"Now follow me through on the controls as I turn to Lake Henshaw…” I can feel him put in left stick and pedal.
“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.”
Bret Willat, checking wing camera : “How long can your bladder last? If there’s lift you can stay up indefinitely.”
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.”
“What’s a spin?”
“A spin is when the wings stall. When you get to what’s called ‘critical angle of attack,’ ” he demonstrates using a hand to represent an airplane climbing at an ever-steepening angle, “which is the angle at which the air goes over the wing but doesn’t produce any lift; that’s when the wing stalls, causing the nose to drop. What happens is one wing stalls just before the other wing. The other wing is producing just a minute amount of lift. That causes the rotation. So the nose drops and you have a rotation pretty much on the vertical access.”
It sounds crazy to me, but Garret assures me, “It’s not that big a deal. Spins are really mellow. Hollywood makes them out to be violent experiences, where the wings get ripped off and the plane disintegrates, but really it’s docile. You’re sitting in your seat and the horizon is going around in circles. You just stick forward, push on the opposite rudder pedal, the nose drops, the rotation stops, and you recover.”
Garret explains to Dan how to operate the parachute, and then the two of them pull the 600-pound plane out onto the runway. Garret walks backward, tugging on the nose; Dan holds the tip of the right wing. Meanwhile, Willat taxis the tow plane — a high-wing, tail-wheeled Piper Supercub — from its parking spot at the far east end of the east-west runway, dragging 200 feet of quarter-inch yellow polypropylene rope. At the loose end of the rope a softball-size Wiffle ball bounces along. When the tow plane stops about 80 feet in front of the sailplane, Garret takes the ball and pulls from within it a metal ring attached to the rope with a bowline knot. He brings the ring to the nose of the sailplane. “Open,” he says to Dan, who pulls a hardball-size knob on the dashboard. This opens a jaw-like hook on the underside of the plane, about a foot back from the nose. Garret slips on the ring.
“Close.” Dan pushes the knob back in, the hook closes around the ring. Meanwhile, the tow pilot, a tall, dark-haired man in his early 20s, runs out of the office. He’s ten minutes late. “Come on, Garret,” he jokes as he climbs into the tow plane. “What’s taking you so long?”
With Dan in the front seat, Garret in the back, they lower the canopy over the cockpit. Dan pushes alternately on the pedals, moving the rudder in the vertical stabilizer back and forth. The tow-plane pilot responds with his rudder and starts to move forward slowly until the rope is stretched tight. He then gradually accelerates until the two planes and the rope between them are racing down the runway. Three seconds before the tow plane lifts off, the sailplane jumps into the air. In a few more seconds, the rumbling sound of the tow plane’s engine has become inaudible. I take my eyes off them for five seconds to tie a shoelace, and when I look up again, I can’t find them in the wide expanse of sky over the airport. But ten minutes later, while looking east toward the 6000-foot ridge seven or eight miles away, I see the tow plane and glider moving west toward the airport. When the plane banks left and the glider right, I know Dan has pulled the tow- release knob, and he and Garret are now soaring.
Minutes later, Dan and Garret glide in for a landing, which looks remarkably smooth. The sailplane seemed to float a foot off the ground for 200 yards before gently setting down on its single wheel.
For Garret’s next flight, he parks the white sailplane and pulls out an orange-and-yellow high-wing model. His passenger is a man about 65 named Jim Dewey. “I’m from Oklahoma,” Jim tells me. “I have a small business jet, and I flew some people into town here for a little vacation.”
“What attraction could a sailplane hold for someone who flies jets?” I ask.
“I just love to fly,” he answers, “and this is a different type of flight. You don’t have an engine to rely on. You adjust everything — descent, ascent, speed of the aircraft — with your hands and feet. It’s a challenge.”
After Jim and Garret take off, Willat, who has come out of the office, picks up Jim’s theme. “Flying sailplanes,” he says as we stand on the runway and watch the tow plane and glider ascend in a slow right turn, “is the best way to learn how to fly because your stick and rudder, which are your main controls in any airplane, are going to be learned a lot better in a sailplane than in an engine-powered airplane.”
“Is that because they’re more responsive in a sailplane?”
“No,” he answers, “it’s actually a little less responsive in some respects because you’ve got great big wings, and to get them moving it takes more coordinated work between your hands and your feet. In an airplane, the rudder pedals are used for takeoff and landing. You need to use them all the time in the glider.”
“How long can you stay up there?”
“How long can your bladder last?” he responds. “If there’s lift you can stay up indefinitely.”
“Lift,” Willat explains, “is upward-moving air. If you find it in a sailplane, you can actually gain altitude. There are basically four different types of lift, and we have them all here.” He holds his hand three inches above the dirt at the edge of the runway. “If you feel the dirt here, it’s hot because of the sun shining on it. The hot dirt warms the air above it, and it forms kind of a bubble of warm air. A little bit of wind breaks that bubble loose. When it breaks loose, the warm air, which is lighter than the cooler air around it, goes up until it cools off. That’s called a thermal. When we find the thermal up in the sailplane, we circle in it, riding it up.”
