Glider pilot Tom Wood takes off at a small private airfield west of Steamboat Springs. The Steamboat Springs Soaring Association has been granted permission to use the field, and thanks to a new winch and more than 4,000 feet of rope, the group is able to take off and land at the field.

Photo by John F. Russell

Glider pilot Tom Wood takes off at a small private airfield west of Steamboat Springs. The Steamboat Springs Soaring Association has been granted permission to use the field, and thanks to a new winch and more than 4,000 feet of rope, the group is able to take off and land at the field.

New sail plane club has glider pilots giddy

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— Look skyward this summer and you might see a few more sail planes soaring around Steamboat Springs.

This spring, a group of ardent aviators formed the seven-member-strong, nonprofit Steamboat Springs Soaring Association, a glider club pooling resources to fly with a winch off a 4,500-foot-long landing strip on ranch land owned by Ray Selbe.

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One of glider pilot Tom Wood's dogs chases him down the runway as he lands his glider at a private airfield west of Steamboat Springs.

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Glider pilot Tom Wood soars over a private airfield west of Steamboat Springs. The Steamboat Springs Soaring Association has been granted permission to use the field, and thanks to a new winch and more than 4,000 feet of rope, the group is able to take off and land at the field.

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The Steamboat Springs Soaring Association is using this winch to pull gliders to altitude at a private airfield west of Steamboat Springs. A car pulls the more than 4,000 feet of rope from one end of the runway to the other. The rope is than attached to the plane. The winch pulls the plane at high speed until it reaches altitude and the plane releases from the cord. Pilots then search the sky looking for thermals that will carry them even higher into the mountain sky.

“We’re one of the only clubs in the country to only use a winch to get airborne,” said club president Tom Wood. “A lot of clubs in this country are failing because of the cost of operating a tow plane, but this is cheaper, faster and safer.”

The group obtained the winch, which uses a 454 Chevy engine to reel in 6,000 feet of spectra rope, from a defunct sail plane club in Odessa, Texas, headed by Steamboat second-home owner Craig Freeman.

“They were looking for a club to give it to,” member and longtime flyer Steve Lewis said, adding that the club’s first flight took place June 21. “It’s like running with a piece of string to get a kite airborne. It’s a work of art.”

Here’s how it works: The winch rope pulls the glider along the runway, and once the glider gets up to about 1,600 feet, the rope detaches, launching plane and pilot off into the wild blue yonder.

Flights, Lewis said, “are usually either really short or long,” depending on the availability of thermals. With the club’s two Grob 102 gliders, which weigh just 620 pounds and enjoy a glide ratio of 40:1, flights can range from 10 minutes to two hours. Whenever a pilot reaches 1,000 feet, it’s time to beeline back for the landing strip.

Club Vice President Roberto Frias currently holds the “unofficial” distance record so far, soaring north to Steamboat Lake and south to Lake Catamount at 18,000 feet (above which is commercial air space) before returning to the airstrip to land — all on just a quarter gallon of gas used by the winch.

“It may well be the future of the sport because it’s so economical,” Lewis said, adding that another club recently opened in Grand Mesa that also is winching.

As for luring other pilots into the club’s fold, the future is as wide open as the skies area pilots are flying.

“This area of Colorado is virtually unexplored as far as sailplanes go,” Wood said, touting the region’s glider-friendly “lapse rate” as tops in the field. “With a high mountain desert, and a dry and arid climate with relatively cool temperatures, the conditions are truly spectacular for flying here.”

Dues for the club include a $1,000 initiation fee and an additional $100 per month in season. For information about joining, visit www.soarsteamboat.org.

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