Fall Foliage

Glide Over Pennsylvania for a Bird's-Eye View

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Strapped into the glider's front seat, I peered over the nose and watched the horizon slant as we circled the edges of a current, soaring like a bird. The mountains, bumpy hills and patchwork fields, still green on this mid-September afternoon, soon would be lit up with fall colors that would attract hordes of visitors to this part of central Pennsylvania.

I tried to picture that and not think about the fact that I was 2,000 feet in the air in a tiny two-person plane with no engine. Or that I'd just wolfed down a big barbecue sandwich for lunch after a five-hour drive that had found me stuck, at the end, on a Sisyphean track full of wrong turns and confusing signs on a spanking-new highway cleaving the Pennsylvania hillsides.

By the time I reached Ridge Soaring Gliderport in Julian, all I wanted to do was to get out of the car and plant my feet on terra firma. But I had an appointment to fly, and fly I would.

My pilot, Daniel Scott, an ebullient man in a white cap, sunglasses and a salt-and-pepper mustache, explained the basics as we watched a couple of gliders, or sailplanes, take off ahead of us. After being towed to a certain altitude by a small "power" plane, the glider stays aloft by catching rising columns of air, called thermals, and riding them by turning in circles, like a bird. In addition, Ridge Soaring Gliderport is at the edge of the Alleghenies' Bald Eagle Mountain, which has such favorable air currents that glider pilots frequently can fly hundreds of miles in one trip.

I wasn't planning to go that far on my flight, which would last only about 15 minutes. Nevertheless, Scott was pumped; it happened to be the 10-year anniversary of the day he'd gotten his pilot's license.

He did seem a little nervous, though, when I told him I'd just had lunch, and he pointed out the folded wax bags tucked into the plane's side pocket as I got in.

I rode in the front, with a panel of dials and knobs before me, and Scott sat behind me at the controls. I grabbed the safety harness when the tow plane started its engines. In mere seconds, we were airborne, comfortably gaining altitude as the trees shrank beneath us.

Then we weren't attached to the tow plane anymore.

We coasted through the air as Scott sought out thermals to ride. "Got one!" he'd pipe up from the back seat as we floated up and he guided the plane into a gentle circle, following the current. As we flew below the cloud line, the trees below were crisp-clear, the leaves starting to turn in patches, the undulating hills rippling out to the south. Scott played tour guide, pointing out the Appalachians, the Allegheny Plateau, tiny towns far below.

We caught a couple more thermals, coasting languidly for 10, then 15 minutes.

"Are you ready to head down?" Scott asked as we descended gently, the afternoon's thrill ride approaching the end.

Then the trees started coming at us faster than I'd expected, and I felt my lunch lurching in my stomach. But just like that, we touched down with a whisper on the grassy field, Scott smoothly steered the slowing plane onto the runway and we stopped just outside the hangar.

Back in my car, I looked again at the fall colors just starting to dot the landscape, with fields of yellow wildflowers and scarlet vines scaling tree trunks and walls. As I drove back through the mountains I'd just flown over, I thought about their upcoming fall color show, but also of their power: how sun-warmed air pockets, easterly winds and a well-placed ridge can turn a sailplane into a bird. And how one should never gobble a big rib sandwich before boarding a tiny plane.

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