The goal is just to soar.
“You’re sure there’s nothing religious about this?” I ask the young woman who has spent the last thirty minutes of breakfast trying to sell me on her sport. Kassie, as she prefers to be called, is the type of Vermont girl who straightens her hair and wears pantsuits. She still puts maple syrup on her eggs.
“No,” she says, laughing.
Soaring, known varyingly as gliding and sailplane flying, is the sport of flying engineless aircraft. It differs from proper flying in that, while with the latter the goal is often to get somewhere, with the former the goal is just to, well, soar. A powered airplane, usually a small single engine, tows the gliders up to an altitude of several thousand feet. There, they are released. People who soar are a lot like surfers. Only instead of riding waves, they ride the air currents created by differences in pressure and temperature. In the right weather, the talented ones can stay aloft for hours.
Kassie has been soaring for a little over a year. “Things can get really hectic down here,” she says as she gestures to the noisy diner that surrounds us. “The best part of soaring is how peaceful it is. Sometimes, I forget I don’t have an engine. I’ve been up there so long.”
The soaring club is at Post Mills, Vermont, a grass strip tucked into the mountains half an hour up Interstate 91, next to a cemetery and Little League field and right across the street from a church. The airport, which is what one calls a place like Post Mills even though the runways are marked only by the occasional orange traffic cone and a slightly shorter cut of grass, has no fences. It is privately owned by a balloon pilot/inventor/artist figure named Bryan Boland, who allows his 52-acre property to be used for landing airplanes. Runway lights, markings, and taxiways—Post Mills has none of these. What it does have are barn hangars with about a dozen aircraft, and several cottages in the trees alongside the runways. You can rent the cottages for $70 a night. Bryan’s home is on the property, connected to a 200-foot long barn that houses his “Experimental Air Museum,” a dusty and psychotic collection of everything from thousands of beer bottles to, ostensibly, a tire from the space shuttle, to dozens of fans and sewing machines.
Then there’s the Vermontasauras, which is some combination of folk art, nuisance and gross zoning irregularity, depending on who you ask. Bryan built the Vermontasaurus in 2010, with scrapwood and the help of over a hundred volunteers. The whole process took around a week. The finished product is 25 feet high and 122 feet long and looks, roughly, like a dinosaur. It quickly aroused complaints. Neighbors objected to the aesthetics and the potential increase in traffic. The town of Thetford was upset because nobody bothered to ask it for a permit. The State of Vermont worried about environmental violations. The controversy touched off by the Vermontasaurus spilled across the pages of the local daily. Headlines included, “Barnzilla Meets Act 250,” and “Stalking Dinosaurs: Vermont Takes Aim at Post Mills.” Twice, it seemed the law would require Bryan to tear his creation down, but he squirmed away. He added a baby Vermontasaurus next to the big one.
I arrive just after noon on a Wednesday. Kassie told me there’d be gliders going up. It’s May and sunny, but spring has been slow to come this year. There are hardly buds on the trees. I park my car next to the Vermontasauras and walk onto the field where a man stands over a single glider. The man is tall, with grey hair and white New Balance sneakers. He introduces himself to me as Keith. The glider’s pilot is Moche, who I take to be a small bearded Frenchman.
The glider looks like a needle with wings, where the Plexiglas cockpit is the eye. When it isn’t flying, it rests with one wing on the ground. From the grass to the top of the cockpit can’t be more than three feet.
Moche decides he’s ready. Keith attaches a yellow rope to the front of the glider. The other end connects to a white and orange tandem Cessna tow plane —the Leaping Lena. Andy, the Lena’s pilot, gives a thumbs up and fires his engine. He taxis onto the runway. The yellow rope snakes over the ground. The rope becomes taut. Keith grabs onto one of the glider’s wings and runs alongside as the glider picks up speed. He releases his hold. The plane lifts off. Behind it, the glider pops off the ground. One second it’s being towed, the next it’s bounced twenty feet into the air. Keith and I watch the plane climb, glider wafting behind it. At two thousand feet, Andy rolls out of the traffic pattern and starts to fly back towards us. The glider peels away to the north. Aerial mitosis.
