Come Soar with Me
To Clare and back on a quart of gas
by John Sullivan
8:30 a.m.: The online weather forecast calls for cumulus clouds, bases at 6,500 feet, visibility of twenty-five miles, light winds. Temperature in the morning will be 40 degrees with a high of 75. It's a perfect day to soar.
I shut down the computer, grab my GPS, flight bag, and parachute, and head to the Ann Arbor Airport. Small puffs of clouds are already starting to form on the horizon. I roll the fuselage of my glider out of the trailer and attach the wings and the tail.
"UFO" (Uniform Foxtrot Oscar) is a single-seat, German-made Ventus 2CXM. It's a graceful white bird, with a narrow fuselage and slender wings. I inspect it, put on my parachute, and climb into the cockpit; my body rests supine, my feet almost level with my hips. I methodically go through the checklist: spoilers locked, flaps in the take-off position, battery switch on, engine circuits on, engine up and primed. The 55-horsepower engine is located behind me on a swiveling arm. When it starts, it's very loud inside my cocoon, until I put on the noise-canceling headphones. The control tower gives me taxi clearance, and I carefully maneuver UFO'S long span to the runway threshold.
Noon: Cleared for takeoff, I rumble down runway 12 and lift off. Free of the earth and climbing, I bank into the northwest wind toward the base of the nearest well-defined cloud. The best ones have dark, flat bottoms and billowing white tops. This one looks inviting. The escalating beep of UFO's audio variometer, like a musical Geiger counter, indicates that the air under this cloud is rising rapidly. I roll the left wing down while stepping on the left rudder to initiate a climbing turn. Established in a rising "thermal," I stop the engine and press the button that retracts the arm and propeller deep into the UFO's sleek fuselage. The engine's shriek is instantly replaced by the wind's whisper.
In the core of this rising air mass,
my ears pop, I feel a strong surge pushing on my backside, and my arms grow heavy from the g forces. I'm shooting upward at 800 feet per minute.
The strongest lift is beneath the northwestern edge of the cloud. By steepening or flattening out the wings I adjust my circle, searching for the center of the thermal. Watch a raptor soaring above you and you'll get the idea.
Close to the base of the cloud I roll out and head north, lowering the nose and increasing my speed to about 85 knots. Racing through the blue I go in sinking air toward clouds that are leaning slightly to the south and connecting into long ribbons of lift. Flying in a straight line along these "cloud streets" minimizes circling. In this path of rising air I cruise toward Owosso, my intermediate goal.
Monitoring the radio, I hear another glider pilot nearby, X-ray Juliet. We agree to meet over the Livingston County Airport. There I move to within 100 feet of him on my port side before we spread out in search of lift, pouncing on each other's thermals, working our way north.
Because thermals are invisible, a glider pilot learns to feel them. Getting lower, I sense a slight rising of the starboard wingtip, indicating lift to the right of me. Like an angler setting a hook, I roll into this upward-flowing stream of air, and UFO climbs like a homesick angel.
1 p.m.: Over Owosso X-ray Juliet turns home. The billowing cumulus clouds are tinged with silvers, grays, and all shades of white. Some have streamers of virga--rain that evaporates before reaching the ground--streaking downward. Other clouds have hooks that curl up. I fly under the hooks, avoiding the virga, and climb to 5,000 feet. I'm making good time, so I continue further north to Clare County Airport, well beyond Mount Pleasant. I spot a beautiful red-tailed hawk with a five-foot wingspan, thermaling skillfully.
She's certainly not hunting at this altitude. She's up here having fun, just like me. I keep her on my wingtip, and she guides me into the highest climb and the strongest thermal I've caught all day, taking me over 6,000 feet. Pressing onward, I say goodbye to my feathered friend and continue my journey.
2:45 p.m.: Over Clare County Airport, 140 miles from home, I turn south. With the wind at my tail, I can "bump and run," hook the thermals and keep going, without having to circle. Imagine Tarzan swinging vine to vine.
Catching lift and cruising between the clouds, I progress southbound to Marshall, then east, arriving at Ann Arbor with plenty of altitude. It's already been a terrific flight, but with a little more effort I can make this my longest of the year. Should I put on another sixty miles? A short sprint to Adrian and back would do it.
5:30 p.m.: Adrian is below me. But I'm only 1,000 feet above the ground. I've broken the rule that says, "At the end of the day, get high and stay high."
The sun's angle to the ground is so low that there's very little heating. I've been working really hard for the last twenty minutes to find a decent climb, but each one proves to be marginal. I'm barely maintaining my height and may have to "land out" away from the airport.
I'm not having fun. I search for anything on the ground that could emit heat. Finally I spot a bonfire burning ahead. Perfect! It's sending up a column of smoke, which triggers a thermal.
I carefully maneuver over the bonfire, and my hard work pays off with a climb to 5,000 feet. Relaxing now, I can enjoy my "final glide," a straight, smooth flight home.
6 p.m.: From a distance of fifteen miles, I call the Ann Arbor tower and receive a clearance to land, enter the landing pattern, drop the landing gear, and end up rolling out on the grass runway. I've flown for six hours, and traveled 350 miles, on one quart of gasoline: 1,400 miles to the gallon!
Sitting in my sailplane, looking up at the sky, I recall the beauty of the flight--the clouds, my fellow glider enthusiast, the hawk, and the patterns of the earth below. It has been a truly magnificent day of soaring.
Onlinecontest.org recognized Sullivan's flight as the longest in a four-state area in 2011. His website is skypics.com.
[Originally published in July, 2012.]