The power of powerless flight

Greater Houston Soaring Association finds the sky’s no limit

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Soaring in a glider is as elegant, graceful and peaceful as a bird in flight.

Every weekend when the weather cooperates, dozens of pilots, hobbyists, and bucket list adventurists gather at the narrow grass strip next to Brazos High School in Wallis and take to the skies in a tiny aircraft that has no engine.

“It’s an exciting sport, it’s a fun sport, it’s a rewarding sport, it really tests your ability as a pilot,” said Michael Hunter, president of the Greater Houston Soaring Association.

The GHSA is a nonprofit organization that promotes the sport of soaring.

“Our charter is to educate people on the sport of soaring and general aviation in general,” Hunter said. “We instruct for free. We’re all volunteer.”

Although instruction may be free, rides are not. That is how the GHSA funds its operations. Rides are $110 for people 21 and older and $70 for those under 21. Riders must be between the weight of 75 to 230 pounds and can be of any age so long as they are mature enough to leave the controls alone so the pilot can fly the plane.

“I’ve taken up a 70-year-old and an 80-year-old on their birthdays for rides. The smiles on their face is amazing,” Hunter said, adding that his youngest passenger was about 8-9 years old.

Rides vary on the weather, availability of pilots, and how busy it is at the air strip.

“We usually stay up between 20 and 30 minutes,” Hunter said. “I’ve kept people up an hour if they’re enjoying it.”

Pilots flying on their own stay up for hours at a time.

“The average flight is three to four hours. We have some guys that do four to five hours every time they go up,” he said.

Uwe Prigge (pronounced Oo-va Preg-ah) learned to fly in his native Germany and is a longtime member of the GHSA.

“I grew up in Germany and it’s very popular in Germany. There’s many, many clubs and I’ve always dreamt of flying and that was a great place to start,” he said. “Soaring is a great team sport. Even though you’re flying in single-seaters it takes an entire team to get you into the air. You need a tow plane, you need a dispatcher, you need somebody to hook you up, and somebody to help you move the airplane.

“Soaring is fascinating. I got hooked on it. It’s like three-dimensional sailing for me and it’s a hobby which you can expand very much in terms of knowledge – you have to understand flying and also the weather, for instance. It’s strategic when you do soaring in competition, when you fly with others and it’s very peaceful. It is looking and flying with the birds. It’s the closest way you get to heaven with your clothes on, that’s what we say,” Prigge said.

Soaring is a sport, much like running in that the participant can just fly for the fun of it or enter a timed race. The races involve flying to predetermined locations and returning to base. The one with the fastest time wins.

“We have a couple people who are members of the club who are national champions,” Hunter said. “One of them recently went to the worlds over in Czechoslovakia and flew for the United States.”

Hunter said the GHSA got its start as a club in Katy.

“Then there was kind of a falling out amongst the members and it split into the two clubs that we have now in the Houston area,” he said. “This club moved to Beasley and was there for quite a long time until it purchased this land back in the middle ’90s and moved here in ’96 or ’97.”

The other club is the Soaring Club of Houston in Waller.

“We’re actually close and talk to each other all the time,” he said. “We share ideas, we fly together, do contests together and things like that. We enjoy a good relationship with them.”

In 2011 the association built its aviation center, which includes bunks, a kitchen, showers, a large open space, meeting rooms, and even a flight simulator. Hunter likened the club to a fraternity. It currently has about 90 members. Back in the Katy days its membership included the first man to walk on the moon.

“Neil Armstrong at one time flew with the combined clubs when the clubs were one,” he said. “He was a member of one of these clubs at one time. Someone out there has his old Libelle.”

Not surprisingly, “We have three NASA people that fly with us but they’re not astronauts, they’re engineers at NASA,” Hunter said.

He said soaring attracts a lot of engineers. The sport is dominated by men, mostly older with more disposable income. Hunter said there is a push to attract younger participants as well as women.

“Among the 90 members we have eight or nine youth who are learning to fly, which is really the neat part of it all,” he said.

He said they’ve had youngsters earn their pilots license before getting their driver’s license.

“We’ve had a number of kids come through the program who are now professional pilots,” he said.

“We have a very diverse membership so it’s a great place to make friends,” said Prigge, who works in the chemical industry. “We have all different age groups. We have young students who can solo as young at 14 years old. We have transition pilots who want to get back into flying after they lost their medical, for instance.”

For some, learning to soar is their first step toward earning a powered flight rating. For many, soaring is an emotional experience.

“It’s amazing when you fly together with vultures in the same lift. You can even see some bald eagles here sometimes,” Prigge said. “That really makes my day. It helps me to relax after work and leave everything behind and it’s just you and the sky and the peaceful environment.”

The lift he referred to is what the pilots call thermals. They are shafts or bubbles of warm air that rise from the ground and give gliders a boost, much like circling vultures and other birds do. Learning how to identify potential thermals and to take advantage of them is critical to maintaining flight according to Hunter.

“If you’ve ever seen birds circling, like buzzards and different types of birds, what they’re doing is they’re in a mass of hot air that’s rising and it takes them up. And so we do the same thing. We get in that rising hot air and it takes us up to whatever elevation that hot air stops at,” he said.

In this area, that is usually between 3,000 to 10,000 feet.

“The highest we usually get in the summer here is around 6,000 feet,” he said.

He explained that there are different types of lifts and different launch methods, mostly in other parts of the country and the world. Here the clubs use tow planes and rely on thermals for additional lift.

“You learn to read not only the sky but you learn to read the ground,” he said.

He said some pilots actually spend as time looking at the ground as the sky.

“You’ll see things that will kick off a thermal,” he said. “If it’s a good, booming day, you’re looking for the next good-looking cloud. That’s how clouds are made. You’ve got the rising hot air that comes up and it hits the dewpoint and it turns into a cloud.”

Naturally, one of the most common questions he gets from first-time riders is about safety.

“If you come out to get a ride, there’s some element of risk in it, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. But it’s very, very safe,” he said.

“Accidents do happen,” Hunter admitted. “We are really, really safety conscious around here and are constantly reviewing our safety issues.”

He said safety is the first topic of each monthly meeting.

“A big part of what we do around here is safety,” he said.

The peak season for soaring is March through October. Although they fly year-round, the winter months are typically dedicated to aircraft repair and maintenance and doing instruction. When the weekend arrives and if the weather cooperates, however, the call to flight takes hold.

“If you’re just coming out here to get a ride, we just stay above the field here. It’s very peaceful, very quiet and you have to be careful because it’s addicting,” he said.

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