Considering that I have now jumped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet in Australia and paraglided off the sea cliffs of Lima, Peru, one would think that I would have no fear of sailplaning.
And I didn’t. Until I did.
I had about three-week’s notice before taking on this challenge, and with that buffer between the now and the future of it, I only had a happy excitement looking forward.
I didn’t even lose a wink of sleep the night before.
I knew the basics; I was going up in a motorless airplane, said plane would be dragged into the air by another plane – one with a motor – by a rope of some sort, then at some point the cord would be cut.
Normally, that would scare the bejeezus out of me, but it didn’t.
Until it did.
We arrived at the mountaintop airfield where our pilot, Steve, proclaimed it a perfect day for soaring. I didn’t know about the soaring part, but from my end, it was a perfect day for anything.
It was a flat-out gorgeous spring morning in Horseheads, New York (real name, not making it up!) with bold blue skies full of clouds that told stories.
We had a bit of time to wait before our flight, so David and I sat atop the picnic table behind the main building of Harris Hill Soaring and watched the goings on.
That‘s when I freaked out.
For starters, the planes (both the motorless and motorful) were tiny, so tiny that I couldn’t figure out how the pilots were stuffing their legs into the sailplane.
Claustrophobia was rearing its head.
My tipping point came when I noticed that a sailplane can’t sit upright on its own wheels.
Every landing ended with a wing plopping down on the ground.
For some reason, this really shook me.
But I was determined (people do this every day and do not die… people do this…) to do some fear conquering. So when Steve was ready for me, I took a deep breath and heroically strode forced one foot in front of the other to the microscopic plane and went for it.
After a brief safety session (don’t touch anything!), I climbed aboard (in the front seat!) and Captain Steve lowered the glass top and instrument panel over me. Everything below my knees disappeared.
The tow plane soon made an entrance and a beautifully choreographed chord attachment was performed by student volunteers working in exchange for lessons. This warmed my heart because our son, The Boy, spent many, many hours at our local airport working his way toward his pilot’s license when he was a kid.
I think he appreciates his life as a professional pilot all the more because he worked so hard for it.
With a tug, we were moving down the shockingly short runway — the end of which was a cliff at the edge of the mountain — fast approaching… aaaaaaand we’re up!
Watch: An unbelievably beautiful experience. And, yes, also scary. Of course, I get in my usual goofy “fear questions” between gasps and panic peeps.
As we sailed, Steve patiently answered my fear questions.
Do you or does the other pilot cut the cord? I do and it’s released, not cut. But it can be cut in case of emergency.
You guys don’t have a radio and aren’t communicating via voice? No we are a team and my job is to stay behind him and keep his wings on the horizon.
What’s causing that sideways scoot? We are between two thermals.
Is my head too big? Can you see around it? No answer.
And much, much more. Watch the video if you don’t believe me. 😉
Steve explained to me the dynamic of how a sailplane stays aloft.
Cool nights and warm days create temperature differences that cause air to rotate in thermal columns.
A glider pilot will capture a thermal to gain altitude. There’s a lot of spinning around with the air during this process, with a surprising little amount centrifugal force.
On a perfect day like the one we had, we could soar until nightfall (though I’m guessing the bathroom facilities aboard are primative). It crossed my mind to ask what would happen if we stayed in a thermal for too long, but I chickened out.
When we caught an especially good thermal Steve told me “now we’re soaring just like an eagle.”
The eagle analogy worked for me and I settled into a peaceful mindset. Once I stopped freaking out I found the motorless quiet calming, and was able to observe how much more smooth the flight was than in any other aircraft I’ve ridden.
In eagle mode, I soaked in the stunning scenery as we chased the blue and green Chemung River, looked out over farms and pasture land (baby lambs!) and viewed the Finger Lakes from a distance.I never wanted to come down.
After safely landing, David and I bid farewell to Captain Steve and walked over to the National Soaring Museum.
My favorite exhibit told the story of Eileen Collins.
Not only was she the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, but she was brave enough to command the first flight after the Columbia mission lost all seven astronauts aboard.
Ms. Collins found her inspiration to fly while growing up in the area and watching the sailplanes take off from Harris Hill.
She now gives back to her community by hosting aerospace camps every year at the museum and in turn inspires a new generation of aviation lovers.
As always, we were attracted to the odd stuff — this time scattered in amongst the beautifully restored sailplanes — our top picks being:
The Albatross. For some reason, someone decided to create a flying machine where the pilot must soar with his head out the window.
Talk about the wind in one’s hair and bugs in one’s teeth!
And an old General Motors pickup truck outfitted with a high-speed winch used to slingshot gliders into the air.
All in all, I liked Captain Steve’s method better.
DELVE DEEPER and find more to do in the Finger Lakes Area of New York:
Visit the Harris Hill Soaring website
Kick some glass in Corning!
We drove our motorhome on Watkins Glen Speedway!
Go plum Western at the Rockwell Museum
See all of our adventures in New York!
YOUR TURN: Would you go up in a tiny, motorless plane?