A different kind of takeoff at Willamette Valley Soaring Club
Flying in a Willamette Valley Soaring Club glider is different than flying in a powered airplane.
For one, it's quieter. Without an engine, the only sounds are the steady stream of air that comes in through a small opening in the cockpit. It gets hot inside otherwise, especially when the weather is in the 90s, like it is in Washington County this week.
For another, the lack of an engine means the craft can only stay up for as long as the pilot can find updrafts or ride the air.
Pilots like Warren Dalby and Steve Rander say they are always "hunting for those updrafts." In the rural farmlands surrounding North Plains, these can come from farmers plowing their fields or even debris and vegetation that reflects the sun.
Some glider pilots can stay afloat for hours, though a typical flight lasts around 15 minutes.
No matter how long one is in the air, it's a thrilling experience that even be peaceful if you aren't afraid of heights.
The public can go up on introductory joyrides with pilots, or even learn how to fly gliders themselves if they have the time and money for instruction.
"Glider flying is a sport," said Rander. "It's fun and it's a whole lot cheaper than flying a powered craft."
The Willamette Valley Soaring Club (WVSC) has been around since 1961, and Rander says it's survived recessions, pandemics and more because it's fun and cost effective.
Rides work by towing the gliders up into the air with a rope attached to a powered airplane.
The WVSC airstrip is a small grass runway off Highway 26. The plane lifts the glider up to the desired height — usually around 2,000 or 3,000 feet — and the glider operator can detach from the tow line.
Then, the glider is at the mercy of the skies.
The patchwork of rural Washington County shrinks below. On clear days, one can see all the highest peaks of the Cascade Range, including Mount Rainier far to the north.
Because of their reliance on catching lift, gliders have a much longer wingspan than a typical two-person airplane. Without an engine, they are also significantly lighter.
The wingspans can range from around 40 feet to over 100 feet, and the weight of a typical small glider is around 1,300 pounds. Some are even lighter, and even the average ones can be towed by a specialty golf cart and turned around by hand by "wing spotters," who help do the pre-flight checks and staging of the gliders.
But while beginner rides are available to the public, the main operation of the Washington County nonprofit is as a hobbyist club and instructional facility for those looking to get certified to fly gliders. It's a separate certification from a private, motorized pilot's license.
How long it takes to learn varies by person, said Don Flinn, a glider instructor.
"I've seen people who are 80, and after 80 flights, they still aren't ready to fly solo," he said. "Others go up a few dozen times and can remember all the steps.
"When I don't have to tell them things anymore, I'm not necessary. Their job is to get me to shut up."
In the United States, one can get their glider or hot air balloon certification at just 14.
For a private piloting license, you need to be at least 16. For commercial licensure or to be an instructor, the requirement is 18.
As such, learning to fly gliders is often the first step for aspiring pilots.
Dagny Seward, 16, attends Westview High School. She got interested in gliders because her dad is a pilot. She's been learning at WVSC for several months, though her knowledge base and ability to remember the science and technology of flying is helped by having been raised around aircraft throughout her life.
"My dad used to bring me out here when I was younger," Seward said. "I've wanted to fly ever since he got his pilot's license. I'd like to fly powered planes someday, but gliders are a lot of fun."
Flinn joked that the glider flights ought to come with a disclaimer that once you go up in a glider, "it can become habit-forming."
"The only reason to fly gliders is to have fun," he said. "Fresh air, exercise, sunburns — it's a sport."
Rander said that the success of the club has always been about people knowing they are out there.
"Despite being here more than 50 years, there are people who know we're here and people don't know we're here," Rander said. "It keeps rolling along."
The glider season is roughly from April 1 to Nov. 1, though daily flights are dependent on weather conditions.
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