Proficient Pilot: The joy of soaring

May 1, 2009

Barry Schiff was awarded an honorary doctorate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The last five years of my career with TWA involved flying back and forth between Los Angeles and Honolulu, the best parts of which were the layovers. Our Lockheed 1011 crew spent 25 hours in Waikiki Beach “recovering” from the flight over and “resting” for the flight back. It was tough duty, you know, but someone had to do it.

I always knew that I was a little odd; my parents never missed an opportunity to say so. My layover activities seemed to confirm that. While most others were happily surfing or absorbing rays on the beach, I spent many of my layovers having a busman’s holiday at Dillingham Airfield on the westernmost point of Oahu.

During World War II, Dillingham was an Army Air Force base, but today it is a haven for sailplane enthusiasts. The mountains paralleling the 9,000-foot runway perfectly deflect upwards the omnipresent northeast trade winds and make it an ideal site for ridge soaring. Adding to the allure is a pristine beach parallel to and less than 100 yards from the runway, an idyllic place to relax with a cold one.

One of my most memorable flights there began as usual with a long tow rope making snake-like S-turns on the tarmac. The far end was connected to a tow hitch on the tail of the towplane, a weathered but reliable Cessna L–19 Birddog. The near end was attached to a hook under the nose of my Grob sailplane.

The towplane inched forward until the snake had straightened and then stopped. After completing the short takeoff checklist, I wiggled the rudder, a signal to the tow pilot that I was ready for takeoff. A young man lifted my left wingtip from the ground, and the Grob was poised for flight.

The Cessna and I accelerated in formation along Dillingham’s Runway 8, each of us dipping a left wing to correct for the crosswind.

I lifted off first but dared not climb lest I raise the tail of the towplane and make it impossible for it to become airborne. The pilot probably would have repaid my carelessness by cutting me loose from the tow and leaving me in low-altitude peril. Being released or experiencing a rope break, however, is no big deal with such a long runway. If below 200 feet, you can land straight ahead; above that you can circle and land. Such is the safety of having such remarkable glide performance.

After passing the end of the runway, the tow pilot made a right turn, and we were soon over the slopes of the mountains. At 500 feet agl I could feel the smooth surge of rising air. No longer needing the tow, I pulled the tow-release handle and separated myself from the umbilical. It immediately got quieter, and I quickly began to gain altitude in the levitating currents. The altimeter continued winding until I was at 3,000 feet, the upper limit that day because of scattered cumulus castles hovering above.

Soaring there takes little effort or skill because of the reliability of ridge lift. A serious consideration, though, is to not fly too far from the airport and be unable to return should conditions become less favorable.

Here is where decades earlier I had made a five-hour endurance flight in an old Schweizer trainer, one of three requirements needed to earn a silver soaring badge. Making miles-long figure eights over the ridges puts me at peace with the world. I experience a sense of rapture, exaltation like no other.

Ahead were a handful of hawks circling in a thermal, their wings outstretched and motionless like mine. I joined them, and they did not seem to mind the intrusion. It seemed as natural for me to be there as it was for them. Two other sailplanes joined the fun. Soon, though, the hawks tired of our folly and dove away. Perhaps they spotted something edible in the foliage below.

It eventually and regretfully became time to land. I was much too high, though, to enter the traffic pattern. Although I could have popped the spoilers and pitched over to lose altitude, I preferred to avoid the noisy rumbling they create. I instead headed seaward where there was no rising air, where I could descend peacefully and almost imperceptibly.

But wait. Ahead was a commotion on the dark blue surface. I headed toward the area and was delighted to discover some whales sailing as smoothly and effortlessly through the water as I was through the air. Off to my right was another whale, but this one was manmade, a nuclear-powered submarine riding effortlessly on the Pacific. Once overhead I used the conning tower as a pylon and made lazy circles hoping to receive an acknowledgment of my presence, but there was none. The sub continued northwest until out of sight.

I slowly and eventually lost excess altitude and entered the downwind leg. Power pilots often ask how glider pilots can so accurately make spot landings without power. It is really quite easy. While downwind, the sailplane pilot deploys the spoilers about halfway. This gives the glider about the same glide performance as an airplane. From then on, he simply uses the spoiler handle as if it were a throttle. When too high, he increases spoiler deployment; when too low he decreases it. It is difficult to overshoot or undershoot the touchdown target, another joy of soaring.

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