Sunday, August 9, 2020

Sightseeing on a glider in Hawaii

When visiting Oahu I satisfied an adventurous desire to soar in a glider and feel the sensation of floating in air while drifting casually toward earth—yet enveloped by a protective cocoon.

“It’s the most exciting adventure many people have on the island,” Bill Star, co-owner of The Original Glider Rides, the oldest and largest soaring operation in Hawaii, told me when we arrived at its location on the North Shore of Oahu, a 50-minute drive from Waikiki on the South Shore. 

Getting ready to board the glider
Riders may go alone (weight limit per person is 270 pounds) or in pairs (combined weight under 340 pounds).  But if you’re flying with a companion--my adult daughter and I shared a ride--be sure it’s someone you don’t mind cozying up with in the compact rear seat.

While twosomes ride in the back, a single can opt for the front—and the opportunity to take control of the glider in a mini-flying lesson, an option my husband Larry chose.  The FAA certified pilot gave instructions from the rear seat--and fortunately had duplicate controls since Larry was too busy savoring glorious scenery, as well as snapping one picture after another, to be bothered with flying the glider, too. Distraction comes easily.

Larry flew as a single--and got a brief flying lesson in the air.
Because a glider has no engine and cannot become airborne on its own, it must be towed into the skies by another plane.  How high you go depends on the length of the ride and wind currents.  Guest rides generally ascend to 2,500 feet, cover a five to six mile radius, and last about 20 minutes.        

After assuring that my daughter and I were properly snug, our pilot physically maneuvered the lightweight craft into position, tethered it to a small plane, and hopped in just before we started skimming the runway.  Takeoff felt like being pulled in a sled or wagon, except that suddenly the glider’s wheels were off the ground, and it was kept on course by a rope stretched between the two aircraft. 

Then, ever so quietly when we reached the desired altitude, the tether was dropped, and the host plane flew away.  There we were—floating in air, awed by the spectacular beauty of Hawaii’s coastline.

Row after row of waves rolled to shore, breaking silently against the sand, and retreating into the ocean.  Coral shone beneath the clear blue water. I caught glimpses of cattle and horse trails along rugged volcanic mountains of the Waianae range, and the vegetation seemed greener from our vantage point.  Blocks of sugar cane fields from Waialua Plantation drifted beneath me.  Sunlight cast long shadows over mountains, surf, and sea—and we could even see the shadow of our glider on the ground.
View from the glider of waves on Oahu"s coastline.
 It was eerily quiet.  Being motorless, the glider floats silently through air, with only the sound of wind and our clicking cameras to break the reverie.  With 30-40 miles of visibility, the view from our bubble-topped sailplane was breathtaking. 

A rush of air spontaneously lifted us higher; then a downdraft plunged the craft.  Although winds may buffet the craft with up and down movement, the ride is still reasonably smooth—unless you have an adventurous pilot bent on giving you a thrilling ride. 

Gliders stay airborne from air flowing over the wings that creates low pressure on top of the wings.  Because this low pressure only partially supports the weight of the glider, it gradually descends. By maneuvering the glider to catch thermals or updrafts, the pilot keeps the aircraft aloft and can actually climb higher.  If you’re game, the pilot can achieve a roller coaster effect—or not--if your stomach rebels to extra motion. 

Our trio was fine with floating gracefully through the air, enjoying panoramic vistas as the glider slowly drifted downward.  As we saw the horizon approaching we wished the ride could last longer.  

The pilot takes over after the tow plane has dropped the tether. He's on
his own for the landing.
With a slight bump, wheels touched the runway, and the glider wobbled gently to a stop.  The pilot jumped out to align the craft properly and move it to the edge of the runway. “Absolutely fantastic,” my daughter exclaimed, and I agreed.

When you go, allow enough time, either before your ride or after, to enjoy the many beaches and pipeline waves (if you’re lucky) for which the North Shore is famous. Rent scooters or kayaks at Waimea Bay, to extend your adventure either on shore or in the water. Also factor in time for sampling shaved ice and sightseeing at Haleiwa, a quaint historic town and surfer mecca with abundant shopping and dining opportunities. 

Book online at Videos made with cameras in the glider and outside and a microphone to record your comments are also available for purchase.     

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier      

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