Fear Conquering & Gliding in a Sailplane

Veronica soars above the Fingerlakes at Harris Hill Soaring in New York

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.

A sign for Horseheads, New York. You can't make these things up!
You can’t make these things up!

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.

David gets ready to go gliding in at Harris Hill Sailing in New York
Where are David’s legs?! Where will Steve’s legs go?

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.

Sailplane with its wing on the ground

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.

Sailplanes are a tight fit!
People do this every day and do not…

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.

Hooking up the glider to the tow plane at Harris Hill Soaring in New York
Note the sideways lean, the wing is on the ground!

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.

Getting towed in a glider by the tow plane at Harris Hill Soaring
Tow plane working hard to get us in the air
Getting in position to let go of the tow plane – exhilarating!

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 my trusty glider pilot at Harris Hill Soaring, in Horseheads, New York
A poorly executed selfie turned out to be a really cool shot of Captain Steve!

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.

Sailplaning high over the Chemung River in New York!
High above the Chemung River – the blues and greens are spectacular!

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.

The National Soaring Museum in Horseheads, New York
There’s also a really cool museum on the grounds

After safely landing, David and I bid farewell to Captain Steve and walked over to the National Soaring Museum.

Eileen Collins, the first woman space shuttle pilot as seen at the National Soaring Museum in Elmira, New York

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.

Eileen Collins' NASA flight suit seen at the National Soaring Museum in Horseheads, New York

The Albatross, a glider that forced the pilot to fly with his head out the window. Seen at the National Soaring Museum on Harris Hill in New York.

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!

A truck that used to sling gliders in the air at the National Soaring Museum in New York

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.

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

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!

A big thank you to Mark Twain Country and Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes for providing this soaring adventure. As always, all opinions are our own.

YOUR TURN: Would you go up in a tiny, motorless plane?

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29 thoughts on “Fear Conquering & Gliding in a Sailplane”

  1. As a child, I was always fascinated watching the sailplanes while sitting eating ice cream on the terrace of the restaurant Flughafen München Riem (the old Munich airport) where my uncle was a waiter. All these years, and I still have yet to fly in one.

  2. I saw a link to your blog in the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce newsletter and just had to see what you thought of your sailing experience at Harris Hill. I grew up in Horseheads, NY (there’s an interesting story behind the name) and now live only a handful of towns away in the next county over. Watching the gliders quietly ghosting around in the sky and traveling amongst all the hills (mountains as only people not from around here call them) is so common for us Finger Lakes people that we forget just how fantastic it really is. I love hearing stories from visitors to the area as it helps me to appreciate my home even more. Thank you!

    1. You fear of heights would not be an issue, I known, I’m acrophobic and can’t stand tall buildings etc. I get queasy just looking at photos of high places BUT I also have a commercial pilot license. I found during my time flying that many pilots are afraid of heights, it may be what drives us to fly? The sensation of height requires a structure near or under you that allows the mind and eyes to judge how high you are, in an airplane there is nothing below to judge height with so there is no sensation of being high! I encourage you to try flying in a sailplane, its truly like flying like a bird. The plane feels like an extension of your body. I think you’ll be surprised how much you’ll enjoy the experience.

  3. No, I wouldn’t do it because I’m afraid of flying! I do fly anyway to get from a to b, but flying just for the sake of flying? No, thanks! I think you stayed remarkably calm. I would have turned into a blithering mess!

  4. I had a good friend who piloted a glider in Alaska but I never got a ride. I have always wanted to try it. I bet the flying on the air currents and the quite is awesome.

  5. I would definitely try going up in a sailplane and I would definitely be nervous! Is it the same as what used to be called a glider? Looks like it to me but I’m not much of an aviation expert! Love the bit about the female astronaut!

  6. I was screaming “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH” the entire video. I can’t believe you kept your cool! I’m a fear facing expert and yet even I would have a hard time flying with no motor! A deliciously exciting adventure – will definitely put it on the list for when we’re empty nesters 🙂

  7. I went gliding many, many years ago when I was still single and had no fears and no responsibility. We were in Hawaii and flew over the thermals created by the mountains at the back of the island of Hawaii. It was a fabulous experience..I loved every minute of it including the pilot doing a 360 turn! As I said, young and carefree…I’d probably do it again now but without the 360s!

  8. I think I would like to give gliding in a sailplane a try, although, like you, I’d be super curious about all the details and probably more than a bit nervous. Fear conquering is what it’s all about though, right?

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