Like a bird — taking flight in a glider

I’m often asked the question, “are you a pilot?” My usual response is, “No, but I play one on TV.” The truth is flying has always been in my blood. I grew up on Air Force bases and have vivid memories of watching the bombers, fighters and cargo jets flying back and forth. I can still name virtually every plane in the military’s inventory, past and present, and offer a fairly detailed description of its capability. I have even been known to park my car along an airport perimeter with my radio scanner and watch planes land and takeoff. Fellow airplane enthusiasts will quickly recognize the symptoms: I am an airplane “geek.”

I love all things flying, and while I have never found the time to earn a license, as a journalist I have experienced many exciting aviation adventures, from flying with the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds to a low-level hop above the desert in a B-1 bomber to landing on an aircraft carrier and riding through burning canyons in helicopters, even lumbering over Manhattan in a blimp. But the one experience that has long intrigued me is the art of soaring in a glider.

My dream of soaring finally came true recently when Weekend TODAY sent me to Warner Springs, Calif., where I met up with the folks at Sky Sailing for an introductory lesson in this delicate aerial ballet. If flying without an engine makes you nervous, this sport isn’t for you. Nature is your only engine. 

The ground school was quite short. The only controls I needed to learn were the stick and rudder pedals. Before long I was strapping into the front seat of the tiny tandem cockpit. My instructor Garret had his own controls in the back. A rope was attached between our glider and a small single-engine plane that would “tow” us up several thousand feet.

The moment of release when the tow rope falls away is difficult to describe. Instinct tells you that without an engine you're about to fall out of the sky. On the contrary, Garret easily steered the plane into rising air, and to only the sound of rushing wind, we were flying! We hugged mountain ridges and did graceful pirouettes in the sky, mimicking the hawks that circle in these same skies looking for prey.

While difficult at first, learning to manipulate the control stick and rudder pedals began to feel more and more natural, and before long I was confidently turning our sail plane into tight banks and dropping down to checkout an old mountain top fire lookout station.

I have flown at supersonic speeds, pulled 9-Gs, and have been catapulted from an aircraft carrier, but in many ways, my day soaring over the California high desert without an engine and only the wind beneath our wings may have been my most thrilling ride yet. This was what flying like a bird is all about.

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