Sunday, June 09, 2013

Morgan County Airport (42U), Morgan, Utah: Glider pilots love Utah for its combination of rocky cliffs and cool breezes

Lynn Alley adjusts his parachute and prepares for take-off in his glider at the Morgan County Airport. 
Photo Credi:  BENJAMIN ZACK - Standard-Examiner

Sunday, 06/09/2013 - 9:12am 
By Kristen Hebestreet

MOUNTAIN GREEN — Even on a beautiful day with bluebird skies, gliding is not a peaceful sport.

“It’s more like getting in a 50-gallon drum and rolling it down a flight of stairs,” said Lynn Alley, chief flight instructor for the Utah Soaring Association, a chapter of the Soaring Society of America.

Utah is one of the premier soaring areas in the world, said Alley, of Bountiful. The Morgan County Airport in Mountain Green is especially good for soaring in sailplanes because of a combination of nearby rocky cliffs and cool breezes.

“Morgan County has some of the best mountain wave conditions, probably some of the best in the state,” Alley said. “It’s a rare form of lift that goes very smooth and very high. It happens in the fall and in the spring.”

Alley, one of about 75 pilots with the SSA’s Utah chapter, said participation in soaring in Utah has grown steadily the past five years because of the favorable flying conditions. In addition to the Morgan airport, soaring pilots launch out of airports in Logan, Heber and Cedar Valley.

Alley holds several state records, but he is especially proud of a state record set in 2008, which he holds with co-pilot York Zentner, of Mountain Green. The record was for the straight distance to a declared goal, which in this case was 331.7 miles from Parowan to Soda Springs, Idaho.

“If you’re a powered airplane pilot, if you want to fly faster, you just throw more money at it,” Zentner said. “Whereas if you’re flying a glider, speed has more to do with skill and art. It’s the difference between running a sailboat instead of a power boat.”

Engineless flight

Alley flew his 1998 Schempp-Hirth duo discus sailplane recently on a sunny day in Morgan County. Like most high-performance sailplanes, Alley’s plane is made of a carbon composite — unlike the older gliders made from wood and fabric.

“It’s not a whole lot different from flying a fiberglass airplane, but the performance is not as good,” Alley said.

Stan McGrew, a volunteer tow pilot at the Mountain Green airport, launched Alley’s sailplane with his bright yellow retired crop duster, Ugly. (McGrew prefers his plane be referred to as an “aerial applicator,” but no one else calls it that.)

The sailplane was pulled along the runway and then into the air with a 200-foot nylon rope, which Alley released when the sailplane reached an altitude of 3,000 feet.

Like all sailplane pilots, Alley was seeking a thermal.

In its most basic terms, radiated heat from the Earth’s surface creates rising columns of warm air called “thermals.” Sailplane pilots depend on thermals to gain altitude and therefore distance so the aircraft will ride the warmer air higher to gain more energy for flight.

Wind has nothing to do with soaring: Instead, pilots fly from one rising thermal to the next. The process requires constant adjustments with the stick — “It’s not a joystick and it’s not a throttle; it’s a stick,” Alley said — and a strong knowledge of weather.

“A lot of these guys are meteorologists in their own right,” Alley said.
The science of it

Anyone can look out the window to see puffy white clouds or listen to the weather report. All puffy white clouds are made by thermal columns, which promise ideal soaring conditions.

But what these pilots need to know is the microclimate where they will fly. They gain that knowledge by using computer models, Internet sources — and experience.

It is a giddy feeling to see the yellow rope dangling behind the tow plane as the sailplane is freed to fly under its own power.

There’s no motor: just thermal columns and aerodynamic designs that have been refined since the glider clubs became popular in Germany in the 1920s, after the Treaty of Versailles banned motorized aircraft.

Even with cloudless blue skies, thermal currents in Morgan rolled off Durst Mountain on this particular day. On a different day in a different place, a sailplane could ride ridge lift, which occurs when the wind blows perpendicular to a mountain face.

Another way to stay aloft is to ride a bouncing wave, which happens when wind currents blow across the backside of a ridge. There are days when the rising air rolling off the mountains will take the light planes and lift them 100 feet in a few seconds, Alley said.

“It’s a strange and magical phenomena,” he said. “It happens in Morgan when the wind blows from the west.”

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon how you look at it), Alley’s recent flight was not one of those times. The sudden ups and downs, combined with turns, can affect even experienced pilots, Alley said, although nearly everyone acclimates after some exposure.

Until then, soaring in a sailplane feels like a ride in a free-range elevator. A sailplane is sensitive, so Alley continuously made minute adjustments to the stick that reflected the angled wingtips of a turkey vulture flying underneath the sailplane.

Like Alley, the bird was taking advantage of the thermals.

Sailplane pilots say the act of flying an engineless aircraft should never be called “gliding.” “Gliding” implies the plane is traveling down, toward the ground. Soaring means the aircraft moves up with the rising air, which is more ideal. The aircraft may be called “gliders,” but flying them is known as soaring.

Flying with eagles

Draper pilot Bruno Vassel IV flies an ASW27 glider with a 50-foot wingspan. He began flying gliders 19 years ago when someone offered him a ride. The ride was on Saturday, his first lesson was on Monday and he was soloing by Friday.

Vassel now does loops, barrel rolls and figure eights with his glider.

His YouTube channel,, shows almost 1.4 million hits and has 4,000 subscribers. He describes himself as a passionate advocate of the sport, and says he gets emails from all over the world from people who decide to take up soaring because of his videos.

One video, “Glider Racing Into a Thunderstorm,” will entice thrill seekers. A storm is coming in and the radio is crackling from the nearby lightning bolts. One lightning strike barely misses a glider wing.

“Why do I fly? There’s the thrill of not knowing whether I’ll make it back to the airport,” Vassel said. “There’s the sights and sounds we experience up in the air. Sometimes I look out and I say, ‘I can’t believe how gorgeous this is’ and I almost start to cry.”

Anyone who wants to learn to fly a glider should contact a nearby glider club, which can be found on the SSA website, Sailplane lessons cost around $2,000, Vassel said. Someone as young as 15 can earn a pilot’s license.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates gliders and motorized aircraft, has ruled that gliders should fly no higher than 18,000 feet. Pilots like Vassel — who says he likes to hover at 17,999 feet — use oxygen at that elevation. On a typical day, Vassel says, he flies at 14,000 to 17,000 feet, probably for about five hours.

Vassel said he has landed on eight farm fields in 19 years of flying gliders, yet never damaged the crops or the plane. It was a great way to meet farmers, he said.

There are other, less dangerous memories.

“The first time I ever thermaled with an eagle, it was so close I could see it blinking its eyes,” Vassel said.”I could see it turning its head and blinking.”

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