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Floating in a cloudless sky

Fri, Sep 12th, 2003
Posted in Features

Your first time up in a glider? Steve Fischer asks me. Steve is a mechanical engineer from the metro area whose passion in life is flying gliders. Yah, I shout out above the noise of the wind.Great. Well, whatever you do, dont pull that red knob on your right.I look by my right elbow and see what Steve is referring to.Okay, I say. Thats the emergency parachute, Steve instructs.Oh, I respond. It takes a few seconds for me to realize what that really means. All the while Steve and I are talking, the craft we are sitting in is being tugged further and further away from the ground by a tow plane piloted by Roger Payne, a 23 year member of the Minnesota Soaring Club. While I snap photographs, Steve pilots the glider to keep it aligned with the flight path of Rogers plane.Connected by a cable, we encounter ground wind turbulence that shakes the glider. On occasion our flight path resembles a knuckle ball being propelled toward an imaginary batter in the sky. At 1500 feet, everything goes quiet as we start flying above the ground wind. Did you notice that? Steve asks me, referring to how calm and peaceful things have suddenly become.You bet I did, I said, acknowledging that I was starting to feel a bit queasy. I have been in small planes before, both in the South Pacific and in Cuba, and expected some turbulence, but initially this was like being strapped into a kite.When we reach 70 knots, (approximately 80 miles an hour, a knot is 1.15 mph), and an altitude of 5000 feet above sea level, Steve pulls the release to disconnect the glider from the tow plane. Roger banks his plane up and to the left while Steve turns the nose of our glider down and to the right as we pull free. By going in prescribed directions, the two pilots insure that the tow plane and glider stay away from each others flight path.While Roger returns to the Fillmore County Airport, Steve and I solo above the contoured fields of Fillmore County. Like the hawks and eagles that float above the Root River valley running into Forestville State Park, our glider soars in the cloudless sky. I begin to relax and settle in for an amazing flight. ~ ~ ~Ben Jeffrey, a large man in a fishermans hat, has a spray bottle in one hand and cleaning wipes in another. He starts polishing the 50 foot wings of a Polish training glider.Bugs degrade the performance, Ben explains, wiping away while Steve goes through his pre-flight check. Ben, a vice-president for sales and marketing for a defense and electronics company, became hooked on gliding when he saw a glider fly over him while he was vacationing in the Napa valley several years ago.Ben Jeffrey, Steve Fischer and Roger Payne are all members of the Minnesota Soaring Club based out of Stanton Airfield near Northfield. The club has about 80 members, many of whom who have come to the Fillmore County Airport over the weekend of September 5-7 to test out the gliding conditions here. Several narrow tube trailers are parked around the infield of the airport. The club owns a tow plane and three two-seat trainers. The glider that Steve and Ben are readying for flight is a 1992 Puchacz that cost $60,000 and is made out of fiberglass. Puchacz in Polish means Owl.Steve explains that most gliders are manufactured in Europe because it is easier there for people who want to fly to obtain a gliders license than a license to pilot an airplane. According to Ben, apart from the initial costs of the glider, the sport of gliding is as modest in expense as golfing.My insurance is $600 a year. Apart from my club dues, it costs me $35 a month to stow my glider at Stanton and $25 for a tow to get me in the air, Ben said. His used solo glider cost $16,000.Ben tells me that flying a glider is considered so safe that you can be licensed at 14 for piloting a glider versus age 16 for an airplane. Somehow I feel re-assured by this.Before the craft is ready to fly, Ben and Steve work together on the final pre-flight check. Ben applies resistance while Steve checks out the wing flaps, rudders and brakes. After several minutes Steve declares, This craft is ready for flight.