“Like a hawk?”
“Just like a hawk. Another kind of lift, which I mentioned earlier, is shear. When two air masses meet there is often an upwelling. We have that here because of the coastal and desert influences. There’s also ridge lift, which happens when wind hits a ridge and rises up over it.” He turns all the way around, pointing at the horizon. “You can see we’re surrounded by mountains here so there is plenty of ridge lift. Then, there’s what we call mountain waves, which come from large air masses pushing against high mountains. On the lee side of the mountains, the side that’s sheltered from the wind, big waves of air form and you can ride them up. We get some of that here too.”
As we talk, Garret and Jim sail straight overhead, perpendicular to the runway. The sailplane makes a low whisper, like wind in the mouth of a cave, as it glides over. Once they clear the field, they circle around to the left and land. After touchdown, the aircraft rides on its one wheel for a few hundred feet, then the nose drops and a metal plate underneath slows the plane down to a stop, right out in front of the office. Jim climbs out with a big smile on his face. Garret follows.
“Now, you and I are going to go up,” Willat tells me.
At rest, with nobody in it, a sailplane sits in a two-point stance on its wheel under the fuselage and one or the other of the wingtips, each of which is fitted with a small, spring-mounted wheel. Before I climb in, Willat stands at the nose of the craft, pushing it downward onto the skid. When I climb into the front seat, my weight holds the nose down. Willat walks around to the right side of the plane, and, leaning in, helps me fasten the four-point seat belt. That done, he runs me through a quick familiarization with the controls. Directly in front of me, coming up from the floor to about stomach height, is the stick. It’s an inglorious-looking metal tube with a hard rubber bicycle grip on top; no molded finger slots, no trigger. My feet rest on the wide rudder pedals. The dash of the plane is very simple: airspeed indicator, altimeter, and a variometer, which shows the rate of climb or fall. “A sailplane always goes down at about 200 to 300 feet a minute.” Willat taps the variometer, “But if we find some lift, you’ll see this go up to zero or above if we’re actually climbing.”
In the middle of the dash is the tow-release knob. “Don’t pull that before I tell you to,” Willat jokes, “or we’ll have a short ride.”
The last thing Willat shows me is a lever on the left wall of the cockpit. “That’s the trim,” he explains. “You see, pilots are lazy, otherwise we’d have real jobs, right? So we have this trim lever, which we keep full forward during takeoff and tow and then pull back two or three notches after release. What that does is relieve some of the fore and aft pressure that you’d otherwise have to hold with the stick.”
Willat walks around to the nose of the plane. “Open,” he says. I pull the release knob. “Close,” he says after inserting the metal ring of the tow rope. Then he moves around the right side of the plane and climbs into the backseat of the cockpit. “Okay, I’m going to close this canopy. It looks like it’s going to crush your head, but it’s an optical illusion. Put your hand up there and feel how much space there is.”
I do and I’m surprised to find a foot between me and the top of the Plexiglas bubble. While he was closing it, it looked as if I was going to have to slide down in my seat to avoid being thumped.
Willat has me give the rudder signal to the tow pilot, parked across the runway from us. He signals back and begins to roll slowly. When the rope tightens, the sailplane begins to slide forward on the metal skid plate, but after a few feet it sits up on its wheel and we’re racing down the runway and…lift off….
“Look at the trees,” Willat says after my initial exhilaration of taking off subsides. “They just changed color. I love this time of year.”
The tow plane pulls us up at about 400 feet per minute in a slow right turn. I’ve got my right hand on the stick, my feet on the rudder pedals, and I can feel Willat moving them on his duplicate controls in the backseat, holding the sailplane in a tow position behind and a bit above the tow plane. Below us, Highway 79 snakes its way north toward Temecula and south to Santa Ysabel. To the left and straight ahead, the mountains loom up. Below to the right, the town of Warner Springs sits at the northwest corner of the broad, grassy San Jose Valley. Serpentine lines of trees follow the paths of the creeks and rivers that water this land. They all flow toward Lake Henshaw, which sits behind and right of us, to the southwest. “To the left,” Willat says, “is No-Name Mountain. It has no name. Straight ahead is Hot Springs Peak, which is the highest peak in San Diego County. That’s the one we’re going to. It’s about 6500 feet. We’re going to release just over that. Okay, go ahead and try towing.”
I feel the stick and pedals go dead as Willat releases them to my control. Immediately the glider starts to slide to the right, and I overcorrect back to the left. Willat laughs in the backseat. “Now, there’s no way you’re going to do this,” he says as he takes control again. “This is the hardest part of flying a sailplane, staying on tow. It usually takes about a dozen flights before you can stay behind the tow plane. It’s very hard at the beginning, then all of a sudden it’s very easy.”
