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JULIAN, Pa. -- Doris Grove pulled the yellow knob to release the line from the tow plane, and our lithe glider slipped slightly toward Bald Eagle Mountain, gathering wind under its 48 feet of wings. "We watch for the hawks," she announced, dipping the nose just a bit. "They know where to fly."
The uplands of Central Pennsylvania have become a mecca for glider pilots.
Peering through the crystal-clear canopy inches from my nose, I could turn my head and see 50 miles of Central Pennsylvania in every direction serene under a deep blue, cloud-flecked canopy. A more magnificent panorama I have never beheld.
Glider planes have been around for more than century, motorless, lightly built craft that, once towed aloft by another plane, could coax many miles out of a slow, gradual descent, in sort of a long aerial toboggan ride. But in the mid-1960s, when advances in materials, aeronautic design and atmospheric understanding allowed the construction of planes that let pilots take advantage of various wind conditions to gain altitude like hawks and eagles do, the sport really began to soar.
Modern sailplanes are the very fulfillment of Daedalus' dream, an engineless, streamlined, highly maneuverable cockpit situated between a wide expanse of narrow wings that can lift one or two human beings above the clouds and, with favorable weather and sufficient skill, let them stay there for hours. Gliders these days come in eight classes, based mostly on the distance between wing tips, usually 48.75 feet or 58.5 feet (although the largest glider measures 101 feet from tip to tip). There are gliders that carry two people in tandem. Some even have retractable engines that let them take off and gain altitude unassisted. But once towed aloft, all of them stay aloft with no visible means of support.
To understand how this anti-gravity act is possible, think of the atmosphere as an ocean of air flowing constantly around the Earth in relatively predictable patterns. Many factors can affect that tidal flow, but three primary conditions cause significant upwellings glider pilots can use to gain altitude.
Uneven heating almost anywhere on the planet's surface can cause atmospheric hot spots. Like bubbles in a pot of boiling water, the warmer air rises rapidly in columns that can reach thousands of feet in the sky before they cool enough to condense into a cumulus clouds that forms at their top. These warm air elevators are called thermals. When a soaring bird or glider pilot finds a thermal, they make tight circles inside the updraft, riding it higher and higher, essentially corkscrewing their way into the sky.
Then there's wave lift, undulating fluctuations in the flow pattern established as air currents moves across the uneven landscape, much the way a stream ripples as it runs over submerged rocks. When the lift is steady and wide, long thin clouds called lenticulars can mark the crest of each wave. These waves can pile on top of each other, and by riding their crests, much the way a surfer rides ocean swells, soaring pilots have reached altitudes of 50,000 feet.
Finally, when the prevailing air currents encounter significant obstacles, such as a range of mountains, a strong, steady up flow can wash all along the windward side of the ridge, sometimes spanning hundreds of miles. This third factor, ridge lift, is what makes the uplands of Central Pennsylvania a mecca for serious glider pilots from around the world.
Rising near the Hudson River, a corduroy of steep ridges and wide valleys sweeps sinuously across the highlands of Central Pennsylvania from northeast to the southwest.
One of the most westerly of these ridges starts near Williamsport, and runs more or less continuously all the way south to Knoxville, Tenn., 620 miles away. When prevailing winds out of the west encounter this ridge line, they can create broad, steady updrafts which can make for day long glider flights.
In 1964, a glider club was started at Penn State. In those days, glider pilots tended to stay relatively close to their home bases, because it was always preferable to return to the flight's starting point rather than "landing out," which generally meant retrieving the craft from a farmer's field, a risky and sometimes complicated proposition. But local pilots quickly discovered the exceptional combination of conditions along these ridges that let them soar for miles and still get back to base. Several charter members of that club, particularly Tom Knauff and Karl Striedieck, began pushing the limits of gliding.
In 1968, Striedieck set a world record flight of 440 miles, from Milesburg, Pa., to Mountain Grove, W.Va., and back. That record stood for 15 years until Knauff more than doubled it, soaring from Williamsport to Knoxville and back, a round trip of 1,023 miles. Doris, Knauff's wife and partner, was the first woman to pilot a glider more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles). These long flights along the Allegheny ridges captured the attention and imagination of glider pilots around the world.
In 1975, Knauff and Grove purchased a farm on the valley floor along Route 220, nearly in the exact center of the state, and started building the Ridge Soaring Gliderport, a center for soaring and training.
