienced power pilots available.

So much of the complementary skill refined while soaring stays with you during every flight. As Reinert puts it, "Some part of flying gliders has seeped into everything," including flight in the Canadair RJ he now calls an office.

Soaring left me pushed to my limits, but not vibrated past them. At the end of each day, I was ready to head home, yet eager to slip through that hole in the fabric again.

E-mail the author at [email protected].