On a cloudless summer day last year, I headed out to Harris Hill Soaring Club in Big Flats, New York.
For several months I’d been curious about the thin, white gliders circling the hill at all times of the day. I was fascinated by the length of time these motorless planes could stay in the air, and the amount of control their pilots had as they climbed, turned, and landed on the small airfield at the top of the hill. Heading east on route 17 from Corning to Big Flats, you encounter a sign reading, “The Soaring Capital of the World.” I didn’t understand the true meaning of these words until learning some background about the area from club members, and then going for my first glider ride.
I discovered the soaring club in a nondescript wooden building, located above Harris Hill Park, that includes a miniature golf course, go-carts and batting cages. The club is on the same road as the National Soaring Museum, though not run by the same organization. In one afternoon you may learn about the history of powerless flight at the recently remodeled museum, and then take a demonstration flight with a certified pilot at the club. Also nearby and not to be missed is the National Warplane Museum, featuring vintage aircraft and interactive displays.
For $65 at Harris Hill you may purchase a ride in a high-performance Schleicher ASK-21 sailplane. Depending on atmospheric conditions, the flight will last approximately 20 to 30 minutes, and will take you 2,500 feet above the Harris Hill airfield. Though the altitude is enough to make even the most courageous weekend warrior anxious, the speed is not. Demonstration flights soar at only 45 to 50 miles per hour.
From the observation deck, you wait with others signed up to fly that day. With several planes in the air at any one time, nearly 50 flights at Harris Hill can be scheduled on a single weekend day. When it is your turn, members of the soaring club escort you to the airfield, introduce you to the pilot who will fly the two-seated glider, and help you get into position at the front of the plane.
When the airfield is clear, one of two Piper Pawnee tow planes is connected to the glider with a retractable line. The pilot then checks the harness on his seat and that of his passenger. He closes the clear Plexiglas canopy overhead and conducts a pre-flight checklist. When all is in order, he gives thumbs up to the tow plane pilot who will make the glider airborne over the edge of Harris Hill.
Our tow plane made a wide circle around the airfield of the soaring club, which is always kept in view during a demonstration ride. At approximately 2,000 feet, the pilot instructed me to pull the lever on the front control panel that disconnects us from the tow plane. I will never forget the silence that followed. After the tow plane cleared our immediate air space, there was only the sound of the plane sailing through the sky, matched by the panoramic beauty of the Chemung Valley. My pilot, Steve Garner, then climbed another 500 feet using only the updrafts from Harris Hill.
Prior to takeoff he had informed me, “You’ll feel your feet moving slightly as I use the steering system. Just let the second control stick between your knees have enough room to move.
“I’ll let you do a little steering if you’d like in the air,” he continued. I don’t remember him asking again when we were airborne and I wasn’t about to volunteer for the job. Being a sail plane passenger was enough to keep me occupied during that first flight. When we touched down on the airfield 25 minutes later, I was already thinking about when I’d come back to take another flight.
I had been more than a little nervous as I waited for my first flight on the club’s observation deck. As I chatted with club members, they assured me that motorless flight can actually be a very tranquil experience. “It has to be among the most peaceful and even relaxing experiences you can have,” club member Jed Scovill said.
Soaring has a rich history in the Elmira-Corning area. The Schweizer Aircraft Company, also located in Big Flats, was among the largest sailplane manufacturers in the world for many years. The company, adjacent to the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport, now focuses on building helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft, and is an aerospace subcontractor. It still offers flight training for glider pilots through its own commercial program.
The soaring club’s marketing director, John Fessenden, told me that soaring in the area actually started within the city of Elmira. As far back as the late 1920s, sailplanes were launched from the hill behind the Southside Prison. “In those days they didn’t use tow planes, but literally a bungee system that launched the glider from the hill,” he related.
It wasn’t long after that soaring enthusiasts discovered the potential of Harris Hill to become a key sailplane area for the Northeast. The first National Soaring Competition was held at Harris Hill in 1930, and regional competitions have been held there regularly ever since. Harris Hill is ideal for soaring due to prevailing winds, which hit the hill head-on and cause large updrafts. This is known in the sport as “ridge sailing,” and for Harris Hill this means a sailplane may log long flights at high altitudes.
In 2001, Harris Hill Soaring Club had approximately 180 members. The club has active flyers in their 70s, while many are middle-aged professionals. Rounding out the roster is a small number of teenage pilots. Some members, such as Steve Garner, are licensed to fly powered aircraft as well as sailplanes. Depending on the club’s duty roster, these members serve as both glider and tow plane pilots.
A Harris Hill Soaring Club member pays only $15 a month in club dues after a one-time initiation fee of $200. Depending on the number of hours required and flights logged, it is reasonable to obtain a glider pilot’s license for less than $1,000. Pilots not only have to demonstrate skilled takeoffs, maneuvering, and spot landings; they must also answer a series of questions in a written exam to be given a license by the FAA.
Harris Hill Soaring Corporation operates the club. This nonprofit organization is a member of the Soaring Society of America and its members participate in many regional and national soaring contests. The club currently owns 10 gliders and two tow planes. It is able to afford this expensive equipment through its large number of club members whose dues contribute to fuel, plane upkeep and even food for club get-togethers.
Last year, the club had 20 junior members. Junior fliers are between the ages of 15 and 20 and must be 16 years of age to fly solo. After their 18th birthday, they may get their license to fly demonstration and training flights for other would-be pilots.
“We have the best program in the world for teaching young people to fly,” Fessenden related. “It’s relatively inexpensive and allows our junior members not only to learn powerless flight, but also to see how a soaring club operates,” he added.
Fessenden grew up in the Elmira area and is a longtime club member. When he was 12, his parents paid for his first demonstration ride. At 15, he made his first solo flight from Harris Hill. Now, over 25 years later, he is still captivated by the sport and eager to share the experience with others.
The season at Harris Hill Soaring Club runs from April through October. Flights are available on weekends from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The club is open seven days a week from the end of June to the end of August. Because the club does not accept flight reservations, it’s a good idea to arrive early and sign in. For more information, the club may be reached at 607-734-0641. Two years ago the club launched its Web site at: www.harrishill soaring.org. A visit to the site will provide news about the club, flight information, and pricing. You will also find a number of links to other attractions in the Elmira-Corning area.
by Chris Sharman
Chris Sharman is a freelance writer living in Elmira, New York. He is published in numerous regional publications. He may be reached at email@example.com.