Wider Horizons

You can feel the excitement building in Melissa Robdrup as she describes the sport she loves so much: Melissa Robdrup soaring. Bringing the sport to southern Alberta has her flying high, literally.

Soaring is motorless flight in a sailplane. The plane rides naturally occurring atmospheric phenomena called thermals to gain altitude and stay aloft. Basically, as Melissa explains, a plane with no engine is launched and stays up using air with “lift,” generated by the warming of the earth.

Robdrup is secretary of the Southern Alberta Gliding Association. Still in the crucial start-up phase, the club boasts six members dedicated to raising awareness of the sport and how accessible, affordable and fun it is for people of all ages. Robdrup says the club plans to train instructors and new glider pilots, and has aspirations to host the Canadian National Soaring competition in a few years.

The Southern Alberta Gliding Association has an agreement with Warner County Airport for 2011 and, with the recent purchase of a two-seater plane, will be airborne this summer. With its bylaws approved, the club is an official non-profit organization. Members selected Warner because it’s a perfect field on which to launch and land gliders. Robdrup says it’s a fairly quiet airspace, and the thermals and landscape around the area are perfect for training new pilots.

“Warner offers more than what first meets the eye to those of us who savour beautiful scenery and super thermal activity,” she says. “The Milk River Ridge is just off the west end of the airfield and stretches west towards Cardston and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. A few miles to the southeast you will see the Sweet Grass Hills or Bear Paw Mountains. These mountains are a wonderful prairie anomaly that produce thermal activity to well over 10,000 feet and can reach north for miles, pretty much from Warner to Medicine Hat.”

The gliding season will begin this month or next and run until October, depending on when the snow flies. The SAGA will be soaring as often as possible in all three flying seasons. Members hope to participate in provincial and national competitions throughout the season, and provide training and ground-school classes for those seeking licences.

Those wanting to experience a flight but don’t want to learn how to fly, can go for a ride with an experienced pilot. The community is welcome to watch the gliders whenever they lift off; the club will be at the Alberta International Airshow in August, raising awareness and attracting new members.

“It is a true stick-and-rudder machine; fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants piloting,” says Robdrup, administrative co-ordinator in Lethbridge College’s Centre for Applied Arts and Sciences. You are one with the glider. You feel every shudder as your wing catches a thermal. Turning into it, you are spiralled upwards at 1,500 feet per minute.”

How does a plane with no engine get off the ground? There are two options: the pilot can fly behind a tow plane or use a winch to reach appropriate altitudes. Once the glider reaches a desired height, the pilot breaks free and the soaring begins.

“Now thousands of feet above the Earth, you need oxygen to breathe and gloves on your hands. It’s cold up here. But you don’t even notice the cold because the amazement and appreciation of the landscape in a glider at this altitude has taken your breath away.”

Wider Horizons
Meghan Shapka
Original Publication Date: