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'True flying': Nelson County-based glider club offers engine-less flights

'True flying': Nelson County-based glider club offers engine-less flights

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NELLYSFORD — In the Nellysford community rich with breweries and cideries sits a lone red hangar surrounded by rolling mountainsides only minutes off of Virginia 151.

This airfield is home to Shenandoah Valley Soaring Inc., one of about five glider clubs that operate in Virginia and offer rides in the two-person, engine-less aircraft.

At 3,000 feet, a clear day allows for an unobstructed view for miles, offering sights of Rockfish Valley, Shenandoah Valley, Wintergreen and the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. However, views and flight duration are dependent on the weather.

“It’s great because you just have a feeling of freedom,” longtime member and glider pilot Bruce Burkholder said. “A lot of people don’t understand flying airplanes without engines. They don’t see how that’s possible but it’s possible because the engine isn’t what makes it fly.”

SVS President Frank Hall called flying gliders “true flying.” Without the aid of an engine, he said, pilots must rely on their knowledge of lift to stay in the air.

Throughout the day, people sit and watch as plane and glider take off time and time again. Burkholder said he first joined the club in the early 1990s because he needed a recreational outlet but has stayed with it for decades partly because of the social aspect.

“I ran a business and it was a good bit of stress. Some people fish and some people play golf. Lunatics go out and fly airplanes without engines,” Burkholder said.

In addition to giving rides, the club also teaches members how to fly gliders with several Federal Aviation Administration-certified instructors, but Hall said that process could take several months or longer depending on how well people stick with it. Age also plays a factor.

While SVS is new to Nelson County, it has operated for about 30 years and currently has about 50 members and several trained pilots. The club started in Waynseboro before moving around the region, including spending time in West Virginia. But this is the first time the club has had airfield to call its own.

“Having this space on the side of this property with the airstrip really, I feel like, sealed the deal on making this a viable location. We have to have a toy box, so to speak,” said Chris Duren, a member of about five years and licensed glider pilot. “Having the possibility of building this here really made it possible to move here.”

Throughout the day, the engine of the repurposed crop duster sputters to a start with one of the club’s five gliders attached behind it by a roughly 150-foot tether.

The two pilots — one in each plane — align themselves with the runway, and the glider pilot wags the plane’s tail to signify they are ready. As the two aircraft travel down the 1,700-foot grass runway in tandem, the glider lifts off first, soon followed by the plane towing it.

Once reaching a pre-determined location, the glider turns loose from the crop duster. Afterwards, the crop duster returns to the hangar as the glider drifts above the valley for up to an hour at a time.

The tow plane the group uses for its operation is a Piper Pawnee. Burkholder said while the plane eventually became obsolete for agricultural use, it’s excellent at towing gliders.

According to Hall, the club flies primarily on the weekends and can operate every weekend of the year so long as conditions are within an acceptable range for the engine-less aircraft. Too much wind the day of a flight or a few inches of rain in the days leading up to when the club is scheduled to fly can cause cancellations.

“I mean it’s just like you plowed it,” Hall said. “Gliders are made to land on grass but the grass can’t be a puddle. And they can’t land on snow.”

Hall said thermals — pockets of rising hot air — are key to keeping the two-person gliders aloft. Thermals are one of four types of lifts gliders can use to stay in the air. Historically, the club only can operate about 60% of the days it is scheduled to fly.

“We get lift out of thermals all days of the year. It could be 20 degrees out or zero because as the ground heats up the air rises. It’s the relationship between the temperature at the ground and the surrounding air,” Hall said. “Wind is just a factor, it doesn’t particularly keep you up and flying a glider is like a sleigh on a hill, you’re always going slightly downhill.”

Hall added every aspect of the operation is controlled. Rules and regulations hover above everything the club does. The tow plane has a prescribed route it must take for noise abatement for surrounding properties and even the process of turning loose — when the tow plane and glider separate from one another once reaching a certain altitude — has protocols.

“The old thing, ‘Safety doesn’t happen by accident,’ is true. You have to work at it,” Hall said.

There are dedicated safety officers every weekend, but Hall added it’s a team effort to make sure the operation runs smoothly.

The hangar itself, Hall said, is inspired by New Zealand design that allows the structure’s doors to open wide enough to accommodate the 50- to 60-foot wingspan of the gliders. The club purchased the Nellysford property in 2019 and members spent the summer and winter months erecting the building.

While not fully completed, the hangar is sufficient to the point where it can house the club’s aircraft, something that was required by the county, Burkholder said. The hangar is expected to be complete this fall.

Shenandoah Valley Soaring began operating in its new location not long before COVID-19 took hold on Virginia, shutting the club down for a period of several months. Hall said it was not until Phase 3 of Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to reopen Virginia that flights could resumes.

“At the worst possible time it hit us because we were trying to switch from one place to the other and then get started up again and then we’ve just been limping along,” Hall said.

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