The Lena lands. Andy starts to wash the windshield. He is short, with very reflective sunglasses.
“I was wondering if I could get a ride,” I say.
“Not today,” Andy says. The only people flying today are club members who own their own gliders.
“Could he maybe get a ride in the Schweizer?” Keith asks. The Schweizer 2-33 is a training glider owned by the club. Moche’s glider was small and light. The Schweitzer looks like a bus.
“Can’t today.” Andy ties the Lena down and puts a cover over the windows. He tells me to show up on Sunday.
“I’m going to put you to work.” Keith says. He walks over to a Club Car that the soaring club uses to tow gliders when they’re on the ground. Keith has to pick up a second cart down at the end of one of the runways. He wants me to go with him so that I can drive one of the carts back. We get to the second cart. Keith climbs in. He doesn’t go anywhere. He asks me what I’m writing about. I tell him romance. Flying.
“You should get into how these guys are micrometeorologists.”
Much of the sport of soaring has to do with reading weather patterns. All aircraft perform differently depending on what the air is doing, but this is especially true of gliders because they have no engines. Glider pilots search the air for lift. It’s the only way they can stay in the air. Today is almost cloudless, save for a few of what Keith calls “puffies.” The updrafts, called thermals, will be small but plentiful. Lenticular soaring would be different. In that, glider pilots seek out clouds that look like giant pancakes. If a glider pilot catches a lenticular updraft, he might “ride the elevator” up to 30,000 feet.
Keith doesn’t really soar. He hasn’t been active in the club for the last few years, and he’s always been more an airplane pilot, anyways. He talks about the club members as if they’re a different species. Most of the guys flying at the moment will be up for hours. “They really are as free as a bird,” Keith says. “Sometimes, you’ll get a hawk off the side. He’ll look at you like, ‘You’re way bigger, but this is my territory. And that’s my mouse.’”
Keith takes me over to the barn hangars, to show me his airplane. “See anyone coming?” he asks before flooring the cart across the runway.
The barn hangars don’t just contain airplanes. One of them has a pontoon boat constructed out of empty Home Depot paint buckets.
A man walks around the corner of one of the barns. He’s even taller than Keith, and strong even though well into his sixties. Nathan. Nathan and Keith catch up – they haven’t seen each other for a long time – mostly by talking about the difficulty of finding good fuel at a grass airport. Keith has been using motogas of late (an unalcoholed version of what goes in cars) even though AVGAS, 100 octane low-lead, would be best. But AVGAS is expensive and it doesn’t flow at Post Mills.
Nathan’s airplane is a blue Piper Tri-Pacer PA-22. The PA-22 is a derivative of the Piper PA-20, which is the exact same airplane except for the fact it’s a tail-dragger. The PA-22 is a nose wheel. Its struts look unsteady, like a newborn colt.
Otherwise, the plane seats 4, with a 135 horsepower Lycoming engine. The wings are thick and stubby, spanning only 28 feet. The cowlings are off, so the engine is exposed, with cobwebs. I poke my head in the interior. The floor is covered in screws and tree byproducts. The ceiling is water damaged. Nathan can’t remember the last time he started the plane.
“What are you gonna do with the old monster?” Keith asks.
“Sell it. But right now I can’t even figure out how to get it out.” Nathan points to two sets of 2x4s that have been installed to support the roof of the barn hangar during the winter snows. They’re caging in his plane.
“I’ll go get a claw hammer,” says Keith. He drives off in his cart.
The 2x4s are attached to a wooden base cemented into the ground. We try to pull the beams down but the tops are still tied to the roof. We find an empty chemical drum of Harley Davidson Formula +. We drag it next to the first beam so that someone can climb to reach the top. Nathan helps me stand on the drum. I detach the beams.
“I smell some bad gas,” says Keith, sniffing the air.
“That’s because that’s what’s in there,” says Nathan. Nathan isn’t sure if he’ll be able to get the Pacer to start. He attaches a tow bar to the front wheel and pulls it out. The plane follows Nathan like a small and loyal dog. Such a wreck. Five years from now, it’s just as likely to be scrapped for parts as it is to still be flying.
