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What does it feel like to ride in a glider? Curious about flying in a plane without an engine, we booked a scenic adventure flight at Seminole-Lake Gliderport in Clermont, Florida.

Florida glider flight
Florida glider flight
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Seminole-Lake Gliderport is 19 kilometers southwest of Clermont, at the intersection of Highways 33 and 561. Located a half hour west of Walt Disney World, the gliderport offers rides, glider rentals and training for aspiring glider pilots.

Cost of glider rides

Glider flight prices are based on altitude, not on the amount of time in the sky. We had the choice of 915-, 1,220- and 1,525-meter (3,000-, 4,000- and 5,000-foot)-high rides.

Prices include the glider rental, the pilot's time, insurance and the glider tow. Flight lengths range from 15 to 50 minutes long.

Are gliders safe?

The gliders have two cockpits – one for the pilot and one for the passenger. We were surprised that our seats were in the front cockpits to give us better views.

As we fastened our seat belts, we asked about the safety of glider flights. "There is no danger, unless the pilot does something stupid, like running into another glider in the air," answered Knut, one of our pilots.

"Nothing can go wrong with the glider because there are no engines to fail," he assured us. "It's so safe that you can solo a glider before you are old enough to drive a car, although you have to be 16 before you earn a pilot's license."

Pilot gives passenger pre-flight instructions
Pilot gives passenger pre-flight instructions
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We needn't worry. All Seminole-Lake Gliderport pilots are FAA-certified. They are also flight instructors for people who want to earn their FAA license.

Pre-flight briefing

Looking down at the instrument panel, we saw a maze of dials and switches. "There are only two things you must not touch," warned Knut. "This lever releases the tow hook, and this one opens the canopy. Anything else you touch is correct­able."

He then patiently described the function of each gizmo. "This lever works the spoilers, which pop up on the wings and allow us to descend. That's our throttle, for landing. Here's the altimeter. And these two variometers tell you if you're going up or down."

How does a glider fly without an engine?

Knut was reassuring, as he addressed our questions. "What happens if the wind dies down?" we inquired.

"You don't need wind to stay aloft," he replied. "All you need is sunlight to heat up the ground which, in turn, heats the air above it. The air rises as thermals, like steam from boiling water, and you follow it up."

How does he know that the air is rising, if he can't see it? He pointed to the puffy white clouds in the sky and explained: "There's lift under those clouds. Sometimes you see hawks or even eagles riding the thermals. If there are no clouds, I just look for an area that heats up well, such as an open field or paved area rather than a forest."

Attaching glider to tow plane
Attaching glider to tow plane
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Take-off with a tow plane

The excitement was palpable as we prepared for takeoff. After the pilots closed the fiberglass canopies, a staff member hooked each glider to a tow plane with a 60-meter-long cord.

We were seated so close to the ground that when the plane revved up and took off the grass whizzed by in green blurs on both sides.

Airborne, we circled higher and higher until our pilots released the tow lines. We heard clunks and then silence inside the gliders, as the tow planes returned to the gliderport.

Gently holding the sticks in front of us, we followed the maneuvers of our pilots as they gracefully spiraled the gliders up one thermal and down another. Looking out, we took photos of each other, tightly banking above lake-dappled landscapes.

How long can gliders stay airborne?

How fast can gliders fly? "Our speed is 130 knots," explained Knut. "That's about 240 kilometers an hour. The maximum glider speed is 135 knots and the minimum is 40."

The amazing thing to us, however, was the length of time that we were in the air without fuel. "In good weather, an eight-hour flight on one tow is not uncommon," he said. "You can fly all the way to Georgia and back from here. That's about 675 kilometers."

Glider flies behind tow plane
Glider flies behind tow plane
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Acrobatics, such as loops, are not done on public flights, but rotating the glider so that the wings are at a 90-degree angle to the ground is permissible. We found ourselves looking straight out of the canopies at orange groves, rather than the sky.

The wing-overs were the highlights of our flights. After our gentle landings, we emerged from the gliders on Cloud Nine.


Seminole-Lake Gliderport

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