By Patrick Grubb
Gliders, sail planes, they’re wonderful flying machines. It’s the closest you can come to being a bird – Neil Armstrong
Before there were airplanes, there were gliders. Seeking inspiration, inventors and tinkerers looked to the birds in the sky and sought to emulate them. In 1853, Sir George Cayley successfully designed and constructed the first glider that carried a man. He was followed by many others, notably the Wright brothers whose powered airplane was preceded by a number of gliders. And while aeronautical development has progressed from gliders to motorized planes to spaceflights, there are still those who distain the entire idea of an engine – these are glider pilots and you could become one too.
About 150 km (90 miles) east of Vancouver lies Hope Airport, a beautifully verdant grass runway tucked between towering mountains beside the mighty Fraser River. Here you’ll find the headquarters of the Vancouver Soaring Association whose members can be found most weekends from April to October flying in gleaming white gliders.
The location is ideal for gliding – prevailing summer winds flow through the valley and up the sides of the mountains allowing gliders to reach altitudes around 10,000 feet for flights that can last hours. The club has five gliders, three of which are two seaters. Some members have their own gliders or partner with other owners. Two Cessna L-19 Bird Dog tow planes are used to pull the gliders up to release altitudes.
Gliders first came into their own following World War I. Germans were prohibited from building or flying motorized airplanes and turned to gliders to satisfy their desires for flight, a movement that was encouraged by the government. Since then, gliders have been primarily used for sport. The advent of modern materials has led to ever-lighter, ever-stronger and more efficient sailplanes that are able to remain aloft for long periods of time. Given the right conditions, a glider can fly hundreds or even thousands of kilometers in a given flight. Modern gliders can have a glide ratio of 50-1 or even as high as 60-1, meaning the plane can glide 50 – 60 feet for every foot of altitude. A jetliner such as a Boeing 767 has a glide ratio of 12-1. In the Perlan 1 Project, a modified version of a DG 505, similar to one of the club’s gliders, reached an altitude of 50,751 feet in 2006. (perlanproject.org/technology/#more-42).
The club offers familiarization (fam) flights most weekends to people interested in discovering whether gliding is for them. Depending upon wind conditions, flights typically last 20-30 minutes and are a terrific introduction to the sport. Fam flights cost $170 and should be arranged in advance to ensure there is space for you.
Daan Wynberg has been president of the association for the past three years and is an enthusiastic evangelist of sport gliding. On a recent flight, he talked about the beauty and challenges of non-motorized flight. “You are totally focused on what you’re doing, nothing else matters except flying the plane,” he said. “Every flight is different, you learn something new every time you are in the air.” As he spoke, he flew the glider along the sides of a mountain with the evergreens seemingly within feet of the wing tips. He explained that wind follows the contours of the mountain and the most lift comes from close proximity to the mountainsides. “It’s like sailing in many ways,” he explained. “You have to be able to ‘see’ the wind and its direction and currents. If you think about how water rolls over stones in a river, you can visualize how air flows up and over mountains.”
Intuitively, it makes sense but flying in a glider still leaves one in awe – how can a ‘heavier than air’ plane float so far and so long with nothing but the wind to keep it aloft? Sitting in the front of one of the club’s two seat gliders, such questions are soon left behind as one marvels at the experience of soaring along high above the valley floor. The sailplane swoops and turns, following the contour of the mountainsides, while the wind slips past the clear canopy. Unlike a powered plane, it’s very quiet – passenger and pilot can converse in normal tones with only the intermittent sound of the radio interrupting our thoughts.
It’s early in the day and the afternoon wind has yet to develop, meaning updrafts are few and far between. Occasionally, though, a gust will catch and you feel the glider begin to lift higher in the air bringing you closer to altitudes which will allow the pilot to play ‘will o’ wisp’ with the mountains and clouds in the sky. Soon, too soon, it is time for the pilot to announce to air traffic that the glider is entering the traffic pattern in preparation for landing. Because the craft can glide so effortlessly, the pilot must deploy spoilers on the wings to bleed off lift and to allow a steeper descent without picking up unnecessary speed. Straightening out, the pilot pulls back on the stick just before touchdown and gently returns to earth. A short run out and then helpers appear to open the canopy, unbuckle your seat belt and help you take off the parachute. How was it, the pilot asks, already knowing the answer. He can see it in the broad grin that is glued on your face.
According to Wynberg, often those taking up the sport are or were pilots seeking a purer form of flying. “Some of them are tired of the expense of owning their own plane but still want the thrill of flying,” he said. Others are simply intrigued by the idea of floating on air currents. Hardeep Shoker, 25, is a software engineer from Surrey. A friend of his had suggested he take a fam flight only three weeks before and he is currently enrolled in a training program with the club. Asked why, Shoker said gliding felt like a purer form of flight, one where you could fly like a bird. He was not a pilot before he began the course.
The club offers training options to new members. During the season, training happens every weekend, and for some wishing to accelerate their learning curve there are intensive week-long “ab initio” training courses that immerse students in the practice and theory of glider flight. Costing $350 plus glider rental and towing charges, there are two tentatively scheduled for June and August. A limited number of places are available and, according to Wynberg, the courses fill up quickly. It is recommended that prospective pilots try a number of flights beforehand to ensure they are mentally and physically prepared to learn how to glide and to achieve a base level of skills before jumping into the ab initio course. Students can purchase a four-flight package for initial training. Ab initio training classes are limited to 4-6 students, which allows each student 3-4 flights per day.
Wynberg cautions that prospective students should be aware of the initial costs and time commitments that learning to glide entail. In the beginning, students make numerous flights, each of which incurs a tow charge to release altitude. A student might make two or three flights a day and incur minimum tow charges of $33 per flight. Once trained, the costs of the sport compare favorably with other activities such as golf, skiing or riding. Once certified, a pilot might make only one flight a day but that flight could easily last for an hour or two. Even still, going gliding isn’t like getting a tee time and playing golf for two or three hours. To go gliding, besides the drive to Hope, it might be several hours before the conditions are ripe for flying. A fair number of members park their campers or pitch a tent on the grounds and make a weekend out of it.
The club will do about 60-80 fam flights per season which provides some revenue to help pay club expenses, which is nice, but if they had their druthers, club members would prefer that people taking the flights aren’t just thrill seekers or bucket list crossers-off but are sincerely curious about learning to fly gliders. Wynberg is confident that as long as prospective pilots come in with their eyes open as to costs and time, the beauty and thrill of soaring like a bird will make a believer out of them.
The association is non-profit and relies on membership dues, tow charges and fam flights and other revenues to cover operating costs. About 40-strong, the association is currently in a membership drive and is hoping to bulk up with another 10 or so members. Those interested in learning more about gliding can join a “Burger and Beer” meetup event held the first Friday of the month in Vancouver (next ones are June 5 and July 3). Go to vancouversoaring.com for more information. x