PITTSBURGH (AP) - A prop plane buzzed above the tree line and pulled a glider into the blue Sunday sky above rural Washington County pastures with grazing cows, farms and the occasional house.
“You can see Downtown from up there,” said Mark Wilson of Mt. Lebanon, a member of the Pittsburgh Soaring Club, which operates on weekends from April to October at Bandel Airport in North Bethlehem.
The group incorporated 50 years ago and is one of 10 glider clubs in Pennsylvania, according to the Soaring Society of America.
The national organization, based in New Mexico and formed in 1932, boasts a membership of more than 12,000. The Pittsburgh club provides about 35 of those.
“It’s just something I always wanted to do,” said Wilson, a retiree who joined the club in 2000. “I always wanted to fly, and this is affordable.”
Monthly membership dues cost about $50. The club owns gliders it rents to members who do not own an aircraft, which are built in a variety of styles and from an array of materials, including Fiberglas.
In addition to dues, members pay per tow off the ground and for altitude at release - with a tow to 5,000 feet costing more than one to 3,000 feet.
Soaring orientation flights and temporary memberships can be had for $99. Private lessons can be arranged.
“You can fly,” Wilson said, “and it doesn’t cost you an arm and leg.”
The Federal Aviation Administration governs glider pilot certification, which has minimum requirements to obtain licenses as a student pilot and private pilot-glider. These include hours of flight time logged with a certified instructor, solo flights conducted and passing FAA exams, among other criteria.
Glider pilot Les Dutka, a former club president, readied his sleek, high-performance Schleicher ASW-27B on the side of the grass runway. His pre-flight work includes attaching the wings, taping crevices and then meticulously checking - and rechecking - his glider, also known as a sailplane.
“You can’t just jump in them and go,” said Dutka of Upper St. Clair, a club member since 1978. “Because once you’re in the air, you can’t get out and fix things.”
A red, white and blue Piper Pawnee airplane, perfect for dusting crops and pulling banners across the sky, hummed in place on the runway as members affixed a rope to a two-seat Super Blanik glider containing certified instructor Al Bennett and a student.
After a series of safety checks and hand signals, the plane motored down the runway with the glider in tow. Both lifted off the turf, one after the other. They climbed and climbed, eventually banking to the right into the vicinity of another glider already aloft.
Over the next hour, the scene repeated itself as Dutka, Wilson and other pilots took to the sky.
“We judge each other by the amount of time we stay up,” Wilson conveyed before taking off in his single-seat glider, “and the quality of the landing.”
Several thousand feet in the air, they each disengaged from the tow plane to begin a peaceful, silent journey about a mile above the ground. A stick and rudder help guide the aircraft, which can have spoilers and flaps. Pilots monitor a bank of controls and instruments, such as an altimeter, compass and airspeed indicator.
Gliders lose altitude minute by minute, so pilots soar from cloud to cloud to get to where they believe conditions are best. They scour the skies for puffy, white cumulus clouds with flat, dark bottoms - telltale signs of thermals of hot air rising from the ground that provide lift to increase altitude. Under the right conditions, flights can last hours.
Commercial airline pilot Jim Rosenkranz circled around Bandel Airport, decreasing his speed and altitude before finally guiding his glider’s landing gear down on the 2,220-foot grass landing strip. His flight lasted about 30 minutes.
“I was circling with a bird,” said Rosenkranz of Aliquippa, who began flying gliders as a hobby four years ago. “It was neat.”
Everyone is an expert while standing on the ground, sharing opinions on what is happening up in the clouds and why, explained Dean Williams of Ross.
“You never really know how it’s going to be until you get there,” Williams said. “Every day is a learning process.”
Williams learned to fly gliders in his native England in the 1970s. He joined the Pittsburgh flying club two years ago.
Like most, he said an urge to fly drew him in. Unlike some, though, Williams said he never wanted to fly anything with an engine- just gliders.
“I’m a purist,” he said and smiled.
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com
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