Summer 2009 Forward to a Friend

Free Flight


When my youngest child left for college, I had time to commit to a lifelong dream of flying. I started from scratch with patient instructors at the soaring club. I quickly learned the difference between gliding and soaring: Gliding involves getting a tow plane to tow you to 2,000 feet and then, after a 15-minute flight, landing back on the long, grassy runway. Soaring means using lift to gain altitude after the release from the tow plane’s rope. Soaring flights can last for hours.

We see the power of the sky during thunderstorms and tornadoes, yet we remain unaware of the powerful forces above us all the time. Once I became a glider pilot, my way of looking at the sky changed.

Soaring is an experience that can touch the heart of even an experienced pilot. “I am a pilot for Continental,” Jay Meinen once wrote to me, “so my flying hasn’t been for pure enjoyment for quite some time. I enjoy my work. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. But the airline flying isn’t for me; it’s for my passengers. I go where and when I’m told. I can’t go off course to see something if I want.

“On Saturday I managed to climb to 6,400 feet. Today, Sunday, I got to 7,650! I was airborne for two-and-a-half hours! What a rush! The solitude and beauty of riding the air with no engine and flying for myself and not for anyone else was just too cool. I remembered today why I began flying.”


Jay Meinen used thermal lift that develops when the sun heats the ground and creates columns of warmed air that rise up into the sky. On the ground, we notice this heat when we step off the cool grass and onto hot soil, rocks, or asphalt. Gliders, like the hawks and buzzards, use this rising heat to circle in the rising air up to cloud base.

One day I circled up in the lift provided by a freshly plowed field close to my home base. Local buzzards joined me as I used the air warmed by the field as an elevator. Then I moved into the patch of sunlight between the clouds. In front of me a rainbow appeared. As I moved closer, I could look down on the brilliantly colored arch. Silently, I flew above the translucent colors and witnessed a moment of beauty beyond my dreams.

Sometimes I use the thermal lift to fly cross-country. One of my favorite flights started on a September day. I got a tow to 2,000 feet, released my glider from the tow line, and headed up to cloud base. When I reached the gray underbelly of the cloud, I moved on to the sunlit clouds on the horizon. I followed my course line on my GPS, stopping at the biggest clouds along my way from Houston to my intended turnpoint 99 miles away.

Below me, the golden fields and the patches of trees created a mosaic pattern. Above me, the tall, cumulus clouds provided lift.

Traveling without a motor, sometimes at speeds of more than 70 miles per hour, I felt perfectly free. I landed five hours later back at my gliderport. I had covered 198 miles and set a U.S. World Class Feminine record.


Ridge lift requires very focused flying. Often just a wing’s length above a ridgeline, pilots use the lifting air deflected up and over the ridge. Ridges of all sizes can create lift. Gliders in Hawaii use the short ridge next to the ocean. Others fly the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia and back in one flight.

One ridge-runner described the fun of surprising people hiking the trails. He loves to watch hikers hit the ground as the shadow of his long wings passes over them. He also waves at people 50 feet below him. Such flying appeals to those who like an adrenaline rush. I generally prefer to have lots of space between me and people on the ground.

Flying the ridges of the New Zealand Alps with an experienced instructor, I learned to maneuver the two-place glider close to the jagged teeth of the mountains. The ridgeline had sharp pinnacles and a serpentine form making the flight like driving Highway 1 north of San Francisco. I had to look at the next turn, never further. It was great fun, but a real physical and mental workout.


In the sky above mountains, you may occasionally notice smooth little clouds shaped like flying saucers. Sometimes rows of them extend far out across the plains. These stationary, lenticular clouds mark the flow of waves of lift off mountains.

When strong wind hits mountains at a right angle, the air pushes up and over the top, plunges down the leeward side, and bounces back up into the stable air. These waves can bounce with such strength that the air occasionally pushes up above the tropopause. The waves, like ripples in a stream, continue for a great distance downwind.

Mountain wave soaring gives a pilot an opportunity to go into the “danger zone” of high altitude. Strong wave conditions can carry a glider above the 29,002 foot height of Mount Everest.

In 2006, Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson set the glider world record of 50,671 feet. Naturally, supplemental oxygen and clothing designed for the Arctic are required for such flights.

U.S. glider pilots make pilgrimages to the Rockies, Sierras, Alleghenies, and other mountain ranges to find perfect conditions for flying mountain waves. Pilots take a tow through the turbulent air beneath the wave. Once the glider contacts the upward moving wave, the pilot releases the tow rope. In absolute silence, the aircraft rides the wave up to its crest.

My first wave flight was over a mountain my father and I had climbed when I was 9. When I flew into the wave, the instruments in the glider showed that I was rising at more than 1,700 feet per minute. Quickly, I reached 24,000 feet, yet I felt as if I were suspended motionless in space. From that altitude, Mount Princeton, 14,197 feet tall, appeared as a small outcropping in a ribbon of snowcapped mountains.

