"So what kind of ride do you guys want?" Howie inquired over his shoulder over the rush of air. "We can do a roller-coaster type ride or we can just cruise around. It's completely up to you. We cater to whatever type of flight you want."
Howie's question interrupted me from my daydreaming out the canopy window, where my thousand-mile gaze had yet to fall on anything. I shrugged at my buddy next to me. "Hey, show me what you can do. This is your show." When we had reached the appropriate altitude, Howie informed me to release the tow cable. I pulled the lever and with a ka-chunk, we were free from our propeller escort. Howie abruptly plunged into a nose dive, banked hard to the right, buzzed the nearby mountain top, pulled up, then leveled off, allowing my internal organs to re-establish themselves in their original positions. Me and my big mouth.
If you've never experienced the thrill of soaring, get up there. I was fortunate to experience it through an invitation from Bret Willat, sky sailor extraordinaire, at his family-owned and operated soaring center, Sky Sailing (www.skysailing.com).
Known as one of the top soaring centers in the United States, Sky Sailing is located at the Warner Springs Airport, in Warner Springs, California. It has been owned and operated by Bret and his family (including wife Karen, Shane, Garret and Boyd) since 1979. For the past 22 years, Bret has showcased his passion for soaring, and his reputation as one of the top sailplane performers in the country has landed him in a number of television appearances, including Evening Magazine, 3-2-1 Contact and Hour Magazine. Bret was even featured in an ad for VISA which has been run in a number of national publications. His enthusiasm for flight is matched only by his enthusiasm to promote the thrill of soaring. He has flown in over 175 events with one purpose in mind: "To show the pure grace and beauty of the sailplane." On my day in Warner Springs, I discovered what it is all about.
Also known as sky sailing, soaring is more than 100 years old. Wilbur and Orville Wright, the pioneers of powered flight, designed, built and flew gliders to gain flight experience that would eventually be used in the historic Kittyhawk sorties. After WWI, Germany made huge advances in glider technology, as it was restricted to non-powered aircraft. Today, all test pilots in the Armed Forces are required to be competent in sailplanes. One of the most famous gliders, in fact, is owned by NASA and frequently launched into space. What is it? The Space Shuttle.
Soaring is not reserved for aces and pioneers, however. There are more than 30,000 licensed pilots in the United States and more than 150,000 worldwide. Some fly competitively, but most are drawn to the freedom and relaxation and soaring offers. There are no engine vibrations, no infants crying in the seat next to you, no packaged peanuts. You strap into your seat and slingshot into Zen tranquility on a smooth cushion of air. It comes as no surprise that everyone I met at Sky Sailing had a relaxed, almost detached air to them, as if their Earth-bound duties were merely an intermission from their real calling.
"So you guys wanna do zero G's?" Howie asked from up front. I looked at my co-passenger hesitantly, he at me. "Let's do it," I said, part sincerity, part bravado. With that Howie plunged the 1,200-pound sailplane into a nosedive, sending our stomachs into our throats and our thoughts into regret. He certainly likes the whole nose-dive thing. We looked straight down at the ground, 2,000 feet below. Howie then pulled up and we were crushed into our tiny seats under the G-force of the climb, and as he leveled off at the top of his arc, like a smooth roller coaster in the sky, I suddenly felt myself lifting out of my seat, my camera on the verge of floating out of my hand. Stewardess, where's that airsickness bag?
Air and gravity. As long as both exist (which we can be thankful for), a sailplane can glide. The term "sailplane" refers to aircraft without an engine, with a glide ratio of greater than 20:1; that is, for every vertical foot the plane descends, it travels 20 horizontal feet (gliders, on the other hand, have a glide ratio of less than 20:1). The high performance model we rode in had a glide ratio of 35:1, which allows for more maneuverability. And although many people assume sailplanes are flimsy, lightweight vehicles, modern sailplanes are built to withstand higher G-forces than those experienced by commercial airlines (as Howie demonstrated to us with stomach-scrambling effectiveness).
Sailplanes have climbed to altitudes greater than 45,000 feet, flown distances farther than 1,400 miles and can fly at maximum speeds of more than 200 mph. Because of the aerodynamic efficiency of modern sailplanes, pilots can remain in flight for 6 or 7 hours at a time if conditions are favorable. "In a sail plane, we're basically continuously descending. What really limits us, however, is our bladder," Howie informed us matter-of-factly, "We can stay up for 5, 6, 7 hours at a time if we want, but at a certain point, you need a break."
The sail plane is launched either slingshot style via ¾" bungy cord or, more commonly, under tow from a propeller plane. On our ascent behind our propeller plane, I was struck by how smooth and graceful the flight is. The only sound is the air rushing through vents in the canopy to provide ventilation. We could feel the air growing cooler as we rose higher (maybe it was just the tranquility of the flight). At around 2,000 to 3,000 feet, I released the tow cable and our sailplane was at the mercy of gravity, aerodynamics and Howie. We soared above the rolling foothills of the Palomar Mountains, brown with the summer heat. Highway 79 below us was a ribbon of gray, with matchbox cars inching along. I felt bad for those stuck on terra firma, missing out on what we were experiencing above them. Neener neener neener. In the distance I could see tge sea - the Salton Sea Desert lapping up on the foothills. A truly hypnotic moment. I could easily see how one could get hooked on this. I imagined myself after a long week in the grind heading straight to the airport, strapping myself into my sailplane, launching into the sky and soaring above my worries until I forgot what they were.
When our 30 minutes of soaring the smooth skies was over, after dives and banks and buzzed mountaintops and all possible Top Gun references, Howie began our descent to land. Landing is done in a fashion similar to that of powered aircraft: descent (during which our airspeed topped out at 200mph), an approach to the runway, and touch down. "Sailplanes can land in a surprisingly short distance if need be," Howie informed as reassuringly. Right. Crashing. But the touchdown was perfect- a perfectly smooth landing for a perfectly smooth ride.
Because of a combination of favorable thermal and wind conditions in Warner Springs, Sky Sailing offers flights year-round. These include several different types of flights for one or two passengers. Single passengers can enjoy a 20-minute, 30-minute and mile-high introductory flight in a regular or hi-performance sailplane. Prices range from $70 to $125 per flight. For those interested in sharing the experience with a partner, there are three flights available: No Name Mountain Flight ($90), Hot Springs Peak Flight (which I experienced and is a favorite among the pilots; $130), and the Palomar Mountain Mile-High Flight ($170). Reservations are needed on weekdays and although not required on weekends, they are recommended. For those who get hooked on their first experience and look to take soaring to the next level, Sky Sailing offers lessons and course material (there are both flight and written tests) for a Private Pilot Glider License. The course is self-paced and pay as you go. Fees run from US$1100-1900 for a full license. For more information on earning your soaring license, contact Sky Sailing at (760) 782-0404. And for those who have already earned their license and own their own sailplane, Sky Sailing can store a limited number of sailplanes onsite at the Warner Springs Airport. In fact, Sky Sailing has clients from as far away as Europe who store sailplanes on site and regularly make the trip to soar in Warner Springs.
By Misha Troyon, San Diego Correspondent.