Aloft with the wind in a limitless sky Soaring 'sailplanes' fly up to 4,000 times a year

August 08, 1996|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

If you want to take a ride with the only commercial glider service in Maryland, you have to keep two things in mind before you even think about soaring: Close the gate so the cows don't get out, and watch where you step.

That's because Bay Soaring operates on a Woodbine dairy farm, offering instruction and powerless flights for panoramic views of Howard and Carroll counties.

As tow planes drag gliders aloft, cows plod beside the road to the airfield, with a fence separating bovine from gliders, or "sailplanes."

The company leases its terminal and grass airfield from dairy farmer Bob Harrison. For 11 years after its establishment in 1981, Bay Soaring was embroiled in zoning controversies with neighbors and Carroll County government over safety, noise and property values. But the complaints ebbed about four years ago, said Marilyn Abrams.

Abrams and Jerry Gaudet of Annapolis are partners in the firm, which averages 3,000 to 4,000 flights a year in a 20-mile radius around the gliderport.

"We get a lot of students who begin just for a ride and say, 'Wow, this is something I'd like to do,' " said Abrams, who manages the operation from a roomy trailer along the runway.

Abrams said people are drawn to gliding by the opportunity to view the landscape from above, to experience soaring -- and to handle the glider's controls. The changing colors of the leaves bring out the most customers, in September and October, she said.

"Soaring" is when gliders take advantage of drafts of rising warm air called thermals. Spring and fall are the best times for soaring.

"With cooler nights and warmer days, you get that 20- to 30-degree differential which produces thermals," Abrams said.

Mechanical aid

Despite its simple aerodynamics, gliding requires a lot of mechanical assistance on the runway and in the air. Off-road vehicles drag gliders to their proper launching point. Tow planes then pull them off the airfield and up to the proper altitude. After landing, the off-road vehicles pull the gliders from the runway to a berth.

Bay Soaring offers rides from $75 for a 3,000-foot trip to $120 for 5,280 feet -- popular for romantics who wish to propose one mile up.

One of the instructors is Ian Burgin, 58, a transplanted Australian who has been a glider pilot since 1960.

He paid for college by teaching people to fly gliders over west Texas.

He's unflappable and affable, and allows the intrepid novice to pilot the glider for up to half of the flight.

Rough on tow planes

The glider sits at one end of the 1,800-foot airfield with a yellow rope -- slightly wider in diameter than a ski-slope tow rope -- connected to a Piper Pawnee tow plane. Glider service is rough on the tow planes, which fly up to 30 times a day for just 30 minutes per flight.

Tow pilot Terry Lower revs the engine and drags the glider down the runway.

First, the glider is aloft, then the tow plane. During takeoff, glider pilots must keep their craft neither too high nor too low in relation to the tow plane.

Being too high would pull the tow plane's tail up, and being too low would put the glider in the tow plane's wake.

Once the glider reaches the altitude of 3,700 feet, Burgin pulls the cable release lever.

The tow plane dips down and to the left; the glider tilts up and to the right.

Without power, Burgin takes the glider across the Patapsco River and into Howard County. Below are the trademarks of western Howard County -- farms and 3-acre properties.

He takes the plane as far south as the baseball diamond at Lisbon Bible Church and School before turning back to the airfield.

The glider's altimeter shows a gradual descent.

High humidity means a stable air mass with little chance for summer soaring.

"It's just like a car rolling down a hill. It takes us 15 minutes to get down that hill," Burgin said.

'Gentle pressure'

He hands the controls over to a guest in the front seat, offering only verbal instructions for the next 10 minutes.

"Gentle pressure" is a recurring theme.

The glider flies at 40 knots past cumulus clouds that were on the ground just a few hours ago during a foggy morning.

Burgin takes over the controls before landing, dipping the nose and increasing the speed to 60 knots.

One sensation of gliding is how close riders get to the airfield when landing: less than 2 feet separate the rider from the grass.

Burgin, his guest and tow pilot Lower all pull the glider off to the side.

Burgin then briskly heads up to the other end of the runway.

One of his students is waiting for him.

Not like a bike

"I loved to fly in gliders before I ever did any power flying," Burgin said. "It takes a lot of application. This requires more motor skills and accuracy of judgment than anything else. It's not like riding a bike and pulling off the road and thinking about it."

One of his students, Paul Wheeler, 75, drove from Leesburg, Va. He has a power pilot's license and appreciates the differences between powered and unpowered flight, especially the smaller margin of error with gliders.

"The engine forgives all of your sins," Wheeler said.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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