Coming Back to Earth in N.Va.
Glider Pilots Extol the Joys of Soaring on a Wing, Hot Air

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2003; Page B01


At 1,500 feet, Guinevere Burner's voice remained calm, her hands easing her glider's stick and her feet busily tapping at its rudders. Verdant Loudoun County farmland rolled out beneath the glider's bubble plexiglass canopy, stretching west to the Blue Ridge and north to a glinting strip of the Potomac River.

Burner worked to keep the glider level and slightly below the tow plane dragging her aloft by means of a strong rope.

No buzzing engine intruded on the quiet in the cockpit, which is how it's supposed to be in the peaceful world of gliding. But Burner noticed a problem: Her airspeed indicator, one of just a few gauges in the plane, was stuck on zero.

"I think I can judge my speed, but it's nice to have the reassuring instrument," said the 16-year-old licensed glider pilot.

With little concern, she pulled the yellow handle that releases the glider from its tow plane. The rope fell away, and she curled the now-free glider on its own course, floating in the currents and easing to a lazy landing a few minutes later.

It took just a few twists of a screwdriver to get the faulty gauge operating, and in no time the glider was rumbling down the grass runway again for another silent soar over the Virginia Piedmont.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight. But before Orville Wright flew himself into the history books on Dec. 17, 1903, with his 12-second flight above the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C., he and his brother, Wilbur, perfected their design with hundreds of glider flights.

Carrying on that tradition, glider pilots still head to small airports and grass airstrips on fair-weather days to engage in what they insist is the purest form of flight, an endeavor that's low on technology but high on skill.

"It's just you, another person and the whole sky around you," said Burner, who was taught to operate a glider by her father, William Burner, at age 11.

Flying a powered plane is transport, Guinevere Burner said, a way to get to grandma's house in West Virginia. But gliding is sport.

The lightweight craft are towed into the air and dropped off a few thousand feet above the ground. Whether they glide to earth a few minutes later, as Burner did when her gauge gave out ("a genuine emergency," her father said proudly after her safe landing), or stay afloat for hours depends on weather conditions and pilot skill.

On a good day, an experienced glider pilot may catch a thermal, a column of air warmed by the sun and rising from the ground -- pilots describe the sensation as akin to a swift kick in the pants -- and away they go, sweeping in circles higher and higher, riding the rising air much like a surfer rides a wave. Gliders have soared to almost 50,000 feet and traveled hundreds of miles this way.

"You match your wits with Mother Nature and take what she'll give you, or else you're down," said James Robert Collier, a member of the Skyline Soaring Club in Front Royal.

To find thermals, pilots study the weather and cloud formations. They also look to the soaring experts: birds. When birds swirl in circles overhead, their wings outstretched, it means they have found sufficient lift to stay aloft. And if a pilot is talented enough, birds will share their airspace, flying wingtip to wingtip with a glider.

The Washington area, rich in folks with military or scientific training, is a hotbed of gliding, said Dennis Wright, executive director of the Soaring Society of America, which has 11,000 members. The sport is even more popular in Europe.

Modern gliders are sleek curves of fiberglass that can sell for more than $100,000. Burner's German craft, built in 1959, has wooden wings and a fuselage of cloth stretched tight over steel pipes. The plane cost $6,000 when the Burners bought it four years ago but soars every bit as well as its newer brethren, Burner said.

"The modern ones, they're all plastic, all white, all computer designed. They all look exactly the same," said Jan Scott, owner of Flying Cow Farm in Loudoun, where Burner flies with her father and 15-year-old brother, Alex.

Scott has a 42-acre farm where a couple of cows share space with the historic sailplanes he restores and flies, such as the bright-yellow two-seater now in his hangar. The Navy used it to train glider pilots for World War II. Only 75 of the gliders were built, and Scott's is the only one still in the air.

Scott offers no rides or instruction on his farm, just hangar space and tows for friends. To learn the sport, most beginners start with one of the area's two soaring clubs, the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association, which flies out of Fairfield, Pa., and Frederick, and the Skyline club in Front Royal.

With no engine to fail and the physics of nature controlling flight, glider pilots insist that their sport is safe for everyone.

"Gravity is much more dependable than a jet engine," Scott said. "It never catches on fire, and it never fails."