I was out at Hemet-Ryan Airport today continuing toward my commercial glider rating.
Man, I love going out there. For one thing, it gives me an excuse to fly. Not that an excuse is required, but it’s nice to use the aviation system for personal transportation. I’ve made the trip out to Hemet by car before, and it’s no fun. Traffic. Heat. Boring scenery. More traffic. Since I sold 94M this summer, I’ve been in the air a bit less than I’d like. So it’s nice to pull 66W out of the hangar and go someplace.
Hemet does not strike many people as the ‘place to be’ if you’re looking for a fun time. But if you’re in the Los Angeles basin, it represents the nearest glider operation of any consequence. Though they’re one of the largest gliderports in North America, Sailplane Enterprises is small by FBO standards. Come to think of it, everything in the glider world is. And the whole sailplane universe seems to move at a rather sedate pace, just like the aircraft themselves.
When I started flying gliders, it was for the purpose of learning to master an aircraft’s kinetic energy. I postulated that this would be invaluable when the shit hit the fan in a powered airplane and I was left with… well, a glider.
But since then, I’ve come to love the challenge this segment of the aviation world provides. These birds are completely unpowered. No engine. Yet they routinely make cross country flights hundreds of miles long and have reached altitudes of nearly 50,000 feet, well above the ceiling for most jets. Someone (Steve Fossett, I think) is supposedly working on a glider capable of reaching 100,000 feet. That’s three times the cruising altitude of a typical jetliner, and high enough that the pilot will have to wear a space suit lest their blood literally boil in the stratosphere’s vacuum.
The ship I’m flying, a rather dowdy Schweizer SGS 2-33A, achieves a glide ratio of 23:1 even with wing struts, camera mounts, tiedown rings, four wheels, a huge skid plate, protruding rivets, a tow handle, two steps, and other assorted stuff hanging out in the breeze. I guess anything’s possible when you put a 51 foot long wing on a 250 pound fuselage!
Despite the lack of sleek glass on the Schweizer, it can still provide an e-ticket ride when the instructor releases the tow rope at 200 feet AGL. Believe it or not, that’s high enough to make a 180+ degree turn and glide back to the airport. But remember, there are no go-arounds. If you botch the landing… well, let’s just hope you sprang for the rental insurance.
On today’s flight I was towed to 2,200′ AGL and then proceeded to gain more than 8,000 feet on my own. Not every day is like that, of course. But when it’s good, it’s really good. You’re up there with no engine noise, no radios to worry about, no GPS or avionics panel beeping at you. Just the soothing sound of a 45 mph breeze outside the canopy and a million-dollar view of the world below. On a flight last year, I was searching for thermals at 9,000 feet and my cellphone rang. So I answered it. Try that in a powered airplane.
Even if you’re not a pilot, do yourself a favor and take a ride in a sailplane. It’s magical.