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Wind & wings

To feel the exhiliration of true flight, to swoosh through the air without the power of an engine, means going for a ride in a glider.

By STEVE LEE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002


ZEPHYRHILLS -- The window seat never is like this.

For one, the view aboard an airliner is restricted to a side of the plane and the passenger window is not much larger than one's face.

Plus, flying aboard an airbus with slow, gradual movements is not even a hiccup on a thrill-seeker's rush scale.

But this -- oh, wow! Man, this takes my breath away.

Encased in a partial glass bubble at the nose of a sailplane Wednesday afternoon, I could see puffy white clouds and blue sky expanding far beyond where the earth faded into the haze of the horizon. In a two-seat fuselage, crisscrossed by 50 feet of fiberglass wings, I sat in front of pilot Bob Scheurer.

Soaring below the cloud cover and 3,000 feet above Zephyrhills was more thrilling than I could have imagined. Kept aloft as if on the wings of a condor, we drifted silently in mid air. Only the rustle of the wind whooshing past and our occasional banter prevented this from being a soundless experience.

Last chance: Hide or glide

Actually, the former was not an option. Sure, my fiance, Colleen Curchy, suggesting I list her as my beneficiary on my Times health benefits, got me thinking about the dreaded what-if. And her threat of killing me if something went wrong had me wondering about that no-win proposition.

Ultimately, however, a crash-and-burn approach did not factor into the equation of whether to run and hide or take the glide.

Unlike the thrill of peering out the window of airliners like a kid in a candy store -- okay, so I'm easily humored -- or a one-time flight in a Cessna a decade ago to snap overhead pictures of Bulldog Stadium, I knew going up in a glider was going to be the ride of my life.

Outside of a few restless moments in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, there was no nervousness. In fact, the excitement built as I drove to the Land O'Lakes office and caught up on some work. En route to the Zephyrhills Airport an hour later for my 1 p.m. flight, I kept looking skyward as if my constant appraisal of the weather could prevent rain.

No, not today, I thought. Not like Saturday, when rain postponed my first glider ride.

Sun washed the land and the scattering of a few clouds posed no threat to my much-anticipated takeoff. First, though, introductions were in order.

My pilots

Upon my arrival at the 11/2-acre site that the Tampa Bay Soaring Society leases from the Zephyrhills Airport, I was greeted by Bruce Patton, a Land O'Lakes Little League coach I've known for six years.

Patton, 43, and I discussed gliding several months ago. He explained how he would take up Times photographer Dan McDuffie in his motorglider (with a 65-horsepower engine mounted at the nose that serves as a tow plane) and circle above the glider that Scheurer and I would fly.

Scheurer, 70, spoke of his 23 years flying commercial planes and of 13 years as an Air Force flight instructor. I listened more intently when he spoke of his fascination with flying and of his first solo flight piloting an airplane the day after he turned 16.

So why, I wondered, had Scheurer turned to gliding after so many years in power planes?

"Basically, it's the only sport left in flying," Scheurer said. "You can't really put a lot of reliability in it. As a form of transportation, the reliability is pretty low."

Patton should know. Having been a young aviator with five years of power-plane experience, he had not piloted an aircraft for 18 years before linking up with TBSS members in 1999.

"I always said if I ever get back into (flying), I'd want to fly gliders," Patton said. "It's the closest thing to flying like a bird. It's more pure flight than with power."

Soaring like a bird

Strapped into the front seat of the Grob G-103 Twin Astir, a German-made glider, the tow rope becomes taut as a tow plane tugs us down the runway. To my surprise, our craft lifts before the plane in front of us, much like parasailing behind a boat.

Scheurer prevents us from getting too high above the tow plane by inching the joystick forward to keep the glider's nose pointed slightly downward.

Wide-eyed and grinning ear-to-ear, I look left, right, up, down. My head is on a swivel as we climb at 55 to 60 knots -- our altitude gradually increasing toward the 3,000-foot destination.

At our mid-air summit, Scheurer warns that he will release the tow rope. There could be a jolt.

There is not, and I become aware of gliding through the sky. No longer is there the sensation of being pulled along. We are free to soar to our heart's content, and that is exactly what we do.

Scheurer gently guides us into a series of twists and turns, dipping here, climbing there. I encourage him to continue the maneuvers, all the while marveling at the gracefulness of the craft's movements and the tightness of the turns.

Scheurer explains how thermals -- pockets of warm, rising air -- help the sailplane climb. The heat warms the glass canopy, and I appreciate the advice Patton gave me to wear shorts.

Inching my fingers out a small portal, I angle my wrist to welcome a draft inside. Wow, I just keep thinking, this is unbelievable.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Scheurer asks me if I want to take over.

The initial shock of piloting a glider is replaced by my preflight instruction course. Scheurer did tell me how to read the gauges, move the stick forward and back to increase and decrease altitude, and how to coincide the pedals with the stick to steer left and right.

Hey, why not?

I'm flying a glider, I exhort while doing just that.

But before I get too cocky on my first venture piloting a motorless aircraft -- not to mention feeling a bit unsure of my ability to guide the glider exactly where I want it to go -- I decide after only a couple of minutes to turn the controls back to Scheurer.

The savvy veteran resumes control and guides us back to earth, answering my questions along the way and explaining how we will land.

One last loop high above the airport's triangle runways, and we line up for the landing strip from which we departed. Scheurer takes us in for a soft landing, and we come to a stop in about 10 seconds.

After a few minutes reliving my flight with several TBSS members under an expansive oak tree near the club building, Patton asks if I want to see Land O'Lakes from the sky -- something I've never viewed.

Without hesitation, we settle into the Vivat L13 and climb skyward. Once around the lakes and the high school and Patton turns his motorglider back toward Zephyrhills. Along the way he allows me to fly the craft.

Two trips in one day aboard a glider and motorglider. And I got to fly both!

The flights were a couple of experiences I'll never forget. In fact, one day, and hopefully soon, I'll be back in the sky soaring in a sailplane.

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