ASK ANY GLIDER PILOT what's so special about soaring and chances are he'll tell you that it's the closest thing in the world to making like a bird. We're talking about airplanes with no engines, mind you, the kind with long skinny wings, metal or fiberglass structures, and aerodynamics that are strictly high-tech compared to hot air balloons and hang gliders.
For all that, though, soaring is one of the safest of the air sports, considerably cheaper than a heavy date and a wonderful excuse to get out of the city on a gorgeous weekend afternoon.
Three thousand feet up, in the nearly silent sailplane cockpit, you can commune directly with the clouds and an occasional high-flying hawk, experience the loveliness of earth and sky in splendid solitude, and learn things about yourself that you never knew before. Below is a patchwork quilt of contrasting shapes and colors. You hear only the gentle swishing of wind over wings, drifting in a vast ocean of air that stretches to the horizon in every direction. You are severed from the earth, free as a fish in the sea or bird in the sky.
Glider pilots call that the joy of soaring.
(Note to skeptics: Although any glider will gradually lose altitude unless the air through which it flies is rising, the pilot can always control it as surely as if he had a motor.)
Almost anyone who wants to can learn to fly a sailplane, usually at only a fraction of the cost of power-plane instruction. Two places in this area where you can learn are the Warrenton Soaring Center near Warrenton, Va., and Bay Soaring, just north of Interstate 70 near Woodbine, Md. Both offer demonstration rides, glider instruction, sailplane rentals and tie-down facilities for that day when you buy a bird of your own.
They're also friendly places where, in addition to experiencing the solitary splendo in the air, you'll find a welcoming camaraderie on the ground. Because you can be up there alone, but can't get there alone (it takes a crew of three or four people to launch and recover a sailplane), soaring people tend to be gregarious and cooperative.
Lonnie Patch and Dave Woods, for example.
Patch, a native of Montana who now lives in Arlington and works for the State Department as a secretary, got into soaring about 11 years ago. She owns a Schweitzer 1-26 sailplane which she and a partner bought secondhand for around $8,000 seven years ago.
"I was always interested in the challenge of aviation sports," Patch says. "But the idea of just flying from point A to point B in some power plane seemed about as exciting as driving around the Beltway."
After an introductory flight at Warrenton, Patch began taking lessons in the school's Schweitzer 2-33 training gliders, and earned her glider pilot's license a year later. Now she flies the prettiest coordinated turns you ever saw.
To help offset the cost of flying, Patch works some weekends for the school, answering phones and scheduling flights. Other pilots become instructors, or fly the Piper Super Cubs that tow the gliders aloft in exchange for reduced rates when they rent a school sailplane. "I always figured that if you wanted to do something badly enough, you could afford it," Patch says.
Dave Woods, an ironworker who lives in Fairfax County, began soaring in 1980, after reading about the Warrenton school in a magazine. Woods earned his private pilot's license in a little less than a year, then bought a $6,500 used glider with a partner and started working on his silver badge.
The badge is an achievement award sponsored by the Soaring Society of America. To qualify, a pilot must log an altitude gain of 3,000 feet, an endurance flight of at least five hours and a cross-country flight of 50 kilometers, or a little more than 32 miles. Woods earned his in 1982.
"A lot of people out there who might think otherwise could probably afford to soar if they wanted to," Woods says. "It's basically a question of do you want to drive to work in a Porsche, or have your own airplane to fly on the weekends." Woods also works around the field doing odd jobs.
Both Patch and Woods regard their weekend flying as an art as much as a sport. Part of that is mastering the skill of staying aloft. In order to do so, pilots must find what soaring people call "lift," or currents of rising air.
All sailplanes carry an instrument called a variometer in addition to an altimeter, airspeed indicator and compass. The "vario," basically a very sensitive indicator of rate of climb, makes sustained soaring possible by telling the pilot whether the air he is flying through is going up or down.
Lift is normally found in one or the other of three basic forms: thermals, ridge lift, and mountain wave.
Thermals are convection currents produced when the sun heats the ground, which in turn heats the ar above it and causes it to rise. Dark areas such as plowed fields and asphalt parking lots, absorb more heat than light-colored terrain; pilots look for such ground features when trying to find lift.
