Your world is but a rush of wind over a smooth bubble canopy. Your vision is panoramic and immersive; more sky than you’ve ever imagined. Look back over each shoulder and you can see a pair of long, slender wings flexing in the air currents as they carry you higher. You’re flying a sailplane.
The ride aloft, be it by towplane or catapult-winch, is exhilarating. The challenges of keeping the sailplane perfectly positioned behind the airplane dragging you aloft will challenge any power pilot. What’s a winch? Think big diesel engine that, with the pop of a clutch by the operator, flings your glider 1,500 feet into the air. It is a 30-second thrill ride no zipline can duplicate.
So where to start? If you are near New England, take a weekend at Sugarbush. Known as a ski town in the winter, Warren, Vermont, tucked in the Mad River Valley, has a gliderport with a fixed-base operator and even an airport restaurant that is jumping all summer long. The runway at Warren-Sugarbush Airport is a little more than 2,500 feet long and set in the valley at 1,400 feet msl. Power aircraft fly their patterns on one side of the airport whilst sailplane pilots fly the other side (standard operating procedure at most mixed-use airfields). That said, listen up as right-of-way rules dictate that powerplane pilots give way to landing sailplanes.
The Sugarbush Soaring Association is long known for its youth summer camps, which provide intensive soaring lessons, airport camping, and a very good time for a few lucky kids each summer.
Looking for something farther south? Try Chilhowee Gliderport, near Benton, Tennessee. In existence for nearly 50 years, this pristine grass airfield is tucked neatly up against an excellent lift-producing ridge near the Cherokee National Forest. Instructors Sarah and Jason Arnold are known for providing commercial flightseeing in their three-place glider as well as intensive flight training. Sarah is also an A&P/IA, keeping the numerous aircraft in her care in top shape. Because so many glider pilots come to Chilhowee for extended stays, the Arnolds have built bunkhouses for them, and allow camping on the airfield, for those who would rather rough it a bit.
Are you located farther west, or just a glutton for big, snowy-peaked granite in your scenery? Try soaring at Minden-Tahoe Airport, in Nevada, just south of the state capital Carson City, a bustling western city, and just north of the charming town of Minden. Lake Tahoe’s resorts are a short trip up the east slope of the Sierra Nevada, with scores of lodging options there, too.
SoaringNV manages a flight school and commercial glider ride operation out of this busy general aviation airport. At nearly 5,000 feet msl on a high desert plateau, Minden in the summertime is the home of booming thermals—rising, spinning air currents that can carry sailplanes right up to the flight levels, where mountain waves propagate. It isn’t uncommon for a two-hour flight for pilots to reach 20,000 feet msl, traveling 50 miles and back—yes, in a glider.
A dedicated sailplane runway parallels a towplane-landing runway, helping to segregate the traffic and expediting launch operations, which are impressive to watch on a busy summer afternoon. Those dedicated runways help expedite and segregate traffic on landing, as well. Gliders have to be towed away from the landing site back to the launch site, so they need just a little more time to clear the active runway on landing.
Minden’s location sets glider pilots up for some spectacularly scenic flights. Once airborne and twisting above 10,000 feet msl in a steep bank, thermaling pilots are treated to spectacular views of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada to the west. Go a little higher and the whole valley, the Pine Nut mountain ridge, and the whole of Nevada reveals itself to the north, east, and south.
When you are soaring, it is just you and the elements. Fly your craft with skill and you’ll stay up on your “free” ride for hours, sashaying through the sky on the hot desert thermals and rising air off ridgelines. There just isn’t a more pure expression of true flight.