To the north loomed the Catoctins, to the west the Blue Ridge, and beyond a notch in the mountains, Harper's Ferry. Two thousand feet below, bathed in a setting sun, passed a patchwork of Maryland farms.
"Let me put 'er into a hard turn," pilot Mark Grainger, 19, suggested, quietly, because there was no need to shout over a roaring engine: There was no engine. "Ready?" he almost whispered.
Then he dipped the left wing near-vertically, a maneuver making the earth spin 'round and the wind suddenly howl through the canopy. A moment for his passenger's bowels to tighten, and Grainger brought the sailplane level again.
Soaring, which is how glider pilots describe what they do, blends magic with technology. To stay aloft with no power save the lift of rising air may not be fun for everyone. "It's an esoteric type of sport," said Michele Silver of the Soaring Society of America. But the small community of soarers seems quite fervent in the pursuit.
"I'm afraid of heights," said Helmut Buchholz, 41, a car salesman in Frederick who soars, sometimes for hours on end, every chance he gets. "I can't stand on top of a building and look down, and I can't climb a ladder. But I have no fear of flying. When I'm up there in a sailplane, I know I'm in control. There's a tremendous feeling of tranquility. Once you get hooked, there's no way out."
Not everyone waxes so mystical. "There's tranquility, sure," said astronaut Story Musgrave, 47, an avid soarer who next year will pilot the Space Shuttle Challenger, "but it's the same tranquility I feel with any other machine. I just enjoy the interaction between myself and the vehicle."
And Grainger, who started soaring five years ago at 14 and now teaches the sport, allowed, "I do fly power planes, but I find that nothing beats this. I guess what you get most of all is a great sense of achievement."
The other day he took a novice skyward from the grassy airstrip of Bay Soaring in Woodbine, Maryland, one of two commercial facilities within striking distance of Washington. (The other is the Warrenton Soaring Center in Virginia.) Bay Soaring's owner is Jerry Gaudet, who left his job as mammal curator of the Baltimore Zoo three years ago, moved to Colorado to scale the Mountain Wave -- a soarers' mecca where updrafts commonly carry sailplanes to 40,000 feet -- and returned last year to make his passion a business.
"I used to be an elephant tender," said Gaudet, 33, as he stood amid corn and alfalfa fields under a bright and cloudless sky. "I guess I liked it because I didn't have to deal very much with people. But as I moved up the zoo hierarchy, I found that I had to deal with people more and more. So I climbed into a sailplane to be alone again.
"I had always wanted to fly. I started when I was 20. I bought an antique airplane, a 1946 Funk, made by the Funk brothers of Kansas, and restored it. When I was still in Baltimore, I started towing sailplanes for members of the local soaring society. That was my first exposure. Then I went out to Colorado Springs and did some soaring on the Mountain Wave, the winds coming over the Rockies.
"What happens is, you catch an orographic lift, where air strikes the mountains and goes up, and you just reach incredible heights. Over Pike's Peak, I got to 41,000 feet. I was bundled up and breathing oxygen." He added dreamily, " When you exhale at that altitude, your breath turns to ice crystals and falls into your lap."
For a visitor's maiden flight the other day, Gaudet supplied a gleaming-white high- performance sailplane, his Romanian-made Lark: 857 pounds of aluminum and plastic with a wingspan of 56 feet. He, Grainger, and tow pilot Max Lichty, also a soarer when not pulling gliders, edged it into position on the airstrip.
"If you're the pilot," Grainger said as he hoisted the tail, "this thing's like a feather. And if you're the ground crew, it's a Sherman tank." The wind was from the south at 10 knots.
Gaudet fastened a nylon tow rope to the nose as Lichty climbed into his sturdy Bellanca Citabria ("It's 'airbatic' spelled backwards"), which sat 200 feet down the runway. Grainger, after first removing 50 pounds of lead ballast, harnessed the passenger into the cockpit. Then he jumped in back, battened down the canopy and waited.
"Take a look at the instruments," he said, and the passenger shifted his focus from the stick between his knees to the panel of gauges before him. "We've got an altimeter, an airspeed indicator, a compass for cross- country trips, and a rate-of-climb indicator. If we run into some rising air, we'll find out by looking at that. By the way, your right foot's on the rudder pedal. Don't worry about it; I'll work it."
The sailplane gave a quick jerk as the tow plane started down the runway. Soon it was rolling smoothly through the grass and then was airborne. The Citabria took off a moment later and, heading upwind, hauled its burden into the sky. Before long the sailplane's altimeter read 3,100 feet. Grainger pushed a knob to bring up the wheels. "You see that orange handle?" he said, and the passenger found it on the control panel. "That's the release lever. Why don't you pull it?"
From the cockpit, the yellow tow rope seemed to slither away like a terrified snake; the Citabria banked sharply to the left and down while the sailplane banked to the right. All at once there was airy silence, as the churning of propeller blades died away. The Lark, its speed barely perceptible, drifted through the breeze, giving new meaning to walking on air.
Grainger played the joy stick this way and that as the plane meandered downward at 100 feet per minute. With the airspeed at about 40 knots, he searched for thermal updrafts, columns of air rising from sunwarmed ground. "This isn't really flight without power," he said. "It's just that our power source is the sun and the air."
The Lark's variometer, tracking changes in altitude, dropped off from 100 feet to 50 feet per minute, then suddenly to zero, meaning the plane was riding a thermal column strong enough to keep it level. "I think we just got a rush there," Grainger said. "Just a little nibble, I guess -- that's what you'd call it in fishing."
Mostly the flight was a downwind glide, the Lark in constant descent. At an altitude of 1,400 feet, or 700 feet above the ground, Grainger started his landing.
Bringing down the wheels, he approached the airstrip from the south, floating down over trees. The passenger tensed as the runway loomed into view: back and legs taut and straight, hands clammy. The glider came in nose-up, the back wheels settling with a tiny bump. Nose down, it rolled across the grass, then, unaccountably, swerved to the right and into a newly plowed field.
"Hmmm," said Grainger when the Lark came to a stop, from which it would have to be hauled by Gaudet's pickup truck . "That was strange. I couldn't get any left rudder." Then the passenger remembered the insistent pressure at his foot, the one resting on the rudder pedal. SOARING EXPECTATIONS
Weather permitting, the Vintage Sailplane Association will stage an informal meet this Saturday and Sunday at Bay Soaring in Woodbine. On hand at the event, which starts about nine each morning and lasts till sunset, will be several sailplanes from the World War II era doing spot landings and dropping "flour bombs" -- that is, small sacks of flour -- presumably not on spectators' heads. Rides, costing from $20 to $30, are also in the bargain, as well as introductory lessons. To get there take I-70 to the Woodbine-Lisbon Exit, go north three miles and turn left on Gillis Falls Road. Go about 4/5 of a mile, turn left onto the gravel road, and make a sharp left as the road swerves right. Call 301/781-6095 for details.