As we near Hot Springs Peak, the tow-plane pilot turns us to the right, still climbing. “Look at all the haze down the hill, ” Willat says, using the backcountry expression for the west side of San Diego County, “and it’s perfect up here.”
After a short southward jog, we turn right again coming all the way around to a northeast heading. Now we’re a few hundred feet higher than the top of the peak. “Okay,” Willat instructs, “get ready to pull the release and…pull!”
I pull the knob on the dash straight out, the tow plane banks away to the left, Willat banks the glider to the right over the ridge. “We’re going to circle around here for a little bit,” he says, banking the sailplane around the craggy Hot Springs Peak. Sitting on a westward rock promontory is a 50-foot wooden watchtower.
“Isn’t that neat?” he asks. “It’s an old fire watch tower. I don’t think it’s been used in the last 20 or 30 years.”
Willat circles the peak a couple of times, then he has me set the trim. While I’m pulling the lever back, I hear him on the radio to the office ordering a turkey club on toasted rye. “I’ll have one of those too,” I say.
“Make it two,” he says.
“Roger,” a feminine voice responds.
“Okay, Ernie, your ship,” Willat tells me, and I feel him let go of the stick. We’re heading south, just west of the ridge line at even altitude with it. “A little easier to fly now, isn’t it? Okay, let’s go back to the left, clear right, clear left, clear ahead, so go left foot and left stick…okay…now neutral, everything back to the middle, notice it’s still turning…. Now right stick, right pedal. Let’s go a little bit more to the right.”
As we turn, we clear a rock outcropping by what looks to me to be about 100 feet.
“More like 40 or 50 feet,” Willat says.
As we glide over a canyon in the mountainside, I feel a surge from below. “Look at the variometer,” Willat says, “we’re going up right now.”
I look and the gauge reads 300 above zero, meaning we’re going up at 300 feet per minute. “Is that from the wind rushing up that canyon?” I ask.
“Exactly,” Willat answers. “A little bit of wind being forced uphill by these mountains. On a good day, we find lots of lift like that and we can stay up all day. It’s not unusual to stay up five or six hours in sailplanes.”
“As a pilot, where do you want to search for lift?”
“Every day is different,” he answers. “It’s more of an art form than a science.”
After three or four passes up and down the ridge, Willat puts the plane on a westward heading, back toward the airport. “You can see Lake Henshaw ahead to the left,” he says, “and there’s a bald spot on the mountain straight ahead. Now follow me through on the controls as I turn to Lake Henshaw…” I can feel him put in left stick and pedal, “…and now back to the bald spot. Did you feel how I used both hands and feet to do that? Now I want you to do it, back and forth between the lake and the bald spot, using hands and feet in coordination.”
I start my leftward turn. “This is called a point-to-point exercise, and it’s a good way to get you to start using your hands and feet in coordination. Okay, you’re overshooting.”
More than overshooting, I’ve overshot so far that we’re now traveling east instead of west. I start to laugh, so does Willat. “That’s okay,” he says, taking the controls and putting the glider back on its westward course, “it takes practice. Try it again. Your ship.”
I take the controls again, and my next set of turns are much better. Where before I had a white-knuckle grip on the stick, now I’ve got only my index finger around it and my thumb on top. And I’m using only toe pressure, as opposed to a full stomp, on the rudder pedals. “I’m starting to get the subtlety of it,” I say.
“It is subtle, isn’t it?” Willat responds. “There’s a finesse to it.”
After we pass by the field to the north, Willat says, “Okay, I’ve got the controls. Follow me through as we roll into a steep turn. This will show you how maneuverable this plane is.”
With that, he puts the plane in a diving, very tight left turn. “You could turn over someone’s backyard in this thing,” he says.
As he pulls out of the turn, I feel a momentary heaviness in my sinuses. “That was the G pressure,” he explains. “In a 60-degree bank turn, we pull about two Gs. Now we’re going to speed up a little.” He puts the plane in a little dive then pulls up. “You can feel the G pressure. Now we’re going to go zero Gs.” As the plane is climbing, he sticks forward so it peaks over and starts falling. I feel my stomach rise up into my throat and my body lifting up against my seat belt straps.
“Whoo-hoo!” I yell. “That’s fantastic!”
Willat’s laughing in the backseat. “Isn’t that wild? That’s what astronauts feel like all of the time.”
Willat steers the sailplane parallel to the south side of the runway, then circles around to the left to land. “You hear people say,” he effects a whining tone, “ ‘Oh, you only have one chance to land in a sailplane.’ But, because of the maneuverability of the sailplane and the slow speeds, if you give me a ten-foot circle, I can touch down every single time in it. And if I want to end up in a certain spot, I can roll out and end up within inches of that spot, every single time.”
With that, Willat brings the sailplane out of its descending left turn, lines it up with the runway, and sets it down without a bounce. After 100 yards or so, the nose drops and the metal skid slows the plane down to a stop, right where we started.