The art of flying on silent wings

In our latest trip through the Air Facts archives we share a beautiful meditation on soaring, written by legendary airline pilot Bob Buck. Bob was a pilot’s pilot, and his thoughtful, evocative description of what it’s like to fly without an engine will make you wish you were soaring with him. Think gliders are for wimps? Think again.

One single flying unit of mind and wing.

After 18,000 hours as an airplane pilot, I just discovered flying. In thirty years my restless wings have taken me over most continents and oceans ― around the world ― but at 5,000 feet over the rolling pastoral countryside of Chemung County, New York, I discovered flight and the elusive link between the mechanical man-made machine and the aesthetic beauty of nature, the sky and the Lord’s peace.

I was, to be technically correct, in a Schweizer 1-23 sailplane ― just the two of us, the sailplane and me. No noisy vibrating engine, no propeller, no whining jet, just a tiny fuselage a little wider than my shoulders and fifty-two feet of graceful tapering wings. The only noise was a soft swish from the air flowing around the sailplane, no more than the whisper of two lovers in the dark.

The only way I had to stay aloft was by using my wits, aided, of course, by the ultimate in fine sailplane design and nature’s supply of air currents. And nature, to make the prize worthwhile, is coquettish about these rising currents of air. You must work to find them and stay in them, the signs of their existence are subtle. But the game is intriguing. You play with a silent, invisible and illusive force. You try hard to do what the birds do easily. It is completely absorbing, commands all your attention and skill. You work, but in a calm, peaceful and rewarding way detached from the material world in an almost dreamlike environment. Kings may have their sport, but soaring is a sport of the gods and they kindly allow us mortals to share in it.

But now come with me and we will go soaring. It is at the Elmira, New York airport. It could be lots of places – Bishop, California, by the great Sierra mountains, or Zell Am Ziller, Austria, where the Alps have formed a perfect place for the winds to help you soar alongside the huge mountains and, on the right kind of day, catch rising air and go over the Alps to Italy. We might be in Germany ― or next to the pyramids in Egypt, or an hour’s drive from Paris, or in the flat country of Texas, Russia, Poland ― almost anywhere in the world.

Ernie Schweizer and Bob Buck

Ernie Schweizer (standing) is congratulated by Bob Buck (seated in a Schweizer 1-23 sailplane) on the outstanding performance of this remarkable, record breaking creation of the Schweizer brothers.

One thing soaring needs, no matter where you are, is a good machine. These are called sailplanes ― not gliders ― and they are one of man’s most graceful products. We sit in the small but comfortable cockpit, a safety belt across our lap, straps over our shoulders. There are a stick and rudder pedals, a few instruments, a red knob marked, “Release,” and a lever that controls our spoilers, spoilers to destroy lift. Our sailplane is so smooth, flies so effortlessly, stays aloft on such a little wisp of air that sometimes it’s difficult to get down, that’s why spoilers. They are metal plates on top the wing, like two little metal doors two or three feet long that open up into the air stream when we pull a lever in the cockpit. These plates ― the Boeing 707 has them too ― spoil lift and allow you to settle. Close them up and you are smoothly sliding through the air again.

The instruments are few; an airspeed indicator, altimeter, compass and the minimum for blind flying. There is also an interesting gadget, found only in sailplanes, called a variometer. It tells if you are going up or down and is very important.

Above your head is a canopy of plastic. It makes your head seem to be out of the sailplane, covered and protected of course, but you have the feeling of being out in the sky and not hiding inside an aircraft.

Then the wings, those long graceful wings. Your body is situated near the nose, by the front edge of the wings, and it gives a feeling that the great wings, fifty-two feet across, come right out from your shoulders. They are a part of you. It does not feel like a machine and a person, but rather one single flying unit of mind and wing.

We sit in the sailplane ready to go. Two hundred and fifty feet ahead is the tow plane, a Piper Cub. We are hooked together by a Manila rope three-eighths of an inch thick. It is a nervous moment, not from fear, but happy anticipation. The tow plane waits for the tower to clear him off. In a moment he wiggles his rudder and that’s a signal to us that we are going.

