Have you ever wanted to fly like an eagle or soar like a bird? Well, believe it or not, each weekend there are several area residents doing just that as members of the Soaring Club of Houston.
Soaring—a type of flying—is done in a small engineless plane called a sailplane or glider. Aerodynamically designed to move efficiently through the air, gliders rely on “thermals” or columns formed from bubbles of warm rising air to stay aloft. After being towed up to heights of 1,000 feet or higher, sailplanes can gradually glide down back to earth or move among the air’s thermals to stay in flight. For very skilled, experienced pilots, flights can reach heights of 45,000 feet and distances of 11,000 miles.
The experience is tremendous. “It’s like being a bird,” says Memorial’s Rob Ryniker, SCOH president. “You have the excitement and beauty of flying, but you are close enough to the ground that you can get a view of the world you don’t get standing on the surface.”
Says club member John Savage, who first learned to fly gliders as a member of the United Kingdom’s cadet force: “It’s a fantastic, exhilarating experience just to be in the air like that. You see wonderful views; some can be just stunning.”
For many, soaring is a way to relax. With no engine noise, a pilot is simply sailing along with only the sound of the rushing wind in his ears. “In a regular airplane, you have a big, noisy engine in front of you,” says club member John Grissett, who lives in the Memorial area. “In a glider you’re moving along at about 50 mph with just the wind whistling. It’s very peaceful.”
The club began in the early ‘20s when a small group of glider pilots bought a plot of land to serve as a gliderport, says Ryniker. It has continually been in operation since and today boasts a large membership from all over Houston and the surrounding area. Though the sport is much more popular in Europe—in fact, many members who were interviewed were either European or had learned to fly there—groups like the SCOH are now cropping up in just about every major US city.
Many pilots of both power planes—those with engines—and gliders say that learning to fly a glider actually makes you a better pilot. “The very best power pilots are those that also are glider pilots,” says John Grissett. “If you fly a glider you are much more in tune with your airplane since there is no engine.”
John Savage agrees, and says he prefers soaring to power flight. “Soaring is what I enjoy most,” he says. “It’s the most challenging, it’s closest to the elements, and you have to use and understand the elements to your advantage. Soaring really is a balancing of performance, skill, risk, and judgment. There’s always more to learn.”
One of the best things about soaring, club members say, is how relatively inexpensive it is. For those interested in learning some type of flight, it is far and away the cheapest way to do so. Several members of the SCOH are licensed glider pilot instructors, so instruction is free to club members. The club also owns seven gliders that members can reserve for a flight. The only costs associated with learning are a small “tow fee” to be pulled into the air and the club membership fee.
It’s also a very accessible sport. “Soaring is for everybody,” Ryniker says. “Male or female, young or old. It’s something families can do together. We have many fathers and sons and fathers and daughters coming out to learn together. We have husbands and wives.” Indeed, a child as young as 14 can learn to fly a glider solo, and the club has several members that young. To receive a license to fly with passengers, the legal age is 16.
There seems to be a unique camaraderie among club members as well. Even when they are not flying, people often come to the gliderport just to visit and watch others. It’s a very diverse, welcoming group. “Soaring is a very cerebral type of thing, and it seems to attract cerebral-type people,” says Ryniker. “We’ve got college professors, former NASA astronauts, active and retired military and airline pilots, lawyers, PhDs, you name it.”
Anyone who is interested in joining the club or just wanting to experience soaring for themselves is encouraged to come out to the gliderport, located off Highway 290, north of Waller, on the weekend for a $60 demonstration ride. John Grissett promises you won’t be disappointed. “It’s a very pleasant thing,” he says. “Just a great way to spend an afternoon.”
Editor’s Note: More information on scheduling demo rides and on the club is general is available on the Soaring Club of Houston’s Web site at www.scoh.org.