Photos by Ann McCreary Attached to the tow plane, a glider rises toward the foothills south of Twisp before releasing the rope at about 5,000 feet.

Photos by Ann McCreary

Attached to the tow plane, a glider rises toward the foothills south of Twisp before releasing the rope at about 5,000 feet.


Glider enthusiasts gather in the Methow for spectacular sailplane experiences

Glider pilots help each other get ready for their flights, positioning the gliders behind the tow plane and attaching tow ropes under the nose of the aircraft.

Glider pilots help each other get ready for their flights, positioning the gliders behind the tow plane and attaching tow ropes under the nose of the aircraft.

By Ann McCreary

Soaring high over the North Cascades mountains, traveling hundreds of miles in powerless flight, glider pilots enjoyed clear skies and warm temperatures this week during their annual visit to Twisp.

Fourteen sleek gliders — also known as sailplanes — and 18 pilots came to the Twisp Municipal Airport for a week of soaring over the valley and mountains.

Some of the pilots were competing in a friendly contest to see who could fly fastest and farthest. Winning the competition was mainly for “bragging rights,” as one pilot said.

The real goal of the week for the visiting pilots was enjoying the Methow Valley both in the air and on the ground, said organizer Zach Schrempp of Snohomish.

“The weather is good, and local folks are very accommodating and enthusiastic about us flying here,” Schrempp said. “We like coming here not only for the flying. This is something of a safari for us.”

As they have for several years, pilots came from around the state for the event. Most belong to soaring organizations such as the Evergreen Soaring Club or the Seattle Glide Council.

Weighing less than 1,000 pounds, a single-seat glider lifts quickly off the runway behind the tow plane.

Weighing less than 1,000 pounds, a single-seat glider lifts quickly off the runway behind the tow plane.

Two pilots flying single-engine planes took turns towing the gliders into the air from the Twisp airport, heading toward Pole Pick Mountain. Gliders are tethered to the tow plane by a rope attached to the nose of the glider, and pulled to about 5,000 feet before the glider pilot releases the towline.

Some gliders stayed in the air for six hours or more, sailing toward the Canadian border, over to Ross Lake and Washington Pass, before returning to Twisp.

“The mountains are spectacular,” Schrempp said. But they require pilots to “use good judgment,” he added.

“We tend to fly a little more conservatively in the mountains because the landing strips are pretty sparse,” he said. “You have to know the drainages.”

Good conditions

Cumulus clouds building over the mountains on warm days this week meant good soaring conditions, Schrempp said.

“The puffy cumulous clouds with flat bottoms indicate a good thermal under it,” he said.

Pilots ride the thermals — columns of rising air — upward, often soaring at about 12,000 feet. “We get as high as 18,000 feet, but we don’t go above 18,000 because the airspace is controlled” for commercial flight above that altitude, Schrempp said.

Waiting on the ground for their turn to get towed Monday morning (June 27), pilots dressed in warm clothes were beginning to sweat a bit. Up at 12,000 feet, temperatures are chilly and the warm clothes are necessary.

Weighing less than 1,000 pounds, a single-seat glider lifts quickly off the runway behind the tow plane.

Weighing less than 1,000 pounds, a single-seat glider lifts quickly off the runway behind the tow plane.

The pilots tuck themselves into small cockpits, sitting in a reclining position to accommodate the streamlined design of the fuselage. Schrempp said that his glider, loaded with himself and his gear, weighs about 840 pounds.

It’s quiet in the cockpit while the plane is soaring, except for a “whooshing” sound Schrempp said.

Many of the glider pilots have experience flying powered aircraft, including some with backgrounds in the military and commercial airlines, Schrempp said. One pilot said he was a former hang glider, who took up sailplanes as a safer alternative.

Schrempp was not a pilot before he took a demonstration ride offered by the Evergreen Soaring Club.

“I took a demo ride and got hooked. It’s a beautiful way to experience flight. It’s really neat to share a thermal with an eagle,” he said.