The first movement is a jerk as the tow plane moves ahead and takes up the slack rope. The sailplane’s nose bounces up and down as we flounder at low speed with no control. We are just something being dragged on the end of a rope. But in a few seconds there is speed and air flowing over our sailplane. It lives on air and comes alive. I feel the rudder respond to pressure from my feet, the wings level up when I move the stick.

It is noisy running along the rough ground, we crunch and bang. An airplane would too, but the engine drowns out the noise. With no engine you hear lots of new sounds, even the wings creaking sometimes. Then the banging noise stops and we are in the air. It is almost silent now, the only noise is made by the wind slipping over the sailplane and dimly, in the distance, the noise of the tow plane’s engine.

We climb together. The sailplane stays above the tow plane and it is work to keep in the right position. The tow plane settles, goes down a little, so the sailplane’s nose must be gently lowered, then the tow plane rises and the sailplane must be climbed a bit also. It is a juggling game that requires close attention.

The altimeter shows 2,500 feet and we are over some low hills. It is a good place to cut loose. The nose is raised and the red release knob pulled. There is a loud click as the hook in our sailplane’s nose opens and releases the rope. The tow plane, relieved of its burden, dives to the left and heads for the airport, we turn a little to the right to stay away from him.

Now a wonderful transformation occurs. Our speed drops, the tow plane takes his noise away with him and everything becomes calm and quiet. Suddenly we are alone and time stands still.

Our air speed indicator says forty-five miles an hour, we are flying beautifully and sinking very slowly. This we tell from the variometer. It’s located on the instrument panel in front of us. It has two vertical tubes about three inches long. In one tube there’s a red pellet, like a little red bead, in the other tube a green pellet. At the moment the green pellet is sitting on the bottom of its tube and the red pellet has risen a little way up into its tube. This means we are going down. What we want is the red pellet down and the green one up ― you dream about little green pellets.

If you think of airplanes, of being up in the sky without an engine and going down, you think a little frantically, “Where will I land? I must find a place quickly!” But in the efficient sailplane it is different, we have time. We are only sinking two feet a second, from 2,000 feet it will take over fifteen minutes to get back to earth even if we never find any rising air. And we are gliding at a very flat angle, thirty feet forward for each foot down ― with 2,000 feet of altitude we can go over eleven miles! So why hurry, why get excited. We spook along, sinking slowly, silently skimming through the air waiting for an up current, waiting for that red pellet to go down and the green one to come up and tell us the air is rising.

This is a magic carpet time. You have left the earth, you are a part of the sky. The earth below is lovely to look at, God’s beautiful back drop of dark green trees and hills, a scatter of farm fields with odd shaped boundaries and different color greens and yellows, a sweet meandering cool river, its course seeming like the happy, aimless wandering of a little child through a meadow. All this is the beauty below, but it is not close anymore, it is simply something beautiful you might never have even seen before or been a part of. It is pleasant to look at, but unimportant. You look up through the clear canopy and there is the blue sky and a few white puffs of cloud. The clouds hang in space and you hang with them. You do not rush by as in an airplane, but you stay around, you will be a cloud too and slowly, peacefully drift along.

But still we go down. The altimeter unwinds, 2,000 feet, 1,500 feet and still the red pellet stays up in its tube. Now we look toward the airport, get it set in our mind, make a turn in that general direction, subtly begin to work toward a place to land in case we never catch any rising air. A little unpleasant feeling injects itself ― how sad if we did not find rising air today, if after the labor of the tow we simply glided back to earth. Twelve hundred feet now and the spiritual side of soaring is receding; I am an airplane pilot again, gauging where the airport is, checking the height, thinking and planning ahead.

More discouragement. The red pellet seems almost stuck, but then it goes down, slides to the bottom of the tube. The green one hasn’t moved. Now they are both motionless. We are neutral; we are in a small rising current that is going up the same amount we sink so we are holding our own. It’s like the first little nibble on a fishing line. You leap to alertness, delicate senses are alive, you couldn’t think of worldly cares, couldn’t think a mean thought, couldn’t haggle or worry. You are totally with the immediate environment. It is like a hunter when he first sees a deep step into an opening in the forest, except we are not going to kill, rather we will conspire with nature to create happiness.