Keith and I leave Nathan to clean his engine. Keith has his own plane to start. It’s a white and blue 1964 Cessna 172, a common, single propeller plane that seats four. Like Nathan’s Pacer, Keith’s Cessna hasn’t been fired up yet this year. Unlike Nathan’s Pacer, it’s in excellent shape.
Keith needs to put nitrogen in his front tire. In order to do this, he needs the Cessna’s nose to come off the ground, which can be accomplished by putting a large amount of pressure on the tail area.
“Put your hands here and here,” he says as he places his left hand on the ridge of the tail and his right hand on the horizontal stabilizer (the part parallel to the ground). In a swift motion, Keith throws his weight, pushing the tail down and seesawing up the nose. I try to mimic the placement of his hands. “Move your right hand in closer. There’s a rib in the tail that will support it.”
Keith walks to the front of the plane and hooks a small canister of nitrogen up to the tire. “Now.”
I push down. The tail gives an inch. Then, it sticks there. I push harder, throwing my entire upper body into the motion. The tail gives a few more inches. It snaps back up. So you want to fight? I take a few deep breaths, shaking out my arms. I shift my weight over my toes. I tighten my core. I flex my legs. And I push. Slowly, the tail begins to move. I curl my toes into the ground, even though I’m wearing sneakers. I push some more. And I reach critical mass. After a continual build up of resistance, the tail accelerates downwards. It goes limp and settles a foot above the ground. I throw some more weight on for good measure, but I know I’ve won.
We pull the Cessna out of the hangar. Around the corner, we can hear Nathan’s Pacer coughing as he tries to jiggle it to life. “I’ve got to walk around it,” Keith says, circling the Cessna. It makes pocking noises. “Just the plane getting used to the sun.” Keith grabs onto the two-blade propeller and turns it 180 degrees. The propeller clicks. Keith repeats the process. “I’ve got compression.” He climbs into the cockpit. I ask him if I should get in too. “No. If she starts, I’ll take her up first. It’s just what I do.” Everything must look normal because after a few minutes he opens the left window and shouts, “Clear!”
When a small plane starts, it’s like a dam breaking. The first sounds are the initial cracks. Then, the dam breaks.
Keith taxis out of the barn hangars and across one of the grass runways. He stops next the cemetery to do his run-up checks. Then, he back taxis. At the end of the runway, he turns the plane. The Cessna is off the ground within a thousand feet. By the time it passes overhead, I can only see the white underbelly. Keith turns towards the northeast. Gone.
As I wait for Keith to come back, Nathan gets the Pacer to start. He taxis laps around the barn hangars. He passes me like a race car driver, leaning slightly forward in his seat. The Pacer looks equally thrilled. Keith returns. “I’d take you up but it’s really rough up there.” I tell him I don’t mind. He sighs. “Alright, but it’s really rough.”
The Cessna idles at the end of the grass runway. Keith pushes in the throttle. The plane accelerates. It hugs me from behind. The orange traffic cones pass by at shorter and shorter intervals, like the horizon is pulling towards us. At 60 knots, Keith pulls back on the yoke. A gust of wind sets off the stall warning horn, and he has to pitch down to recover. He pulls back again. The plan begins to climb. Ten seconds. Now, we’re flying over the barn hangars at three hundred feet. We buffet upwards and the wind throws us about, but Keith’s hands are steady. We level off at 2000 feet, the blue waters of Lake Fairlee below us, Mount Washington’s snow covered ridges in the distance.
Bill was an airline pilot before he became an anesthesiologist. He is the only person at Post Mills when I arrive. It’s a clear May Sunday, four days after my last failed soaring attempt. Bill recently bought a single-engine Setabria for $21,000. He uses the plane to commute from Maine, where he lives and works, to the soaring at Post Mills. The Setabria is a real fixer- upper.
