Silence surrounds the glider as the tow plane that hauled it up to 4,000 feet fades into the blue, trusting thermals to lift the delicate craft up above the clouds. At this height, the narrow, reflective Finger Lakes just north seem small. The landscape looks as though Mother Nature dug her nails into upstate New York's vineyard-topped hills and pulled. The landing strip where the Harris Hill Soaring Corporation launches its gliders is no bigger than a hyphen.
Because the FAA-certified commercial glider pilots at Harris Hill fly aerotow Schleicher ASK-21 and Schweizer 2-33 gliders, the moment the tow plane that tugs each craft into the sky decouples is both fraught and thrilling. The engine-less tandem two-seaters fly up to 70 knots an hour, swooping like birds.
John "Corky" Gill, a retired Air Force pilot turned Harris Hill ace, has been flying gliders since he was a teenager. Now 80, he takes passengers on as many as eight flights a day, and is on the cusp of completing his 8,000th glider flight. He hasn't bored of riding the wind.
"You need warm air or thermals to help the glider rise. That's what we look for to stay aloft and climb to higher altitudes," he explains. "There have been times when red-tailed hawks are flying beside us. I've even seen a bald eagle in the same thermal."
Corky's passengers experience the joy of flight just as the Wright Brothers did more than a century ago, with just the wind whipping the glider back and forth. The experience is not about power or push, but about deftly defying gravity and trusting the generosity of physics.
More information: Public glider rides are available on weekends year-round and daily during the summer at Harris Hill Soaring Corporation, a little over an hour's drive west of Binghamton, New York, in Elmira. Rides last approximately 20 minutes and are $90 to $95 per person. The maximum weight limit is 225 to 245 pounds, depending on the glider. Rides are first come, first served.