Many people equate aviation with noise. Some wage wars over airport decibel levels.
The members of the Orange County Soaring Assn., on the other hand, equate aviation with silence. For them, getting airborne means getting away from the cacophony of earth and into a realm where the only sound is that of the sky washing over a cockpit.
These folks say that an aircraft without an engine is the only way to fly.
The club's launch site, at Perris Valley Airport in Riverside County, is unimpressive. Two aging trailers constitute the headquarters, and an outhouse sits nearby. But since it was founded in 1959, the idea of the club has been to get people off the ground, and it does that extremely well, members agreed last weekend while waiting to go airborne.
As club members hid from the sun beneath a grape arbor, Sue Muncey, a pre-law student at UC Irvine and the day's assigned "line chief," hustled about the scrubby dirt air strip, making safety checks on the club's five gliders and keeping track of pilots, students and passengers as they prepared for their flights.
With help from whoever happened along, Muncey, 20, rolled the lightweight two-seat gliders onto the runway and clipped the 200-foot nylon tow rope into a latch in the nose of each craft. Then, as the pilot of the tow plane gunned his engine, Muncey sprinted alongside, holding the glider's wing until the line was taut.
On a busy Saturday or Sunday, the club might make 20 or 25 launches, she said, adding that she herself has been soaring ever since her parents gave her a glider flight as a high school graduation present.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to fly," said Bill Mackert as he watched the activity on the runway. "Then a friend took me out here and gave me a ride. I was hooked. I've never had any interest in flying powered aircraft--this is so much more of a challenge."
Although there are other ways to learn the sport, "this club makes the most economic sense," Mackert said.
For initial fees of less than $300, general monthly dues of $20 and modest towing fees, Mackert said, he has been able to take advantage of the association's five gliders (which retail for $7,000 to $12,000), two tow planes and free instruction. Mackert learned the fundamentals by flying with an instructor in the back seat, and he has completed 10 solo flights. Before long, he hopes to have a glider pilot's license.
Sandy Sandeen, 64, a Newport Beach lawyer and the club's chief flight instructor, said that the association is successful because its members are willing to pitch in. The club has 10 Federal Aviation Administration-certified instructors who volunteer their time, helping students get in as many hours as possible and then checking them off on solo flights as they work toward their soaring licenses. The 135 or so members also maintain the gliders, fly the tow planes, pump the gas that fuels them and conduct the day-to-day business of the association.
"Soaring is one of your safer sports, even compared to private airplanes," said Bob Franzke, vice president of the association. "We've never had a death in the club and only a couple accidents that I'd call serious."
The club even offers a ground school, taught at Orange Coast College, Sandeen said. And it offers members the immeasurable benefit of being able to hang out with fellow aficionados, he added.
"Ask, 'How do you thermal?' and four people will give you four different views," explained Herb Krause, a Riverside sales manager for a plastic conduit company.
Like others in the club, Krause said that learning to soar fulfilled a childhood desire. "I literally had dreams as a kid that I could stick out my arms and fly," he said. "For a while I flew radio-controlled sail planes, and that gave me an idea of what the sensation must be like. But I always wondered what it's like to actually go up. One of the most exciting turning points in my life was when I actually decided 'I want to be up there.' "
Bernie Kilcher of Riverside said that since he began soaring in 1962, he has been spending as much time "up there" as he can manage. A moment later, the sleek club glider he was piloting lifted off the ground, moments ahead of the Cessna towing it.
As the two planes slowly rose into the sky, gently bucking and twisting in the currents, Kilcher made mental notes. "That was a good thermal," he said. "I'll come back for that one."
At about 3,500 feet, Kilcher pulled a red knob in the cockpit of the glider, and the tow rope drifted down and dangled behind the Cessna. Kilcher shoved the stick to the left, and the glider banked sharply and pulled away.
Scanning the features of the landscape below, Kilcher found one of the rising columns of hot air he'd noticed during the tow flight, and he guided the glider into a slow upward spiral. When that thermal lost its lift, he soared off to another, the plane's altimeter clicking slowly as he gained a couple thousand feet of altitude.
"Now we're flying like eagles," Kilcher said with a grin, looking out at Lake Perris, Lake Elsinore, Lake Matthews, and the snow-capped peaks of San Gorgonio and San Jacinto as they appeared and disappeared on either side of the bubble cockpit.
After awhile, Kilcher figured it was time to let someone else have a turn. Making it look as easy as riding a bike through a parking lot, he steered the glider back to the airport.
Swooping down silently, the plane hit the dirt runway with a thump and shuddered to a stop. Muncey popped open the cockpit, and the roar of the small but busy airport rushed in.
'I've never had any interest in flying powered aircraft--this is so much more of a challenge.'