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Climate, geography push Ephrata up list of glider pilots’ top spots

Noel Wade, an information technology manager in Seattle, was piloting his glider back to Ephrata airport last month after a 2  1/2-hour flight. He was starting his descent checklist, with the cockpit instruments telling him he had enough distance and altitude to make it the final four miles.

He was at 1,200 feet above the town of Soap Lake, but he found his motorless glider moving slower and descending faster than it should have been. He later realized he’d forgotten to retract the landing gear after takeoff.

He had two choices: land the plane in a soft field below or push on to Ephrata and possibly come down in a field dotted with lava rocks, which would tear up the glider and might cause him serious injury.

Wade decided to push on. Then, two miles from the airport, a sudden lift of warm air took him up to 800 feet. It gave him enough time to land on Ephrata’s asphalt runway.

“That was a squeaker of a final glide,” said Wade, a member of the Evergreen Soaring Club in Arlington, Wash., and one of more than 75 glider pilots who regard Ephrata – a city of about 7,700 northwest of Moses Lake – as their mecca and the region’s best place for quality gliding.

That story is one Wade will be sharing the rest of the year. It also sums up the key elements of gliding: the tricky business of relying on gauges and the need to find thermals – uplifts of warm air that are the elevators helping sailplanes reach higher altitudes and extend the flight.

From April through September, soaring enthusiasts spend time at the tiny Ephrata airport, an underused facility built during World War II to train aviators.

While Central Washington’s rugged features attract outdoors enthusiasts for fishing and hunting, Ephrata’s flat terrain and warm air make it an ideal destination for glider pilots.

Two weekends ago Wade was the organizer for the annual Ephrata Dust Up, a regional event that provided flights and training for people wanting to learn more about gliding – or “soaring,” the term some enthusiasts prefer, to distinguish sailplanes from hang gliders.

This weekend, Wade and 30 other pilots are at Ephrata again for the Soaring Society of America’s Region Eight competition. Pilots engage in up to six days of timed competitions; races run between 150 and 200 miles, challenging pilots to find the most efficient routes to get from the airport to several waypoints and back.

Ephrata renowned for dryness, thermals

While Northwest pilots are the primary users of the Ephrata airport, the location draws glider pilots from Canada and across the country.

The reputation has been earned in part because Ephrata has hosted national gliding championships six times since 1971.

That was also the year the Seattle Glider Council established a clubhouse and moved its two tow planes to Ephrata to provide flight and support services for people who come there to fly.

While gliding is nearly always a solo activity, its community members keep in contact in person and online. After flights, pilots come back to the Ephrata airport to compare notes, share stories and pass along tips.

Using social websites, the glider community also keeps close track of which U.S. airports have the most consistent favorable-weather locations for their sport, Wade said.

“I’d say that Ephrata’s conditions – especially its consistent conditions – make it one of the 10 or 15 best places in the country to fly gliders,” he said.

The first ingredient is Ephrata’s dry and flat terrain, which helps produce frequent thermals – rising columns of warm air – that can take sailplanes up to 10,000 feet or higher.

Sailplane pilots essentially find a thermal and go up several thousand feet, then take off, losing some of the altitude they gained until they hop to the next thermal.

Pilots can travel hundreds of miles at speeds up to 100 mph on some days. On other days, harsh winds or poor weather can force them to “land-out.”

A land-out happens when a glider is forced to land anywhere other than the starting airport. That occurs when pilots decide to fly “cross-country,” meaning they fly farther than their aircraft – in normal weather – would be able to glide back to its starting point.

Remote Ephrata’s dry climate and open distances let pilots spot thermals in two ways, Wade said. They can see ground dust-devils, which are caused by uprising air. They can also see cumulus cloud patches; those clouds are caused when hot ground air rises up and condenses above 4,000 feet.

“We also have lots of friendly farmers with flat fields who don’t mind if we have to land-out,” Wade said.

Steve Northcraft, a Boeing engineer from Seattle and chairman of the Seattle Glider Council, regards Ephrata as one of the best locations for soaring in the Northwest. “You can go some great distances from Ephrata,” he said, noting three glider pilots flew from Grant County all the way to Thompson Falls, Mont. – roughly 250 miles in a straight line.

Finding new members is the challenge

Like sailing, gliding is an expensive sport. Planes start at $15,000 and exceed $100,000 for the ultra-performance models. Club initiation fees and annual dues add hundreds of dollars to the tab. And each tow by a club’s powered aircraft costs about $50.

Membership is declining nationwide, and regional clubs and the national Soaring Society of America are looking for ways to attract more enthusiasts.

The Spokane Soaring Society, which has 25 members and parks its planes at the Deer Park airport, is promoting a “get up in a glider” offer. For $99, people can get a ride aboard a two-seat aircraft. Other clubs across the Northwest have similar offers.

“Sure, it’s harder to find new members,” said Al Tyler, a Georgia resident and chairman of the national soaring association. “But it’s immensely satisfying to get up in a glider and deal with always-changing conditions. You don’t just fly from point A to point B. It’s much more satisfying than flying a powered aircraft.

“And you come back after four or five hours and you haven’t burned a drop of fuel,” Tyler said.

Rollin Hasness, the president of Spokane’s soaring club, said people shouldn’t think the requirements to be a glider pilot are hard to complete. If you already have a pilot’s license, requirements to fly a glider involve simple “transition” training.

If you’re not a licensed pilot but are older than 15, you start by passing an FAA written test, then log 10 hours of glider flight time, including 20 flights and two hours of solo flying.

One Spokane club member, Stewart De La Hunt, became interested in sailplanes 20 years ago while on a business trip to the Lake Tahoe area. Up to then he had dabbled in parachuting and hang gliding. After the first flight, he said he knew he had to fly a glider of his own.

De La Hunt, 55, a construction manager for McKinstry’s Spokane office, has owned two gliders. His current plane is a sleek, aerodynamically efficient, German-made model. It weighs around 520 pounds and is made of durable, glass-smooth fiberglass and carbon fiber.

Like most modern gliders, its wings are much wider than the body length. The wings measure 49 feet from edge to edge, while the body is 18 feet long. It cost him $48,000.

De La Hunt said he finds both the solo and the social side of gliding satisfying. Pilots like to be competitive, but many pilots enjoy flying in formations to stay in touch, to watch and learn and be around each other.

They also know they all have days when they can’t get back and then need help returning to their airport.

“The day comes when you’ve landed out in a field 75 miles away. Your friends will be there to retrieve you,” De La Hunt said. “This symbiotic relationship allows all of us to participate in this incredible sport.”

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