Then, even before the green pellet moves, you feel it, a little rise in airspeed, a faint and subtle push, a small signal in that seat of your pants pilots talk about ― a feeling it’s difficult to find in my big transport across the North Atlantic. But here it is and just as I feel it the green pellet starts up, a little at first, just a teasing amount. It falters and then it really goes up in the tube. Immediately we are in a turn, a turn to try and stay in the rising current of air we just found. It is strange too, thinking about it later, we cannot remember making that turn, we didn’t mentally say, “Stick over, a little rudder, some elevator.” No, all of a sudden we were in a turn. It is because the sailplane is so much a part of us.

Sailplanes are flown with great sensitivity and exactness; that’s the way you get the most out of them. There is no doubt it helps my big airplane flying. I’m certain I can fly a 300,000 pound jet better because I fly sailplanes. Once a four engine transport airplane flying over Spain had the almost impossible failure of three engines. With only one good remaining engine the pilot could not hope to fly, only sink. But the pilot, who flew sailplanes too, took advantage of his knowledge, got some lift along the side of a mountain, enough to stagger to a safe landing at an airport. I do not mean this is the reason sailplane flying helps my big airplane flying, but through sailplanes I am closer to flying, I understand the aerodynamics better, feel more familiar with the air and its delicate variations.

Now our altimeter shows climb, we are gaining altitude, the little green pellet is high. We pass 2,000 feet circling in our current of air. It is not a big circle; it is steep, but the circle size is small, no bigger than a football field. During this turn we watch the little green pellet because on one side of our turn the lift is big, on the other side it is much less, so we juggle the turn to try and get deeper into the maximum lift. We fiddle like this, hunting the invisible lift that may have started as a bubble of air, heated over a brown plowed field. Basically a thermal is a bubble of hot air which rises like a balloon. A piece of ground, warm in the sun, heats the air above it and soon this air breaks loose and climbs into the sky. With luck we find this bubble and go up with it. Somedays thermal activity is stronger than others. An innocent thermal on a hot muggy day may be the start of a thunderstorm, or, if things are more pacific, it may just form a white, fluffy cumulus cloud.

The heating process makes a hot place like Texas a good place to soar. The world’s distance record, 535 miles, flown by Richard H. Johnson, was made between Odessa, Texas and Salina, Kansas.

The thermal we are in is obviously feeding a cumulus cloud above our head and our hawklike circle is taking us up toward the cloud ― 4,000 feet and finally at 5,000 feet we are just at its bottom. This is the first time we’ve really been able to inspect a cloud. In an airplane it always goes by too quickly, but now we are circling right under the cloud, staying in the same place. The bottom is irregular; wispy hunks of gossamer white curtain hang like bits of fog seeping down a valley in the early morning. In the bottom center of the cloud there is a small dome shaped area, a place pushed up in it. Above the dome the cloud looks dark grey. This is where it’s thickest and where the best lift is.

We do not go in the cloud; it is not legal because I am too close to a busy airway. People do go in them, sometimes into thunderstorms. But this is reserved for the big boys ― and girls ― the pros who fly in international meets all over the world.

Every two years an international meet is held. In 1956 it was in France, in 1958 behind the iron curtain in Poland. Our team from the United States was there. Paul Schweizer told me how wonderful everyone was to them. “There were no international boundaries, we were just a bunch of people interested in soaring, happy together.” The next meet, in 1960, will be in Germany.

Countries behind the iron curtain probably do more soaring than we do, they realize its value, especially for young people. Many world’s records are held by these countries, especially feminine ones. The world’s altitude record for women, however, is held by the USA’s Betsy Woodward who climbed to the amazing height of 39,994 feet! The world’s distance record for gals is held by O. Klepikova of Russia at 465 miles. France holds records, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland and the Union of South Africa. The current world’s champion is a German, Ernst-Guenter Haase. It is an international sport.

Soaring is a cooperative sport too. Most of it done by clubs. There is a lot of ground work, handling the machine, setting things up and, if a person is going for distance, there must be a crew ready to follow in a car and trailer to bring the sailplane back to its home base. All this takes community effort and makes for good fellowship.

One reason for Elmira’s position as the soaring capital of the United States is the Schweizer brothers, Paul, Ernie and Will. They are the Schweizer Aircraft Corporation which makes more than 70 percent of our sailplanes.