The rising air produced by thermals eventually cools and may form a cumulus cloud. Sailplane pilots learn to read the clouds to determine if the air under them is still rising or has already begun to descend as the cloud wanes.
Thermals ascend in fairly narrow columns, so a pilot must circle inside them to take advantage of their lift. When he flies into a thermal, his variometer will indicate the rising air and cue the pilot to start circling.
Once in a turn, a sailplane usually loses altitude at a rate of about 200 feet per minute. A pilot who circles in air that is rising at 700 feet per minute will therefore experience a net climb of about 500 feet per minute -- enough to gain 5,000 feet of altitude if he circles for 10 minutes.
By staying within easy gliding distance (generally a mile or two) of his home field at all times, the pilot can always make a safe landing at the airport if he doesn't find a thermal.
Ridge lift occurs when a hill pokes up in the path of a prevailing wind, forcing up the air on its windward side. By flying along the crest of the ridge, a pilot can ride a cushion of rising air that lasts as long as the wind is blowing and can extend for hundreds of miles.
Since ridge lift is produced by prominent geographical features, its location is always known; a pilot need only stay with it to stay aloft as long as he wants.
The current world distance record for gliders, 1,022 miles, was set by a pilot flying the great Allegheny ridge system which runs from Lock Haven, Pa., to Oak Ridge, Tenn.
And for those bold enough to fly in 40 knot winds, there's the challenge of mountain wave, one of the headiest forms of flying for a soaring pilot. Waves are great masses of rising air created by the flow of strong winds over the lee side of ridge and mountain systems. Soaring pilots visualize them as similar to the currents produced downstream by submerged obstructions in a fast-flowing river or brook.
The air in a mountain wave can rise at up to 2,000 feet per minute, and may reach altitudes in excess of 50,000 feet. The current world altitude record for gliders of 46,267 feet was set by a pilot who rode the mountain wave off the Sierra Nevadas in northern California.
Before you get carried away with dreams of world records, however, it's best to bone up on the basics.
First, getting your license: It will take you perhaps 10 hours of dual instruction -- sometimes more, rarely less -- and cost around $800 before you're ready to solo. After that, you'll spend a like amount accumulating the seven hours of solo time you must log in order to take the flight test for the glider pilot's license with a Federal Aviation Administration examiner.
In addition, you must pass a written test and certify that you are in good health, although no physical exam is required. The written test consists of about 75 multiple-choice questions covering such topics as basic aerodynamics, flight safety, weather and navigation.
You'll start your actual flying in a two-place trainer, most likely the sturdy and dependable dual-control Schweitzer 2-33. A few trainers have dual instrument panels as well; if not, the instructor will read your panel over your shoulder.
On your first few flights, the instructor will handle the take- off, tow-to-altitude and landing chores. He'll also let you try the controls to get the feel of things. Basically, flying a glider is similar to piloting a power plane. There's a stick (not a wheel) to bank the plane's wings left or right and move its nose up and down. The rudder pedals, which you'll soon get used to, yaw the nose from side to side.
You start by learning to maintain a constant airspeed, keeping the plane's nose at a certain position in relation to the horizon. Flying too slowly will cause the plane to stall and possibly even spin; flying too fast wastes precious altitude and may damage the aircraft. Your instructor will sum it up in one time-honored phrase: "Watch your airspeed."
Then you learn how to make coordinated turns -- stick and rudder together. When you've mastered those basic maneuvers well enough to keep from slipping and skidding drunkenly across the sky, you'll be ready to learn how to land the airplane.
That takes practice, and it comes easier to some people than others. You must learn to fly a precise pattern around the landing area, judge your glide angle, pick your touchdown spot and stay with it, flare out and shed your airspeed gracefully.
At some point in your training you'll realize that you've finally got the hang of it; it comes, often after hours of frustration, as something of a shock. It dawns on you that you are within reach of becoming a real pilot.
Welcome to the club. But don't get cocky, because you still have a lot to learn. When you get that good feeling that you're really gonna make it, take your time. Master each step before going on to the next; practice and talk to other pilots as much as possible.
One last thing: when you're up there soaring with the birds under a booming cumulus, communing with Mother Nature and convinced that you're got it all wrapped just right, do yourself a big favor, please -- watch your airspeed.