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ORANGE COUNTY ON THE GO : RIDING THE WIND : The Sky's the Limit for Glider Pilots, Once They Find Their Soar Spots

September 02, 1999|MARTIN BECK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the controls of the light aircraft being bounced around the sky, Joe Riley is positively gleeful. "Oh God!" he shouts back to the first-time flyer in the seat behind him. "Good Lord. This is a big one."

He's talking about a big thermal--the upward surges of spinning air for which Riley is searching the skies 2,000 feet above Southern California's high desert. The plane--a German-made glider with a wingspan as wide as a basketball court--has no propeller, no engine. Horsepower is provided by the wind and at this moment, the wind is whirling like a cyclone.

The ride is bumpy. Think of the stomach-churning jolts when a commercial airliner flies into rough weather. But Riley says it's a normal and necessary part of flying in gliders.

"It's part of the game," he said. "We're flying in turbulence."

Commercial pilots try to avoid turbulent air. Glider pilots seek it to push their planes higher. Riley and his passenger climb to 11,500 feet and leave the thermal for a smoother cruise past the eastern side of Mt. Baldy, more than 1,000 feet below the plane.

The view is stunning, as if you're immersed in a gigantic oil painting. The gray-blue sky is filled with billowing cumulus clouds, under which the powerful thermals are spawned.

At that elevation, Joshua trees and other features on the ground are mere pinpoints. The California Aqueduct slices through the desert, which pushes up against the rugged San Gabriel Mountains.

After an hour of flying, Riley points the glider back to the airfield, eventually turning into the wind for the approach and setting the plane down smoothly on the dirt runway.

It's an unassuming airstrip, carved out of the desert near the El Mirage dry lake bed west of Victorville, but it's an ideal location for soaring--as the sport of glider flying is called--says owner John Krey.

Krey, a retired aerospace engineer who has been flying gliders since 1958, said cold winds blowing east through the Cajon Pass meet warm air coming west and create a "shearline" of thermals.

"It's an uphill-type waterfall, you might say," Krey said.

Krey, 76, helps glider pilots get airborne, towing them with his single-engine Piper Pawnee, a 1964 crop-duster he bought in Nebraska. The fee is $20 for a tow to 2,000 feet.

Krey Field hosts three main gliding clubs--Antelope Valley Soaring, the Adelanto Flyers and Anaheim-based Phoenix Club Soaring Group.

Riley, who lives in Newport Beach, joined the Phoenix Club five years ago after flying had become somewhat humdrum for him. A helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he continued to fly small planes after the war.

"I had been flying for a lot of years and had gotten a little stale," said Riley, who is vice president of an aviation service company at the El Monte Airport.

A friend suggested he take a gliding lesson and he was quickly swept up.

"This," Riley said, "is the most fun you can have in aviation."

It can be expensive--glider prices start at more than $10,000--so most people join clubs to share expenses.

The Phoenix Club, for instance, owns four gliders it keeps at its modest compound at Krey Field. The group, which has about 20 active members, does most of its own maintenance work to keep down costs. It's $310 to join and $25 in monthly dues, plus tow fees.

"If you want to learn to fly, you would never do it more cheaply than with us," said Arch Horner, a club member from Tustin.

The club is steeped is history, tracing its roots to the Lilienthal soaring group founded in Southern California in 1962 by German immigrants, one of whom is 74-year-old Werner Kurkowski, the club's current flight instructor.

The Lilienthal group, named after 19th Century Prussian aeronautical inventor Otto Lilienthal, joined the Phoenix Club in 1970. And it retains a pronounced German influence. Many older members fought for Germany in World War II.

Kurkowski was a German paratrooper and Willi Block, a club member who died about two years ago, was a bomber pilot for the Luftwaffe.

But Horner was on the other side during the war, based in France, east of Paris with the Troop Carrier Group for the U.S. Army Air Force. Horner worked on--but never flew--the gliders that carried U.S. troops across enemy lines.

"Now 50 years later we are all flying together," said Horner, 75, who made his first solo flight when he was 67.

Krey Field is open for business Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and you'll find Phoenix Club members there year-round.

And although they wear parachutes as a precaution, accidents are rare. There's no fear of flying here.

Compared to the automobile drive out to the desert, Riley said before loading his passenger into the glider, "This is the safest part of your trip today."

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High Flyers

Some of the major local soaring clubs:

* Orange County Soaring Assn: Club with several hundred members; operates out of the Hemet Ryan Airport; cost is $460 initiation fee and $45 a month. Details: (714) 284-5558 or http://webpages.virtualrep.com/ocsa

* Phoenix Club Soaring Group: Operates out of Krey Field near Phelan in San Bernardino County; cost is $310 initial fee, $25 a month. Details: (714) 838-2939.

* Cypress Soaring: Club with 40 members specializes in cross-country flights; $285 initiation includes first month's dues, monthly dues $40. Details: (949) 675-1705 or http://www.hemet.klever.net/~mvml

More soaring information is available on the Soaring Society of America's Web page at: http://ssa.org

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