It is pleasant to see these three men, now in their 40s, living out a dream that started in high school. As air-minded kids of the post-Lindbergh period, they decided to build a glider. Ernie drew the plans. He was so absorbed in his task that school work suffered and his math teacher reprimanded him for not getting his homework done. Little did she realize he was spending all his spare time computing stresses on their glider!

Building sailplanes isn’t a profitable business at this state. They hope someday it will be when soaring grows big enough. (During the past year it has taken a satisfying spurt.) Meantime while the Schweizers do other manufacturing, their hearts are in soaring and Paul, the most active pilot of the group, has flown for the United States in two international meets, in England and Spain. He is considered one of the top sailplane pilots.

It’s a sport for the young too. At fourteen years one can fly gliders. German youth started soaring before the second world way to get around the Treaty of Versailles and they go right on doing it today for sport. Germany has over 50,000 people active in soaring, we in the United States about 3,000.

All kinds of people do it. Down there on the ground where we took off at the Schweizer school there was quite a cross section learning to soar, or just renting sailplanes. George Nash, Jr., a chemical engineer, the Reverend Charles P. Maier, a young priest, Ed Brigham of Florida just out of law school, Boyd Higley, an airline pilot like myself, Rolf Bahner who drives a tank truck and soared in his native Germany, True McLean, professor of electrical engineering at Cornell. All these people are joined in this wonderful fraternity; position doesn’t mean a thing, you are a sailplane pilot and spend long hours with these friends talking of lift and weather, sailplane design and flying technique. Some of them know how to fly airplanes, some never have. They learned soaring from scratch.

If you asked any of these folks if soaring is dangerous they would be a little shocked. It isn’t. Soaring suffers because many people connect it with the gliders of wartime, the time men with guns climbed aboard big, unwieldy flying boxes and were dragged off to unfriendly skies and then cut loose to land on unknown ground. There were accidents, terrible ones, but that was war.

Soaring had early pains too. Way back in the thirties people could string together any collection of wood, wire and linen and try to fly it. I built one with a friend, Bill Mumford, when I was fifteen years old. We didn’t know how to fly. We towed our glider into the air on a long rope hooked to a dashing automobile. We cracked up a few times, but very luckily without serious injury ― some weren’t so lucky.

Soaring done properly, with a few basic rules you don’t break, along with knowledge of the equipment, is very safe. At the Schweizer school under the careful eye of Bernie Carris, chief instructor, they have a perfect safety record over a seventeen year period. People who occasionally have trouble are the ones who take silly chances, just like crossing a street against the light.

The sailplane is a big part of the safety. It goes slowly and will stay in the air at forty miles an hour. I saw a fellow, years ago, fall in a woods. His biggest problem was getting down out of the tree he was stuck in ten feet off the ground!

The sailplane has wonderful control and with the help of those spoilers you can land on a handkerchief. At contests there is often a competition to see who can land closest to a spot; the winner is generally decided by a matter of inches.

Soaring people tell you it’s only a sport. Actually there have been scientific uses. During the early part of World War II when England was first developing radar they wanted to know if radar could “see” a glider coming from the direction of France. The British soaring folks, headed by their dean, Philip Wills, came forward with their sailplanes. They were towed out over the channel, almost to France, where they cut loose and glided back to England simulating invasion gliders. This was often done while the sky was busy with Stukas and Spitfires. The radar, incidentally, could see them.

Sailplanes have been used in weather research and have flown into thunderstorms with instruments to tell what was inside. They are used in research to study great air currents sometimes found on the lee side of big mountain ranges. At Bishop, California, on the east side of the Sierras, sailplanes have climbed in a condition called the standing wave, and reached the world’s record height of 44,000 feet above sea level! They carry oxygen on these flights. Knowledge of the standing wave has been important because there is severe turbulence connected with it that can damage an airliner or military plane. Sailplanes have made it possible to understand this condition better.

But for us, at the base of our cloud, all this is big time. It sounds fascinating and we get a little yen now and then to try it, but all the wonder and joy of soaring is right here. It’s another beauty of the sport ― you can get all the benefits in the most humble way.

