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Women fly to new heights in planes without engines


When an off-road motorcycle accident left Debbie Rowles confined to her bed for nearly six months, she decided to stop racing and take up a safer sport -- soaring 3,000 feet above the ground in an aircraft without an engine.

Her passion for sailplanes, also known as gliders, led her to co-found the Atlantic Soaring Club (ASC) in 1990 at Harford County Airpark in Churchville. Among its 30 members is a handful of women -- a small but fervent sorority of female soaring pilots from around the state.

It's a sport that devotees say offers the mental challenge of flying without exacting a physical toll on the body.

"The only sound . . . is the gentle flow of air moving over the plane's wings," said Mrs. Rowles, 39, a former advertising executive from Pylesville who took up soaring with her husband, John, in 1985. "It's the closest thing to flying like a bird."

It is also a sport in which women are just beginning to make their mark, despite a tradition that goes back to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who in 1930 became the first woman known to have flown a glider.

Women account for fewer than 700 of the estimated 20,000 soaring pilots in the United States, according to the New Mexico-based Soaring Society of America.

In Maryland, although there are no firm statistics, there appears to be more balance. In addition to the five women in the Harford County club, the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association in Frederick has 17 women among its 150 members.

Pat Valdata, a soaring instructor from Elkton who helped Mrs. Rowles form the Harford sailplane club, is among the local female pilots.

"I look up to women like Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Virginia Schwizer, who flew during the 1940s," Ms. Valdata said. "They were soaring pioneers. They were doing it when hardly anyone else -- male or female -- did."

Soaring dates to the turn of the century, when Orville Wright made the first documented glider flight. The sport did not become popular until after World War I, when German engineers became the first to build gliders with advanced designs.

By 1930, the sport had caught on in the United States. The first U.S. gliding championships were held that year in Elmira, N.Y.

Today, soaring is a competitive sport, with records to be set. Pilots also may earn badges for flights of specified distance, duration and height. Although some women, including Ms. Valdata, have earned badges, few compete.

Sharon Smith, president of the Women Soaring Pilots Association, said financial and child care concerns may be responsible for the low female participation in the sport.

Others say many women have little time for an impractical and time-consuming hobby. Learning to soar takes 30 to 40 lessons and about 10 hours in the air, Ms. Valdata said. Each lesson costs $35 to $45.

"You can't justify the expense in practical terms," she said. "Gliders can't be used for transportation. Soaring is something you do just for fun."

On a recent Saturday, several members of ASC met at the Harford County Airpark under a canopy of puffy white clouds.

Club President Walt Buranen and Ms. Valdata were on the field by 11 a.m., preparing a sailplane for flight. They went over every inch, checking the rudder, adding air to a tire and wiping dirt from the wings.

When the preflight check was completed, they pushed the white-bodied aircraft to the end of the runway to await a tow.

The sailplane, an old two-seater with a 40-foot wingspan, was built by Schweizer Aircraft Co. in New York and is worth about $12,000. The latest racing models from Finland or Germany can cost as much as $60,000.

As Mr. Buranen hooked a nylon rope to the glider and to its tow plane, a single-engine Bellanca Scout, Ms. Valdata climbed into the glider's cockpit and strapped herself in.

She straddled the joystick, her feet touching the pedals that control the rudder. Once settled, she lowered the canopy and, with a wave, gave the all-clear signal.

The sailplane made a bumpy pass down the runway, obediently following the tow plane like a dog on a leash. Soon, both aircraft were flying above the trees, climbing to 3,000 feet.

After circling a few times, Ms. Valdata freed herself from the Scout with the push of a button. The moment of release was marked by a sound that resonated through the cockpit like a gunshot.

Once on their own, sailplanes can fly for hours, traveling for hundreds of miles at speeds of 30 to 90 mph -- that is, if the thermals are right.

Thermals are currents of hot, rising air that can take a sailplane up 500 or 600 feet in a minute, to altitudes as high as 49,000 feet. Although natural features such as ridges can create lift, most thermals are found under cumulus clouds.

Sailplanes circle inside thermals until they have enough altitude to venture away from the current. Once gravity catches up with them, they search for another thermal. The quest is not always successful.

"You can't see lift; you have to find it through trial and error," Mrs. Rowles said. "Mother Nature is kind of stingy with the days where that's easy to do, so it's a constant pursuit."

It's not a sport for the queasy. A thermal lift feels a lot like turbulence. The jarring ride is interrupted only when the glider is between thermals, descending smoothly at a rate of 3 feet per second.

The thrill ended as the sailplane returned to earth with a jolt, bouncing several times before stopping.

Although soaring appears to be perilous, pilots say the most dangerous part of the sport is driving to the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration lets 14-year-olds fly solo, two years below the age for soloing in a powered plane.

And each weekend, members of the Harford club try to persuade people -- especially women -- to join their ranks. The men in the club are particularly supportive of the recruitment efforts, Mrs. Rowles said.

"They seem to think the more women we get on the field, the better," she said with a laugh. "Most of them are single."

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