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[whitespace] glider plane

Low-tech, high-flying thrills for kids, for free

By Jim Rendon

Alex Leisch sits on a gray fence at the Hollister Municipal Airport, his arms extended, feet dangling in the air. The 10-year-old boy blows air though his teeth in a whooshing sound and then suddenly drops from the fence onto the gravel.

He looks up with a smile, having just mimicked his new favorite sport--soaring in a glider plane. "It's like falling straight down, floating in midair," Leisch says, extending his arms again. He looks over his shoulder at a glider sitting on the runway, the one he just climbed out of as he finished his third ride this year.

Leisch is just one of dozens of children and teenagers who take to the skies in glider planes every month at the Hollister airport. Volunteers from the Bay Area Soaring Associates, a glider flying club, give free rides to children, hoping to spark an interest in flying and the science behind it. Soar Hollister, which takes paying customers into the sky every weekend, donates gliders and tow planes for the monthly event. Every child is flown by an experienced pilot from the flying club.

"Every kid is different," says Jim MacDonald, a former Navy pilot and chemistry teacher at De Anza College who lives in Saratoga. "Some are kind of timid; others really get into it and want you to dive and turn."

On the small runway, glider planes are lined up on the grass alongside the tarmac. The sleek fiberglass bodies tilt to one side, the long thin wings touching the ground. Two single-engine planes are on hand to tow the gliders into the sky.

MacDonald bends to push one of the gliders onto the runway for launch. Megan Donahue, 17, from Sunnyvale is in the back seat waiting for takeoff. As the plane fires up its engines, another volunteer attaches the yellow nylon rope to the front of the glider.

Megan's mother, Marilyn, watches with camcorder in hand as the plexiglas cover is closed over the cockpit. The plane cranks up its engine, and her daughter and the guide pilot are hauled off into the sky. "It's a present for her 18th birthday," Marilyn Donahue says. "What better way to become an adult," she says, searching through the viewfinder for the wings that get smaller as they rise into the sky.

It turns out the glider has a long history in this county. In 1883, when the Wright brothers were still chasing girls in high school, John Montgomery, a former Santa Clara University student, became the first American to fly in a glider. Though his flight took place in San Diego, he brought the idea home to Santa Clara when he became a physics professor at his former school. He could often be seen leaping off hillsides in the Diablo range. One of his gliders, dropped from a hot air balloon 4,000 feet above the valley, set a new record in 1905. In 1911, however, Montgomery crashed during a short flight over San Jose and died.

Today crashes are pretty rare, says Emil Kissel, an 80-year-old former flight engineer with Pan Am who lives in Saratoga. Kissel began flying gliders back in 1939 and has been hooked all his life on the engineless, highly maneuverable gliders. In his 60 years of soaring, Kissel has wrecked a few times, only once seriously. I take this encouraging information with me as I climb into the cockpit.

Drew Pearce, who runs Soar Hollister, maneuvers the glider behind our tow plane. A few minutes later, we are at 2,500 feet above the splotched agricultural spread of Hollister. It is totally quiet except for the hiss of air coming in from the vent. At 50 miles an hour, the landscape below is unmoving. "Are you ready?" Pearce asks. A moment later the sky is gone and the ground is approaching fast. My stomach does a back flip as we top 100 miles an hour.

Then it's my turn. The glider is the perfect child's flying machine. The controls consist of a joystick. Point the stick; the glider will follow. The only rule is to keep a slice of horizon over the nose to avoid stalling. Soaring is really just controlling and manipulating your fall. The plane is shockingly responsive, arcing in a turn, diving and leveling out all in response to the movement of my hand. Then, in an ill-advised maneuver, I look down. Suddenly all I can see is the thousands of feet between me and the ground. And I realize all that separates me from the ground is the little joystick in my hand. My stomach turns. Pearce takes over.

After a smooth landing, we roll to a stop on the grass. The ground is reassuringly solid. Next to the runway, a whole new group of kids is lined up and waiting.

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From the November 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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