“It’s sort of like dating. What do you want to do? What do you want to do? Oh, I don’t care let’s just do something!” Bill says as he unties 3-Juliet, a Schweizer 1-23 glider owned by the club. 3-Juliet was state of the art, in the 1950s. Like a zucchini, it is yellow and thick. Bill’s comment refers to a rhythm of any Sunday at the soaring club. Pilots show up. They chat. They decide to fly.
Although Bill holds an ATP rating, the highest airplane rating given by the FAA, he hasn’t flown a glider yet this year. He needs to do three takeoffs and three landings before he can take up passengers. He plans to do these as soon as Andy arrives to fly the tow plane. Bill shakes one of the Schweizer’s wings. He tells me he’s looking for a “sinusoidal ripple.” He opens the glider’s cockpit. “Oh, look at that. They’ve put in a fancy little mic!”
Greg and Mark show up. Both are scientists at the nearby Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Greg is wearing a mountain bike outfit that exposes his lean, middle-aged frame. Mark, at least a decade Greg’s senior, wears long sleeve tee tucked into his jeans.
The two begin to assemble their gliders, which is no small task. While the club’s three trainers stay intact and tied down, the high performance gliders (these are owned by individual club members) are stored in long trailers that require breaking the glider into several pieces. The trailers, about three feet wide by thirty feet long, look like sharks. The fuselage, the right wing, and the left ring of the glider are all placed on their own tracks, which roll out of the trailer. Greg’s glider is an HpH 304. It has sleek white skin, a tapering tale, and a bubble for a cockpit. The wings are like knife blades.
Even though they don’t have engines, many gliders, like Greg’s, go for around $40,000. Some cost much more.
“Of course, you can get the L-13 for a song,” he says. “It’s just the FAA is grounding them all.” The L-13 Blanik is the smaller version of the soaring club’s L-23 Super Blanik, the glider in which Greg has promised to fly with me. Four years ago, in Austria, a wing fell off an L-13 in midair. “The FAA gets all twitchy when parts start falling off of airplanes,” Greg says. He tapes over the seams on his glider where the wings attach.
Bill nods. “They’re not jiggity wit it.” He means the FAA.
The L-23 Super-Blaník is a Czech two-seat glider with a 53-foot wingspan. In calm air, it can glide 28 feet for every foot of altitude it loses. We tow it down to the end of the runway, using the Club Car. I run alongside, holding up one wing. We stop when we reach the part of the runway where the grass gives way to trees. Andy waits in the Leaping Lena.
Greg generally takes a parachute with him when he flies his glider solo. He doesn’t have one now. “I think it makes the new person a little uneasy if the person in the know has a parachute. It’s a bit bad etiquette.”
I climb into the glider first. Because there are two full sets of flight controls, I take the front seat. For the view. Mark helps me put on my seatbelt, which consists of a lap belt plus two shoulder harnesses. “You want it to be as tight as possible,” he says. I struggle with the mechanism of the seat belt, but succeed in making it very tight. Mark offers to take Greg’s pullover.
“No, I need that. We’re going to fucking space.”
Greg buckles himself into the back seat. “We’re all about checklists,” he says. “Human beings are bad at remembered things, especially when we’re stressed or excited.” A small, laminated checklist has been attached to lower right corner of the glider’s instrument panel. We run through it.
Andy starts the Leaping Lena. He taxis onto the runway. The yellow rope becomes taut and Greg and I lurch forward. This produces more slack, so that a few seconds later we lurch forward again. We go on like this for a thousand feet. We lift off. We actually lift off before the plane, so that we’re above it and it feels like we might fly right over it. Then it’s the Leaping Lena that’s above us, but not for long. We seesaw like this as we climb, although because the rope is constantly becoming slack and then not slack and because the glider is sometimes below the Lena and sometimes above, it doesn’t actually feel like we’re going up. At times, we’ll be a hundred feet above the plane with a slack rope. When this happens, the rope soon becomes taut, so we lurch forward and down. And the air is turbulent. The L-23’s cockpit isn’t fully sealed. There's a continuous whooshing sound that sometimes morphs into a high-pitched whistle. Greg has me steer the rudders with my feet. I’m able to keep behind the plane.
