Dip and Glide




FEATURES JUNE 2010

Dip And Glide

Members of the Tidewater Soaring Society truly know what
it’s like to fly like a bird.

Bookmark and Share By Phyllis Speidell, Photos by John H. Sheally II

 

Pilot Bob Hibbard, who lives near Toano, snugs my multiple lap and shoulder belts and explains the joystick jutting up from the floor between my knees. He’s smiling.
We’re about to soar through the sky like a giant egret, gracefully swooping, I can only hope, 3,000 feet in the air over the farm fields and patches of forest surrounding the glider port.

Photographer John Sheally is shooting photos of the pre-flight—and he’s smiling too. Does he remember his turn is coming up next?
And have I mentioned that neither John nor I have any love of flying and resist it at almost any cost?

But for the last several hours we’ve watched a score of people, from 16 to up into their 80s, clamber into gliders and take off for the clouds. After 15 to 20 minutes of silent soaring, they all land safely—and smiling.

“Soaring is mesmerizing, like a legal drug,” Hibbard says. “Want to go up for a flight?”
I’m amazed to hear instant affirmatives from both John and me—but who could say no?

We’ve listened to Hibbard rave about gliders and how the gliders here at the Tidewater Soaring Society rely on thermals to stay aloft.

“The difference between powered planes and gliders is like power boats and sailboats—each requires a different skill set,” Hibbard explains. “In gliders we have to use the air currents even though gliders have an altimeter, compass, and variometer (a gizmo, I learn later, that measures climb and descent), the pilot still has to be constantly thinking. Nothing is automatic.”

“Ahh, where are the parachutes?” I ask after I’ve scrutinized the tiny cockpit with barely enough room for two people and so low that I’m certain there’s no room under the seats.

“You’re riding in it,” Hibbard says. “Hard to get hurt in a glider if you know what you’re doing—even if you end up in a tree.”

Hmm. My mind flashes back to Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, the U. S. Airways Flight 1549 pilot who miraculously landed his disabled Airbus 320 safely in the middle of the frigid Hudson River in January 2009. Talk at the time was that his experience as a glider instructor pilot at the U.S. Air Force Academy kicked in when he lost both engines and enabled him to down a powerless plane without losing any of his 155
passengers and crew.

Encouraging.

And I choose to mentally delete Sullenberger’s description of the incident on the Hudson as “life or death, leaning toward death.”

Hibbard climbs into the back seat and snaps the canopy down just six inches above our heads. The temperature rises quickly and uncomfortably in our Plexiglas cocoon while we wait for the tow plane to move into position. We pull on the red knobs at the side of the cockpit and lift the canopy until the ground crew checks, double checks and re-checks our tow rope connection.

These guys take their preparations seriously—also encouraging.

The tow plane signals ready and Hibbard snaps the canopy back in place. I’m remarkably calm, not the bundle of nerves I expected to be, as we bounce down the grass runway.

We’re up? I didn’t feel the lift off, but the ground is a lot farther away than the last time I glanced down just seconds ago. We are rising above the trees, banking right behind the tow plane, and I can see tan ribbons of road running beside cotton fields, logging operations and reservoirs.

“Pull that lever and you’ll release the tow plane,” Hibbard says.

I reach over, tug, and the line drops away. The tow plane banks left as we soar off on our own.

“OK, the possibly dangerous part is over,” he says.

“Dangerous part? You never mentioned a dangerous part,” I remind Hibbard, who’s sitting directly behind me.

No need to raise my voice. The glider is completely, intimately silent.

“If the tow rope snapped before we reached altitude we’d go to plan B and try to land in the fields to the left. Glider pilots always need a plan B,” he says. “Don’t worry I’ve got my cell phone in my pocket.”

And so do I. I’d heard stories about downed glider pilots, in the days before cell phones, hiking miles to a friendly farm house to call in a location for pickup.

“Want to fly her?” Hibbard asks.

Me, who dreads even boarding an airplane, pilot the glider? You bet!

I grab the joy stick with my right hand as he directs, adjust my feet on the pedals and slowly bank left. I’m turning!

I’m watching the instrument panel without a clue as to what I’m seeing when Hibbard says, “Ignore the instruments. Keep your eyes on the orange string in front of you on the canopy. That’s the most important instrument on the plane.”

We’re at 3,000 feet and the man wants me to watch an eight-inch piece of knitting yarn taped to the canopy?

But he’s right. If I keep the yarn straight the glider’s nose stays slightly below the horizon and flies level.

