Soaring with the eagles
By Ed. Lange
Hawks and maybe even eagles. You’ve seen them as they glide effortlessly through the sky – wings stretched out on cushions of air. For eons, man has gazed skyward wishing he could do the same – spread out long, slender wings, break the bonds of earth and soar high into the bright blue freedom.
I’ve done it. And so can you.
Also known as gliders, most sailplanes fly without engines – like hawks and eagles. Today’s gliders are often built of fiberglass or aluminum, are classified by their wingspans as measured in meters. The wings of the most popular, high-performance sailplanes span 18 meters – nearly 60 feet. By comparison, the wingspan of the common private plane, the single-engine Cessna 172 is only 36 feet, and the span of the world’s most beautiful fighter plane, the WWII Spitfire, is 37 feet. Sailplanes are designed to be lightweight, sleeker than a Porsche 911 and with graceful wings to supply as much lift as possible. Sailplanes can stay aloft for hours, fly hundreds of miles, soar to great altitudes on currents of rising air and return safely to the airport.
At the Saratoga County Airport, home of the Adirondack Soaring Club, the gleaming white glider sits low on the ground. The ship is a Duo Discus, a high-performance, two-seater sailplane built in Germany.
The tiny cockpit has no doors; pilots enter by tilting open a Plexiglass bubble canopy and stepping into the cockpit over the side of the plane. The fit is snug, and we wriggle down into the cushioned seats, our backsides coming to rest only about a foot above the runway. We strap ourselves in with four-point harnesses. The instrument panel sports only a modest array of gauges: airspeed, altimeter, compass, and a few others. There is no steering wheel, but rather a joystick for control and two pedals on the floor to manipulate the rudder. It seems like simplicity itself. At my side are levers that operate the flaps, dive brakes and the single-wheel landing gear under my butt.
We close the clear canopy that gives us a panoramic view all around us. Waiting on the runway is a small airplane, its single engine idling. A ground crewman comes to our cockpit with a long rope with metal rings at each end. He attaches one end of the rope to our plane and attaches the other end to the tow plane. The little-power-plane-that-could gives full throttle and the two planes accelerate down the runway, one towing the other with a slender rope.
The glider, with its much greater lift, is off the ground first. Instructor George Hanke made rapid adjustments as he keeps the glider in line behind the tow plane as its pilot, club member Bob Iuliano, begins a climb to 2,000 feet. George gives me the controls at about 1,000 feet, and immediately we observe the difference between master and student. Patiently George tells me what I am doing wrong in his Czech-accented English. In effect, “less is more.” Aaarrgh! The heel of my hand slaps my forehead. Dummkopf! (seems appropriate in a German-built airplane).
At 2,000 feet altitude, I pull the tow release handle. The tow rope leaps away from the glider and we are alone. Alone in the quiet wonder of engineless flight. No sound but the air stroking the skin of the fuselage. The sky arcs over us – a clear, vivid blue. Below us lay the tasteful city of Saratoga Springs, Saratoga Lake, farmlands, forests, the Northway, and in the distance, the Adirondacks. The day is glorious with unlimited visibility. The sky’s the limit.
A brief tangent: George Hanke
We’ll return to our regularly scheduled program in just a moment. But a few words about my instructor that day: George Hanke. George is a fifty-something wiseass. An émigré from Czechoslovakia (when it was still known by that name), George founded the non-profit Adirondack Soaring Club along with his son, Tim, who is also a pilot and instructor. The club is a hobby, a passion; they both have careers and work like regular stiffs. Together, with other members, they have put together a very active club of some 40 members that enjoy a positive, can-do espirit de corps.
George himself is something of a wizard when it comes to finding those all-important, but invisible currents of rising, lifting air, and then milking them for all the altitude they are worth.
Back to the experience
George knows the soaring conditions today are remarkable. He knows – knew before strapping himself into the glider – that rising columns of air, known as thermals, were waiting for us up there. He knows that if he takes the controls he will be able to climb to a high altitude that would reward us with a long, cross-country flight. So, he sought out the thermals and we soared. Circling and climbing, higher and higher. 7,000 feet. 8,000 feet. At 9,500 feet above the Saratoga mansions, we turned north. We flew over Corinth, Glens Falls, over Lake George Village. George began talking about flying to Lake Placid. “We could do it. The conditions are right.”
But somewhere over Lake George—which looks even more beautiful from the air—high above the Sagamore, George the Wizard found a transient atmospheric condition known as a “wave,” a powerful flow of air that arcs upward. Using the wave, he climbed higher even than the clouds around us that usually denote the limit of rising air. But, the wave lifted us above them – lifted us to 13,500 feet above the deep blue waves of Lake George—without an engine.
“You fly us back to Saratoga,” he instructed. With the entire Capital Region arrayed before us, I took control of that lovely, graceful, magical aircraft. With my hand on the stick in the tiny cockpit with the bubble canopy, I couldn’t help but think of WWII fighter planes as I flew this remarkably maneuverable sailplane. Unlike most power planes with their entry doors, steering wheels, side-by-side seating and space for luggage, a sailplane is a craft you wriggle down into and wear as though it were part of you.
So, I flew to Saratoga where I thought we were going to land. But George had other things in mind. Today, he would teach me how to soar—how to make the glider go up instead of down. “You can feel a thermal in the seat of your pants when you enter one,” he said. “It’s like being goosed.” So help me, I did it. For the first time in my life, I made an engineless aircraft climb! Maybe, just maybe, I can learn to do this after all.
You can, too
Far too often we put off possibilities that could enrich our lives. The Adirondack Soaring Club and other clubs across the country offer inexpensive introductory flights. My daughter, Kate, and her boyfriend, Dave, gave me a first flight as a gift. Wow, what a gift!
Ed Lange is an award-winning writer, stage director, sailor and new student pilot. For information about the non-profit Adirondack Soaring Club visit adirondacksoaring.com.