The first thing you notice about soaring, Larry Sanderson says, is the strength of the sailplane, the sense of security you have even though you are in an aircraft with no engine. Sanderson, executive director of the Soaring Society of America, should know: He's taken dozens of people up for their first glider rides.
Next, it's the view. "The glider canopy is incredible in its visibility," Sanderson says. "The visual sensation is almost of being in a bubble perched above the Earth," from which one can see in all directions. Finally, it is the "sense of control . . . You're not just hanging in the air."
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, sailplanes and gliders are technically different. With their more streamlined aerodynamic design, sailplanes can soar farther, on weaker rising currents. Gliders are more primitive and less capable of resisting gravity.
Sailplanes are propelled upward by wind and solar energy. Thermals--rising columns of warm air--provide the main source of lift on cross-country flights. Wind comes into play at other times, bouncing off sloped ground (ridge soaring) or off layers of stable air (wave soaring).
How high, how far and how fast can you go? Californian Bob Harris holds the altitude record, set in 1986, of 49,009 feet above sea level. The distance record is more than 1,000 miles out-and-return, set in 1983 by American Tom Knauff. And speeds of more than 100 m.p.h. are often reached during autumn in California; 125 to 130 m.p.h. is not uncommon.
You can plunge (so to speak) into soaring or just dabble, as fits your desires and your budget. It's not a poor person's sport, but clubs can offer relatively low-cost opportunities. Introductory rides of 20 minutes run about $30, with introductory lessons slightly more. A training program from first flight through solo can cost $400-$1,600, depending on where it is and how rapidly you progress. It can take an average student from 20 to 75 flights to solo.
Introductory rides ($40-$80) are offered at the nationwide network of gliderports operated by Soaring Adventures of America Inc., (800) 762-7464, which has a port in Palmdale and nearby 27 other cities coast to coast.
Southern California is one of the best places in the world for soaring, Sanderson says. In summer, the deserts generate excellent thermals; in winter, superlative wave conditions are produced by the southern Sierra and Tehachapi mountains. And almost every day, an ocean air mass pushes in, creating a shear line to fly on.
The central clearinghouse for information on the sport is the Soaring Society of America, Box E, Hobbs, N.M. 88241-1308. Formed in 1932 by early gliding enthusiasts, the society conducts competitions, standardizes records and awards international badges of proficiency for sailplane pilots.
You can earn four types of sailplane-piloting licenses. For a student license, no exams are required; you can solo when an instructor decides you are ready. A step up is the private rating, for which you must take a written, an oral and a flight exam; the license then allows you to carry a passenger. With more flight time and greater proficiency, plus additional exams, you can earn a commercial rating; this permits you to carry passengers for hire. Finally, an extremely proficient sailplane pilot can take additional exams and become a licensed instructor. Pilots are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the sport.
Enthusiasts say because the sport is so safe, pilots are allowed to solo at age 14. Physical strength is not a factor; what a sailplane pilot needs are coordination, determination, judgment and self-discipline.
Here are 10 places to try soaring for yourself:
Sailplane Enterprises (Hemet-Ryan Airport), P.O. Box 1678, Hemet, Calif. 92343, (714) 658-6577. Pilots can climb above Mt. San Jacinto on the thermals in the valley around Hemet. Cross-country flights of around 100 miles are possible on average soaring days. Rides and instruction are offered daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Regular lessons include discussion of flight theory, so separate ground school is not required; $800-$900 for 30 to 35 flights, to first solo; twice that for a private rating. Reservations are requested.
Crystal Soaring (Crystalaire Airport), 32810 North 165th St. E., Llano, Calif. 93544; (805) 944-3341. About 18 miles east of Palmdale, rides and instruction are available daily Thursday through Monday. Flight and ground instruction prepares students to solo after 50 to 75 training flights, costing from $1,500 to $2,500. Reservations recommended. Gift certificates available.
Aronson Air-Service Inc. (Rosamond Airport), P.O. Box J, Rosamond, Calif. 93560; (805) 256-2200. Located near Lancaster, the service tailors its introductory rides to the interests of the customer, says proprietor Bill Aronson. To go from neophyte to a private rating, expect to spend about $2,000. Demonstrations are only available Saturdays and Sundays. Call 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for an appointment.