I try a turn to the right. Oops, what’s that bump? I’ve found a stray thermal! I’m beginning to feel like I know what I’m doing. At the risk of a cliché, I feel at one with the plane. Now I’m smiling too.

But before I get overconfident Hibbard retakes the controls and circles us in the sky above the Garner Gliderport.

Time to land. Usually this is when I clench tight and pray but now, strangely, I’m relaxed enough to enjoy the glide downward and along the runway.

I climb out of the cockpit and assure John, “You’re gonna love this” as he eases into the glider with Hibbard. The tow plane takes off and Poppa Whisky is aloft again.
The tow line drops and they soar into the sky. Had I really flown that high? Swooped that dramatically? And why hadn’t I done this years ago?

It was years ago, 65 exactly, when Joe Mathias, a retired Piedmont Airlines pilot who lives in Windsor, was flying combat gliders in the Army Air Corps. He was 22 when he piloted a large glider carrying 13 men and munitions seven miles behind the German lines as part of a 1945 massive Allied air attack, Operation Varsity.

“That glider flew like a truck,” he says. “We went in at 400 feet, and I could hear the bullets piercing the plywood wings.”

Mathias, who soloed in a Piper Cub at 16, spent his career after the war flying powered planes while he flew gliders for fun. He’s flown a glider as high as 23,000 feet and for as long as six hours.

“Flying gliders is harder than flying powered planes—you have to be looking for a lift all the time,” Mathias says.

“Gliding is a good way to learn how to fly, a very good foundation,” adds his wife, Linda Mathias, pilot, flight instructor and retired FAA inspector.

Joe Mathias, an expert restorer of vintage aircraft and a member of the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame, helped found the Tidewater Soaring Society, the only glider group in southeastern Virginia, in 1976.

Most of the group’s 75 or so members can be found on weekends, year round, at their two hangers at the gliderport off Orbit Road and its 2,600-foot grass runway. The club’s fleet includes five sail planes and two tow planes.

John and I passed by the rural gliderport for years and nicknamed it “Orbit International.” After we met some of the TSS members, we realized how apt the name was.

Frauke Elber, 69, from Newport News, was born in Essen, Germany, and saw a glider for the first time when she was in college and selling beer at an air show. She later worked for an aeronautical research firm in Germany that allowed employees to fly the company gliders on weekends. She was 21 when she took her first flight.
“They used a winch tow and most flights were five minutes or less,” she says. “So I had lots of take off and landing practice.”

Her son, Dirk, was in gliders in utero and now flies with the Blue Ridge Soaring Society. Elber and her husband, Wolf, an Australian native and a glider pilot, moved to Hampton Roads in the 1970s.

Wally Azumi, a native of Afghanistan who lives in Virginia Beach, was a Continental Airlines pilot for 22 years. Gliding is his way of relaxing during his one month on, one month off flying schedule in his current job as a pilot for the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

“I started flying gliders two years ago and the camaraderie here at the gliderport is 80 percent of the fun,” he says. “Gliders are all about thinking as you fly—you only get one chance at a landing.”

Matt Takallu, 61 and from Norfolk, was born in Tehran. He started flying gliders when he was 16 and soon switched his career path from medicine to aerospace.

Jarek Sobieski, a native of Poland, talks about finding air currents by watching the birds and how he cherishes the memory of flying his glider eye to eye with an eagle and eaglet flying off the right side of his cockpit.

A young red-haired woman in sunglasses, Mary Herman, is 17 and a senior at Lafayette High School in Williamsburg. She’s already flown powered planes with the Civil Air Patrol but she fell under the glider spell a year ago when she visited the airfield.

“Gliders are so much quieter and smooth with so much vision in front of your eyes,” she says. “All my friends are jealous.”

A scholarship from The Soaring Foundation of the Tidewater Soaring Society, one of several given each year, enabled Herman to learn to glide in 55 flights over 17 hours, and today she’s waiting to solo for the first time.

Poppa Whiskey is coming in for yet another smooth landing. John climbs out, cameras in hand and singing “On the Wings of a Snow White Dove.”

“Man has always wanted to fly, but this has got to be as close as you can get to feeling like a bird,” he says. “It’s exhilarating.”

Louise Hibbard, our pilot’s wife and herself a glider instructor, hugs us both.
“You’ve found the magic today,” she says.

“Now let me show you some real soaring,” Bob Hibbard says as he takes off for a flight in his personal glider.

For 20 minutes he loops, dives, and spirals with all the grace of a playful eagle. The magic’s there

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