Humans have sought the skies for millennia. they have obsessed, slaved, and died in the pursuit of the feeling of peace and weightlessness previously found only in dreams and legends. caught in limbo between heaven and earth, tempting fate, and dancing by the sun.
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]uch of this intrigue surfaced in observation of nature. Da Vinci envied the flight of birds which even in modern times can be mimicked but not mastered. His intricate drawings of birds and their wing structure inspired his further concepts of flying machines that would never fly but inspired many to innovate further down the road.
Predating Da Vinci by millions of years, a skeleton found at the Charleston, South Carolina, Airport in 1983 constitutes what is thought to be the largest airborne bird to be discovered thus far. Only recently named as a new species by the Academy of Sciences, it is estimated to have had a 21-foot wing span. Millions of years have passed since its extinction, but today we would be flying only a few hundred miles away from what was once the territory of such an impressive creature. Flying in a glider designed to function as this ancient bird once did, using the wind and air currents as effortlessly as possible. Built to soar for hours upon hours, riding the currents of air in a world so distant, different, and yet inherently close to our own.
There are both mythical and real tragedies associated with the desire to fly. Helios and Earhart made mistakes that cost them their lives. The Wright brothers and Alberto Santos Dumont certainly experienced many a crash in their obsessions. Fortunes spent and lives lost, yet those brave mad souls persevered in the face of obvious danger. Pioneers must take risks in pursuit of goals, and are compelled to push on where others might falter, though prudence might dictate otherwise. In any case, this web of bravery, compulsion, and productive insanity has earned humanity the ability to evade the limitations of our own bodies and overcome obstacles of physics. Flight.
In a world that has many dangers, flying and soaring mandate a focus that clears away the unnecessary fears and worries that sometimes plague us. The task at hand is all that matters.
Arriving at The Downtown Memorial Airport (SPA), a small but pristine site near the junction of 77 South and Highway 26 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, I was impressed by the welcoming structure and flight tower itself. Designated a Class D (reflective of size and capacity though not quality) airport, the location is a convenient hour and a half from Asheville as well as Charlotte. A mere hop considering the experience that awaits.
Originally a commercial hub for Eastern Airlines, a Southeast Regional service, which expanded nationally until absorbed in the tumult of the airline industry, the airport provided a convenient location which was eventually supplanted by the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP). Today it is used for personal aircraft and the fine sport of soaring.
I was warmly greeted by Buck Arnold, who orchestrated the day of adventure, along with several other members of the Carolina Soaring Association. A short tour of the premises displayed an efficient space designed with vision and an eye for function. The modern structure contained a briefing and conference room and a flight observation tower, which provided a grand vantage of the various runways and preparations going on on the various strips and concourses. Murals and photos showed the rise of an airport predominantly for mail transport and regional service, followed by a lull and some dysfunction, followed by a rebirth of what is now a beacon of municipal efforts in the region.
A FELLOWSHIP OF FLYERS
The Carolina Soaring Association (CSA) was founded twenty years ago. Starting with only a few members, the ranks have since expanded to 86 members, with 30 consistently active and flying. The club owns two gliders in addition to having 14 members with wings of their own. The eclectic group’s ages span from teens to retirees, with many nationalities represented. They banter and quip like brothers. Dry humor and good nature abounds with this bunch. This soaring around seems like therapy of the sky, both recuperative and addictive. As one long time member, Rob, said to me after my first flight “once it gets you it doesn’t let up.” This passion seems to have driven many back to the skies time and time again.
While the CSA members I met were a merry bunch, excited by the achievement of their passion, there was an underlying tone of professionalism and overt adherence to procedure. They are there for the pleasure of the experience as well as the camaraderie, and keeping your friends safe is an important point of loyalty in all pursuits.
SPECS & TECH
The technology of the glider or sailplane is both simple and sophisticated. Entirely different from a hang glider, the sailplane style of glider is a closed cockpit which is flown in a seated position. The glider itself is a polymer composite structure, both rigid and lightweight, as tight tolerances are essential for control and safety. Designs vary in both wing spans and design including those built for racing and acrobatics. While the sport is also known as sky sailing, the consequences of equipment failure would be tragic in comparison to flipping a catamaran (which I have been known to do on occasion).
Sailplanes can be equipped with oxygen to allow for the achievement of greater altitudes.
Two methods are used for setting a sailplane to flight. It can be towed behind a powered plane or thrown into the sky by a winch system such as the one fitted together and tuned by Uly Neumann, a German gentlemen of significant engineering prowess. The winch is the preferred method of takeoff for the Carolina Soaring Association.
Built for torque, the big block winch puts out 450 ft/lbs of torque on a single-gear box. It has the bearing of a hotrod and is equally loud. Uly has had the motor tested on a dyno system to ensure his numbers are accurate, stating that: “As an engineer you don’t want to guess. You need to know.” A synthetic spectra cable rated for incredibly high tolerances and durability is utilized as a tow line. Lighter and more durable than steel, the line has minimal stretch to keep the tension consistent during the 2.5 seconds it takes this roaring engine to tow you (throw you) into the sky.
