What do you talk about at 6,000 feet without an engine?

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Jim Headley with a glider at Arizona Soaring. Photo by Kyle Norby

Earlier in April, the fine folks out at Arizona Soaring invited me to go on an aerobatic ride in one of their gliders.

I can handle it. I’m tough and I love to fly.

It wasn’t just fun, it was a total blast at the Estrella Sailport, just a few miles west of Maricopa on State Route 238.

I was taken care of by Shad Coulson, who isn’t just a pilot but the company’s operations manager. Coulson was smart, well-trained and full of confidence. I felt comfortable in that little plane even if it didn’t have an engine.

I’ve always been taught that altitude and speed are big insurance policies when it comes to flying. Because of this theory, a ride in a hot air balloon a few years ago was just too much for me.

You stand in a large wicker basket with propane tanks surrounding you. Some joker lights a giant flame over your head and the balloon doesn’t go very high or very fast. Oh yes, and the pilot will tell you they really can’t control where the thing will eventually go very well. Of course, he doesn’t mention that part until you’re already in the air.

I just wanted to get out of that contraption.

I feared the glider ride might be a similar experience.

After being strapped to a parachute, I wiggled my way into the front seat of the glider. Coulson helped me get strapped in and he started on a safety briefing.

This is when the real nerves first appeared. Coulson showed me how to jettison the canopy, clear the plane, if its right side up or upside down, and pull the cord on the parachute. The reality of what could happen became crystal clear.

This glider ride is serious business and not just fun and games.

I can still do it. I’ve come this far and I’m not backing down.

The tow rope was attached, and the plane started pulling us down the runway. We were airborne in seconds.

The noise intensified as the glider floated with the greatest of ease. Coulson talked me through every bump and rattle I heard and felt. All was normal as we just kept going up and up.

Coulson told me the history of the area and showed me the mountain tops of the Estrallas. I saw Phoenix in the distance, and he warned me of a bump that’s coming as we detached from the tow plane. We were at 6,800 feet.

The bump tickled my tummy a little, but I had no idea what was about to happen.

We were free from the noisy tow plane. There was nothing but peace and the voice of the pilot.

Coulson told me how he became a pilot and that he is from Limon, Colorado. That’s not far from my neck of the woods. I’m from just north of there in Sidney, Nebraska.

He told me of the wonderful history of the company and all about the area we flew over. He even let me take the stick and rudders and fly the glider a short bit.

After a few minutes, I stowed away my cellphone that was recording the audio of our conversation. I had to sit on my cellphone to ensure it was secure.

Peace and serenity were suddenly replaced with speed, noise and nerves as the glider went into a dive.

Holy cow, this engine-less craft was as fast as most of the planes I have been in. Coulson pulled back on the stick and it was on.

Here’s comes a loop.

I’ll admit, I was terrified going into that first loop, but there was more, a lot more.

Coulson just kept on looping and looping the glider. One, two, three, a cloverleaf sideways stall and eventual dive and back up to speed. After the fifth inversion, this boy was done.

“I think I’ve had enough,” I told Coulson while we were upside down on the fifth loop de loop. He said, “no problem” and “I’ll level it off after this one.”

Comforting words when you’re pulling four Gs and weigh 750 pounds.

I know he does this every day, but for me five loop de loops was my limit. I was clearly shaken but not stirred. No, I did not get sick.

I am pretty sure Coulson was concerned about me and we landed shortly after. The landing was smooth and quick. I was so glad to get out of the cockpit, but I was still very exhilarated by the ride.

It also took a minute to get my sea-legs back under me.

That was one of the most intense, fun and enjoyable flights of my life. It is unlikely that I will take up the glider flying habit on a regular basis, but I would go again, and I can’t say that about a hot air balloon.

Thanks to Shad Coulson, Jason Stephens (who is one of the owners of Arizona Soaring) and all the fine folks who helped us at the Estrella Sailport, the home of Arizona Soaring. They also offer calm non-aerobatic flights if you’d prefer.

Please check out my story in the May edition of InMaricopa Magazine about Arizona Soaring, APEX Motor Club, Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Course and Skydive Phoenix as we focus on the SR 238 Entertainment Corridor developing west of Maricopa.

Some of the hottest fun in the Valley of the Sun happens right here.

Jim Headley is a reporter and photographer for InMaricopa.


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