For glider pilots, aviation is a soar subject

by Brad Shannon

Dave Slinger sometimes tells people that he had a license to fly for 20 years before he became a true aviator. “Then I decided to learn how to fly and got my sailplane license,” he says, “and I became a pilot.”

Slinger represents the fourth generation in a skyfaring family, and the middle of three generations who fly gliders (also known as sailplanes). These unpowered aircraft use air currents to stay aloft, so pilots must rely solely on wind, weather and skill. To purists, soaring presents a true test of ability.

“I became a better pilot without power, and that’s all about situational awareness,” Slinger says. “What hazards are out there off field? What’s the weather doing? You have to learn and observe, make precision landings, arrive where you want to and stop fast. There’s no going around.”

Slinger is now the president of the Colorado Soaring Association, a 34-year-old organization that operates out of Owl Canyon Gliderport in Wellington. CSA offers an affordable, supportive, safety-first culture where paying passengers can go up for a scenic ride and aspiring pilots can take soaring lessons. Folks of all ages and all walks of life, from NOCO and beyond, come to the gliderport to hone their skills and enjoy spectacular aerial views of the Front Range.

Take a Ride
CSA offers $95 scenic excursions with a tow plane, which requires two pilots – one in the tow plane and one in the glider. (Gliders typically have one or two seats.) CSA also offers $35 outings in which a winch launch propels the glider into the air, much the way a kite becomes airborne. Passengers sit in the front seat of one of the club’s trusted workhorses, the Grob G103 or the Schweizer SGS 2-32, flown by a commercially rated glider pilot.

Slinger uses his Wyoming-made Aviat Husky airplane or the club’s Piper Pawnee and a 200-foot tow line to pull gliders a few thousand feet into the air. The pilot will release the line, and the vessel soars on the wind. It’s quiet up there with no engine noise, just the sound of the breeze flowing over the wings. On a clear day you can see the Front Range north into Wyoming and south as far as Pikes Peak, with spectacular views of NOCO stretching east to the horizon. If your pilot can find a thermal (a column of rising air) and ride it upward, circling the craft to stay within the updraft, you can gain some altitude and extend your views. Flights typically last 20 to 30 minutes.

Learn to Fly
The Federal Aviation Administration dictates the national standards for glider pilot ratings. To get a license, students are required to have at least 10 hours of flight time and 20 flights, plus two hours of solo flight time. You also must pass the FAA written exam, have a recommendation ride with an instructor, and complete a flight exam/check ride with an FAA examiner.

Merl Raisbeck, CSA vice president and head flight instructor, notes that CSA’s requirements are more rigorous than the FAA’s. You have to start with a student license, then work toward flying solo. While some students are ready to fly solo in as little as 10 flights with an instructor, most people require 30 to 40 flights (10-12 hours of flight time), along with ground schooling.

Once you have your student license, you can fly solo under the supervision of an instructor until you earn a private pilot license. Students can solo at age 14; the minimum age to earn a private glider-pilot license is 16.

Don’t touch that dial: The view from the cockpit. / Photo by Brad Shannon
Natural high: Pamela Bantham enjoys the view. / Photo by Dave Slinger

On a clear day, the view extends north to Wyoming and south to Pikes Peak.

Don’t touch that dial: The view from the cockpit. / Photo by Brad Shannon
Flight instruction is available to CSA members only. Joining CSA involves an initiation fee and deposit, plus annual and monthly dues. Discounts are available to high school and college students, family members in the same household as a regular member, associate members, and tow pilots and instructors. Flight instruction charges are set between each student and their instructor.

Raisbeck notes that the time it takes to become a pilot varies from student to student. He recommends coming out to Owl Canyon for a lesson at least every two weeks. “Know what you’re getting into, and know that a lesson once a month, on a whim, is not enough,” he says.

Once you’re licensed to fly sailplanes, it’s pretty straightforward to get rated to fly powered aircraft. In fact, “it’s probably the most affordable path to getting your pilot’s license for powered aircraft,” says club treasurer Dan Hemphill.

What to Know if You Go
CSA operates out of Owl Canyon Gliderport, 4598 Hackamore Road in Wellington. A glider can accommodate passengers who weigh between 90 and 220 pounds. Bring a camera, hat, sunglasses, water and sunscreen. CSA offers the Soaring Society of America’s FAST (Fly A Sailplane Today) package for $99, which includes an introductory lesson with 30 minutes of ground instruction and 30 minutes of flight time. CSA’s FAST-PLUS package for $250 includes two additional instructional flights and other benefits. For more information about CSA, including membership types and rates, go to www.soarcsa.org, find the club on Facebook, or call 970.568.7627. In other parts of Colorado, check out the Soaring Society of Boulder (www.soarboulder.org) and Mile High Gliding (www.milehighgliding.com), both in Boulder, or the Black Forest Soaring Society (www.soarbfss.org) in Elbert near Colorado Springs.