~~~There are several ways to get a glider in the air. The most common is by aerotow behind an airplane, which is how Steve and I were launched into the air.According to the Soaring Society of America website, the bungy is the oldest way to launch a glider. In this case, a glider is placed on the top of a ridge and a length of rubberized rope is attached to the towhook in the front of the craft. Runners on each side of the plane race down the hill sending the craft into the air coming up the face of the cliff.Another method involves using a winch and driving down the airfield with a powerful vehicle.A newer option involves having a self-launching motorglider, which has an engine that can be folded away after the glider is in the air. Steve is a pilot who is also a licensed glider instructor. He has been teaching glider wannabees since 1994. A typical instruction schedule involves about 30 flights.Some of those flights are for 20 minutes, some are for two minutes, Steve explains. If something goes wrong at 200 feet, the pilot needs to know what to do.I climb into the Puchaz, behind the nose of the plane. Ben makes sure the elaborate safety harness is secured correctly around me. Steve is in the seat behind me. Because this is a training glider, we each have a set of controls. The plexiglass canopy is closed around us and Steve alerts Roger in the tow plane by radio that we are ready for takeoff. ~ ~ ~At 5000 feet, gravity will take a glider down to the ground as quickly as the pilot wishes. One member of the Minnesota Soaring Club recently flew from Stanton to Chicago. Another specializes in long distance flying. Our flight plan will be to go up and check things out, Steve says. Well be back on the ground in about twenty minutes. Ours is the clubs first flight on Saturday.Like most teachers working with beginners, Steve is a patient instructor. He mixes bits of information about aerodynamics in with tips about piloting the craft.He shows me how the rudder pedals and stick maneuver the plane. Both instruments need to be coordinated for the smooth operation of the glider. To gain speed, Steve tips the nose of the plane forward and lets gravity give the engine-less craft thrust. To slow down, he noses the plane upward. The response of the craft is immediate. Glider pilots like Steve look for lift to give their craft the energy it needs to fly. And the most common form of lift are thermal columns of hot air. As the ground heats up, that hot air will rise as thermals, Steve says. By this afternoon, the conditions should be really good here. Another form of energy is ridge lift, which is formed by ground wind blowing up the side of a hill.A third type of energy is wave lift, which is created by strong winds blowing perpendicular to a mountain. Ben told me that high altitude flyers will often go to Nevada in search of wave lift. The altitude record for a glider is 49,000 feet.~ ~ ~You ready to fly this thing? Steve asks me.Why not? I say to Steve, masking my nervousness. I dont mention to him that when I play with flight simulators on the computer, I always end up crashing the plane.Try turning the plane left, Steve instructs. You are going to need a coordinated movement of the left rudder and the stick.I follow his instructions, consciously trying not to over maneuver the craft (that is where I get in trouble on the computer). The plane responds, the nose tipping down slightly.Steve lets me know that the nose is pointed down. I counter this by bringing the nose back up, but overcompensate.Your nose is up a little bit, you might want to level it off, Steve instructs, his voice calm and assured. I do as he says.At 50 knots, looking skyward, it appears that the glider is standing still. Only by looking at the ground do you realize that the craft is moving. After a half a minute of flying I tell Steve to take over. I feel too focused and nervous when I am in control of the glider. I immediately relax when Steve takes command. ~ ~ ~ Steve does a pre-landing check of the craft before we begin our descent to the ground. We will actually be speeding up as we land, Steve tells me in advance. Well be going about 60 knots.He also warns me that we will be landing on the grass strip next to the tarmac so that I dont get alarmed.I suppose you have already guessed that we will only get one chance at this, Steve says jokingly. Hes right of course, there is no way to abort the landing, we are going to land one way or another.The landing happens so fast that it is over before I know it. It is a bit disconcerting to be sitting behind the nose of the craft as the ground rises up to meet you, but I have total faith in Steves abilities as a pilot.The glider hits the grass softly and runs for about 40 yards along the ground. Just before coming to a stop, the craft begins to slide slightly toward the right. When we come to a complete stop, the canopy pops open and warm air rushes in.I unhitch the safety harnes and am soon standing on terra firma. Well, what did you think? Steve asks.Remarkable, I respond. Absolutely remarkable.For more information about gliders, go to the Minnesota Soaring Club website at

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