Standing in a grass field on the outskirts of Enumclaw, what I see around me - and above me - seems like it would qualify as an extreme sport. A small plane tows a fiberglass glider 4,100 feet into the sky with a 200-foot rope, then releases the engineless craft to soar along the ridges and trees at speeds exceeding 90 mph.
But when I start asking the pilots of these sleek white gliders what they think, they chuckle at the suggestion that this is extreme.
"I guess flying without an engine might seem pretty extreme until you try it and start to process it, " says Jack Cullen, a Seattle lawyer and longtime power pilot working on his gliding certification. "Then you realize how beautiful and graceful it is. . . .
"It is pure flight."
The Puget Sound Soaring Association has been introducing people to the purity of flight since 1974 and will take up anybody weighing less than 240 pounds for $100. The club flies out of Enumclaw's Bergseth Field.
"I don't think of it as extreme, " says Greg Bahnsen, the club's training officer. "It's just a great way to fly."
That may be, but as I wait for my turn, I can't help but dwell on the fact that once the glider releases from the tow plane, we will essentially be falling. Granted we'll only fall about a foot for every 34 feet we move forward, thanks to the two-seat glider's 50-foot wingspan, but we will be falling just the same.
Throw in the fact that I'd just watched four men attach the wings and rudder to one of the gliders in less than 13 minutes (not including two safety checks), and my adrenaline is pumping.
Until they prove otherwise, I'm considering this extreme.
THE WAITING GAME
A week before my flight, I visited Bergseth Field on a chilly, overcast Sunday morning in hopes of catching a ride in a glider.
But, as Bahnsen informs me, glider pilots have a saying: "Airplane pilots fly in spite of the weather. Glider pilots fly because of the weather."
Gliders rely primarily on thermals (currents of warm upward-moving air) and ridge lift (wind deflected upward after hitting an obstacle) to prolong their flight.
Pilots look for hints such as birds soaring upward in tight circles to find the lift.
"A pilot needs to be observant and in tune with their aircraft, " Bahnsen says.
Because glider pilots are so dependent on the weather, they say every flight is different.
Bahnsen says he loves the challenge of seeing how long he can stay in the air. On most days, he can easily stay up longer than an hour. On perfect days, it's possible to stay up for most of the afternoon.
But this particular Sunday was anything but perfect. Nine men stood in the grass field for more than four hours hoping the low cloud cover would burn off.
This, apparently, is not an uncommon occurrence. But waiting on the weather doesn't seem to frustrate them. Instead, the flying club morphs into a social club as the men share stories and discuss their sport.
The club also has five instructors who volunteer their time to teach members how to get their gliding license. Waiting for the weather to clear proves to be the perfect time for ground training.
For as long as he can remember, Riley Nielsen, a 16-year-old Enumclaw High junior-to-be, has dreamt about becoming a pilot.
He was watching glider flights earlier this year when a man who didn't come under the 240-pound weight limit gave him his flight. He's been hooked on soaring ever since.
"I love the freedom of it, " Nielsen says. "There is nothing that can beat being up there."
Nielsen says he'll never forget the feeling of catching his first thermal.
"You're going straight and then suddenly you are going up, " Nielsen says. "It is the weirdest thing."
If Bahnsen, 59, is any indication, the thrill never wanes. Bahnsen, who says one of his first words was an attempt to say airplane, also uses the word "freedom" to describe soaring.
With no engine, soaring is quieter and slower than motorized flight.
"You can fly with the birds, " Bahnsen says. ". . . I remember one flight where I looked out and saw a hawk about 20-30 feet off the tip of my wing."
But as I prepare for my flight, all this talk about freedom isn't exactly helping me push images of the extreme nature of this endeavor out of my head.
Freedom, I think: Isn't that how BASE jumpers and world-class rock climbers describe their sports?
As I buckle into the front seat of the club's new PW-6 glider, I try not to show my nerves. Santiago Carrizosa, a mechanical engineer from Florida, had just emerged from the cockpit with a comforting ear-to-ear smile after a 30-minute flight.
"It reminds me of surfing, " he says. "It's very smooth and it lifts you up just like a wave does."
I also take solace in that fact that my pilot, Tim Heneghan, has 35 years of experience - and the idea that without an engine aboard, there are fewer things that can go wrong.
Plus, it's also really cool to be sitting alone in the front seat of an aircraft.
My job is simple. Sit there, take pictures, turn up the volume on the radio if Heneghan needs me to, and when we reach 4,100 feet, pull the yellow handle that releases the towline.
"Whatever you do, don't touch this one, " says Heneghan, pointing to a similar-looking red handle above the yellow handle. "That's the emergency cockpit release."
I hold a small camera in my right hand and notice my fingers are shaking a bit as the tow plane starts pulling us down the grassy runway.
We take flight a few seconds before the plane, and soon we are above the trees and turning toward Mount Rainier. Then, after what seems like just 30 seconds of flying, the weirdest thing happens.
I look at Rainier shrouded by clouds on the horizon and Enumclaw below us.
I can't remember ever being this relaxed - even for a minute - while flying in small motorized airplanes.
"A powered flight is noisy with a loud engine and the radio squawking, " Cullen later explained. "This is just exquisite. You don't have all the noise. It is the most relaxing kind of flying."
I have one more pang of nerves when it comes time to release the tow rope, but after that I'm just in awe.
I left a small cockpit window open the entire flight, which, I'm told, made the flight noisier than normal. But it's still remarkably quiet.
The only other noise was the constant whining of the variometer, a device whose tone signaled our gradual descent.
Heneghan guides the glider toward hills and ridges trying to find lift, which would have resulted in a higher-pitch tone from the variometer.
Even though the weather seems perfect, Heneghan explains that a cloudless sky isn't ideal for gliding. "You actually want a day with big fluffy clouds, " he says. "Those clouds are formed by thermals."
As he makes banked turns approaching 45 degrees trying to milk a few more seconds of lift out of a thermal, Heneghan explains that most flights are even better than this one.
But I don't know any better, so I just stare in wonder as we zip past trees and ridges.
When it comes time to land, I'm feeling so comfortable that I wish the flight were longer. We land with a gentle bump and roll to a stop.
As I pop open the cockpit, somebody asks, "What did you think?"
I surprise myself a little with my answer. The word "extreme" doesn't even cross my mind. They're right - it felt like freedom.
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Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure
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SOARING OVER SOUTH SOUND
Club: Puget Sound Soaring
Field: Bergseth Field, Enumclaw
Introductory membership: $100. Includes a demo flight and a one-month membership with flights at club rates.
Weight limit: 240 pounds
Club fees: $50 initiation fee. $576 per-year dues. $64 per year for Soaring Society of America dues.
Membership: Includes access to glider fleet and training from volunteer instructors.
Club flight rates: $30 per hour for glider rental. Glider tows are $30 for the first 1,000 feet and $1.90 for each additional 100 feet.
More info: pugetsoundsoaring.org and ssa.org
Other SSA clubs offering glider flights in Western Washington
- Wave Soaring Adventures, Toledo, wavesoaring adventure.com
- Evergreen Soaring, Arlington, evergreensoaring.com