COURTESY GEORGINA PULMAN-OLZASKI
Flying in a glider gives spirits lift
I'm eye to eye with the craggy face of the Waianae Mountain Range, 2,500 feet above ground in a blue-and-white Schweizer 2-32 glider named Sky Surfer.
Kaena Point lies ahead, fringed by the cobalt Pacific and a pendant of coral reefs. Beyond that the magnificent vista encompasses Yokohama Bay and Makua and Makaha beaches.
The Original Glider Rides
» Place: Dillingham Airfield, Mokuleia, Oahu
» Offered: Scenic tours of 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 or 60 minutes are offered between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. daily
» Price: $50 to $178 for one person and $98 to $316 for two people. Round-trip shuttle service between Waikiki and the airfield can be arranged by calling at least a day in advance of your tour. Cost is $25 per person.
» Call: 637-0207
» E-mail: email@example.com
» Web site: www.honolulusoaring.com
» Note: Maximum weight for passengers for single-passenger scenic flights is 270 pounds; maximum height is 6 feet 5 inches. Two passengers taking a scenic tour must have a combined weight of no more than 340 pounds. Each person should be of average size (around 170 pounds and 5 feet 9 inches tall). Ask about aerobatic rides and hands-on minilessons. A scenic tour, aerobatic ride and minilesson combination starts at $169 for 15 minutes. Book online and you'll receive one free T-shirt per ride when you present your receipt. A two-camera VHS videotaping system records your flight. Cost for this unique souvenir is $35, and you can take it with you when you leave.
As Sky Surfer gently arcs over the ocean, the sleepy towns of Waialua and Haleiwa come into view, along with windsurfers skimming the whitecaps off Mokuleia. From now through April, humpback whales also can be seen cavorting in the sea.
On this clear fall day, the visibility from Sky Surfer's bubble-top cockpit is at least 30 miles, and with northeasterly winds blowing 15 to 25 mph, it's the perfect day for a glider ride.
Helicopters, turboprops, single-engine Cessnas, big jets and small -- I've been in all types of aircraft throughout the years, but flying was never as relaxing as this.
Slim, trim and graceful, gliders are the ballerinas of the aviation world. In fact, Sky Surfer is so light and maneuverable, my pilot, Steve "Woody" Wood, president and co-owner of the Original Glider Rides, had spun her into position for takeoff at Dillingham Airfield with just one hand.
A 200-foot cable connected Sky Surfer to the towplane that carried us down the runway and up to our optimum gliding altitude. So swift and smooth was the ascent, I didn't know Wood had released the cable until I saw the towplane making a wide turn to head back to the airfield.
Friends had called me crazy to do this, bluntly reminding me, "Gliders don't have engines!"
But that's precisely what adds to the pleasure of the experience. Without the incessant roar of engines, the ride is so quiet that Wood and I can converse as easily as if we were riding in a car.
Moreover, he asserts, "Flying in a glider is one of the safest modes of air travel available to the recreational passenger simply because it has so few mechanical parts. No engine means no engine breakdowns. Gliders are so safe a 14-year-old child may fly solo after going through the proper training."
Gliders are propelled by winds and up drafts and Dillingham Airfield provides excellent conditions year-round.
FOUNDED 37 years ago, the Original Glider Rides is the oldest and largest glider operation in Hawaii. All of its 16 pilots are certified and commercially rated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and the company has a flawless safety record.
This is reassuring, but most passengers will want a brief lesson in aeronautics. How does a plane without engines fly at speeds ranging between 50 and 100 mph?
"Gliders stay aloft due to air passing above and below the wing surfaces, just like any other airplane," explains Wood.
"Planes are designed to allow moving air to pass under the wings more efficiently than the top, thus creating what's known as lift. This technology was first discovered by the Wright Brothers, who went on to design and build the first flying machine -- a glider. They were the first to realize that an airplane does not need an engine to fly."
Because the entire weight of the plane can't be supported in this manner, however, the glider will gradually descend unless it's flying in an updraft. When northeasterly tradewinds whip across the ocean and hit the Waianae Range, they are pushed up, forming updrafts all along the slopes.
Thermals are another kind of updraft. They are formed when the sun heats the ground and the surrounding air. Columns of warm air rise, and when the glider flies in them, it also will climb.
Such conditions are excellent around Dillingham Airfield year-round, and by taking advantage of them, pilots can keep their glider aloft and soar higher whenever they choose.
"Updrafts can keep a glider airborne indefinitely," says Wood. "Think of them like in-flight refueling. If the pilot wants to attain more altitude or if he wants to fly longer, he simply goes back to the place where he knows there's an updraft and gets more 'fuel.'
"That's why gliders are also called sailplanes -- they sail through the air as a sailboat does on the water, which is the beauty of real flying. Sharing this experience with people who haven't flown in a glider before is a real kick for me."
Children as young as 3 and adults more than 70 years old have enjoyed tours with the Original Glider Rides. The company even has taken out people who are disabled.
Wood recalls a 28-year-old paraplegic who spotted the gliders at Dillingham Airfield while he was on a circle-island tour and decided to sign up for a half-hour flight.
"He came back absolutely thrilled, saying that experience was the best thing he ever did in his life," says Wood. "Although he couldn't walk, flying in a glider gave him a complete sense of freedom. Flying in a glider is as close as you can get to flying like a bird."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.