I love it when serendipity strikes and I have to say that Wendy and I seem to find a heaping helping of it out here ‘on the road.’ This trip has been no exception and so far, I’ve been able to see and do things that I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. I can’t say that I have a ‘bucket list’ per se, but some dreams stick with you no matter your age.
When we arrived in Elmira, NY for the NAOC meet we got the bus parked and ourselves cleaned up to attend the Welcome banquet. I just happened to strike up a conversation with a friendly gentleman while standing in the line for the cash bar. He happened to mention that he’d gone soaring that day and that it was BIG FUN! My interest was immediately piqued and I pumped him for a complete description. Unknown to me, Elmira just happens to be a soaring mecca for glider aficionados world-wide! The Harris Hill Soaring Corporation has been in existence nearly since the early years of the soaring sport. People come from all over the world to soar and compete here. Besides the world-class soaring environment there is also a Soaring Museum. I resolved immediately to go check this out.
So, on Friday I made myself a sandwich, filled Wendy’s water jug and struck out on my bicycle for the top of Harris hill. The NAOC included a map of sorts of the area in the goodie bag so I was not striking out entirely uninformed. However, as it turned out the map was not exactly ‘to scale’ and what looked like a short jaunt out of town turned into a long, slow grind up to the top. I suppose I should have consulted the ipad mapping app before I set out, but in retrospect I think it would have just stood to instill doubt and uncertainty. Better to proceed in confidence albeit ignorant.
Twelve miles and two hours later I finally arrive at the top. Let me tell you – it was a slog! All uphill in granny low, but somehow it was very satisfying and I was having a great time! When I first conceived this ride I told myself I’d just go to the museum and watch the sailplanes, but after that climb I determined that I would reward myself with a flight and my first stop was the office where I signed up for a ride in the advanced aerobatic glider. There was a bit of a wait, so I sat outside and ate my lunch while watching the gliders and the tow plane.
My turn arrived soon enough and I strolled out to the flight line to meet my pilot Evan, all of 20 years old in flip-flops, baggy shorts and a T-shirt. I was soon strapped in to the $160,000 ASK 21 glider and advised by Evan not to impede the rudder pedals under my feet or the ‘stick’ between my legs. The tow plane tightened up the tow rope and we were soon on our way. Now, the glider rides on a tiny, single wheel amidships and you’re sitting maybe 12 inches above the ground, so the take-off is very fast and EXCITING! Once airborne, the tow plane makes a counter clockwise turn around the airport and Evan released the tow rope at roughly 3000 feet (the airport sits atop Harris hill at approximately 1800′ elevation). His release was timed perfectly to catch a thermal that gave us another 1000′ feet of altitude in 7 or 8 tight clockwise banking turns. It was very, very cool and I was having a great ride. I’d wanted to do this since I was old enough to know about gliders and all things associated with flight. Occasionally, I’d see a glider at an airport or in a magazine and dream of flying in one. Now I was doing it! It was awesome!
So here we were – soaring! 4000′ – 5000′ feet up over the hills of upstate New York with a view that extended all the way to Seneca Lake in the north and Pennsylvania to the south. It was quiet with just the sound of the wind passing over the skin and canopy. Evan and I could talk at a normal level and we were flying! It was thrilling and better than I had imagined. My flight was only 20 minutes long, but these pilots can keep these things aloft for hours and even take cross-country trips. Soon enough Evan deployed the air brakes and brought us in for landing. I got a great video of the landing and I’ve provided a link to it here. Landing was just as much fun as takeoff, as we came in at speed to set down on a grass runway and bounce along until we came to a quick, slanted stop. I got a shot of the ground crew as I walked back up the flight line. One of those kids is 15 years old and will soon be soloing for his pilot license.
The glider museum was next and I spent a good hour walking though it and taking a few shots of the aircraft. They have a replica of one of the Wright Brothers original gliders – before they strapped on an engine and conquered powered flight. Some of the aircraft are experimental and achieved altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet! It was a fascinating experience and I’m sure I took way too many pics.
It was soon time to jump back on the bike and make the run back to town. Fortunately, I’d built up a large mass of ‘potential energy’ on the way up this hill and the trip back was nearly entirely downhill at speeds up to 37 mph – on a bike! What a day.