I remembered the tough hike up the mountain in the hail and wind. I also remember that I would stand tiptoe on the summit of mountains and imagine flying out into the sky. I had known there was a better way to see the mountains. I was right!


If you train to fly gliders, there will come a moment when you feel the rising air tickle your glider’s wings, and you will begin to understand the power in the sky. You also may discover that soaring brings back childhood dreams. When we were young, our imaginations let us fly beyond our rooftops up so high that we could touch the clouds. Silent flight helps us recapture that childhood dream and rekindle our belief that all things are possible.


I must include a warning. Once you soar, you will feel compelled to look up at the clouds. Watching the edges of the clouds curl up as they fill with lift will become a real distraction. When you know how it feels to explore the beauty and power of clouds, you will never see the sky in the same way.

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Imagine taking a flight longer than the 1,809 air-mile distance from Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas, Nevada. Now, try to envision the flight in an aircraft without a motor. Believe it or not, a glider has flown farther – 60 miles farther.

Using the power of mountain wave, Klaus Ohlmann flew 1,869.7 miles, a world record. When he was asked how he prepared for the 15-hour flight, he answered, “There are two things that are important, cold temperature and oxygen. Both can be controlled by taking appropriate steps ... but the most important thing, however, is personal motivation and an unwavering optimism.” With that statement, Ohlmann defines the essential element of soaring pilots: unwavering optimism.

Altitude Records

The world altitude record in a glider is 50,721 feet. That is higher than a commercial aircraft can fly and is 21,719 feet higher than Mount Everest. Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson set the record flying in mountain wave. They made the flight in a DG-505, a popular glider flown by pilots around the world.

Speed Records

Harnessing the enormous powers of nature, glider pilots claim flight records that would be amazing with a motor. Not only can gliders go far, but using the energy of long mountain waves, sometimes combined with thermal lift, gliders can go fast.

On a trip of 310 miles, Ohlmann flew his glider at an average speed of 190 miles per hour. For more than four minutes of the flight, he exceeded 228 miles per hour.


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Gliders – also called sailplanes – are the combination of aeronautical design, the latest carbon-fiber materials, and human ingenuity. The carbon-fiber materials also are used in modern jet airliners, high-performance cars, and a number of other applications requiring light weight and high strength. The design of the world record-setting Nimbus-4DM and the U.S.-produced SparrowHawk exemplify the human ingenuity and state-of-the-art materials used to create different types of sailplanes.

Comparing the Nimbus-4DM sailplane and a popular Boeing airliner shows an interesting similarity in wingspan along with some drastic differences:



Boeing 737-200
Passengers 2 132
Wingspan 87 ft 93 ft
Maximum speed 177 mph 573 mph
Glide ratio 60:1 (60 miles from an altitude of 5,280 ft – one mile) not available – just hope the pilot has some glider training
Empty weight 1,312 lb 130,000 lb (takeoff weight)

As amazingly long as the wings of the Nimbus are, the whole sailplane weighs only 1,312 pounds. The carbon-fiber and glass-fiber laminate construction makes it possible for the long, thin wings to withstand the forces of flight in wave and at high speeds.

One of the lightest gliders is the 36-foot-wingspan SparrowHawk. Constructed of space-age carbon-fiber material, the glider can carry 260 pounds of weight inside its 155-pound airframe.

I fly a PW-5, the “World Class” glider that races in a single design class. The wingspan is 44 feet, 1 inch. Two PW-5s do not equal the wingspan of one Nimbus, but no one could have more fun than I do flying my glider. It is constructed of glass-epoxy composite materials. The PW-5 only weighs 419 pounds, yet the cockpit is roomy enough for a large pilot.

The Nimbus, SparrowHawk, and PW-5 sailplanes represent extremes among a large variety of designs built to efficiently turn natural energy into speed and altitude.


  • To see a video on how one high-performance glider is produced, click here.

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Soaring is a team sport. In order to fly, glider pilots need instructors, tow pilots, and a crew that launch the gliders and move them on the ground. The work, the flying, and the fun create strong bonds among the members.

My club – the Soaring Club of Houston – is 150 members strong. We worked together for 10 years to create a bit of aviation heaven. We bought 80 acres and built hangars and used a trailer for a clubhouse. In 2008, we moved into a 2,000-square-foot, luxurious clubhouse. What we have is amazing, and it costs us just $30 a month for dues.

Glider clubs are playgrounds, and everyone has a favorite toy. Our airplanes, seven club gliders, golf carts with fancy blinking lights on top, tractors, and 42 privately owned gliders compete for our attention. For reasons I can’t explain, the real battle involves deciding who gets to use the big green tractor to mow the 3,200-foot landing strip.

The core of any glider club is its instructors. Nothing delights them more than taking a new member from a novice to a licensed pilot. Other members are active in community outreach programs – Civil Air Patrol, ROTC, and educational programs in the inner city and rural schools. Soaring is a community of people connected by a love of flying and a love of sharing the adventures in the sky.