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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.)