Stranded In The Southland

Friday, October 17, 2008


When I first thought about learning to fly, I considered joining one of the glider clubs around here. There's a long history of folks learning to fly gliders first, then moving on to powered flight. When you're in a 400 pound aircraft with no engine, you really notice it when you're flying sloppy, as you're falling out of the sky that much quicker.

At the time, I decided not to -- after all, I'd probably be flying on the weekends, with possibly unreliable, volunteer instructors, and it'd just be a bother. Clearly, going with a professional instructor in a powered plane was a better idea. 60 hours and 50 weeks later, I'm not so sure...

In any case, last weekend I headed out to Hemet to hang out with one of the two glider clubs at the field. It was a beautiful (but, considering the 400 miles I already drive a week, long) drive, past lots of funky, rocky, desert peaks.

As soon as I pulled up, a friendly instructor chatted me up, showing me the club's gliders and letting me sit in a couple (in fact, he let me sit in the two fancy, high-performance single-seaters). It was awesome -- after all of these frumpy old trainers I've been in, these were elegant and minimalist machines designed for high-performance flying. You sit beneath a big ol' plexiglass canopy giving you a great view of the sky and everything around you. It was wonderful to check this stuff out!

Unfortunately, the ride itself was kind of a bummer. The friendly guy handed me over to a fairly grumpy instructor who hurried me into the glider. We were well off the ground before I could explain why I was there or what I was interested in or anything else.

Everything happened so fast that it was hard to appreciate it. I loved watching the Piper Pawnee (an ex-cropduster) towing us up to altitude, and I was impressed at how vigorously the instructor was moving the controls to keep us steady. But I only spent a few minutes controlling the glider myself, didn't learn much, and found myself back on the ground after just 22 minutes, despite a day with strong thermals.

And it cost $66 for that 3,000 foot tow[*]! At that rate, I was paying $198 per hour -- for that much I could almost rent a multi-engine plane. Of course, on a good day, you could cruise for hours on the $66 tow, which might even things out.

It's probably not an activity to be undertaken in order to save money, but for it's own sake. I'm still interested (I had a great talk with the first instructor, and thought it all seemed fascinating), but I'm not sure that I'm ready to dive into it right now. If nothing else, that 60 mile drive kind of sucks. I may head up to check out some of the high-desert gliding clubs a little later (I could always fly up) and see if they might be a better match.

[*] Admittedly, I knew ahead of time what it would cost, and that I might well wind up with a 20 minute ride. But it was still kinda quick and not as exciting as it coulda been.