So, you’re intrigued by the great natural beauty of the White Mountains in New Hampshire but aren’t sure exactly what you’d do if you took a trip there? Here’s an idea that will get your vacation planning off the ground—literally.
Take flight in a glider—an engineless aircraft that relies on the pilot’s maneuvering through rising air to stay airborne. The velvety green undulations of the White Mountains provide spectacular setting for this pastime. And a small but active local club will eagerly expose the thrills of “soaring” to anyone willing to try it.
The Franconia Soaring Association operates out of Franconia Airport, just west of Interstate 93 almost midway between Lincoln and St. Johnsbury. The club offers flights in two-seat gliders every weekend from mid-May through early October. It’s one visitor per ride, because an experienced pilot always occupies one of the seats. Depending on the package you purchase, flights are released from their towlines at either 3,000 or 5,000 feet and last 15 or 30 minutes.
What keeps gliders airborne?
Actually, skilled pilots can keep gliders airborne for hours. It’s physics. The aircraft itself is heavier than air, so to resist gravity, the pilot must capture energy by locating air that’s rising faster than the rate at which the craft is losing altitude. The mountains actually create one of the most reliable and useful sources to rising air—ridge lift, caused when wind blowing into a mountain face deflects upward.
Pilots also rely heavily on the natural rise of warm air. Those updrafts, called thermals, can be found beneath telltale cumulus clouds—where condensation occurs— which of course are plentiful in northern New Hampshire. In the absence of clouds, pilots use a cockpit instrument called a variometer to detect thermals. The importance of thermals to the endeavor explains why glider flying, also called soaring, is practiced in the White Mountains only during the warmest months.
A third main source of rising air is the mountain wave, oscillations that occur downwind of a mountain and are caused by the mountain’s blocking of powerful wind. Pilots can easily locate these waves under the lens-shaped clouds they create. Nearby Mount Washington, the highest peak east of the Mississippi and site of recorded surface gusts as high as 231 mph, not surprisingly provides a strong mountain wave. Gliders around Mount Washington ascend as high as 30,000 feet.
What are the characteristics of gliders?
Glider design and technology continues to evolve, having moved past all-wooden crafts with open-air seating. The Franconia club fleet includes three two-seat models, one single-seater and a single-engine tow plane. All except one are built entirely of metal, the exception being a high-performance two-seater built of fiberglass. The newest models are made of Kevlar and similar materials. Recent generations, including those in the Franconia fleet, are designed aerodynamically to maximize lift and minimize drag. They have enclosed cockpits, n narrow fuselages and long, skinny wings. Every new design increases glide ratio—the unit of linear distance traveled in smooth air per unit of descent. Most competition-class models have glide ratios of at least 50-to-1, with the elites about 60-to-1.
Instrument panels typically enable the pilot to track the glider’s speed, direction and altitude in addition to the presence of thermals. Most aircraft also come with radios. Cockpits rest on undercarriages built to absorb high impacts. The undercarriage houses landing wheels and, in some training models, landing skids.
How are gliders launched?
Glider pilots begin their flights tethered by rope to the tow plane, flown by other club members. When the glider reaches the desired altitude, the tow pilot disengages the line, and the soaring begins. Most visitors take pleasure flights, but the club also offers training flights presented by qualified instructors. One of the club’s two-seat gliders is equipped with dual controls for training flights.
Flying in a glider isn’t without risk altogether, but it’s still considered extremely safe—especially with an experienced pilot in control. Give it a try—it’s an experience that will leave your spirit soaring long after you’ve landed.