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Rural Missouri Magazine

Graceful Gliders
The Midwestern Soaring Association
takes to the sky

by Jennifer Kettler
Ron Leonard, president of the Midwestern Soaring Association, watches the club's tow plane come in for a landing at Richter Field as Mike Haynes waits in the cockpit for his turn to soar. A group of dedicated glider enthusiasts gathers almost every weekend during the spring through fall to fly from the grass airstrip near Pleasant Hill.

Barn swallows dive for bugs on the grassy runway of Richter Field, 35 miles south of Kansas City, as the blazing sun beats down on members of the Midwestern Soaring Association. Waiting for take off in the engineless aircraft, Ron Leonard wipes the sweat off his brow as the temperature inside the cockpit rises to nearly 130 degrees.

Most Missourians would wilt in the summer sun, but Ron welcomes the heat. Where there’s heat, there’s lift. Ron eyes the clouds as he readies a bright red glider for flight.

The hum of a high-wing airplane is heard 200 feet up the runway. A bright yellow rope connects the two aircraft like an umbilical cord. Suddenly, the tow plane revs its engine and rumbles down the grass runway. The rope pulls taut and Ron jerks back in his seat as the glider lurches forward. Soon, the ground disappears and the glider is in flight before the tow plane has even taken off.

As the planes climb to the silver base of the cumulus clouds, houses and cornfields shrink below. At 2,500 feet, Ron reaches for the bright red knob on his dashboard, and a loud pop echoes through the cockpit. The glider breaks free from the tow plane and sails through the blue sky like a hawk in flight.

Every weekend for the past seven years, the Midwestern Soaring Association has come to Richter Field, just outside of Pleasant Hill, to relive what the Wright brothers started more than 100 years ago. About a dozen members take turns sailing through the air on the wings of 500-pound gliders that typically travel 60-80 mph.

Stu Ostrander, a retired engineer from Platte City, has served as vice president of the 50-year-old association for the past nine years and loves the liberty to move in three dimensions when flying.

Mike Haynes flies a sleek sailplane. Gliders can stay aloft anywhere from 20 minutes to hours depending on lift and flight conditions.

“The freedom is something unique,” he says. “Like swimming, you can do flips, dive and go upside down.”

As a child, he flew in his dreams. As an adult, he comes to Richter Field every weekend to soar. After he takes off, members of the association hang out in the shade and watch as Stu tries to find a thermal with some lift.

Thermals are created from the heat when ground temperatures rise and release moisture into the atmosphere. The rising moisture collects and creates clouds. Pilots look for clouds as indicators of rising warm air, which provide lift, allowing gliders to defy gravity and sail without an engine for hours. Ron, a member of Osage Valley Electric Cooperative, explains, “The trick is to find air that’s rising up faster than going down.”

Stu Ostrander controls the dual passenger glider flying at 60 mph above Richter Field.

With good lift, pilots can glide for hundreds of miles. Every year Leonard participates in a distance competition called the Kowbell Klassic in Hutchinson, Kan. The unpredictability and challenge fuel his passion for distance gliding.

“You venture out against uncertainty, against things you can’t control, bound by forces you can’t see,” says Ron. “You come back thinking, ‘Wow, I just went 200 miles in a plane that wasn’t powered by anything but chance.’”

Ignited by the thrill of flying, Ron has led the association as president for the past 11 years. His father, a test pilot for Cessna, originally exposed him to planes as a child. Ron can remember going to the airport every weekend with his dad and two brothers.

“Growing up there was a little airport about three miles from my home,” he recalls. “We would drive to the airport and then fly a two-seater, powered plane to the glider airport about 30 miles away. For me, a family outing was to go gliding.”

Things haven’t changed much. Ron lives about 10 miles from Richter Field, and he still goes to the airport every weekend. The thrill of the sport and the family tradition keep him coming back.

Members of the association refer to Ron’s hobby as “the flying bug.”
“It’s the irresistible urge to fly airplanes at any expense,” says Steve Wert, a member of the soaring association.

Ron Leonard, Scott Jake and Michael Bruan pull Ron’s glider out of a 35-foot-long trailer. Ron spends about an hour assembling the plane for flight.

Being a part of the association makes the expense of flying more manageable. The association rents a hanger and airfield and offers free flying lessons from a certified instructor. In exchange for a $250 initial membership fee and $25 monthly dues, members receive access to three gliders. They pay $8 an hour to fly the planes, plus an additional $23 for each tow from a powered aircraft.

Every week an online poll determines whether there’s enough interest and tow pilots willing to fly that weekend. Without tow pilots it’s impossible to fly. The association is always looking for tow pilots as well as new members. Beginners can fly with a licensed pilot in the dual passenger glider but a license is required to fly solo.

The association, which includes about 50 dues-paying members, offers free rides to those interested, but asks larger groups to give a contribution to support the association, as it isn’t legally allowed to sell rides. Would-be fliers can join the group’s e-mail list where information on soaring and upcoming flights is discussed.

The association frees glider enthusiasts from the expense of owning their own aircraft and allows like-minded aviators to learn from each other and share the thrill of powerless flight. A day of flying might cost $30 to $60 — comparable to a fishing trip’s worth of gas or a greens fee at a golf club.

The club's two-seat glider comes in for a landing at Richter Field. The club often offers introductory flights to guests.

But members say the chance to soar on the wind is unlike any other recreational pursuit.
“It’s quite an experience to be in a thermal and then see a hawk 100 feet above you,” says Steve. “It’s the closest thing that people can do to fly like a bird.”

Stu agrees the experience is unlike anything else.

“It’s mind-boggling,” he says. “You’re in something heavier than air and you can just go wherever you want. I’m an engineer and know how it works, but I still marvel at the phenomena.”

Jennifer Kettler, a 2004 University of Missouri School of Journalism graduate interned for Rural Missouri in 2005. For more information about the Midwestern Soaring Association, call Stu Ostrander at (816) 903-0212 or visit the group’s Web site at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/kcsoaring24/.

Stu, left, and his wife, Kathy, push the glider off of the runway to make room for the next plane to take off. Because gliders don’t have engines, they can’t be taxied off the runway.

 

 

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