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Thursday, March 1, 1984The Daily Tar Heel)
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Sailplanes takes off from Bill Via's
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Meadowlark Gliderport, located
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By WAYNE THOMPSON
Assistant State and National Editor
Inside the cockpit of a sailplane at
3,000 feet, the only sounds I could hear in
the front seat were the wind whistling like
a tea kettle through the vent in the clear
canopy and the ride pilot's voice.
"Okay, put your hand on the stick and
your feet on the pedals and follow .along
with what I'm doing," the pilot told me.
I felt the stick jiggle slightly to the left,
the left foot pedal depress and the
sailplane bank left. "A little left pedal
and stick and you make a left turn!" I
"That's all it takes,', the pilot said.
"Pretty nice, huh?"
Before I could answer the glider began
to gain altitude, rising in tiers like an
elevator. " .
"We're in a thermal," the pilot explain
ed. "I'll try to keep us in it for a while."
Thermals, or rising columns of hot air
caused by the uneven heating of the earth
by the sun, are the sailplane jock's stock
and trade. Unlike gliders, which can only
lose altitude, sailplanes can climb; the
thermals are how they can do it.
After twenty minutes of circling lazily
in the thermal, the needle on the altimeter
started to move counterclockwise.
"That's it for the thermal," the pilot
said. "We're in sync now."
Then I figured it out. "That means
we're out of the hot air and losing our
lift," I said.
"That's right," said the pilot. "It's
time for us to take it on in, so I'm going
to cross back over (Interstate) 85 and set
us up for the runway," he said. "When
we're in the middle of our turn we should
be somewhere around 400 feet."
The sun overhead cast the plane's
silhouette over the cars below. The cars
got larger and larger as the craft gently
lowered. One woman with her- hair in
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rollers leaned over the steering wheel of
her blue Monte Carlo and cast a puzzl
ed glance up at the sky as the twin-seat
Grob Twin II . crossed the interstate
banked to the left, and'swung back over
Seconds later, treetops passed under
the white fiberglass belly of the sailplane.
It , drifted steadily downward toward a
thin ribbon of black pavement, rising up
a few feet only briefly before the rubber
wheel hit the asphalt and the disc brakes
whined after the pilot pulled the brake
lever. Rolling to a swift stop, the
sailplane's right wing eased to the ground
and I pulled a lever opening the canopy
and got out a little queasy but with a
smile on my face.
"Wasn't it a lot of fun?" asked a man
who walked up to me.
"I want to do it again," I said, handing
$30 to the man who jotted down the
length of the flight on a clipboard.
A handshake later, I got into my car,
pulled out of the parking lot and headed
back home to Chapel Hill.
What happened to me was a scene that
former UNC professor Bill Via loves to
see happen every .day above the farms,
woods and trailers of Whitsett, N.C.
"I get my biggest thrill in taking so
meone for a ride that's never been in a
plane," said Via, the owner of the two
runways, a hangar, an operations building
and a parking lot known as the
Meadowlark Gliderport. "When they
finally get in the machine and go ... they
live this fantasy."
For Via, the chairman of - the oral
diagnosis department of the Dental
School from 1969-78, his fantasy with
sailplanes began years ago.
"I started flying power plans in 1939
and sail planes in '64," he said. "About
18 years ago my dream was to open up a
gliderport before I turned 50.
are readied for their flights. Safety
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"While I missed it by a few years," Via
said with a grin, "this is the culmination
of that plan."
And Via said he likes Whitsett, where
he's been operating for the last 10 months
Thursday through Sunday from 10:30
to sunset. "The location here is ideal," he
said. "We're in the center of population
in North Carolina. And it's easy for peo
ple to find us."
Soaring appeals to a broad group of
people, he said. "Some come in that have
flown power planes for years and want to
fly sailplanes," he said.
"There are millionaires, college
students, dentists, lawyers and
businessmen." But he added, "there are
n also some people who are only going to
do it once in their lifetime."
Others will pay up to $1,100 to solo in
the Gliderport's sleek Grob Twin II. Via
said the special challenge of soaring is
worth the money. "This is the only real
challenge in aviation," he said.
"It's the joy of knowing that you per
sonally are in charge of that machine and
your skill will decide whether you get a
20-minute flight or a two-hour one."
Even when a pilot makes a mistake, the
sailplane gives him more options, Via
said. "A sailplane is not going to burn up
if it crashes like a power plane," he said.
' 'And 98 percent of the fatalities are caus
ed by fire."
The aerodynamics help, too. "We had
one guy that crash-landed in a soybean
field. When we got there the sailplane was
floating on the tops of the soybeans, two
feet off the ground.
"We're also doing everything we can
to promote safety at the field," Via said.
"The power lines are run undeground,
and even if a new pilot has 5,000 log
hours, he'll take check flights with our in
structors." Aside from running students through
the grist mill of turns and level flying in
is an important consideration at
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their first lesson, the four part-time FAA
certified ride pilots teach the finer points
of "pilotage" that's sailplane talk for
using buildings, water towers and other
landmarks on the ground to tell where
you are. Of special importance is In
terstate 85. Gene Wheeler told one of his
students during a lesson, "If you panic
and get confused by the compass, look
for .85," he advised. "If you remember
that it runs north to south, west and east
won't be too hard to find."
Students pay $15 an hour to Wheeler
and the other pilotc for the instruction,
from $15 to 40 an Hour for glider rental
(the more sophisticate -model sailplanes
cost more), and from $10 for a tow to
1,000 feet or less to $20 for 3,000 feet.
Students can choose from one of ten
"I want to continue to develop this as a ,
place where people can go and have the
most conveniences so they can enjoy
soaring," he said about the new opera
tions building and pilot lounge.
"As we get more and more people out
here and buying equipment, we'll have
races here ... maybe even completing a
50-mile course against the clock," he
Meadowlark and the 30 other Soaring
Centers of America may offer the chance
to share with others the soaring ex
perience, but there's a private side to
hours of floating on a cushion of air.
"I have flown with hawks as high as
7,000 feet," said Via, "How beautiful
they are in the sunset."
"You're up ahere and flying with
them.. .it's the beauty of the earth."
To get to Meadowlark Gliderport, take
Interstate 85 to Exit 138 Gibsonville.
From this exit, turn right and go straight
until you reach US 70. After taking a left
onto US 70, the Gliderport will be one
mile ahead on the left.
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Bill Via (above) has realized his
dream of operating a gliderport.
Zane A. Saunders
Left, the view from the cockpit is
exhilarating and adds to the ex
citement of the experience.
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