At 3,700 feet, I pull the release. The towrope drops away. The lurching stops. Andy and the Lena peel off left. Greg and I go right. Noisy air rushes into the cockpit through the broken seal.
I’ve been warned of the possibility that Greg and I might just go “sledding,” which is what happens to glider pilots when they can’t find any updrafts and have to steer back to the base airport. As soon as we release, we start to lose altitude. It’s only at a rate of a few hundred feet per minute, but it’s still faster than I’d like. Pretty soon, we’re down to 3,000. And we’re flying in something called sink. Sink is the opposite of lift – it’s when the air currents are moving down instead of up. “We’re getting punished,” says Greg. He tells me that if we don’t find a thermal soon, we’ll have to head home.
We head west, towards the south face of a ridge line. If we’re lucky, the sun will dry out the ground and produce a thermal updraft. It does. The first sign is a bump. My eyes are glued to the vertical speed indicator, which has steadily been trending downward in the three-knot range. The bump brings it back up to zero. Then a little over zero. Greg puts the glider into a steep left turn. The thermal has a finite area, he says. The trick is finding the center, so that we can climb it like a spiral staircase. Greg’s turn finds a small but steady updraft. We start to rise, slowly.
“We’re climbing half a knot. The other day I didn’t fuck around with less than six to eight.”
We ride the thermal up to 4,000 feet. It dies there and we have to go searching for another. The next thermal we find is much stronger. We first feel it when the air starts throwing us up at two knots. Greg doesn’t turn. He senses there’s more. A huge updraft catches us. The vertical speed indicator jumps to ten. Looks like we’re not going sledding.
“This is starting to come together a little,” says Greg. We drift upwards, between five and eight knots. “Once you see that eight, you don’t fuck around with the bullshit.” Soon we’ve reached the top of the thermal. “Why don’t you fly?” asks Greg.
I take the controls and we start to sink. “It’s not your fault. This is really brutal air to learn how to do this in.” I soon hit my first updraft. I pull back to climb. Immediately, I stall the glider. I pitch down to recover, which I do, but I’ve blown the thermal and lost about a hundred feet of altitude. I continue to sink. “Let’s go back to the well that produced once,” says Greg. I yield the controls to him. He hits a few small thermals to keep us propped up.
“Yeah, you’re pretty much riding the fucking bull up here,” says Greg. Near the location of the first thermal, we find another. Greg lets me try to climb it. I get half a turn in the lift and pick up a few hundred feet. I slip out. “You getting sick?” I’m not. “Man, you must have a stomach of steel. Most people I take up would be dying right now.”
Greg takes over and starts to glide us up. He says we’re doing pretty well, but that the Blanik is a tank compared to a real glider.
“You get in these high performance ones and you’re screaming down the side of Mount Washington at 10 feet and 160 knots. You wonder why the fuck any airplanes have engines.”
We can see Mark a few miles away. He’s flying in a high performance ship called a Discus, but he isn’t doing well. “Mark should be doing fucking better in that thing,” says Greg. “But the man’s a genius.”
“He’s one of the world’s experts on discrete mathematical modeling.”
Our thermal tops out a little over 6,000. Greg lets me fly again. I head east towards Lake Fairlee, towards a ridge where Greg says there’s usually a “house thermal.” Nothing. I turn and head back West. Nothing. “We should probably land soon anyways,” says Greg, “But there’s no reason to accept that as fact.” We keep looking but we can’t find anything to take us up more than a few hundred feet. At 2,000, Greg puts us into the Post Mills pattern. We fly over the Vermontasaurus. It looks like an armadillo from the air. We turn on final approach. “We’re a little high,” says Greg. He puts up the flaps to kill some speed. It works. Sort of. “This may get a little exciting. I’ve got it, though.” He brings us down to a hundred feet above the trees. I wouldn’t want to be lower.
We land with plenty of runway to spare, rolling along the grass.
Nate Kania's last story for 40 Towns was "T-E-C-U-M-S-E-H."