A love of soaring leads enthusiasts to form a club and focus on youth training
By Stuart Watson
Ruben Blaine steps from the cockpit of the training glider that seconds earlier settled gently onto the runway at the Ken Jernstedt Airfield in Hood River, guided safely to ground by instructor George Edmundson.
“It was awesome,” says Ruben of his first time soaring. A 14-year-old freshman at Hood River Valley High School, Ruben is the future of a sport and pastime that has a nucleus of Hood River Valley devotees, but dozens of people interested in taking to the air on a tow rope.
Soaring is not for the faint of heart. A glider is pulled off the ground and reaches soaring altitude under the power of a tow plane, connected to the glider by a long, retractable cable. The glider pilot releases the tether when he or she is ready to soar. That is where the challenge begins.
Forward movement is necessary to keep air moving across the glider’s wings, which provides lift. Go too slow—or climb too steeply, without enough air speed—and the glider could stall and fall.
Pilots commonly seek thermal updrafts to stay in the air. Skill is required to turn the plane so it stays in the updraft and does not lose its lift by drifting into a downdraft. When it is time to land, the pilot guides the plane onto the runway, where it touches down on a single wheel slung in the bottom of its fuselage.
Small skids at the tip of each wing keep them from dragging on the runway during landing, and before the plane slows enough for ground crew members to grab the wings and guide the plane off the runway. In May 2016, the nucleus of devotees formed the nonprofit Hood River Soaring club. Its goal was to bring glider pilots together in support of local soaring, and to recruit and train young people.
HREC member Paul Woolery, a retired psychotherapist who lives south of Odell, led efforts to form the club. “I’d been thinking about it for three years,” he says. “The club started because I wanted it to be more accessible to young people.” By offering and selling scenic glider rides to the public, the club hopes to generate an income stream that can offset some of the costs associated with training.
The cost for a 20-minute scenic ride is $170 for one passenger and $200 for two. Prices increase for longer rides. “It’s an expensive sport, but if you share equipment, it can make it more accessible,” Paul says.
A single lesson of three flights can cost around $200. “It adds up,” Paul says. By the time a student has enough practice time to fly solo, costs can total around $2,000. Add in another $1,500 to become certified for unsupervised flight, and it is easy to see why Paul wants to help subsidize the costs for interested, motivated young people who may not have $3,500 lying around. As Ruben went through his first flights, Nathan Fuentes, 15, helped with landing and launching. He is the first youth helped to attain solo flight since the club formed. Paul says the sport has helped him tap a bit of youthful bravado. He decided to take up soaring seven years ago, when he was 59.
“It was a completely impromptu decision,” he says. “I thought as I was getting older, it’s important to take on new things that combine the intellect with a physical challenge.” Paul soloed on his 60th birthday. “It’s the riskiest thing I’ve ever taken on,” he says. “The maneuvers of soaring are roller-coaster thrills.
It’s a gnarly physical experience.” Paul explains that when the glider is banking at a 60-degree angle to stay atop a thermal updraft, he is flying right on the edge of the plane stalling. “It’s profoundly exciting,” he says. Soaring in the Hood River Valley has had a bit of its own roller-coaster ride.
Paul learned to fly from Gary Boggs, who taught and offered rides for years before moving out of the area. Judy Newman, manager at the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum, and her husband, Joe Deem, brought their Cascade Soaring operation to the valley when they moved from McMinnville.
The couple retired in 2015, however, which left a void for people hoping to hire a tow. “I had a glider, but I had to take it to Idaho or Nevada to find a tow plane,” Paul says.
Paul rallied club founders Kelly Cooper, Dana Love, Mark Johnson and Scott Gifford. The first meeting attracted more than 30 interested people, including Judy and Joe. The club adopted an initiation fee and annual dues of $200 each. A few people kicked in $10,000 to buy a training glider, but without a tow plane, the glider is grounded.
Club vice president Cory Roessler stepped in to organize investors to buy a tow plane, which the club is now buying. “If it weren’t for Cory, the club wouldn’t be where it is,” Paul says. Paul says the club has helped coalesce around a “field of dreams.” “For me, the big inspiration is the youth program,” he says.
“Our intention is to provide opportunities for young people to access lessons and equipment at low cost through work study and scholarships.” Standing in his own field of dreams, Ruben says he first knew he wanted to fly when he took off on a commercial jetliner at age 3.
If all goes well, he will soon be soaring—and taking his first, big step toward a career in the U.S. Air Force. n To learn more or arrange a flight, visit the club’s website at www.hoodriversoaring.org.