The Liberty Gazette
May 7, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: There I sat leaning to one side, the long wing’s tip resting on the ground. The airplane in front of me moved slowly forward tightening the rope that connected us. Once taught, the pilot of the plane wagged his tail-feathers and then I did the same, signaling "ready." Slowly we began moving forward making all sorts of noise as the small wingtip wheel scraped along the ground. As we gained speed my flight controls became effective allowing me to balance on the single wheel just below the fuselage. With drag reduced we accelerated quickly and the sailplane I was in desperately wanted to jump airborne but I couldn’t let it fly just yet because it could pull the tail of the tow-plane up too much where it might catch its propeller and flip over. Instead, I let it gently hover inches from the ground and as the tow-plane reached flying speed it towed me skyward.
I remember watching as a youngster Disney’s "The Boy Who Flew with Condors." The movie opens with a boy climbing high on a rocky ledge to watch huge Condors in flight. In the midst of this he sees a glider land in a field far below and climbs down to meet the pilot as the chase crew loads the glider on a trailer. The pilot invites the boy to their airport to learn about soaring. The story follows him through many adventures including flying with the Condors who help him find lift when he can’t find it in a rainstorm. Of course, I was enthralled by anything that involved flying, but this film was instrumental in planting that seed of adventure in me at an early age.
After reaching a predetermined altitude, the tow-pilot sought a place to release me from the umbilical. I pulled the release knob and with a bang the towrope furled away. I pulled the nose up to the right as the tow-plane made a diving left turn returning to the glider port. Turning in the rising air of a thermal a red-tailed hawk appeared beneath my wing, hovering a few feet from my canopy. Wishing to avoid a collision with this magnificent creature, I saved the memory and banked gently away leaving the thermal to him and thought about that Disney movie.
Learning energy management is challenging and fun. After the initial tow release it’s possible for a glider to stay aloft for hours taking advantage of lift generated by thermals, wind over ridges, and in high mountain regions a condition called mountain wave. Gliders are always descending through the air around them and lift is air rising faster than the glider’s descent through it. With experience, the glider pilot becomes skilled at finding lift by watching for signs like dust devils, indicating thermal activity or wind along the sides of ridges.
Linda: Aside from Captains Mike Ely and Chesley Sullenberger, you may recognize the names of a few other well-known glider pilots. Adventurist Steve Fossett and actor Cliff Robertson were avid gliders and hotelman Barron Hilton has hosted the Barron Hilton Cup, a week-long gliding camp at his Flying M Ranch in Nevada annually since 1981.
Mike: In the Houston area there are two glider ports: the Soaring Club of Houston, near Hempstead, and the Greater Houston Soaring Association near Wallis. Both are places to start seeking out soaring adventures.