Soaring the Sierra |

Soaring the Sierra

Alex Close

Court Leve / Tribune News Service / "It's a very satisfying thing to be able to use the wind and the air to your advantage," glider pilot Steve Ascher said. "It's a miraculous thing to be able to fly hundreds of miles and hours with no motor."

TRUCKEE – The whir of a plane taking off nearly drowns out Steve Ascher’s voice outside the office of Soar Truckee, the Truckee-based Glider Port off Martis Creek Dam Road. He is talking about his full-time profession, flying gliders.

Ascher is an instructor and ride pilot for Soar Truckee, a glider operation located off Martis Creek Dam Road in Truckee.

“Many people say that the skill of flying is more honed by flying gliders,” Ascher said.

According to Ascher, you have to be more tuned in to the environment when flying a glider than when flying a motored plane.

Principally, a glider depends entirely on the wind and air around it to fly. While a motored plane tows the glider off the ground and up into the air, a skilled glider pilot doesn’t need much tow to be able to fly great distances.

According to Ascher, a skilled pilot only needs to be towed up to about 1,500 feet; from there he or she can climb as high as 18,000 feet (the legal limit for gliders) using nothing more than natural forces.

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Gliders rely on what are called thermals to climb higher in the atmosphere.

A thermal is heated air, which rises upward. By the same principal that a circling eagle can climb up without flapping its wings, a glider can gain altitude simply by circling in a thermal.

Piloting a glider also has fewer regulations than a motored plane. Pilots can fly gliders solo at age 14 and get a license at age 16. Training can start as early as age 12.

The progression is fairly simple: about 25-35 flights with an instructor must proceed flying solo. After that a pilot must do about 10 flights solo and take a written and oral test with a Federal Aviation Association (FAA) examiner and fly a check ride before getting a license, which allows a pilot to carry a passenger.

Of course, carrying passengers for hire requires a commercial license.

“It’s something you can do in a summer if you’re regular about training,” Ascher said.

According to Ascher, Soar Truckee is one of the best places in the country, if not the world, for flying gliders. Because of the high elevation mountainous terrain, which butts up against the warm desert and the dry air, the thermals are incredible.

In addition, the Sierra is one of the world’s best generators of mountain waves. Mountain wave is air being pushed over a mountain range and creating the same effect that rushing river water has going over a large boulder. The same way a kayaker can surf back and forth on these rapids, glider pilots can surf this air up and down a mountain range.

While most pilots stay local, many also fly cross-country. According to Ascher, a glider taking off from Truckee can go as far as 700 miles away on a good day.

The limiting factor for these long distance flights is the length of the day. When the sun goes down the thermals die and long distance cannot be covered. Because of this pilots must plan ahead.

According to Ascher, pilots should always have a landing spot within range. Ideally landing spots are airports. However, sometimes gliders will be forced to land in fields or, as was the case last week with a pilot out of Minden landing in Tahoe City, golf courses.

While some people might think that flying a plane with a motor would be more fun, Ascher says it falls under the same criteria of sailing versus power boating.

“It’s a very satisfying thing to be able to use the wind and the air to your advantage,” Ascher said. “It’s a miraculous thing to be able to fly hundreds of miles and hours with no motor.”