November 10, 2006
Youve read articles Im sure, about taking the family out to some kind of week-end activity. But for something really different, something that touches man-kinds yearning to fly, why not go out to see a bunch of soaring pilots in action? You or your son or daughter will come home dreaming of joining them one day, I promise you. With just a little organization, you can make this happen and have everyone talking about it for days afterwards. That word soaring pretty much means to fly like a soaring bird. The kind that can stay aloft for long periods without flapping their wings.
In most countries, you can observe some kind of soaring at any time of the year. From a spectator point of view, the winter months are somewhat better. Why? During summer, soaring pilots have a habit of disappearing over the horizon on long cross-country flights! Too far away even for your binoculars.
Soaring is enjoyed in every continent. Heres an ever-so-brief re-cap of soaring in various parts of the world. The U.S. and Europe have clubs throughout their length and breadth, and most people there are within reasonable driving distance of some flying. Australia, a big and relatively empty country, has many soaring opportunities within reasonable driving distance from most capital cities. In Africa, its the South Africans who have taken to the soaring sports in greatest numbers. Plenty of opportunities to observe soaring there, if you look for them. Asia has a paragliding hot-spot in South Korea, but there is growing interest and flying activity in other countries as well. For example, China, India, Taiwan and Japan.
Clearing Up Confusion
I mentioned paragliding in that last paragraph, which is just one of the three main groups of soaring sports. Heres a quick overview of the different types of soaring aircraft now, in case youre confused. For a start, all these aircraft are under complete control of their pilots, who are able to plan ahead and land at any particular spot within gliding range.
Paragliders look like sports parachutes, and are the lightest and slowest of all gliders. No, the pilot doesnt jump, he or she just walks down a slope into the breeze! Next come hang-gliders, with their rigid, fabric covered wings. They are somewhat heavier and faster than paragliders. Finally, sailplanes are beautiful, streamlined craft with long gleaming wings. Commonly called gliders, they are very much heavier and faster than paragliders and hang-gliders.
Now heres a little note about soaring sports in general. Since they are so dependant on the weather, it is not unusual to have to wait a while for an opportunity to see some flying. Particularly if you can only go on weekends. Even once at the site, a little waiting around is inevitable. In fact, paragliding pilots have coined a name for this - para-waiting!
Since gliding of the various kinds is often done on land with restricted access, it is important to contact a local club or group of pilots to organize a day of glider-watching.
Para-Man Sails Past
Para-Man over there sniffs the sea breeze. Direction is good, strength good. Turning, he starts to inflate his paraglider. Up and up, billowing full and tight, like an enormous kite. Its overhead, hovering like a shiny spaceship. Slowly he turns underneath, checks the wing once again and takes a few purposeful steps into the breeze. A moment later, gaining height slowly, he flies away from the grassy ground. With a gentle pull on a brake toggle he turns, following the slope.
Getting ever smaller in the distance, he joins a few stray gulls enjoying the salty air with him. A while later, here he comes again, sailing right on past with the soft hiss of his lines straining the air, the dead-smooth ocean breeze. An hour later, he decides to return. Briefly, he guides the chute-like craft downwind and then turns back, smoothly dropping out of the sky. About to land, Para-Man instinctively pressures down the brake toggle in each hand. Like a swan on the local pond, he lands not far from us, takes a couple of steps and waits for the colorful canopy to deflate to the ground behind him. Para-Man is back.
Hangy-Man Spirals Away
Hangy-Man has finished rigging his machine. The hang glider looks awkward on the ground, one wing down. Every taut panel deflects some of the gentle summer breeze wafting up the mountainside from the valley below. Hangy-Man double-checks the rigging, clips himself under the attachment-point and picks up the craft easily. Harnessed up with wings outstretched he strides to the launch spot. Minutes pass.
Now the moment is right. Hanglider and man depart at a good swift running pace. Bar in a little, he picks up speed and moves straight out across the valley, brown earth dropping away below. Legs and torso tuck away into the pod harness, man becomes bird. Losing height ever so slowly. And still going down.. but wait… A bump. Another bump, and the audio-vario exclaims deeeee deeee dee dee dee! as Hangy-Man cranks his weight to the right. That sinking feeling now, followed by a surge and more happy variometer song. Stop the turn, waaaaaiiiit for more lift, then the obedient wing cranks over again. Spiraling upwards now, another hang-glider is closing fast, wanting some of the action.
We have driven ahead to the local landing field, waiting until Hangy-Man has had his fill of local soaring. Shading our eyes from the late-afternoon sun, we see him on approach. Getting low, he gently pushes out the bar, skimming the ground and slowing to jogging pace as the nose rises high. As if pointing longingly to the sky from whence it came. Hes down, and Hangy-Mans Bird is machine once more.
Glider-Girl Hurled Into The Sky
Glider-Girl runs through her checks, in charge of the launch from the perspex covered cockpit. The glistening white aeronautical marvel is poised on the hard dirt strip. Thumbs-up she signals to the wing-runner, the towline takes in slack. As it tightens, girl and glider seem to move tentatively, but soon gather pace rapidly as the wing-man lets go of the wing tip and the glider surges off the ground.
Smoothly, Glider-Girl allows airspeed to build before nosing high, high into the cool winter air. The sailplane climbs like a fighter jet, high-tensile cable reeling in quickly to the V8-powered winch exerting itself far below. Finally, she lowers the nose, pulls the release and the cable is gone with a jolt. Girl and glider fly in silence, covering ground so effortlessly compared to those other more flimsy craft.
But it is winter, even a sailplane must soon land, if it has no rising air to frolic in. 900 feet above ground, Glider-Girl runs through another checklist and joins circuit. Flaps set, undercarriage down.. the familiar pre-landing routine. We see her flying the cross-wind leg of her circuit, now turning gracefully onto final approach, a slight curve in those magnificent long slender wings. Glider-Girl pops the airbrakes halfway out.
Getting closer but still a little high, she rotates the brakes out some more, they claw at the breeze over the wing. Its a delicate job, a coordinated dance of stick, rudder pedals and airbrake lever, but she does it well. She floats over the runway threshold, gently lowering the heavy machines main wheel to the dirt strip. A few small rattles as the tail wheel contacts at almost the same time, now slowing, now dragging a wing tip in the dirt as the craft slows below flying speed. We walk out to meet her, and help to push the machine back. Like a pelican, it seems so clumsy on the ground after such a display of grace in the air.
Why not make a phone call or two so your family can see your local Para-Man, Hangy-Man or Glider-Girl for yourself! And perhaps dream about flying as they do.
Tim Parish is a motorless flight enthusiast, the webmaster of Paragliding Tales and Reviews, a site which will introduce you to many aspects of paragliding, with a sprinkling of humor.