Get your glide on at Eastern Soaring Center in Petersburg.
A couple years ago, I was driving through Petersburg. It was a beautiful and crisp day cast in the green sheen of spring, and I spotted a sleek white sailplane elegantly dancing in the sky. I pulled off on the side of the road and watched as it dipped and climbed, gracefully performing figure eights. It was alone in the wild expanse of blue, sailing the sky over imaginary waves. I knew right then, I had to try it. What I didn’t know was that those waves weren’t imaginary.
Motorless glider planes or sailplanes are the aircraft used in the sport of gliding. Although these slender, bullet-like aircraft have been popular since the 1920s, they are beginning to see a resurgence.
Take a drive through Grant County on a weekend and look up. The Grant County Airport has become a hub for soaring. Many soaring clubs use it as a base. Just ask Brian Collins, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and owner of Eastern Soaring Center, why he landed in Petersburg. He’ll say the waves brought him.
“This is a really great place for flying—one of the best spots on the East Coast,” he says. “We have great thermals during the spring, summer, and fall, and from the fall through the spring, we have what is called Mountain Wave. It’s when the wind blows strong through the west and creates a literal wave in the sky. You can literally surf up over 20,000 feet high.”
And then there’s the unrivaled scenic beauty—another major draw. If you think West Virginia is beautiful by land, you should see it from the air. After a glider experience, you’ll know why eagles spend so much time flying.
The other necessary ingredients for good gliding are the ridges. When the westerly flow of air pushes against the ridge, it creates a lift. “We have great lifts and thermals. Good hills and plains are essential to creating the two forms of lift and to have the Mountain Wave,” Collins says. “This place is special.”
When Collins was searching for a spot to retire to, he fell in love with Petersburg. “The Grant County Airport was a big draw for me. It was not commercially busy—quiet enough and big enough to be able to run a business giving tours and lessons, and it has a long and flat grassy airstrip to accommodate my winch launching system.”
Winch? Think slingshot—sort of. You aren’t catapulted in the air like a Warner Bros. cartoon, but the technique takes you from 0 to 60 mph in as little as 1.6 seconds, like a drag racer. Collins’ winch uses a mile-long cable that is connected to a stationary engine, which winds the cable around a drum at lightning speeds. While some glider planes are towed into the air by biplanes and then released once they have reached a certain height, Collins has the only commercial operation in the mid-Atlantic region exclusively offering winch launching. It allows him to book tours or lessons without the need to involve another plane or pilot. “Our operation is modeled after successful winch operations at nearly a dozen other U.S. public airports, and it is based on industry-standard winch operation procedures in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Australia,” he says.
Rest assured, this pilot knows what he is doing. Before Collins launched the Eastern Soaring Center, he was a glider instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Since then he has accumulated more than 2,700 hours and 6,000 flights in gliders, including thousands of cross-country miles. He has set over 20 state and two national records.
I admit, it is a bit unnerving when you think about being so high in the sky with no engine or gas, with only Mother Nature as the fuel. When I express concern about heights, Collins quickly puts me at ease. “Believe it or not, I’m afraid of heights,” he says. “This won’t bother you at all. When you aren’t connected to the ground, your body doesn’t respond like it would if you were standing on the top of a building. You’ll have no sensation of heights.”
He was right. Take me to the top of a 30-story building and my knees will buckle. Put me in an engineless sailplane 3,000 feet in the air and I’m fine.
We walk the ultra light Twin Lark glider with its 57-foot wingspan to the end of the runway, where it is connected to the winch with a rope. I climb into the front seat as if it is a skinny bathtub. We pull the plexiglass top of the narrow cockpit down until we are fully enclosed. Collins assigns me a job. “Your responsibility is to be on the lookout for birds or other planes. We don’t want to hit them,” he says. I take my job very seriously.
Collins gives the signal and the winch rockets us up into the sky. When we reach about 2,000 feet, Collins releases the cable and it drops back to the ground using a parachute. Once we level off, the mountains roll out beneath me. The 360-degree views are pristine—forested ridges, rocky crags, the North Branch of the Potomac River snaking its way through a variegated green patchwork of fields, and Dolly Sods and Seneca Rocks looming in the distance.
But the most striking thing—there is no noise.
No engine grumble.
No humming of traffic.
That’s when you realize how noisy life is.
“Where there’s lift, there has to be sink,” Collins says, bringing me back to reality. We swoop to the left. We swoop to the right, looking for thermals to take us higher and higher. Not finding them, we start our descent.
I clench my teeth, expecting to be rattled when we land belly-down on grass, but the landing was as smooth as butter—not anything like the landing of commercial planes. It was so smooth, in fact, I wasn’t even convinced we had really landed.
Eastern Soaring Center’s location makes it the closest year-round, weekday, and weekend operation serving Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Northern Virginia, and the surrounding areas. You’ll need to make reservations, and flights are dependent on weather. A 10- to 15-minute ride will cost around $125, and a 20-to-25-minute ride will cost $175—and if you ask me, it is worth every dime. If the weather is questionable, you’ll want to call ahead before departing to confirm field conditions. You can even purchase a gift certificate—it makes a unique gift. Mention WV Living magazine and you’ll even get a 10 percent discount!
written and photographed by Nikki Bowman