At 2,000 feet above Utah’s lush Heber Valley the Schwiezer 233 glider hangs behind its tow plane like a fine, long-winged falcon effortlessly pursuing a frantic pigeon. Then, with an audible bump, the sailplane releases the 200-foot fiber cord that binds it to its motorized helpmate. The tow plane banks hard to the left, revs its engine, and drops away. The sailplane pilot is left alone—alone with the whistling against the canopy, the invisible air currents, and the translucent blue of the sky.

Slipping along at 40 miles per hour, the knowledgeable pilot scans the landscape for signposts of soaring currents. He notices several: the slope of the nearby mountains, the dark alfalfa patch absorbing heat faster than surrounding pastures, and the hovering cumulus cloud capping a warm, moist updraft. His training reminds him that encounters with these shafts of rising air will lift his craft in direct proportion to its wing size and speed and the density of the air itself.

Suddenly he notices his instruments indicating a significant “thermal.” Up the warm air takes him, his plane climbing in slow, deliberate spirals. At 3,500 feet he holds her steady and peers at the countryside below. The roads seem to be careful checkering on the verdant fabric of corn patches, rectangular barns, and manicured villages of whitewashed homes. Cattle meander like red beetles across the scene.

Eventually, with evening approaching, the pilot’s imagination runs low on games to play with the clouds. Dipping the plane’s slim nose, he silently surrenders to the night and takes her down.

Motorless, totally-free flight has been a vision of man as long as he has been able to dream. But it wasn’t until 1891 that anyone achieved any real success with soaring principles. After careful study of those masterful fliers, the storks, in his native Germany, Otto Lilienthal launched the world’s most famous glider. Made from willow rods and waxed fabric, the craft was a far cry from today’s sleek aluminum planes. Lilienthal flew his masterpiece off a 50-foot homemade tower and glided 232 feet. The accomplishment is all the more impressive considering that in order to control the plane, Lilienthal stood on the shaky fuselage with his arms thrust through padded holes in the wings. By constantly and carefully shifting his weight, a semblance of stable flight was attained.

Inspired by the German’s success, the Wright brothers in 1911 took time out from their motorized-flight experiments to set a soaring record that went unsurpassed for ten years. The flight lasted nine minutes and 45 seconds. In comparison, the current record is a flight that lasted for nearly a day and covered 716 miles.

By the 1920s glider competition was the rage in Europe. The highly dedicated German fliers soon discovered that precise analyses of weather and topographical factors could aid in longer flights. These daring pilots flew over the alps by riding the updrafts along the mountain walls or the turbulence ahead of thunderstorms.

Today’s soaring, while just as thrilling as that of 50 years ago, is far less hazardous. Advanced aerodynamic designing has produced planes that combine excellent performance with exceptional safety. Insurance statistics indicate that the only safer mode of transportation is the bicycle. To quote Bruce Timpe, former California soaring instructor and presently a corporate pilot, “The typical glider cruises at 40 miles per hour. Should any trouble develop, the pilot can turn into the wind and come in at an easy 20 miles per hour. This eliminates many of the accidents that can accompany power planes.”

Because of the sport’s built-in safety factor, plus its air of personal challenge, soaring is rapidly catching on with youth groups worldwide. College clubs, particularly, contract with able flight schools for expert instruction. Ground school is taught concurrently with in-flight instruction, and the student can progress as rapidly as he chooses.

A Federal Aviation Administration soaring license is the reward for diligent study and practice. But there are side benefits too. If the fledgling pilot decides to work toward his power license, his soaring hours will fill up to one-half of the necessary power plane hours. The best benefit, however, is an intangible one. What kind of fliers do glider pilots make? “Good ones!” claims professional Bruce Timpe. “Soaring teaches attitude flying. I’ve never met a bad power plane pilot who had previously been a glider pilot.”

Photography by Gene Strate