Story & photos BY STEVE NOBLE
For centuries our ancestors gazed into the skies and imagined what it would be like to soar like an eagle, floating effortlessly in the air. Modern sailplanes make this possible, and with them humans can fly with the mightiest birds, using the invisible forces of nature to stay aloft. A sailplane, or glider, is a sleek aerodynamic fixed-wing plane without a motor. The sailplane is towed behind a single-engine airplane. When the pilot of the glider reaches the altitude and location desired, the towrope is released (opposite page). This process is part of an exhilarating ride, which I recently experienced thanks to Soar Minden. Weíre approximately one-mile up when my pilot, Sam Whiteside, releases the towrope. The noise of the single-engine towplane quickly fades into the distance, and we slow to 45 mph. Weíre on our own, gliding over Heavenly Mountain Resort with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and magnificent Lake Tahoe below.
Three prominent peaks loom in front of us: Jobs, Jobs Sister, and Freel. We slowly bank to the north. Amazing views of Lake Tahoe unfold. Sam asks me if I want to pilot the plane. I place my right hand on the stick and my feet on the pedals. As I ease the stick forward, the nose of the plane dips and our speed increases. Pulling the stick makes the nose rise and the speed decrease. Moving the stick to the right while pressing on the right foot pedal makes the plane gracefully bank right. It feels so natural; I can see how people get hooked on gliding.
Gliding is a great recreational experience for newcomers like me, but many consider it a competitive sport. How high can I go, how far can I glide, and how long can I remain in the air? These are records that pilots strive to achieve. If you were to ask gliding enthusiasts, ìWhere are the best places on earth to glide?î you would likely hear the Andes in Chile, the Southern Alps in New Zealand, the Breede River Valley in South Africa, and Nevadaís Carson Valley. In fact, Tony Sabino, owner of Soar Minden, says the second-longest glider flight on record went out of Minden.
Experienced pilots come from around the globe to glide in the Carson Valley. The ìrecord boardî in Soar Mindenís office shows altitude, distance, and duration records set by pilots from Belgium, Denmark, India, Japan, Pakistan, Poland, and Portugal.
Why is the Carson Valley ideal for gliding? The combination of heat from the Carson Valley and the cooler air of the Sierra Nevada range creates an ideal environment. A glider is a ìheavier-than-airî plane and, therefore, is generally descending. A glider can ascend, however, when thermals are encountered.Thermals are streams of rising warm air that are formed on the ground through the warming of the surface by sunlight. When a glider ascends using thermals, it is called ìsoaring. When I was a boy I remember vivid dreams in which I was flying. Soaring in a glider may be as close as Iíll come to reliving that thrill, and, best of all, itís right here in our own backyard.