Archive for the ‘Texas’ Category

Soar like a bird, if you dare

November 10, 2008
Diane in glider plane with pilot, Philippe Heer in back seat

Diane in glider with pilot Philippe Heer

Here are some things I’m pretty sure I’ll never do: hang glide, skydive, parasail, scuba dive. OK, maybe I’ll scuba dive, but you get the idea. The Ferris wheel is my idea of a thrilling carnival ride. So, when offered the chance to go gliding, or “soaring” as it’s called, why did I jump at it? I have no idea. Except that I’m not afraid of flying, and I have pondered, in a very distant and random way, taking flying lessons. And, oh yeah, it was free.

The hatch is closed to prepare for take off

The hatch is closed to prepare for takeoff

A glider ride was offered as an activity option during the annual convention of the Society of American Travel Writers, held last month in Houston. The club that sponsored the rides, the Greater Houston Soaring Association, wants to get the word out that 1) soaring is cool and 2) Texas, with a large number of thermals, is a great place to do it. What’s a thermal, you ask? Well, it’s not underwear. In short, thermals are columns of warm and therefore buoyant rising air. They’re what birds use to fly for days without stopping. You can read more about them here.

Glider plane is ready for take off

Similar glider is ready for takeoff

A glider, which has no motor, operates on physics. Once it’s hoisted into the air (in our case, towed up by a Cessna), it can move much farther horizontally than vertically. The more aerodynamic the plane, the longer it can stay aloft. Our “training planes” could go 28 feet horizontally for every 1-foot vertical drop. For more advanced planes, the ratio is 60 to 1. That’s without the help of thermals.

But, the fun part is “thermaling,” where the plane catches a thermal and stays aloft even longer. Thermals are energy sources, so riding one is like filling the gas tank. There are other forces that help keep the “ship,” as hobbyists call gliders, in the air, including heat and even mountains. The physics behind this stuff is truly fascinating. The guys at the Houston-area gliderport (just east of Wallis) said the record for a glider is 2,500 miles in flight, in the Andes. Whoa!

Cessna pulls glider plane as seen from Diane's position

Cessna pulls glider as seen from Diane`s position. Note the red yaw string.

The ships come with a stick and rudder, altimeter and barometer and air speed indicator. But experienced pilots say you can feel everything that’s happening and don’t really need the instruments. What they do watch is direction of the “yaw string,” usually a piece of yarn taped to the front of the plane. We were amused to see gliders worth thousands of dollars sporting little pieces of yarn attached with duct tape.

So, what was it like up there? There were about 35 of us going up, and the vast majority loved it and wanted to do it all over again. And then there were a few who said, “never again.” Guess which side I was on? As soon as the hatch closed and we took off, I thought, what the hell am I doing in this little fiberglass tube? I don’t do things like this!

Diane in front of two-seater plane

Diane takes the controls (not really)

I was in the front of the two-seater, with my patient pilot, Philippe Heer, suffering through my operatic near-screams (I did warn him) every time we banked or bumped over warm air pockets. We had time to catch just one thermal, and I could feel us rise up almost 2,000 feet. Intellectually I was totally excited. Physically, I was ready to get back on terra firma. It was a smooth ride, relatively speaking, and I wasn’t at all afraid of crashing, I just didn’t like the effect on my stomach.

When I compared notes with my fellow fliers, most of them had gleefully taken over the controls for a brief time, but I wasn’t remotely tempted. One of them was thrilled to be treated (upon request) to “negative G force,” or weightless flying for a short period, without gravity. Ugh.

Plane returns to grassy landing strip

Coming in for a landing

From the ship, the view was lovely and setting was peaceful, and I can understand how flying by the law of physics could be an addictive hobby. If you’re interested, visit the Soaring Society of America website and find the gliderports nearest you. Most places offer short rides to the public, for around $75. Me, I’m sticking to bicycling.

(A tip o’ the hat to my SATW colleague Kari Bodnarchuk for taking photos of me. Kari, by the way, loved the flight. She’d glided before and couldn’t wait to go again.)


Texas gives Dixie chicks a ride

October 28, 2008

Not being one who fears showing my ignorance (though, yes, I do like being right), here’s my confession. When I first read that I could have my photo taken posed with a “Texas longhorn” I thought that meant a cowboy. I was imagining a cross between Village People and Chippendales.

So imagine my surprise when I showed up at the George R. Brown Convention Center to find not a cowboy but a boy cow, named Texas.

Jane Wooldridge riding the longhorn steer

Miami Herald travel editor Jane Wooldridge poses pretty, even without a hat.

Texas is a longhorn steer, a breed of cattle known for its lean beef. More than anything, though, their distinctive horns have turned them into a symbol of the Lone Star State. (What’s the difference between a bull and a steer? I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with boy parts.) According to Wikipedia, because longhorns are smart and gentle, they’re also increasingly being trained as riding steers. I can’t say I now know what it’s like to ride one, but sitting on one was pretty cool.

Ellen Perlman riding the longhorn steer

Writer Ellen Perlman lives in DC, so she's used to a lot of bull.

This photo-op invite came from the kind folks at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a mammoth event held every spring in Houston. The rodeo was one of the sponsors of the 2008 convention of the Society of American Travel Writers, hosted by the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, which I and about 400 other members attended last week. Many of us posed with Texas, including my colleagues shown here: Jane Wooldridge, travel editor of the Miami Herald, and DC freelancer Ellen Perlman of Boldly Go Solo and more.

Diane riding the longhorn steer

Diane casts animal-rights principles aside for a longhorn photo-op.

This here steer is an employee of Ralph Fisher’s Photo Animals in La Grange. To be honest, I was torn about posing atop Texas. I really, really wanted the photo (and an excuse to wear a cowboy hat), but I felt bad for the steer. How fun can it be to have a couple hundred folks climb on you, say stupid things, and then clamor back down while cameras are constantly flashing in your eyes? Not very, I’m guessing. But I managed to stuff all my animal-rights leanings into a little “See No Evil” box in the back of my head, which I then had to pull out and repack all over again in order to post this blog entry.

Steer retreats after convention duties

Texas's sidekick is led through the convention lobby after clocking out.

Aside from the photo ops, one of the craziest sights of the evening was watching Ralph Fisher’s handlers walk Texas’s colleague, whose name escapes me, through the convention-center lobby and out to a waiting limo, um, trailer.