Much of the appeal of the winch system revolves around cost and efficiency. Throughout Europe, where fuel is significantly more expensive, there are roughly 2,500 winches in operation compared to the 50 used in the United States. The winch system excels at getting more pilots up in the air throughout the course of the day, making for a lot of very happy glider pilots, both from the additional trips up and the remnant beer money in their pockets from the lowered cost of operation. I could sense their excitement even after years of experience and knew I was in for a treat.
I have always admired the flying arts and get quite a rush on the rare occasion when I get to tag along. To draw contrast with my previous experiences of skydiving and paragliding, soaring exceeds both in grace, emotion, and duration.
While skydiving I could not wait to jump out of the duck taped Cessna, in which the pilot was already wearing a parachute as though he expected the plane to disintegrate at any moment. Quite different is the sport of paragliding, in which the chute is already open and you run off of a cliff, which was a floating ecstasy that was altogether too brief. In either case: The moment of pushing off the landing gear into freefall, or sprinting down the slope towards the steep drop off of a mountain, is a moment of contemplation and reflection where one realizes that ‘This, objectively, is a very stupid thing to do.’ In preparing for my first skysailing experience I had no such foreboding. The efficacy of gliding is proven both in history and natural origin. The physics of the sport seemed logical, inherently interesting, and with the obvious confidence and competence of the CSA members, safe.
[quote float=”right”]Asking whether or not I should climb in felt similar in requesting a dance with someone else’s girlfriend. The response was basically that I was allowed a dance but to maintain a respectful distance. [/quote]Approaching this composite winged creature I noticed similarities to more familiar prop planes in the rudders and controls. Scott Fletcher, my pilot temporary guardian, is also an instructor. His nonchalant and yet attentive nature was reassuring in likeness to a ship’s captain in the face of stormy seas. The weather was by no means perfect, but Scott seemed unphased, and by proxy, so was I. Asking whether or not I should climb in felt similar in requesting a dance with someone else’s girlfriend. The response was basically that I was allowed a dance but to maintain a respectful distance. A bright red lever on my right stared at me, and I was about to ask as Scott interrupted “most of all don’t touch that. It will jettison the cockpit canopy.” I got the point. “Ready” was radioed to Uly and the slack was slowly pulled out of the line. A distant roar followed by a rapid thrust forward and then up.
My thoughts as the glider catapulted away were incoherent, and the sensation gave me goose bumps, though feathers might have been more appropriate, and a euphoric rush of adrenaline opened my awareness to the details which surrounded me. The angle of ascent was a steep 45-degree climb, pressing my body forcefully into the seat. Leveling off, the pressure subsided and my ears adjusted to the altitude.
Soaring about and browsing the intermittent clouds my brain began to function normally, or as normally as it gets for me. ‘This has to be the closest experience to the flight of a bird.’ The flight that occasionally comes in dreams can’t quite compare to the sensation of soaring.
Sky Captain Scott asked if I would like to take control for a moment and that sounded splendid albeit ill-advised. Feeling the tension of the wind and testing the controls in different directions was a very liberating feeling. To Scott, I’m sure it felt like riding tandem with a toddler on a tricycle and, after a patient window of letting me fumble but not fall, he took back the controls and put us into a steep banking turn swooping towards earth and then sky as our acceleration and the currents lifted us up again. The g-forces added vigor to the overall grace.
We did not have a long flight as the thermals and currents did not allow for further travel, yet as we circled back towards the Spartanburg airport I felt anything but disappointment. The crescent path that brought us into the line of our landing allowed one last peek at the horizon and a sweeping view of the airport below. The descent was far more gradual, but, never the less, the ground came quickly, and a soft landing by an experienced guide ended our exhilarating journey.
The cockpit popped open, and I sat for a few moments contemplating what I had just seen and felt. Buck called out, “So what do you think!” I, for once, was at a loss for words. My expression seemed to satisfy as a response. I can only imagine that, in the words of a good friend, I was “grinnin’ like a fox eatin’ yella jackets.”
The Carolina Soaring Association provides ample proof that adventure is still alive and well in the minds and practices of Americans. Embracing the long tradition of testing the skies continues in the Carolinas in a way that would make the Wright brothers proud. A little danger and daring are essential parts of the American experience, and a club that crosses gender and generations warrants accolades for playing an active role keeping this spirit alive and well. All we can do is try to keep up.
Spartanburg Downtown Airport (SPA)
Airspace Type: Class D // Communication Type: UNICOM // VHF Frequency: 123.00 MHz // Runway Direction: 23 & 05
Potential Flight Duration (at SPA): 5-6 hours
World Record Duration: 56 hours & 15 minutes on April 2–4, 1952 by Charles Atger in an Arsenal Air 100
Average Ceiling for Glider operation: 30,000 MSL (Measured Sea Level)
Age Requirements to fly glider: 14+ years old (to ensure that you can reach the rudder pedals)
Carolina Soaring Association
Instructors: Larry Traverse, Scott Fletcher, Joe Morellie
Club Contact Info: Rick McGinnis // Phone: 828-779-9771 // Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monthly dues: $66 + Launch Fee & Instruction Fee
Basic Certification reqs: Student License (nominal fee)
Special Thanks to Buck Arnold for his patience and persistence.