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Glider Pilots Soar With Only Wings and Their Wits : Aviation: Ability is crucial when flying planes without engines. But peering at nature's beauty from a silent cockpit is the payoff.

November 24, 1995

NEW MILFORD, Conn. — Near the northern tip of Candlewood Lake sits a tiny grass airstrip. There is no control tower. There are no hangars. There is no airport lounge. There is only an orange windsock.

But the pilots who fly in and out of this airstrip don't mind. Because they are among the best pilots in the world.

They have to be. They fly planes with no engines.

The men and women of the Nutmeg Soaring Assn. don't believe that airplanes have to make lots of noise or go very fast or even go very far.

They fly gliders, which depend on rising columns of warm air, called thermals, to stay aloft. Graceful, bird-like devices with long wings and narrow bodies, the gliders offer challenges--and benefits--that powered aircraft do not.

"A glider is much quieter," explains Wally Moran, who lives in Wilton, a city northeast of Stamford. During the week, he pilots an airliner for TWA. On weekends, though, he soars at Candlelight Farms Airport--that's the little airstrip's official name.

"With a glider, you and Mother Nature are much closer together," says Moran.

But Mother Nature can be a stern companion. For a glider pilot, she offers beauty and a unique form of solitude. But her rules can't be bent, and the penalty for a mistake can be harsh.

Landings can be especially challenging. "It's a one-shot deal," says Michael Harvey-Smith, who's been flying with the club for two seasons. "Judgment is everything."

With no engine to get them out of trouble, glider pilots are forced to rely on old-fashioned stick-and-rudder skills for survival. Seat-of-the-pants flying is always the order of the day.

Club member John Boyce, who has logged 25,000 hours flying everything from combat fighters to heavy transports, puts it bluntly: In a glider, he says, "you have to be a better pilot."

Linda DeMarco, an oncologist with a practice in New Milford, serves as president of Nutmeg Soaring. Gliding demands so much concentration, she says, that you have no choice but to leave your cares and worries on the ground. "You can't think about anything except the flying and the beauty around you," says DeMarco.

For DeMarco, the hardest part about soaring was building up enough confidence to fly cross-country trips. "Usually, you fly within a five- or six-mile radius of the airport," she explains.

Starting out at Candlelight Farms and then gliding all the way to, say Great Barrington, Vt., or Pittsfield, Mass., is another kind of proposition altogether. "You need guts and skill" to fly 50 or 60 miles in a glider, says DeMarco.

Soaring is still more of an art than a science, says Harvey-Smith, and good pilots are always striving to increase their store of what he calls "glider lore"--tiny bits of recondite wisdom that can keep you up in the air.

Examples of "glider lore" include flying behind hawks (they always find the best thermals), looking for cumulus clouds (there's always a thermal right under them) and keeping a sharp eye on the trees (if the leaves turn upside down, that means the air below them is rising).

Other handy sources of rising air are large parking lots, quarries and plowed fields. Glider pilots usually avoid flying over forests and lakes, which tend to draw air downward.

"Seek lift and avoid sink. That's the general rule," says Harvey-Smith.

A typical glider flight begins on the ground, with the glider sitting 200 feet directly behind a tow plane. A rope connects the glider to the tow plane. The plane takes off and the glider follows. The plane pulls the glider up to an altitude of about 3,000 feet. Then the glider pilot releases the tow rope. The plane descends to the left and the glider climbs to the right. If the glider pilot can't find a thermal, the flight will last only 15 minutes. But if the pilot is experienced, skilled and lucky, the flight can last for hours--until the pilot runs out of thermals. A really good pilot can fly all day, "as long as the sun stays out," says Moran.

He's not exaggerating. The world altitude record for a glider is 49,009 feet. The world record for a one-way glider trip is 907.7 miles. The world distance record for round-trip glider flight is 1,023.4 miles.

There are about 20,000 glider pilots in the U.S., according to the Soaring Society of America, the group that represents the interests of the nation's glider pilots. Denise Gartman, an official of the society, says glider pilots are proud of their safety record. She estimates that fewer than 10 have been killed in gliding accidents in the past five years.

Still, doesn't all this sound just a tiny bit risky? Perhaps it's all a matter of perspective. From the viewpoint of 85-year-old Rudy Opitz, flying out of Candlelight Farms is a piece of cake.

When Opitz began his gliding career back in 1929, there was no such thing as a two-seat glider. That meant no instructor on board to help a newcomer master the fundamentals. Students were launched from hillsides in primitive gliders made from wood and fabric. "It was a lot of work, pushing the glider back up to the top of the hill," he recalls with a smile.

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