“Wow” is all I can say when the engineless glider I’m sitting in springs from the runway into the sky above the Warner Springs Airport, several seconds before the single-engine tow plane lifts off the runway. No number of airline takeoffs could prepare me for this feeling. In a jumbo jet, the sensation is that the heavy machine would rather stay on the ground but the awesome power of the engines pulls the reluctant behemoth into the air. The glider feels like a living thing born to soar through the air. Bret Willat, whose company, Sky Sailing, owns the glider, says from the backseat, “Isn’t that an amazing feeling? There’s nothing like it.”
Technically, it’s not a glider I’m riding in, but a sailplane. Earlier, Willat explained, “The difference is, we consider a glider as having a glide ratio of 20:1 or lower; that means for every 20 feet forward, it falls one foot. And a sailplane has a glide ratio of better than 20:1.”
We’re sitting in the houselike building on the north side of the Warner Springs Airport that serves as Sky Sailing’s office. Aviation posters hang on all the walls. “Most of the gliders,” Willat continues, “are going to be a lot less refined. They’re not going to be as aerodynamic, not going to be as aesthetically pleasing, not as sleek as sailplanes. But the FAA calls them all gliders so the terms are somewhat interchangeable.”
Willat, 47, stands about six feet tall, has blond-going-gray hair, and a brush mustache. He speaks in a friendly, direct manner, explaining things clearly with a minimum of jargon. He’s been “soaring,” as the sport of glider flying is known, since he was a teenager in the high-desert town of Hesperia. “The school I went to offered a soaring program,” Willat says, before being interrupted by two of his dogs, one a boxer, the other a golden retriever, sparring noisily on the carpet a few feet away. “Throw them out, would you, Garret?”
Garret, Willat’s 18-year-old son, hops up, opens the front door, and commands the dogs, “Pugsley, Chandelle, out!”
Pugsley and Chandelle scurry out to continue their scrapping on the porch. “That’s better,” Willat says. “Now, where was I… So I started flying sailplanes when I was 14. You can solo at the age of 14, by the way. I soloed just after I turned 15.” (To solo is to fly for the first time without an instructor. In engined aircraft you must be 16 to solo.)
Asked when he decided to make a career out of soaring, Willat laughs. “I’ve never made it a career. In 1971 I went to the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was injured while I was there and discharged as a disabled veteran. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I always loved flying, and I found out that the G.I. Bill would allow me to keep flying. So I started flying out of Flabob Airport in Riverside. I got my commercial rating, my flight-instruction certification, and all that stuff. Then I went back to college at San Jose State and started flight instructing there full-time. That’s how I put myself through school. At that time, the Sky Sailing airport in Fremont was looking to sell. So I went up there and started working as a flight instructor and later as the airport manager. Then I told the owner, a guy named Bud Murphy, ‘I want you to know I’m really looking at this as a possible purchase.’ My father had passed away and left me some funds. Bud said, ‘That’s fine.’ So my wife-to-be, Karen, and I bought Sky Sailing in 1979.”
After being married — in a three-seat sailplane — in 1980, the Willats continued running Sky Sailing in Fremont until 1989, when the owners of the land the airport sat on decided to develop it.
“They wanted us off the land right away,” Willat recalls. “For a while we thought we’d build a glider port in the Santa Clara Mountains. But then we were contacted by the Soaring Society of America, who told us the Warner Ranch was looking for an established commercial venture to take over their airport. We visited, saw how wonderful it was, put in a bid, and won it.”
In Warner Springs, they had landed an area that Willat describes as “one of the best sites for soaring in the world.”
What makes it so wonderful?
“The weather,” Willat answers. “This valley, which is called the San Jose Valley, is very beautiful, but it also has perfect weather for soaring. It’s just the right distance from both the coast and the desert. What happens is the coastal and desert air masses meet right here. That causes wind shear, which we use to ride in the sailplanes. And our elevation [2885 feet above sea level] and the surrounding hills keep the fog and the smog out, so the sky is almost always clear here year-round.”
Willat estimates that only five days out of every year does weather or lack of visibility keep Sky Sailing from flying. While he completes paperwork, he sends me outside to hear a preflight instruction, which Garret, a certified flight instructor himself, is giving to a student named Dan, who drove down from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to take sailplane instruction. I find the two of them near a white sailplane parked along the north side of the runway. Dan, about 40, in shorts and a baseball cap, is walking around the sleek aircraft. The long, thin wings span 60 feet, and the cylindrical fuselage is about 25 feet long. “Dan is preflighting,” Garret, tall and thin with floppy blond hair, explains. “He’s making sure the sailplane is safe to fly, checking the surfaces, making sure everything is connected and nothing is out of order. Now I have to go over parachute stuff.”
“Parachutes?” I wasn’t expecting parachutes.
“Normally you don’t wear parachutes in gliders,” he explains, “but we’re doing spins today, which, technically speaking, are aerobatics, so we have to wear parachutes.”