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Hot rods and cool planes

Pa. flying club hosts car, airplane and glider show

Pa. flying club hosts car, airplane and glider show

August 07, 2008|By CHRIS COPLEY

When I got the announcement from the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association about their Land, Speed and Air show this Sunday, I was intrigued. M-ASA's annual open house is an opportunity for the public to see the flying club's airstrip and see classic and antique cars and airplanes.

And the club will have its gliders out, and, if conditions were OK, pilots will give rides to visitors. I'd never seen a glider up close.

I called Bob Jackson, the president of the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association, to see if The Herald-Mail could send a reporter for a ride in a glider. Jackson said yes. But newsroom volunteers were scarce, so I went myself.

I drive up to the field and park near a small gazebo. A knot of older guys in hats hangs around. A few gliders are lined up on one end of an airstrip, facing away from the road.

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The airport is sparse - a couple of small hangars is by the lower end of the strip, a quarter-mile away. A row of cars is parked along the eastern edge of a second airstrip. Otherwise, not much else.

Welcome to the Fairfield Glider Port.

A big burly guy catches my eye and introduces himself - it's Bob Jackson. He asks me if I want to go up sooner or later. It's noon, the hour when the club begins flying, and I'm given a chance to jump to the front of the line if I want a ride.

I say "yes" without a moment's hesitation. I've never been up in a glider and I can hardly wait.

A glider is a small. light, streamlined airplane without an engine. When it is up in the air, it flies mostly like any other airplane - getting lift from the shape of its wings, making turns by using wingflaps called ailerons. There's one big difference: Without an engine, a glider can only climb higher when the air around it is rising.

The most common type of rising air is a thermal - a bubble of air rising from warm patches or high points on ground. Fortunately, on any given sunny day, bubbles of warm air are common. The bad news is they are invisible.

Up, up and away

So I'm led to the club's two-seat glider and strapped into the front seat. Jackson introduces me to my pilot, Mark Segall. Segall explains the dials in front of me - one that tells me our altitude, another that tells me how fast we're climbing, and so on. He also shows me one marked "Release." I practice pulling the release. Segall tells me I'll need to use the release, but I'm hazy on the timing. I figure he'll cue me.

Then the curved, clear plastic canopy is pulled over me and locked down. For a few minutes, while Segall straps in behind me and the tow plane hooks up a cable, I'm baking in the sun. A small vent in the canopy offers no relief - no air is moving through the opening.

Then the tow plane gently pulls the cable taut, guns its engine and, in a 100 feet, we're in the air.

I'm thinking I should be nervous at this point -- heart pounding, sweat pouring off my skin, breath coming in gasps - but this is one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life. The plane pulls is up higher in big circles, then aims for a small cumulous cloud stationed over the northern end of the Catoctin Mountains.

Flying like the birds

Glider pilots have to be always attentive. For one thing, they're looking for thermals, for ways to extend their ride.

Pilots work with a simple formula. Every glider has a particular glide ratio - the distance a plane will glide forward for every foot of altitude. Segall says our glider has a 34-to-1 ratio. For every foot off the ground, the glider will sail forward 34 feet before hitting the ground. So, if our altitude were 1,000 feet, the glider would move forward 34,000 feet - about 6 1/2 miles. But attentive pilots, Segall says, can keep their gliders aloft all day. At least, if conditions are cooperative.

"You go from thermal to thermal, and you can go a couple hundred miles this way," Segall says. "Thermals can come off hilltops, but you get better lift off plowed field or a quarry."

The little cumulous cloud looks much bigger as our tiny glider approaches and circles under it. I feel the plane shudder as rising air lifts a wing. The dial that registers rising air twitches.

"See how it's climbing?" Segall says. "Two hundred feet a minute. A good one is 500 to 600 feet a minute."

He circles within the thermal, one wingtip high in the air. I can see a couple thousand feet to the ground.

"Let me know if you're uncomfortable at all, and we can land in a hurry," Segall says. But I trust my pilot, trust the plane's wings, and trust that if gliding actually were highly dangerous, Segall and the other pilots would be long dead.

Plus, I'm having a great time.

Segall and I circle the surrounding countryside for 20 minutes, looking for thermals and sightseeing on the terrain below. He points out Emmitsburg and Fairfield, the Carroll Valley Golf Course, three quarries. In the hazy, blue distance to the southeast, I can make out Thurmont. I see the Hagerstown valley to the southwest and, between them, the Catoctin Hills hiding Camp David.

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