On Aug. 11, I experienced what it must be like to fly like a giant, soaring bird; I was a passenger in a glider that took off from Wurtsboro Airport, 27 miles west of Beacon, as the vulture flies.
Established in 1926, Wurtsboro is the oldest continuously operating glider port in the U.S.
I’ve always been captivated by, even envious of, the vultures that soar above the Highlands in silent, effortless flight, seemingly able to stay aloft forever without even flapping their wings.
So, come fly with me: This bucket-list event exceeded my high expectations.
I’m not exactly tiny, so climbing into the small, doorless cockpit was a challenge. Once inside, it was quite comfortable.
My pilot, Jonathan Elie, a gliding instructor and veteran of more than 1,000 flights, asked me to pull the yellow knob in front of me, enabling him to attach the towing cable to the front of the Schweizer 2-33A glider. I figured attaching the cable was important, so I pulled hard. He also told me not to touch either the foot pedal or the joystick, or I would become the pilot. I followed that advice to the letter.
Elie climbed into the seat behind me. Ahead, Dan Yates boarded the L-19 Bird Dog tow plane, a craft known to U.S. soldiers during the Korean and Vietnam wars as “the flying jeep.” The nickname boosts my confidence — that and Yates having logged even more flying time than Elie.
As the L-19 engine roared to life, I had a flashback: I’m with my two sons, and they’ve shamed me into riding the Magnum roller coaster at Cedar Point in Ohio.
And just like then, it’s too late to change my mind.
The L-19 lurched forward, the cable tightened, the glider jerked and we were racing down the grass runway, quickly gaining speed. To my surprise, the glider started to fly even before the tow plane was off the ground.
After the tow plane was airborne, the cable and flying jeep were new best friends. I gulped; my stomach felt like it did when I was a kid on a giant swing.
Elie had warned me about the turbulence at low altitude, caused by the warm, rising air that keeps the glider afloat, and he was right. It got bumpy, although no worse than many local roads.
As we gained altitude, the rough air ended. It’s smooth sailing now, although at 3,500 feet, I gasped as I watched the cable fall away and dangle behind the L-19. Behind me, Elie had released it.
The L-19 banked left and disappeared.
We were on our own, reliant on air, wind, thermals and Elie’s piloting.
There was wind noise, but soon I stopped noticing it. We were flying at about 55 mph but with little sense of movement. It was a feeling of complete detachment, of being suspended in total calm.
I was sitting close to the nose of the glider, so nothing obscured my vision, including a propeller. The view was phenomenal.
Elie said on a clear day, we’d see Manhattan. He pointed out the Bear Mountain and Minnewaska state parks, a remnant of the Delaware and Hudson Canal and a 13-mile stretch of forest devastated by fire years ago. He’s called in a number of forest fires while gliding.
During our 30-minute flight, we stayed within a few miles of the airport, riding an updraft along a ridgeline. Elie said the longest nonstop glider flight that originated at Wurtsboro lasted 11 hours, ending in Virginia.
He told me we’re setting up for our approach to the airport. I wanted to stay in the air!
Elie executed a gentle turn; the runway appeared straight ahead. The descent was barely noticeable. 1,000 feet. 900. 800. The soft landing would be the envy of any commercial airline pilot.
Back on the ground, Yates told me that while vultures don’t fly as high as Elie and I did, he had glided alongside migrating bald eagles who turned their heads to look right at him.
“They’re used to being the biggest thing in their sky,” he explained.
I asked Yates how many first-time gliders have vowed never to do it again. He said, “No one.”
Glider rides are offered year-round for $120 for 15 minutes, $180 for 30 minutes or $260 for 45 minutes. See wurtsboroairport.com.