"Being able to go out by myself and get some lift and stay up for an hour or more. It's just great!" Tom Park is describing soaring. A recreational activity in which pilots fly without an engine, is less than a century old. A better understanding of how our atmosphere works has made it possible, and it starts with something millions of miles away....the sun. Its' rays heat the earth's surface, creating rising pockets of warm air, called thermals. But not all thermals are created equal. Urban areas, roadways and dark earth, such as forests, absorb more sunlight and thus create stronger thermals
"When I was fourteen years old and the family drove by a glider site, up in Elmira, NY. I was hooked! I've been flying gliders ever since." John Noss was a pilot in the air force, flying F-15's and he's a veteran in the soaring community.
We board his glider at the Front Royal airport. It's here I should note, you do need an aircraft with an engine, to tow the glider into the air initially. But at 3,000 feet, we separate. John heads towards the mountains, where trees are abundant, in hopes of finding thermals. You know instantly when you're in one. It feels like hitting strong turbulence. Flying in a tight circle within the thermal, it's up and up we go. Advances in lighter materials and stronger wings have allowed for flights hundreds of miles long and heights of.... "21,300 feet." That's the highest altitude John has climbed in a thermal.
"The one thing that continues to amaze me about these gliders, you'd think that over 100 years ago the Wright Brothers were trying to fly a glider a couple of hundred of feet for a few seconds. We can go up in these things and stay in there for hours. In a hundred years, we've come a long way in aviation, particularly in gliders," Tom adds.
The views offered by soaring are next to none. Skyline drive.....the Shenandoah river winding through Warren county......the Blue Ridge Mountains like I've never seen them before. After a half hour in the glider we begin our descent. Like a 1,000 pound brick falling from the sky, we only get one shot at landing. It's hard to do it gracefully when your runway is a strip of grass but John does it like a pro.
Thermals are not always invisible to the human eye. Cumulus clouds, those puffy cotton ball clouds you find on sunny day, are a result of thermals. Also, keep an eye out for birds. When they begin circling over an area, it's a sure sign they are also in a thermal.
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