Have you ever looked up and seen a bird soaring in the summer sky? Silently circling and effortlessly sailing on invisible currents of air as he rises higher and higher. Suddenly, with wings rigid, he’ll swoop off into a fast straight glide, only to hold up moments later and resume his slow, circling pattern. It’s this graceful avian ballet that has captured man’s envy for millennia.
In aviation terms, gliding refers to making a slow, non-powered descent—much like a sleigh ride down a snow-covered hill that’s powered by the universal force of gravity. In contrast, soaring is the mystical ability to ascend, to climb higher, lifted by the invisible power of rising air currents. Birds have always been able to harness this form of flight, but humans have only been grasped it for a little over a century. Thanks to recent advances in materials and technology, today’s pilots are able to do what humans have always dreamed of.
Soaring is ideal in Colorado
The history of soaring in Colorado dates back to the 1950s and the establishment of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The climate and mountains in Colorado provide a unique environment for soaring that attracted pilots from around the world. Our fine state now boasts four major sites where you can experience soaring. Each offers introductory rides to experience the thrill of non-powered flight. In Boulder, Mile High Gliding offers rides seven days a week, providing a great aerial view of the city and Flat Irons. The remaining three clubs are member-based, offering flights primarily on the weekends. North of Fort Collins, the Colorado Soaring Association flies from Owl Canyon. South of Castle Rock, there’s the Black Forest Soaring Society at Kelly Airpark, and east of Colorado Springs, there’s High Flights Soaring Club at Meadow Lake Airport. The last two in particular provide a beautiful view of Pike’s Peak and the Front Range.
How do you book a ride?
All four locations require reservations, best done by phone or email several weeks in advance. It’ll cost between $150 and $200 for a 30-minute ride, but the exact length will depend largely on weather and the amount of lift available. Age is generally not a factor, and children as young as 12 can typically be accommodated.
What can you expect?
The ride might be both an educational experience and thrilling adventure. When you arrive at the airport, you’ll be greeted by an FAA-certified commercial pilot. He’ll explain the art of soaring, and what he anticipates your flight to be like; each day brings a new weather pattern, and he’ll need to plan out the ride based on the current conditions. (Don’t be scurred—look at it as an opportunity to discover how the sciences of meteorology and aeronautical physics combine to make flight possible.)
After the flight briefing, you’ll meet your airplane. The glider is incredibly small in the body, and improbably long in the wings. Most first-time riders are both thrilled and terrified about flying in something that looks as fragile as a teacup (yet as sporty as a Formula 1 racecar). The seating is stacked one behind the other, with you taking the front, and your trusty pilot taking the rear. Once the large plexiglass canopy is attached, you’ll be enveloped in a glass cocoon with panoramic views.
The glider is launched into the sky behind a tow plane (kinda sorta like waterskiing). A rope is attached to the glider, and then the tow plane pulls you down the runway, and up into the sky. Once you reach the desired altitude, the pilot will release the rope from the glider, and the tow plane fall way. Suddenly, the noise from the tow plane’s engine will fade; silence will fill the space around you. You are officially experiencing silent flight. Your pilot will guide the plane through a series of broad sweeping turns as he searches for a column of warm rising air known as a thermal. This is where the pilot’s skill becomes an art form. He has to find and then put the glider into a tight spiraling turn in order to remain inside the rising column of air. Once executed, the plane will slowly rise.
This is the experience of soaring. The glider is being lifted, not by an engine, but by the power of rising currents of air. As long as the breeze continues to blow, the glider will be able to explore the sky. This is a great time to capture a selfie of yourself, the pilot behind you, and the endless expanse of plains and snow-capped mountains beneath you.
Eventually, you’ll run out of lift, time, or both, and have to return to the airport. This is accomplished in the same fashion as a regular airplane, with the pilot aligning the glider with the runway, and gently placing the wheels back on the ground. Opening the canopy and slipping your feet back onto the earth beneath you, your gaze will be drawn to the sky. Once you’ve put on wings and soared with eagles, you’ll always be glancing skyward with envy.