By Deana Carpenter
Photos by Katie Roupe
The Pittsburgh Soaring Club meets every weekend from April through September – weather permitting – at Bandel Airport near Eighty Four and the club, which has been around since 1964, boasts nearly 40 members.
Once up in the air with the help of a tow plane, pilots can “soar” for as long as they want.
“Once you launch, you can fly all day,” says Tom Stapleton of Highland Park, on a beautiful sunny mid-May day at Bandel Airport.
Stapleton, who has a Ph.D. in robotics, is the current president of the Pittsburgh Soaring Club. He’s been a member of the club since 2005 and been flying, or “gliding,” since 2003. Stapleton adds, the planes, referred to as either gliders, soarers or soarplanes, “are built to fly.”
The history of soaring started long ago in Europe and came to the states when Octave Chanute of Chicago, an engineer by trade, started experimenting with aeronautics after his retirement in 1889. According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, Chanute published a “groundbreaking book” called “Progress in Flying Machines” in 1894 and in 1896 in Dune Park, Ind., he began experimenting with gliders.
That same year, Chanute designed and built a series of gliders that were successfully flown by his assistant along the shore of Lake Michigan. Chanute also worked with the Wright Brothers, and in 1901, encouraged them in their gliding experiments. In fact, the Wright Brothers’ first planes were actually gliders.
Members of the Pittsburgh Soaring Club pay a membership fee, which allows them access to the club’s shared fleet, although many of the club’s members own their own planes.
“Owning an airplane is never cheap,” Stapleton says. However, it’s more economical than power flying, with planes ranging in price from $12,000 and upward. Currently, the club owns three sailplanes and a tow plane.
The club’s membership is mostly male, with just one female member right now, although according to club member Bill Frantz Jr., “Ladies tend to be better flyers.”
Mark Wilson of Mt. Lebanon is vice president of the club. A retired management consultant, he didn’t go for his gliding certificate until he was 60 years old. “It appeals to older folks,” Wilson says, because pilots don’t have to have regular medical tests to fly gliders like they do to fly powered planes.
Flight safety is primary, Wilson says. “We have elaborate safety hand signals,” when the planes are taking off.
Without a fuel-fired motor, one may be wondering how these sailplanes or gliders get off the ground – that’s where the help of a tow plane comes in. Frantz was piloting the tow plane that morning. The sailplane is attached to the tow plane plane by a long rope secured by a special hook – Stapleton says the glider is always behind the tow plane. When the desired altitude is reached by the glider pilot, the glider releases the rope.
“Soaring is like riding in a sled,” Stapleton says. “The speed in a glider is your energy.”
The typical height the pilot cuts loose from the tow plane is at about 4,200 feet, and most pilots fly at about 6,000 feet around Bandel Airport. The world record for a sailplane is 59,000 feet.
Once in the air, the pilot can glide the plane up and down like a sled, says Wilson, or the pilot can look for thermals to find more lift. The pilot keeps track of his airspeed and altitude by using a series of gauges in the plane’s cockpit. A string called a “yaw string” attached to the nose of the plane lets the pilot keep track of aerodynamics while in the air. Pilots in the club usually fly at a typical airspeed of about 50 miles per hour, because if one goes below 40 miles per hour, “you start to lose lift.”
“You’re not using a motor to keep yourself in the air,” Stapleton says, so one has to look for clues for where the thermals exist, like fluffy cumulus clouds. He adds, for every 1,000 feet up, there’s a loss in temperature of about four degrees Fahrenheit. So, on a hot day, when you’re 6,000 feet in the air, “there’s no air conditioning better,” Stapleton says.
Joe Venick of Rices Landing, Greene County, has been a member of the Pittsburgh Soaring Club for about two years and says of soaring, “the view is beautiful – very clear. You can see Downtown [Pittsburgh] and the Greene County Airport.”
“It’s much more three dimensional than a lot of other flying,” Stapleton says. “It’s just a remarkable visual experience. To me, soaring is the best blend of art, science and skill.”
Once up in the air, Stapleton says, “It seems like the plane doesn’t want to come down.” Once he’s finally done flying, to get back to the ground, he either flies out of the lift or pulls up on the plane’s spoilers, or air brakes.
As far as flying goes, Wilson says it’s very safe. He said folks as young as 14 can get their solo private pilot certificate from the FAA to fly sailplanes.
However, there is stringent testing. Would-be pilots have to take ground school and other training, pass a knowledge test, a practical test and an hour-long oral exam, as well as a flight test.
Al Bennett of Castle Shannon is a flight instructor and member of the soaring club. He jokes that he’s been flying since before he was born, because his parents were both pilots and operated an airport in New Jersey from 1934 to 1940. Bennett was the youngest person to complete a solo flight at age 11 – until his younger sister, Betty, trumped him and soloed at age 10 and landed in the pages of a 1952 issue of Life Magazine.
“I’ve always flown as part of work,” says Bennett, who worked for the California State Library System, and instead of driving to the libraries he needed to be at, he flew. His four children also know how to fly.
Brian Walsh of Green Tree recently joined the Pittsburgh Soaring Club. Walsh, a chemist by trade, has flown power planes since 1971 and says, “I’ve always had an interest in gliders, but never had the time.” Walsh finally made time and says the biggest difference is, “The fact that you don’t have the big windmill [the propeller] in front.”
Chuck Kraisinger of Saxonburg is also new to the club, although he, too, has always had an interest in flying. “I took lessons but never got my license. It’s a fun activity. I really don’t have any fear of these planes,” he says sitting, seatbelt on, in a training plane with Bennett in the seat behind him. “I feel quite safe.”
Eighteen-year-old Tyler Bowman of Waynesburg is going to school to become a commercial pilot and is also a new member of the soaring club. “My first flight was today,” Bowman says, adding because he had Bennett behind him, he had “no worries.”
“It was awesome being up there,” says Bowman, who was at first thinking about going to school to play baseball, but after talking with Joe Venick, a family friend, he decided he would try soaring.
“I’m not afraid of anything, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it,’” says Bowman. He says that mid-May day was his fourth time in the air other than flying in a commercial plane. “Gliding is insane – it’s completely different,” he says.
For more information, visit pittsburghsoaringclub.com.