Glider pilots tap Routt County's prime flying conditions

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Tow pilot Bob Lynn prepares his plane for takeoff at the Steamboat Springs Airport. Lynn's plane is equipped with a powerful engine designed for heavier loads and plenty of windows for easy viewing.

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The inside of a glider is normally pretty stripped down to make them lighter. However, pilots have plenty of gauges and dials that allow them to keep track of air speed and altitude. New gliders run anywhere from $15,000 to $80,000.

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Glider pilot John Good, 56, from State College, Pa. stopped by the Steamboat Springs Airport, returning from a soaring trip to Utah. He was waiting for prime lift conditions to form before takeoff. Wood's glider has a 50-foot wingspan and has taken him as far as 700 miles in a single flight.

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Tow plane pilot Bob Lynn gives glider pilot John Good a lift at the Steamboat Springs Airport on July 10. Once in the air, the two planes begin a slow climb, before separating. Glider pilots then look for thermal drafts that will allow them to lift higher and extend their flights.

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Part-time Steamboat resident Sam Zimmerman practiced with his competition glider plane at a remote site in southwest Texas. Zimmerman has competed with the plane, which weighs anywhere from 550 to 750 pounds depending on the amount of water in the ballast tanks, for the U.S. team at the 2006 World Gliding Championships in Sweden. Like sailing races, competition gliding courses are determined and champions crowned based on overall speed.

— If you asked Richard Kellerman to design a perfect launching spot to go gliding, it might look a lot like the Steamboat Springs Airport.

Kellerman, a 65-year-old Philadelphia resident, and John Good, a 56-year-old pilot from State College, Pa., joined local gliding enthusiasts Sam Zimmerman and Tom Wood for a couple of days of invited flights from the airport on July 9 and10 that left the out-of-state pilots in awe.

"If you'd ask an airport authority where to put Copper Ridge, I'd say right there," Kellerman said July 10, pointing to the airport's adjacent ridge. With winds typically coming from the west-southwest, the strategically-placed ridge deflects air up the windward face, providing instant lift for the nonpowered aircraft once it is released from an initial tow-plane ride.

"You can climb up to 1,000 feet a minute, circling like a hawk and going up like a rocket," Kellerman said, pointing out the basic need of glider pilots to seek out rising warm air to extend their flights - of which the Steamboat Springs area has plenty, between the air coming off the Continental Divide and the ample thermal columns of warm air signified by cumulus clouds.

Able to glide outward about 60 miles after rising to an altitude of 18,000 feet above sea level before seeking lift, Kellerman said the pilots were able to traverse most of northwest Colorado on their five-hour flights the day before, west nearly to Vernal, Utah, back to Walden and south to Kremmling before landing back in Steamboat.

The visiting gliders were finding out about the wide-open, untapped skies Tom Wood has been soaring for years.

"The sailplaning is virtually unexplored up here," Wood said. "The guys here are top-notch race guys that recognize it's a short tow to a great lift source. Steamboat's nice - normally, you have to get a really high tow and go around looking for lift. Here, you have really powerful, readily-available lift and have a lot of decent fields to land in that are close to roads."

Wood's background to soaring is hang gliding, as the former president of the local Storm Peak Hang Gliding and Paragliding club. Wood still jumps off Hahn's Peak for hang-gliding thrills, but touts the flight benefits of the enclosed fiberglass/carbon fiber gliders he's recently become hooked on.

"Hang gliding's exciting, aggressive and physical as you run down the hill and get the adrenaline going, but with sailplaning, you get more performance and a lot longer distances - it's more cerebral and a more comfortable, relaxing ride," Wood said, pointing to the distance-to-altitude lost ratio of 40-to-1, compared to a hang glider's 11-1 ratio.

For Zimmerman, a 67-year-old retired neurologist who splits his time between Steamboat and his native South Carolina, the thrill of flight is in the speed relative to the competition.

"It's about reading the clouds and picking lines," said Zimmerman, whose competition glider tops out at about 160 knots (185 mph). "There's not much navigating left, with GPS, but I like being able to feel the air and pick a path."

Zimmerman picked up the sport more than 30 years and 5,000 hours of flight time ago, when he was working as a military physician at the U.S. base in Kitzingen, Germany. Since then, Zimmerman has advanced to the elite ranks of the global sport, where he is poised to lead the six-pilot USA Soaring Team at the 2008 World Gliding Championships next August in Lüsse, Germany.

Zimmerman travels to fly for six weeks of competition each year and thinks the current U.S. team, which will face European nations with a much firmer foothold in the sport, is "the strongest we've had in the last 20 years."

Having traveled the world and flown against the best pilots in the air, Zimmerman still sees a bright future for flight in Steamboat.

"This will be a fast place to fly - there's low humidity, which means strong thermals and a huge zone of workable air," he said.

Although Zimmerman and Wood are receptive to the idea of cultivating the local gliding base with the hopes of one day establishing a club, airport manager Mel Baker pointed out the difficulties of lining up and launching the tandem tow plane-glider rigs at a "pretty busy" airport four times the size of comparable general aviation airports.

"They did a good job landing and didn't tie up the runway hardly at all," Baker said.

Baker closed the airport in 2002 to hold a national glider event, has a few motor gliders stored at the airport and has a space for three to four visiting pilots to assemble their gliders off the runway. But rather than creating a soaring destination to rival the airports in Boulder, Colorado Springs and Salida where pilots flock, Baker will simply keep allowing similar small-scale glider flights, such as Kellerman and Good's, on a definite "operation by operation" basis.

Until the next avid, qualified pilots come through town seeking an invitation, Steamboat's dynamic airspace will remain what Zimmerman called an all "too well-kept secret."

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