The line linking the Schweizer 2-37 with its tow-plane breaks away with a BANG! and the sailplane is on its own,majestically soaring at 3,400 feet above the earth.
Except for the wind swooshing over the wings of the motorless plane, there's absolute silence.
"This is about as close as you can get to flying like a bird," says Dave Brannon as he pilots the two-seater streamlined plane over the countryside near Harford County Airport in Churchville.
As the earth drops away below he says, "On a clear day you can see New Jersey . . . and the bay bridge."
FOR THE RECORD - People appearing in two photographs in the Oct. 27 edition of The Harford County Sun last week were misidentified.
A dispatcher at the county Emergency Communications Center was misidentified in a photograph appearing with a story about the center.
The dispatcher should have been identified as Larry Slagle.
And, in a story about a sailplane club, a pilot should have been identified as Chris Cywinski.
This particular day though, low clouds were lining the sky and visibility was limited to nearbylandmarks. "Look at 2 o'clock, that's Havre de Grace," says Brannon."Look at 3 o'clock, that's Aberdeen."
Brannon is one of about 30 members of the Atlantic Soaring Club, a sailplane organization that took up residence at the Harford County Airport about 18 months ago.
Members range in age from 14 to 70. Their backgrounds are as diverse as their ages. Off the airfield they are students, lawyers, plumbers, photographers, mechanics, school teachers, engineers and graphic artists. On the field they share one common bond -- their love for flying.
"Flying is not for everybody, but if the bug hits you it hits you good," says Ronald J. Dainton, a flight instructor with the club.
Dainton remembers being "hit" when he was a pilot with the Royal Air Force in England. "They were using gliders in World War II," hesays, "I was introduced to one in 1944 and it just stuck."
Today,he instructs student sailplane pilots, takes visitors on demonstration rides and mans the controls of the tow-plane which is used to launch the gliders.
Brannon, 47, who also is a flight instructor, received his glider license about three years ago.
"I have wanted to fly since I was 12, and three years ago decided I better get on with it because I'm not getting any younger," he says.
Like many of the club members, Brannon also has his power plane license, but he enjoysthe challenges associated with gliding.
"You have to work the elements," he says, "Just like a sailor has to work the wind to tack hissail boat, gliders take advantage of rising air currents to gain altitude and to stay in the air."
On a good day, explains Brannon, a two-seater glider could reach an altitude of 7,000 feet in roughly anhour and continue to
stay up for hours. On a bad day, the pilot usually sinks back to the ground in about 25 minutes. With the right air currents, gliders can fly cross-country, he adds.
"You just don't have words for what it's like being up in that sky," says Linda Chermock, 15, a student pilot and club member. "You're at the controls and get up into that lift, that cloud and it's like nothing you ever felt before."
A "lift" is what every sailplane pilot looks for in the sky -- the thrill of climbing without an engine, says Dainton.
"Once the aircraft is up in the sky, it will sink 2 feet per second," he explains, "But when warm air rises quicker than the glider descends, the aircraft gets lifted up."
Being aloft without engine power might seem dangerous, but most pilots say that the most dangerous part of the sport is driving your car to the airport.
"What can be safer than gliding," says club member John Bolgiano, of Joppatowne. "In a glider you never have to worry about running out of gas or the motor quitting."
Gliding, in fact, is considered so safe that the Federal Aviation Administration allows young people to solo when they are 14, while they have to be 16 years old to solo in a power plane.
Linda has been taking lessons since April and expects to solo by Thanksgiving. Like other young club members she spends most of her free time at the airport exchanging ground crew time for lessons. She loves to fly, but also enjoys the social time spent with other members.
"It's such an interesting group of people," she says of her fellow club members. "I don't just learn from them when I'm in the air, but 'hangar flying' is just as educational."
A sophomore at C. Milton Wright High School, she admits to being a typical teen interested in boys and shopping. "But that's nothing compared to flying. Flying comes before males and shopping," she says. "And actually, when you look at a mall from the air, it's rather ugly, it's just a block of cement -- but fly over grass and forest and it's beautiful and sometimesyou even get to soar with the hawks."
On weekends, visitors to the Churchville airfield can experience first-hand what it means to soar with the hawks and eagles. Club members provide demonstration ridesfor $40.
Brigitte Frazier of Fort Lee, Va., was treated to a demo-ride while recently visiting friends in Harford County. "It was neat," she says, "I've never done anything like this before. It was a little scary when the tow-line was released and we were on our own -- but it's just beautiful up there."
Those who want to learn to fly can take lessons from club members. Student pilots should plan on spending about $1,500 to $2,000 depending on their proficiency.
"The FAA sets minimum guidelines for flight training, but most go about 50 percent beyond that," says Brennan.