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Seat of the pants flying

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There is, particularly with first-time fliers, a certain trepidation that comes from looking at an aircraft that is, well, missing something. Body, wings, tail are in their proper places, but there is no engine.

This plane flies on air.Then, the pilot says, with all due respect, "This is real seat-of-the-pants flying."

Eagles soar, and so does Superman. Airplanes, though, are supposed to fly. Even the Wright brothers found flying was better with an engine.

In this plane there are no emergency exits, no oxygen masks in the ceiling, no cushions that float or little white bags in the compartment in front of you. You are in front. In the pilot's seat; the one with the view. The pilot is back in the passengers' section.

And there are no panels of switches, dials and buttons to tinker with, just three small gauges - one to tell speed (it's pegged at 80), one to tell altitude (distance between you and the ground) and one to tell just how fast you're rising . . . or falling.

If the award is for simplicity, the glider wins.

The first glider is believed to have been built by Sir George Cayley in England in 1809. The first manned flight in a glider was taken by a German engineer named Otto Lilienthal. Between 1891 and 1896, he reportedly made more than 2,500 flights. Percy S. Pilcher, a Scottish engineer, came along in 1897 to introduce the first towing technique to launch a glider. Pilcher and Lilienthal were killed in glider accidents.

The Wrights, Wilbur and Orville, experimented with gliders between 1900 and 1902, then in 1903 added power to flying.

Utah joined the glider age in 1929 when the University of Utah Glider Club built what was called a "primary glider." It was safe, and it was cheap to build. It was nothing more than a wing, a tail, a couple pieces of sprucewood and a seat. The wing and tail were covered with a high-grade cotton muslin drawn tight by repeated coatings of a cellulose acetate. It rolled around on the ground on two bicycle wheels.

Launching the glider required a dozen men. The glider was first rolled to the top of a gentle slope, then two "shock-cord" or rubberized ropes were hooked to the front. While two men held on to the tail of the plane, the pilot executed flight commands: "Walk" (six men on each rope pulled until all of the slack was taken up); "Run" (the men ran until that point when the rope showed the highest tension); and "Let 'er go" (the two men holding the tail let go and the plane was literally snapped into the air).

Flying the plane was for some not the hardest part of the flight. Maintaining a balance in the small pilot's chair perched outside and on front of the craft was sometimes very difficult.

Flights could last anywhere from a few seconds to five to 10 minutes. Because there were no controls, the plane seldom got very high off the ground. It wasn't until later, when new planes with higher glide ratios and ailerons and rudders were built, that pilots were able to soar with the eagles.

After one of the early flights, the pilot turned crewman and helped roll the plane back up the slope, then took up his position on one of the ropes.

"You get a lot closer to a glider than you do an airplane. You learn to feel what the glider feels," says Jim Krog, a retired commercial pilot now training in a glider.

"All of my flying was done by instruments. If I wanted to know how fast I was flying, I looked at the air-speed indicator. If I wanted to know how far over I was in a turn, I looked at the artificial horizon gauge.

"In a glider you learn to listen to what the plane is telling you. By listening to the wind, you can tell how fast you are going. You feel the plane rise and fall. This is real seat-of-your-pants flying."

Dave Robinson started flying gliders in the Heber Valley in 1981. After a few moves, he landed back in Utah in 1991 and took on two professions. In the winter he is director of the Alta Ski School, and in the summer he is owner of a glider business in Heber called Soar Utah. On summer days, Robinson and Roy Johnson, also a pilot and ski instructor, fly passengers, give flight lessons and fly the tow plane for other glider pilots.

They fly out of Heber for a number of reasons. The contrasting beauty of the green rolling hills, the deep blue Deer Creek reservoir and the rugged presence of Mount Timpanogos add to the experience. On a clear day, said Robinson, he can see Snowbasin to the north, Strawberry Reservoir to the east and Utah Lake to the west.

"Also, this is a fairly arid climate. The ground is relatively dry, so the sun heats it quickly to create thermals. In more humid areas the sun must first dry out the ground before it can heat it," he explained.

"And, being up at this altitude means the air is thinner. The sun's energy can more directly heat the ground rather than the air. Another benefit is that the sun heats hillsides more directly than flat valley floors. Heber Valley is surrounded by hills, so the sun is always hitting a hillside and creating an updraft somewhere."

The prevailing winds, which flow up Provo Canyon, across Deer Creek and directly down the runway, are also a great lift.

These rising winds make it possible for a glider, or sailplane, to defy gravity. When airborne, the plane catches the rising winds, and as gracefully as the eagles and hawks in flight it rides the winds.

Even if there are no winds, the plane can fly. Gliders are designed to hang in the air. They move forward at a much faster rate than they fall. The first glider flown by the Utah glider club was capable of going forward 15 feet for each one foot it dropped. Robinson's gliders have a ratio of more than 30-to-1.

Because sailplanes have no power, they need help getting into the air. For that a tow plane will take the glider up between 2,500 and 3,500 feet and then release. The glider then falls under the control of the pilot and the prevailing uplifts, downdrafts, sheers and cross-winds.

And it is at this point, said Robinson, the plane begins to talk in whispers and gentle nudges. The louder the wind whispers, the faster the plane is flying; the more abrupt the bumps, the more active the thermals.

"I tell people the difference between flying in a small plane under power and a glider is that in the plane you go 130 to 140 miles per hour and are transitioning through the air mass. In a glider you are going 40, 50, 60 miles per hour and are immersed in the air and can feel all of the little nuances," said Robinson.

"You learn to wear the glider like a second skin. Equipment ceases to exist. It's just your thoughts at work. If you want to roll into a bank, you think it and it happens. As the plane rises, you feel everything at work. I compare it to an athlete being in the zone or an artist in the mode. The same thing happens in flying a glider, but it takes awhile to get to that point.

"I tell people it's going to take at least 50 hours, every time they fly a new plane to become comfortable and to just begin to bond with the plane. But you never stop bonding. You never stop learning."

There is also one more element in gliding. Robinson called it the part Mother Nature plays. Every time he goes up, he said, he wonders what twists in the way of winds and weather she will present.

"You're never 100 percent sure of what to expect. You go up with all your knowledge of flying, but you don't know until you actually get up what the conditions will be. You go prepared for anything and everything. It keeps things interesting," he said.

People come to fly with Robinson for a number of reasons. The desire was triggered for some when they drove past the Heber airport and saw the gliders resting there on their belly wheel and one wing. Others have heard about it from friends, read about it in the paper or a magazine, or saw something on gliding in a movie or video.

Some got the notion by watching eagles and hawks soar. "Sometimes we're lucky enough to catch a redtail hawk or golden eagle up flying. We'll soar up there with it for awhile if we can. That's something special," he said.

And, indeed, it is.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

AIRPORT: Soar Utah, Heber Valley Airport

COSTS:

... Number of people Cost

Introductory flight 2 $80

Introductory flight 1 $70

Explorer 2 $120

Explorer 1 $110

Flight lessons: $48 hr*

*Plus tow

EQUIPMENT: Camera

PHONE: 654-0654