I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to fly to Sun ‘N Fun in Florida a number of times. These flights were never an attempt to save the price of airfare, simply an opportunity to have a low key adventure and a little holiday, touring the US with a couple of friends from the wonderful low and slow perspective of an ultralight.
I made these trips as a flight of three Challengers together with Dave Goulet and Don Zank. They come from a powered airplane background and had never been exposed to soaring, which is not only a sport I greatly enjoy, but where I first learned to fly. As a result, they had never even considered turning off their motors in flight, yet I had come to discover that the Challenger is very competent as a glider.
Using conventional gliding techniques, I have enjoyed some wonderfully satisfying extended power off flights, some approaching 3 hours in duration and all in silence but for the whisper of the wind. The fact that the engine is there to be started up if you end up low over unlandable terrain, takes the anxiety out of an experience that can sometimes generate pretty white knuckles and a lot of sweat in a pure glider.
In any case, in spite of extensive time in the Challenger, neither Goulet nor Zank had any idea how well it could soar and while they didn't say it out loud, I suspect they thought I was at least exaggerating this soaring stuff if not making it all up. I was therefore waiting for an opportunity to open their eyes to their own airplanes' capabilities.
That opportunity came on the way home one afternoon near Valdosta, Georgia. The sky was littered with big cotton ball cumulus clouds, a sure sign of good soaring conditions. We were flying about a thousand feet over the spring farmland of southern Georgia. Without any explanation, I called them on the radio and told them to follow me. When I hit the lift, I turned off the motor and banked into a turn so I could spiral upwards in the powerful thermal. I was lucky and had chanced upon what those in the glider community affectionately call a boomer - a big, broad, juicy thermal providing very strong lift.
I didn't say anything more, but couldn't help smiling when I heard Zank call on the radio to Goulet in surprise: "He's turned off his motor!” A few seconds later with even greater surprise, Goulet calls back: "Look at him go up!”
I had hooked onto a fabulous thermal and was going up at better than a thousand feet per minute, a rate of climb that can be achieved with the Challenger but only at full power. In the meantime, not understanding the makeup of a thermal, they were circling outside the lift in the sinking air that often surrounds the lift.
The next comment I heard was Zank in a very disbelieving voice: "Dave, I'm climbing at full throttle and he's out-climbing me with his engine off!" They were in total shock and I felt like a kid in a candy store. Seldom do circumstances work out so well, and this one couldn't have been better.
I finally got on the radio and told them where to find the lift. The next thing I heard was Goulet’s laughter as he started going up like an elevator too. Zank followed, equally pleased. Neither was willing to actually shut their motor off, but with the throttle backed down to idle and still going up strongly, they clearly got the point.
Not knowing the simple soaring techniques of centering the thermal, they soon lost the lift and were nagging me to get back on course. I was damned if I was going to end such a delightful ride so told them to wait. Besides, I wanted to make the further point that you can have extended power off flights in the Challenger and this was the perfect opportunity.
They were concerned that they were burning fuel while I obviously wasn't and that was going to get us out of sync for fuel stops. From my perch high overhead I spotted a private grass strip nearby so suggested they land there and take a break. They did, pulling up in front of a lovely country home with a Beachcraft Baron parked in the ‘garage’.
After a while, Zank got on the radio to say that they were having one of the few cold shouldered receptions that we'd ever had. Usually people are terrifically curious about our airplanes and extremely friendly when we land. All the more so when they hear where we've come from and where we’re headed. In this case, the strip was freshly seeded and the owner was not enthused by their arrival - until they explained why they needed to wait.
The Baron owner was totally disbelieving. “An airplane up there, with the engine off!?” He thought they were crazy. In the meantime I was happily circling at cloud base at 7,000 feet AGL. Even though I told them precisely where to look, they couldn't spot me. Finally, after about an hour, the lift began to dissipate so I turned back to the strip and gently glided down. I landed in silence and coasted to a halt in front of the house.
The owner was fascinated by all this and had now become very friendly. Goulet and Zank in turn were acting totally blasé about this soaring business, pretending that it was old hat. The owner made us warmly welcome and sent his wife to get refreshments.
That was a memorable flight. Not just the soaring part, that was easy. Given a good thermal like that one, any glider pilot could have done the same. But it's not often the opportunity presents itself to make a point to the disbelieving in such a convincing way. To these guys who had yet to be weaned off of their motors, it was impressive stuff and extremely satisfying for me.
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