Your connection with the sky

Flying (Soaring) on the Cheap

The country's in the midst of the "Great Recession" and it costs $250 to fill the tanks on a light airplane.  You need some time in the air for "mental heath" but the cost is daunting.  What's a person to do?

As a poor college student in the fall of 1959 I faced the same problem. Pratt Read2 I chose to join a soaring club - the Orange County Soaring Association who based two WWII ex-military 2-seat training gliders,  a Pratt Read and an LK-10A , and a single seat Schweizer 1-26 at Skylark Field at Lake Elsinore, CA.  I paid OCSA  $100 to join and $10 a month in dues. Instruction in the sailplanes went for $0/Hr - something I could afford.  A half century of inflation has bumped the membership up to $300 and the dues to $55 but the hourly rate for OCSA's modern fleet of gliders and instruction is still $0.  If you're under 22 and a full time student, the cost is about half that.   That means you can start learning to fly sailplanes for the cost of a fuel stop.    What a deal!  See:

To make things even cheaper, we took camping trips to the El Mirage Dry lake in the Mojave Desert to launch the gliders with auto tows. OCSA still does this except urban sprawl has pushed the camps deeper into the desert.  Here's a story from my early experiences with this type of flying.

I rode my motorcycle from Los Angles out to El Mirage Dry Lake in the high desert Friday evening to camp with other OCSA members.  Early Saturday, I awoke to the smell of coffee and bacon and the sounds of a campsite coming to life.  As I crawled out of my tent I felt the chill of the vast dry lake surface on my bare feet.  The sky was a deep blue and the sun was still a ways below the horizon.  The smoke from a campfire rose straight up as far as I could see.  The rumble of an early '60's muscle car broke the morning quiet.

"Get ready, we're gonna fly", someone shouted.  I put on my boots and a jacket against the deserts' morning chill and began to pre-flight the hulking Pratt Read - an unusual sailplane with side-by-side seating and "gull wing" doors.  Another pilot jumped in the right seat after offering to share the launch cost.

Satisfied everything was present and working, we strapped into cockpit and signaled our readiness to launch with a thumbs up.  Someone snapped a tow wire onto the release hook and leveled the wings and radioed the tow car to start the launch.

The launch began eerily as the glider surged ahead silently with no obvious means of propulsion.  We lifted off and slowly rotated into a 45 degree climb at 55mph.  As we climbed, the morning twilight dropped away and the brilliant desert sun burst into the cockpit.  The climb went on for a couple of minutes topping out 2500 feet above the dry lake bed.  I pulled the release when the climb reached zero and slowed to the 42MPH minimum sink airspeed where the sound of the airflow over the glider was barely audible.

The air was velvet smooth and the Pratt Read responded to our fingertips  What an incredible way to learn precise stick and rudder flying.  After 15 minutes of utter joy, I lined up for a landing.  With unlimited 'runway', I decided to play with ground effect.  Diving the glider down to a couple of feet above the lake bed, I let it cruise along for almost a mile before the single wheel kissed the fabulously smooth lake bed and rolled to a stop precisely where we had started from.  That auto tow cost 50 cents for a ride no Disneyland "E-Ticket" could match.

I opened the gull-wing door and the smells of breakfast again filled my nostrils.  I wanted to just sit there and take it in but someone else wanted to fly.   I turned the glider over to the next pilot and grabbed breakfast then took my turn running wings and driving the tow car.

Later, when the desert temperature soared into the 100's, huge dust devils churned across the lake bed marking strong thermals.  Then a 50 cent auto tow let me fly for hours at 12,000 feet enjoying the cool shade under cumulus clouds.

So, if costs are holding you back, consider a soaring club.  The flying and camaraderie are great and the costs are minimal.  To get started check out - on the right side of the web page click the "Fly a Sailplane Today" and the "Find Where to Fly" buttons.

18 Responses to “Flying (Soaring) on the Cheap”

  1. Fun flying the way it ought to be! Let's head out to the desert this weekend.

  2. Great story, Bill. But I'm not quite clear on one thing. You agreed to take someone else on that flight because he/she agreed to share the launch cost? The fifty cent launch cost? Were times actually that tough?

  3. Bill Daniels Says:
    November 5th, 2009 at 10:31 am

    "Sharing the cost" was an inside joke. That kind of flying was so cheap we had to make a joke of it.

    Because few clubs have access to dry lakes, winch launch is used instead. The 2009 operating costs for a winch launch are around $3 although clubs may charge $10 or so to provide themselves with some cash flow. That $10 can get you 2000 - 2500 feet AGL. It's still dirt cheap flying.

  4. Been reading your articles lets go flying website. However I don't see anything about self launching gliders which I contend are the future of this sport, with the exception of the extreme record setters.

    I am a novice having purchased my Lambada motor glider this year. It has a 30 to 1 GR and affords me the opportunity to also go cross country to far away events and to visit friends and family all at the small cost of 2.2 gal per hour. Steve Chase

  5. Steve, I'll confess I'm biased on the subject but I see pure gliders launched by winch or Lambada tug and SOARING using natural lift as the future of the sport.

    I've flown most motor gliders and carefully watched their operations to form an opinion. Some were more complicated to fly than any light twin.

    The Lambada is a nifty SLA and a great touring MG which even makes a good tow plane. But even the current generation of basic training gliders are better than 30:1.

    The extreme simplicity and low cost of pure gliders is the attraction for me. I see NOT having an engine with it's maintenance overhead as an enormous advantage.

    IMHO, The best motor gliders are the electric Antares, and the rotary engined ASH-26 and it's relatives which have proven capable of air starts with cold soaked engines - something the Solo 2-stroke has problems with. Their purchase price, however, takes them out of consideration for most people.

    A typical story is a aero tow launched flight a few years ago in a DG 808, a 2-seat 50:1 retractable engine MG. It was a fantastic soaring day with cloud bases well above 18,000 feet.

    I suggested to the owner/pilot that we soar 100 miles or so west of the Continental Divide where conditions looked even better - something I would have done without the least concern in my engine-less Nimbus.

    "Too risky, the cold engine might not start and we couldn't get back", he said. "If you're afraid the engine won't start, why have it?", I asked.

    The next week he sold the DG 808 and bought a pure glider and hasn't looked back. That's typical here.

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