As I was about to climb into the front pit of the solid-silver, letter-opener, stiletto of a glider for my first soaring lesson, instructor Gus Briegleb reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver dollar. He placed it on the runway at El Mirage Airport, then turned to me and said, “Bill, when you’re done with this course, I guarantee you’ll be able to release from the towplane at 2,000 feet, make a pattern, touch down and stop with your landing wheel on this dollar, all without power.”
Quite a promise, I thought, and not very likely. I nodded and climbed over the side of the Czechoslovakian Blanik L-13, eager to see what the sport of soaring was all about.
Per Gus’s direction, I fluttered the Blanik’s rudder, and the Piper Pawnee towplane out front took up the slack, then, went to full throttle. The Blanik lifted off first, and following Gus’s advice, I kept it low to avoid pulling up the towplane’s tail, then transitioned to the high tow position after we had cleared 300 feet.
Before we go any further, this isn’t a tale of forsaking powered flight, strapping on a Tilly hat and dedicating what remains of my flying career to soaring, though I’ll admit the sport does have a certain addictive charisma you’ll probably never experience in a powered aircraft.
In some respects, it’s analogous to the difference between a sailboat and a power boat. I owned a 27-foot Sea Ray Sundancer with twin Merc-Cruiser 470 engines for several years, and just to see how the other half lived, I took a sailing course at nearby Long Beach Harbor. The little 16-foot sailboat trainer seemed to have a will of its own, and I never did get comfortable with it. I learned the theory of jibing and tacking, absorbed the rule that port tack gives way to starboard tack and learned that most of the time, everything happens in slow motion, rarely faster than 10 knots. My Sea Ray cabin cruiser could manage 41 knots with the trim set and both engines breathing deeply.
But, of course, sailplane pilots and sailboat mariners only shake their heads and insist that’s the whole point. Soaring isn’t about speed. As I learned over the next month during glider training, they’re exactly right. Soaring is about the majesty of flight, more concerned with the art than the science. Soaring boasts an almost mystical attraction, not despite the lack of an engine, but because of it.
On my first flight with instructor Briegleb in the rear seat, we departed El Mirage Airport in California’s High Desert and were towed out to the center of the nearby dry lake, reaching 3,000 feet AGL before the release.
When you’re on tow, the sound of the towplane’s engine seems louder than it should. True, there’s only 200 feet of nylon separating you from the towplane, but if you’re expecting anechoic quiet, you’ll be disappointed during the climb.
In my case, I pulled the big red handle to break free, watched the tow line go slack as the Piper Pawnee banked away in a descending left turn, and I put the Blanik trainer into a climbing right spiral above the chicken ranch.
And there it was, the most uncanny silence I’ve ever not heard. The sky had a glycerin smoothness and cathedral quiet I’d never experienced before. We arced right, and the airplane’s variometer, basically a highly sensitive VSI, indicated a slight climb, perhaps 50 to 100 fpm. I watched, enthralled as the little glider slowly clawed its way uphill a few hundred feet.
Without an engine to provide indications of oil temperature and pressure, CHT, rpm, manifold pressure and fuel tanks to warn of diminishing returns, the panel of most sailplanes is a lonely place.
There’s no suction gauge, either, because there’s nothing pneumatic except the sky itself. Instrumentation usually consists of little more than airspeed, altitude, compass, variometer and perhaps a miniature, battery-powered clock. There’s also most often a telltale string mounted directly ahead of the windshield that’s intended to embarrass any pilot who fails to use adequate rudder during turns. I got to know that string very well.
If I’d been flying a Mercedes, I’m sure I could have heard the clock ticking off the seconds. There was a gentle rush of wind against the canopy, but no other sound intruded on my conscious.
Personally, I love the roar of a big Lycoming, Continental or Merlin (yes, in a P-51, but only once and only for an hour), but there’s a certain serenity, a quiet nobility to soaring without the noise and vibration of an engine to interrupt the experience.
I held the airspeed at about 60 knots while turning right, hoping the lift would hang in there and elevate me to a higher plane. L/D on the L-13 is 28/1, nearly three times the glide ratio of a typical, powered aircraft, but not even half of what some high-performance gliders offer. A few true competition sailplanes boast 60/1 glide ratios—that’s 60 feet forward for every foot of altitude loss.
For those folks to whom casual soaring doesn’t quite scratch the itch, the Soaring Society of America offers a series of badges and diamond awards for everything from altitude gained to distance flown to flight endurance and even speed. Extreme soaring fans have climbed to 50,000 feet, ranged out more than 1,300 nm and remained aloft for days at a time, and, oh yeah, all without an engine.
(At Dillingham, Hawaii, on the northwestern corner of the island of Oahu, there’s a range of low mountains that face into near-constant trade winds and allow pilots to fly back and forth for as long as their body can stand it. Literally hundreds of pilots have earned their endurance badge flying out of Dillingham. The owner of the airport’s soaring school once told me that a few truly dedicated glider pilots have managed as much as a full day soaring in the continuous updrafts off Hawaii’s Koolau Mountains.)
Since updrafts are all that keep a glider in the air, you might expect a successful flight to be a rough one. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The sailplane’s long wings help absorb the bumps and allow a glider to slice through turbulence that would be uncomfortable in a powered aircraft. Gliders have a smoother ride, even in extreme convection.
Sailplanes are also equipped with spoilers, and that makes all the difference in controlling your exact touchdown spot on the runway. Some powered aircraft also employ small spoilers, usually electrically powered, bridgework-style lift reducers mounted about two-thirds of the way aft of the leading edge on the inboard third of the wing.
In contrast, sailplane spoilers are huge and produce dramatic descents that allow a pilot to control the exact point of touchdown. The rule among glider pilots is “Aim high.”
On my first approach back into El Mirage, I witnessed the precise level of control that spoilers allow a pilot without the benefit of engine power.
Just as with a water rating, a glider license is far more fun than work, and not that expensive. At worst, you’ll pay three fees: one for the tow plane, graduated by altitude; the second, an hourly rate for the glider itself; and the third, an instructor fee for both flight and ground instruction.
A private pilot add-on rating to a powered license requires only 10 flights and two hours of solo time, and a commercial glider license demands 20 flights and three hours of solo time. (What would you do with a commercial glider license? “Blanik flight 2 is now departing from gate 1 for an indeterminate flight from El Mirage Airport to El Mirage Airport, arriving sometime between 20 minutes and two hours from now.”
Flight time obviously has less meaning in a sailplane, since you normally won’t be able to control how long each flight will last.
Oh, and by the way, Gus Briegleb was right. Within a few flights, I was able to stop on the runway, reach out and scoop up that silver dollar.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at [email protected].