Bob’s Number One Passion… Soaring
During my final year as a Disney Imagineer, my office was located in the Grand Central Air Terminal, which is now a Historical Landmark and part of Disney’s WDI Creative Campus in Glendale California. The location was the major airline terminal serving the Los Angeles area in the 1930s. The terminal building has since been restored to it’s authentic glory to serve as a multi-functional event facility for both Disney and the City of Glendale. My office overlooked two beautiful palm trees. In 1939, when I was just 8 years old, I first saw a glider under those same trees – and it was love at first sight. It was on the occasion of an air show that featured an aerobatic glider demonstration. Oh was I ever hooked! Those palm trees and the gliders are illustrated in John Underwood’s famous book Madcaps, Millionaires and “Mose”.
But, learning to fly gliders would have to wait until I was at least 14 – and I’d also have to wait for WWII to end. The closest I could get to a glider was to watch glider demonstrations and enjoy a few airplane rides as a high school kid in the Civil Air Patrol, as well as building and flying model gliders. It wasn’t until 1961, at the age of 29, that the chance to learn glider flying finally arrived. I joined the Orange County Soaring Association located not far from Disneyland. Glider clubs are a bit like little league baseball – everyone volunteers to make things affordable, so members help with maintenance and flight instruction. Readers can learn more at the Soaring Society of America.
Soaring? What the heck is that? It’s the challenge of flying a motor-less aircraft using only the free power of the atmosphere. Pretty simple, fly only in air that goes up, don’t fly in air that goes down. Just like playing chess, once you know the 14,000 basic moves, you’ve got it. Yeah right, it’s going to take a long time to be good enough to stay up for hours at a time. Remember, every minute a glider is descending, say 150 feet per minute (FPM). You have to find air that is rising 150 FPM just to maintain altitude, and much more than that to climb and go somewhere. Within a few years I was able to stay up as long as I wanted, reaching great heights and traveling many miles around Southern California on good days. Good days are when atmospheric conditions provide ample rising air. Aha – there’s the catch. How do you know when it’s a good day, and how to utilize the rising air, called lift. Lift is opposite to sink, or descending air. As you gain knowledge of atmospherics, you learn what the different cloud formations mean – some have lift, others denote sink – you gradually increase your success rate over time. Powered airplanes are a snap, turn on the motor and go fly. Gliders require a lot of skill and knowledge, a lot of extra helping hands, and typically a tow plane to launch you up high enough to start a soaring flight.
A glider is typically stored on a trailer so that the pilot can transport it like a boat to a favorite launch site. The wings and tail are engineered to be easily attached in a few minutes to be ready for flight. Since sailplanes (another name for a glider) have a single wheel, an assistant holds the wing up and runs a few steps as the tow plane starts the takeoff. At an appropriate altitude (about 2,000′), hopefully in lift, the sailplane pilot releases his end of the tow rope and the tow plane returns to the launching site, usually an airport with glider operations. Both clubs and private owners operate in this manner.
Once free of the tow plane, the search for lift begins – ah yes, the chess game starts. Pilots who are just learning often return in a few minutes since they were not yet proficient in finding and “working” lift. After maybe months or years, most sailplane pilots become experts at staying up as long as they like, if the day’s lift is excellent. The records for soaring altitude and distance are impressive; 50,724 feet high and 1,402 miles distance. A recent atmospheric project glider, Perlan II established a new world motor-less glider altitude record of 62,473 ft. over the mountains Patagonia, Argentina in a mountain wave. All of this completely without an engine using only the power of the atmosphere and the skill of the pilot. The challenge of soaring flight is not unlike sex or heroin – it’s fully addictive!
Of course, in 50 years and 2,250 hours of enjoyable soaring, I never reached those goals, but I did get to 21,000 feet, made flights as long as 350 miles, and over 8 hours duration. Learning to fly as a student in the glider club using a couple of old wooden WWII training gliders, I soon transitioned as an instructor in modern USA-built Schweizer trainers, then onward to my own private aircraft. The first was the famed Czech-built two place Blanik, an all metal beauty. I imported it from behind the “iron curtain” in the cold war days of the 1960s. A gorgeous thing of beauty, I gave over 100 folks their first sailplane ride in it.
In 1974 I bought a German-made all composite small aerobatic Salto sailplane. I could do loops, lazy eights and such all over the sky any time, besides delighting in long afternoons over the Southern California mountains and deserts. On almost every flight I would join hawks and eagles soaring to great heights in the strong thermals (lift from ground heating.) There are other types of lift; wave lift from wind bouncing over mountains, slope lift from wind blowing against a mountain ridge, and cloud lift (thermals which reach into cumulus clouds.) With the Salto on a trailer, I was able to travel to many western soaring sites to utilize the sometimes very powerful lift to be found over the spectacular landscapes, such as the High Sierras.
Since another dream was to fly powered aircraft, I sold the Salto to buy a German-built Taifun motorglider. This is a cross between a glider and an airplane. One can take off using the engine, then turn off the engine when entering an area of lift. “Are you nuts?…turn off a perfectly good engine when you are over the mountains”. That’s the question I got asked all the time. In fact, I could climb way faster in a hot thermal than by using the engine. I never used the engine much above 9,000 feet even though most summer flights were to 18,000 ft. The lift goes much higher, but that is the altitude limit for flight under Federal Aviation visual flight rules.
I had always been interested in meteorology, geography, and seismology. Soaring combined all these interests since I could observe earth characteristics from high altitude as well as learn where good lift was to be found. You see, this is how those 14,000 soaring moves, like chess, are slowly learned over time. Another thing I learned is how birds fly in lift. They are experts, always centered in the best lift, so I would join them, circling in formation as we both rose as high as the lift might go. Yes, I do fly with the birds. It was a rare flight that did not have my helpful avian friends to play with.
When the weather was not good for soaring, the Taifun was a wonderful power plane to fly anywhere I wanted to go. Like a sailplane, the wings can fold allowing a 57 foot span to fold up to only 8 feet wide to store in a hanger. Under FAA supervision I was able to do all my own maintenance, making sure everything was in perfect order. For 12 years I was based at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, fitting in with all the commercial jet airliners with ease. Even though the Taifun was a motorglider, I’m required to operate under the same flight rules as all other aircraft. Interestingly, my hanger spot at Burbank was exactly where Disney kept their second aircraft, a Beechcraft Model 90 King Air twin-engined turboprop years earlier in 1964. In later years I was based at the smaller nearby local Whitman Airport.
Although I sold my beloved Taifun some years back, I still go soaring today – via simulator on my computer, using the X-Plane Flight Simulator software with a Thrustmaster control set-up allows very realistic flying again all over Southern California. This software is so powerful I could even fly the gigantic Airbus A380 in Paris!
Starting under a couple of palm trees as an 8 year old kid in 1939, I’ve had many wonderful decades of passion for soaring flight – 50 of which I was able to actually fly… fly with the birds.