Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Soaring in Vermont

SGS 1-26
On Monday I drove up to Vermont with Bruce C. (a grad school peer of mine) to stay at my advisor's cabin in Vermont.   My advisor is a soaring enthusiast.   I always thought gliding was sort of an odd hobby and couldn't possibly safe or fun.  (Why wouldn't you want an engine??) But, it is actually really fun, exciting, and amazing.  Too bad I didn't bring my camera.  I'll include some photos from the gliding club's website.

We pulled out the two-seat glider (an SGS 1-26) onto the runway at the Sugarbush airport.    It's a very small runway with a few hangars a little control tower.    The glider only has wheels along it's centerline, so one person tows it with a golf cart while the other person (me) holds up the wings.  Although it's about 40 feet across (the wingspan), it's actually very light and easy to hold up a wing.   

Piper PA-25-235 PawneeWe next hooked the glider up a tow plane.   I expected a large tow plane, but it's actually a fairly small plane.  Only one seat and one propeller.  It doesn't take very much to lift the glider.  The tow rope is carefully laid on the ground in a big S pattern to prevent any knots or loops from forming.

I strapped myself in the front seat while Ed did a pre-flight check of all the mechanisms.  It's actually quite hot inside once the glass canopy is closed.  There no powered fan or air conditioning inside the glider.  There is only one small battery to run the radio.   Once we were flying, small adjustable air vents provided the comfort controls.  The whole idea of gliding is to take advantage of the forces of nature as much as possible.

Once everything was all set and we were strapped in, Ed radioed to the tow pilot and the control tower that we were ready.   One of the club members held up one wing while we waiting.  The tow plane started pulling us off the grass onto the runway.  Within seconds the club member was able to let go of the wing because we were already producing enough lift to keep the glider upright on it's own.

Within 10 seconds were were in the air just above the runway.  The glider actually lifts off before the tow plane because it is optimized to generate as much lift as possible.  The next couple of minutes are actually some the most difficult in the glider flight.  The pilot of the glider has to be careful to stay behind the tow plane with tension on the tow rope.  It's easy to accidentally shoot ahead of the plane  or cause a loop in the rope if you are not careful.

At about 4000 feet, Ed pulled a yellow knob in the cockpit which released the rope.  We were freely soaring at that point!   In order to stay aloft, a glider needs to find one of three sources of lift:  thermals, ridge lift, or wave lift.   Ed was able to identify some cloud formations that indicated wave lift nearby.  We gently guided the glider towards them.    He was right, as we were soon rising at a rate of 2 to 5 knots.

For the next 30 to 40 minutes we gently circled higher and higher above the clouds.  It was a bit hazy, but you could still see the wonderful landscape of the Mad River Valley in Vermont.   We reached 10,000 feet and decided that we should head down so that Bruce could also get a ride.  (If we had kept going we would have to stop at 14,000 feet because we were not carrying oxygen).   Ed let me take control of the glider for a little while, so I could gently glide around the clouds and fully experience the thrill of soaring like a hawk.  It was really wonderful.

We actually had a tough time getting the glider to go down.  We had to use the spoilers (used like an airbrake) to slow down the glider.   Ed told me that some people fly for years without finding a strong source of lift like I did on my first flight.  I guess I'm just lucky.

The landing was interesting/thrilling too.   We circled the runway a few times so that we could gently lose enough altitude to land.    I always thought the idea of gliding was dangerous, but actually, it actually takes some work to get the glider to go down.  A trained pilot should always have enough time to get back to a runway considering how slowly the glider descends.

I highly recommending going for a glider ride if you ever get a chance!


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