We slide away from the cloud we’ve been playing with and lose a little altitude. It’s my first time in this kind of sailplane so I use altitude to play a bit. A few wing overs, a stall, a spin, ways to learn this sailplane better. She handles beautifully.

My playing around, not paying attention to lift, has cost us altitude, we are down to 3,000 feet. But the day is good and we latch on to another thermal and work under a bulbous white cloud back to 5,000 feet.

If we were going somewhere, trying for distance, we would leave our cloud and head in the direction we wanted. We’d gain miles and lose altitude, but before we got too low we would find another lifting current, gain altitude and then glide off again. In this way people go cross country hundreds of miles. You can do a lot with a sailplane.

But today we have simply been enjoying the sky. It is time to return to the airport and reluctantly we leave our cloud and head back. It will take a long time to lose all this altitude so I pull the spoilers and a vibration sets up as the little doors come out of the wing and the once smoothly flowing air tumbles and stumbles over them. We settle faster and the altitude we worked for is carelessly tossed away, like money on pay day. At 1,500 feet we are over a hill and I cannot resist closing the spoilers to feel again the smooth peaceful flight. There is a rising flow of air where the wind is blowing up the hill. We skim along in this air, very close to the hill, very intimate with the trees. We can look down and see the floor of the forest through the trees, individual trees stand out. Then we fly past them over an open field on top the hill. We can see the wild flowers and the grasses. We see all this plainly because we are low and not moving fast, we are just drifting along. We pass a bird ― it looks like a hawk. We are both flying in the same lifting air, both in the same free ride. It is strange, but nice to feel blood brother to a soaring hawk.

All things end and we must go back. We turn away from the hill and fly out over the valley where the airport is located. Now a little grass spot on one corner of the airport becomes our goal. There is a red barn I fly toward and once over it pivot to turn into the field. I pull on the spoilers again and we shake slightly and settle. A barbed wire fence that borders the field is coming up, and two little bushy trees I always slip past. To be certain we’ll clear all this with good altitude I close the spoilers and instantly that smooth, effortless flight comes back. The trees and fence go safely by and it’s in the bag that we’ll make our landing spot so I pull on the spoilers again, the grass rushes by us closely and we skim on the ground softly. I pull on the brake of our one wheel and we stop quickly, within a few feet of the spot we aimed for when we left the hill. It’s a tiny spot my airliner wouldn’t even notice in passing.

I open the canopy, but do not get out. You want to sit a moment, to keep the magic and not break the spell. You are reluctant to leave this link with ecstasy, your heart and mind are filled with reverence and beauty. This is soaring.

6 Comments

  1. Ben Conlin says:

    Beautifully written! This truly describes soaring, spot on. After half of a century, the sport hasn’t changed much either.

  2. Nico Engelbrecht says:

    This must be a wonderful feeling. Well written and a wonderful story.

  3. Matt P says:

    A lovely, article, and just as true today as the day it was written.

  4. Louis Sell says:

    Captain Buck always writes wonderfully. His “North Star Over My Shoulder” sits just a few feet from me. I cannot tell how many times I’ve read it.
    Maybe–just maybe, soaring is the fix us pilots need to slake our appetite for inexpensive airplanes and flying time.

  5. Jim Frankenfield says:

    Captain Bob Buck got me misty-eyed again….what a wonderful wordsmith…what a guy, and my pleasure having known both him and his son Rob. Brought back memories of my time in a 1-26, circling with a hawk. Jim

  6. Dennis McMahon says:

    What a beautifully written story. Captain Buck describes all the feelings and emotions I have secretly held for the past 50 + years, ever since a 10 cent balsa wood glider was gifted to me by an unknown source when I was but a small child. Oh how I envied that image of the pilot stamped into the balsa wood and wished that one day I could be him. Well, my wish came true at the age of 62 when I finally had the opportunity to climb in to a Schweitzer 2-33 in August 2013, and life for me has never been the same since that August day. The serenity of powerless flight is beyond my wildest expectations and the hunt for those invisible columns of warm air has all the excitement of a true treasure hunt, a hut that yields one a great riches – more time aloft. Since August I’ve amassed 23 lessons and have read incessantly on glider flight; soon I will receive my reward- I will become that stamped image aforementioned and become a member of a very select fraternity of intrepid aviators.

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