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Riding on Tahoe’s air waves

Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribunePilot Bill Bush and reporter Susan Wood soar over South Shore Wednesday in Bush's glider.
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As a bird-watcher, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to soar at peace.

I received an up-close-and-personal glimpse of it on my first glider-plane ride Wednesday.

Beginning today, others will have a chance to have this write-home-about experience, as Palomino Valley Soaring starts up operation at the Lake Tahoe Airport.



“We’ve waited a long time to get here,” pilot Bill Bush said, before taking me up for an hour in the aircraft.

The Lake Tahoe Airport Commission approved the operation almost a year ago, and the company worked on establishing a business and financial plan as well as securing the million-dollar insurance policy.




The Sparks-based company will do business as Scenic Glider Rides at South Lake Tahoe from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Saturday.

And I can tell you from experience, a scenic view is exactly what a front-seat rider will get.

First, I was asked how much I weigh. Next thing you know, tow-plane pilot and company owner-operator Charlie Hayes put weights in the glider. This seemed more technical than the time I returned from a five-day cross country ski trip through Yosemite National Park in a four-seater. I was the sixth person, and the pilot handed me a seat belt and told me to sit on one of our backpacks for our trip over the Sierra Nevada.

Hayes’ tow plane got the sleek aircraft off the ground with an attached rope. The wrap-around plexiglass and the dials in front made me feel a little like Snoopy and the Red Baron.

However, the slight murmur of the wind turned this soar into the most peaceful aircraft ride I’ve ever made — a grand departure from those white-knuckled flights in small Cessnas.

With a 60-foot wing span, the glider soon caught a lift, soaring off the runway with fewer bumps than I expected coming out of the airport valley headed toward Lake Tahoe. Small trails otherwise unknown were carved into knolls between the trees.

I watched the altimeter climb to 800 feet upon getting a thermal lift over the Tahoe Keys and Lake Tahoe — a major reason to have such a venture in this region. Mesmerizing ripples covered the lake, and the low lake level created a massive murky green blob surrounding the Keys’ shoreline.

“You see how when we’re over the lake, it’s a much smoother ride?” Bush said from the back seat.

I spotted the M.S. Dixie II crossing the lake in the distance. It looked like a toy boat in a bathtub.

Bush, one of the old-time hang-gliding pioneers, said he prefers flying glider planes because it involves more people.

“Hang gliding is fun, but it’s a single sport,” he said, as the glider soared 2,000 feet over Stateline toward Kingsbury Grade.

The rust-colored swath over the hillside behind the casinos served as a friendly reminder of why the Ridge Tahoe was sweating out the Gondola fire July 3.

Carson Valley came into view, and the plane soared over the ridge in regular contact with the tow plane.

We turned like a fighter plane and headed toward Freel Peak, gaining elevation at a rapid pace.

Glider flights average between 40 and 70 knots per hour and can reach heights of up to 40,000 feet.

My altimeter edged close to 10,000, while Bush said the average ride will take pilots to 14,000 feet.

As for speed, we hovered at 60 to 70 knots with a glide ratio measuring movement of 33 feet for every 1-foot drop. He informed me our forward motion was simply dictated by a combination of weight and gravity pull. I was undeterred by the release to outside forces. It’s amazing what the glare of beauty can do for the psyche.

Then, it was my turn for control. Bush told me to pull a yellow handle to the left of my cockpit to release our tie to the tow plane.

Suddenly, my brisk brush with control cut us off from the plane as a yellow rope dropped from the glider.

Bush explained the concept of thermal lift and forward motion to ensure my comfort level. But I was perfectly fine with the experience and the pilot, ignoring any susceptibility to motion sickness. I was given a bag before flying, in case I lost my cookies or, rather, breakfast.

As we flew over the Heavenly Ski Resort summit trails, it dawned on me how a layer of white offers a completely different perspective.

“This is what people want to see when they fly,” Bush said of the South Shore high points.

Making our way to the airport, the pilot warned me to expect a popping sound as he activated the spoiler — a tool to control air speed on approach.

The landing was smoother than any major commercial flight I’ve experienced. It was an unusual feeling to be that close to the runway.

But what a feeling. I stole an “Independence Day” line: “I gotta have one of these.”

Bush said new glider planes can run a buyer about $100,000, while used, they can cost as low as $40,000. I think I’ll settle for the pay-per-ride method.

Scenic Glider Rides at South Lake Tahoe will offer a 20-minute flight for $80. A half-hour excursion will cost $120. They can be reached at (775) 771-9436.

I have a feeling I won’t be alone in the experience.

Palomino Valley Soaring provided rides during the recent Air Fest, in which about a dozen people went up in the wild blue yonder from the airport, Bush said.

The company figures it can safely handle 10 flights a day.

Mike Weber, who runs Chase’s Restaurant at the airport, called it the “coolest ride he’s ever been on.”

Mike Bradford, a glider plane pilot and airport commissioner, expressed enthusiasm about the company making the South Shore scene.

“Seeing the lake from a glider plane is the most spectacular way it can be done. Soaring into the Sierra is world class. There are few places in the world as comparable,” he said Wednesday.


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