At 1,000 feet above the ground, things get even more exciting as you pull a knob by your left knee, which releases the tow rope. The rope spirals out of sight; the Piper Pawnee dives to the left and heads back to the airport. You’re on your own, and it’s up to you to find the air currents that will keep your sailplane aloft—because there is no engine to provide power.
Welcome to the club
It’s been 10 years since I was in the tandem cockpit of a sailplane. Today I am revisiting the art of soaring with David Weaver, a flight instructor at Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association in Fairfield, Pennsylvania (M-ASA). The club is based at its privately owned, public-use airport (W73) nestled in a valley adjacent to Liberty Mountain ski resort.
Gliding is a form of flight older than the Wright brothers, who learned flight control and became pilots by soaring in a series of gliders they designed while experimenting with aerodynamics. In 2018 the FAA estimated there were 26,463 active glider pilots in the United States out of a total of 633,317 certificated pilots. This group includes pilots certified only for gliders as well as pilots certified in multiple categories, including gliders.Gliding operations generally fall into one of two camps: commercial operations or clubs. Commercial soaring schools offer flight instruction as well as sightseeing flights. Paid instructors and staff perform ground handling and tows, and the sailplanes typically are available during set times when weather conditions permit. Commercial operations charge higher rates for instruction and towing.
Clubs like M-ASA are not-for-profit ventures. Club members provide flight instruction and ground handling; aircraft might be available on a looser schedule. Members maintain the premises, do the bookkeeping, and handle all the other associated tasks, such as grounds maintenance. Members typically pay dues to help keep the club operating. Flight instruction is free, and glider rental is usually one-half to two-thirds cheaper than commercial operations, Weaver said.
There are two elements to the sport of flying without an engine: gliding—or flying the glider or sailplane; and soaring—or gaining altitude and traveling without power. When you complete the FAA requirements to fly a glider, the term “glider” is used to designate the rating on your pilot certificate.
I’d originally planned to head out west to do some soaring, because even though M-ASA has been operating in southern Pennsylvania since 1976, I’d never associated this region with good soaring conditions. Don’t you need lots of rising warm air and very tall mountains? That’s a powered pilot’s misperception. Yes, thermals—columns of rising air—are important, but so are ridge lift—wind that is deflected upward from steep slopes—and mountain waves, created when strong winds blow across a mountain range in a wave-like pattern. Glider pilots use mountain waves to fly for hundreds of miles. W73 has all three conditions all year around, Weaver said. M-ASA has two towplanes and four gliders. Club members privately own another 35 gliders.
Weaver and I wheel the ASK 21 out of its hangar, attach it by a tow rope to an airport car, and I very slowly drive the car to the departure end of Runway 15 while Weaver walks the tandem two-seater by one wing tip. After we position the glider and I climb in and fasten the five-point harness, it’s time to reacquaint myself with the simple panel: airspeed indicator, altimeter, and variometer, an instrument that registers rising or sinking air. There’s no turn coordinator—instead a piece of yarn is taped to the canopy just above eye level. This yaw string shows via the slipstream whether the glider is being flown in a coordinated fashion.
The ASK 21 is a popular trainer among glider pilots because it is said to be docile and easier to handle on the ground. M-ASA sold its two Grob 103s and replaced them with ASK 21s. “We couldn’t be happier,” Weaver says.
With Weaver seated behind me, another M-ASA member hooks us up to the Piper Pawnee and signals the towplane pilot when we are ready to go.
I am just as bad at keeping the ASK 21 behind the towplane as I was 10 years ago. “Small corrections,” Weaver reminds me. He’d earlier said that the glider naturally wants to remain behind the towplane, and if it isn’t, “it’s because you put it there.”
Releasing the towline, we are off to find lift. Weaver directs me to the base of first one cloud, then another. We circle beneath some buzzards, gaining a gradual but steady 500 feet per minute. There’s only an intermittent beeping from the variometer as higher, faster tones register an increase in lift.
Heading back to the airport, Weaver expertly calculates height and distance to bring the ASK 21 back into the pattern at W73. Spoilers, or speed brakes, practically stop the glider in mid-flight as we turn final onto Runway 33 (gliders here take off to the south and land to the north, because of a slope in the runway). Every landing is engine-out, and glider pilots excel at them.
Soaring may be one of aviation’s best-kept secrets. When you stack it up against powered flight, it has a lot going for it:
What are the requirements?
As noted, a student pilot may solo at age 14 with a student certificate endorsed by an instructor. An estimated 30 to 40 flights with an instructor are required to solo, but soaring enthusiasts use another rule of thumb: Starting without pilot experience, it usually takes as many flights as your age, Weaver said. Thirty to 40 may sound like a lot of flights, but keep in mind that shorter sessions mean those flights only add up to 10 to 12 hours of flight time.
To take the glider checkride, students must be at least 16. They must have logged at least 10 hours of flight time in a glider and that time must include at least 20 glider flights. They must have two hours of solo time. They must have passed an FAA knowledge test. Finally, they must pass the practical test with an FAA examiner.
Already have a pilot certificate? If you do and you have 40 hours of pilot in command time, you can take the glider practical test with a minimum of 10 solo flights. You don’t need to take a knowledge test. Adding a glider rating fulfills the requirements of a flight review.
Soaring is quite different from the mindset powered pilots develop. In an airplane with an engine, we take off; we go somewhere; we land. There’s usually a mission tied to that destination, such as a hamburger or a plate of pancakes.
For the soaring pilot, the mission is to…stay aloft. You might be up for 30 minutes, but if the conditions are favorable, you could ride the air currents for hours.
And there’s something incredibly liberating about having no particular place to go. The part of your brain that is constantly monitoring engine noises gets to revel in the peace and quiet while you search for thermals and work to gain altitude. And, lest you think it’s a tame form of flying, the soaring community has racing competitions; cross-country treks where pilots follow air currents for hundreds of miles; and even glider aerobatic competitions. There’s also a program sponsored by the Soaring Society of America (ssa.org) that enables participants to earn achievement badges based on the type and amount of flying conducted.
With lift, comes drag. In a turn, the outside wing of an airplane or glider produces more lift than the inside wing, and thus, more induced drag. That yaws the aircraft to the outside of the turn, which is known as adverse yaw. Yaw forces act on the wing like a lever, so gliders’ longer wings mean longer levers—and more pronounced adverse yaw.