I love to fly.
No, not the parts about security checks, luggage fees and middle seats, but the pure act of soaring thousands of feet above the Earth en route to some exotic destination.
Or, maybe not so exotic. In a couple of weeks I’m headed for Newport News, Va., not exactly the French Riviera, but I’ll enjoy getting there.
I’ve flown in many kinds of aircraft from single-engine jobs and old DC-3s to 747s and even helicopters. Until recently, however, I had never flown in a plane without an engine.
Thanks to Jason Stephens, who runs Arizona Soaring along with his brother, Matt, I had that opportunity and all I can say is that if you enjoy flying even a little bit, head out State Route 238 and pay Stephens a visit. It will be an experience you will never forget.
Stephens, an Alaska native, has been involved in the business since his family purchased it in 1987 when he was 13.
The sailport was originally established in 1969 by Les and Betty Horvath. Betty still works for the company.
It has grown into the premier facility of its kind in North America. Students, and those simply interested in experiencing the idea of riding in an un-powered aircraft, come from, literally, all over the world. Along with demonstration rides, lessons are available leading toward a sailplane pilot’s license. About 60-70 people earn the certification each year through the company.
“We’ve had people from Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, England, India,” Stephens rattles off. “We had some folks from Israel here this year. It’s a very unique business in that we get a very diverse crowd.”
Why the Estrella sailport?
“The Estrella Mountain range, even though it’s not super long it is very effective in creating good soaring conditions,” Stephens explains. “Their dark color and absence of much vegetation means that the mountains heat up very easily which makes them generate good thermals.”
Thermals are the lifeblood of soaring, allowing pilots to gain altitude. From there, almost anything is possible.
Additionally, the great Arizona weather is a big bonus. Few possible flying days are ever lost to bad weather. Add to that the fact there is minimal other air traffic in the area and some of the best instruction available anywhere and you have a Mecca for soaring.
If you are going to learn something you might as well learn from the best, and Stephens is a three-time U.S. Glider Aerobatic national champion, although the business end of things keeps him from competing as much as he would like to these days.But, what about the actual flying?
As I mentioned previously, I love to fly, but surprisingly I don’t have a very good relationship with heights. Put me at the top of a tall building and I will be looking for the exit quickly.
Me, skydiving? Not likely.
And yet the thought of soaring in an engine-less plane always intrigued me.
After a quick briefing by Jason and Matt, we headed for the flight line.
Although I knew sailplanes had to be small and light, I was surprised at the size while standing next to one and watching the brothers easily push it into place on the paved runway. I was also surprised to learn that I would get the front seat. Students get the best view.
“Are you going to be able to see around me?” I asked Jason. “Sure,” he replied. “It’s only a problem sometimes with women with big hair,” he joked.
Then the moment of truth arrived. The tow-plane rumbled down the runway, dragging us behind and very quickly we were in the air.
We banked north, toward the Estrellas, heading straight for Montezuma’s Peak.
The view can only be described as spectacular, something you simply can’t get even sitting in a window seat in an airliner.
We crossed the Estrellas about 300 feet above the peaks and maneuvered around the mountains and valleys. Stephens pointed out Picacho Peak in the distance, and even Mt. Lemmon outside Tucson.
The slow speed of the craft, about 50-60 nautical mph, enhances the view, which is basically about 180 degrees through the front canopy.
Undoubtedly, it’s the closest you can feel to soaring like the eagles and hawks that often share airspace with the sailplanes. Parachutists and hang-gliders might disagree, however in those sports you are simply heading downward.
In soaring, the thermals and ridge-lifts can keep you in the air for hours under the right conditions.
As we gradually headed down, we came to earth on a dirt runway with as soft a landing as I have ever experienced.
Wayne Block is a columnist and sports writer for InMaricopa.com. He and his wife Linda – who accompanies him on many of his adventures – moved to Alterra from Virginia in May.