Glider pilots converge on Twisp for week of competition
By Matthew Taylor
Soaring thousands of feet above the valley floor powered solely by thermal lift, a small group of glider enthusiasts gathered last week in Twisp for their annual flying competition.
The Sawtooth Soaring Pilots Association (SSPA), which has hosted the event for the past seven years, brought about 15 pilots to the Twisp Airport for a week to enjoy the unique flying conditions and scenery provided by the Methow Valley.
Noting the outstanding support by the airport and community, contest director Movses Babyan described Twisp as “the best place to be” for gliding at this time of year. The proximity to mountains, variety of terrain, hot weather, and abundance of usable airports and fields make the flying conditions in the Methow ideal, he said.
Lacking any other source of power, gliders rely on columns of rising air, otherwise known as thermals, to fly. The gliders are towed by repurposed agricultural planes towards Pole Pick Mountain, where they are released.
Once free, the pilots search for thermals which boost them thousands of feet into the air, often using the movements of birds and the shape of the landscape below them to find the rising air. With the additional altitude, they can soar for hundreds of miles, often flying to the Canadian border, deep into the Cascades, and south and east to towns such as Vantage and Davenport.
“The mountains are a reliable thermal source.” said Ron Clark, one of the founders of the SSPA. “Thermals tend to form and release off of mountains.” The alpine terrain surrounding the valley allows pilots to “stairstep” high into the mountains and provides plenty of power for extended flights.
The flights are scored based on distance traveled. The pilot who is able to fly the furthest away from the airport and return wins the competition. Every glider is equipped with an electronic tracker that ensures accurate recording, and each flight is automatically uploaded to a website which scores the flight.
While many of the pilots swear by the competitive aspects of the gathering, some are simply here to fly. “I am just here for the scenery and the great airport,” said participant Bill Ling. Tony Wiederkehr, who has been soaring since 1985, brought his two-seat glider from Arlington specifically to give other people rides.
All commented on the appeal of the airport and town. Wiederkehr said that the community has “opened up” to the gliders, continually asking “what can we do?” Brad Hill, another founder of the SSPA, stressed that this event “wouldn’t be possible” without the support of the airport and community.
Pilots with vastly different backgrounds came from across the state to fly in Twisp. Most of the pilots also belonged to other soaring clubs, such as the Seattle Glider Council and the Evergreen Soaring Club, based in Ephrata and Arlington respectively. Their backgrounds ranged from retired military pilots, to former hang gliders, to people with no prior flying experience.
“Gliders are some of the most graceful machines men have ever made” said Babyan, who picked up gliding after being inspired by a blog post. “It allows you to appreciate the country in a way that most people can’t.”