Since then, Knauff, Grove, and Striedieck have become internationally known masters of the fine art of ridge soaring, who speak, teach and soar around the world. Knauff has written and published three manuals which have become the basic textbooks of soaring. They have captured a host of national and international records and championships.
Now each season (April through October) dozens of other enthusiasts of the open air come to the gliderport from around the country, to soar for many miles, buoyed by the peerless Pennsylvania ridge lift, or to take part in competitions. They park the long trailers used to transport their gliders on the grass adjacent to the short runway and spend days shooting the breeze with other members of this loose fraternity, waiting for the best conditions to soar.
Others enthusiasts come to take instructions on how to fly gliders from federally licensed instructors. The process of obtaining a glider license takes about 25 flights and can be done in as little as one week, although most students take much more time.
Still others come as I did, just for the ride. They let an expert handle the piloting and simply sample a unique experience and matchless perspective.
There's something sublime about scooting through the sky completely unfettered several thousand feet above the ground. In Doris' practiced hands, the glider ride was surprisingly smooth, probably far less bumpy than a drive on some of the back country roads over which we soared. Sitting in the nose, with only an instrument panel between me and open air, I thought how similar this seemed to the effortless flying I sometimes do in my best dreams.
Also surprising was the quiet, I suppose because we were moving with the wind. We were not wearing helmets or any special equipment for that matter, and yet I felt no hint of risk or anxiety. We were able to converse easily and casually the whole time.
It quickly became clear that even after decades of soaring through the clouds and teaching others, Doris still reveled in the sheer joy and thrill of being able to navigate so easily through the ether, an enthusiasm she has now shared with so many members of her family, friends and the extended soaring fraternity. Also palpable was her affection for the landscape beneath our wings, where she and her husband were born, grew up, and raised their own family.
Although the early afternoon was sunny and clear, there was not much wind, making the soaring conditions only marginal. Because of that and other commitments (Doris had been dragooned at the last minute to take me up for a flight when the pilot I'd planned to go with wrenched his back and was unable to go up), she didn't want to venture far afield.
So all too soon for my taste, we were swooping into the valley and making a wide bank to prepare for landing on the asphalt runway. Yet, when the single wheel touched down and we rolled along the runway, I glanced at my watch and realized we'd been in the air over half an hour. Time flies when you're living a dream.
Already I'm making plans to go up again someday soon when soaring conditions are better.
In fact, I could see learning to do this myself, and not only for the view.
If you go: Gliding RIDGE SOARING GLIDERPORT:
The Ridge Soaring Gliderport is located on Alternate U.S. 220 in Julian, Pa., not far from State College. It's about a 130-mile, 2 1/2-hour drive from the Pittsburgh area. Follow Route 22 East past Altoona and head north on U.S. 220.
Rates for tandem flights (pilot and passenger) vary by how high the tow plane takes you, rather than how long the flight lasts, a factor which depends a great deal on the day's weather conditions. A basic ride is $70 for a tow to 2,000 feet, for a flight that generally lasts 15 to 20 minutes, although experienced pilots can turn that 2,000 feet into an all-day flight. The price for a tow to 3,000 feet is $90, $140 for 4,000 feet, and $185 for a mile-high tow.
Overnight accommodations are available if you bring your own sleeping bag and towel. A bed in the comfy Bunk House costs $20 per night, while camping sites are $15.
For details, information, gliding conditions and reservations, call 1-814-355-2483 or www.eglider.org.
PITTSBURGH SOARING CLUB:
If you'd like to sample soaring without going so far, contact the Pittsburgh Soaring Club, which was founded in 1964. The club of about 50 pilots is based at Bandel Airport near the town of Eighty Four in Washington County. Take I-79 South to I-70 (Washington, Pa.) and head east to the Route 519 exit. Turn right and go two miles to Roberts Road on left. Drive two more miles to Runway Lane. Keep left to the hangars.
Weather permitting, tandem flights are offered every weekend from April through September between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. A demo flight to 2,000 feet high costs $50. Call for details at 724-969-0968 or via e-mail to email@example.com. For details and weather conditions, visit www.angelfire.com/pa3/gliders.
SOARING SOCIETY OF AMERICA:
For general information on soaring and soaring clubs around the country, visit the web site of the Soaring Society of America, www.ssa.org.
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