Sport of soaring: Kansans fly engineless planes

Positive Connections

RENO COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) – A decades-old runway in rural Reno County is home to a group of fearless pilots.

Sunflower Gliderport is located south of Hutchinson, Kansas. The WWII-era airfield houses the Kansas Soaring Association and the Wichita Soaring Association.

“We are a small part of an entire world of soaring operations and we are very fortunate to have this right here in the middle of Kansas,” said Soaring Society of America Kansas Governor Jerry Boone.

Boone is a computer technology specialist during the week and a glider pilot on the weekends.

“I became a pilot, both glider and single engine, in 2007 and I had a lifelong fascination with aviation,” Boone said.

Fast forward to 2019 and Boone’s fascination has become a fun-filled hobby. He and several dozen others take to the skies nearly every weekend, weather permitting.

“I fly airplanes for a living. That’s how I make money so I can come out here and have fun on the weekends,” said pilot and Kansas Soaring Association President Tony Condon.

What is soaring?

Soaring is essentially flying in an unpowered plane.

A small-powered aircraft often tows the sailplane upwards using a 200 foot-long polypropylene rope. The tow plane releases the rope once the sailplane reaches about 2,000 feet. Pilots then use air currents to stay airborne.

“A glider with no engine is always losing altitude, always descending through the air, so if you want to stay up for more than 15 minutes you have to find some uprising air to stay in it to gain altitude,” Condon explained.

Pilots are often tasked with finding thermals, columns of rising air created by the heating of the earth’s surface, to stay afloat.

“When thermal updrafts are going up faster than we are going down then we are able to climb and maintain flight,” Boone said.

“It’s just like if you see a red-tail hawk or a turkey vulture soaring around, we are doing the exact same thing. We are just circling to stay in that little bubble of rising air,” Condon said.

Sport of Soaring

The sport of soaring has universal appeal. Speed and distance competitions are held at the local, regional, national and international level.

“Well, the challenge of the sport was really what attracted me. The challenge to stay up and then after figuring that out, challenge to see how far you could go and how fast you could do it,” Condon said.

Condon, 34, holds a national record for a pilot-selected turn point. He traveled 555 miles to La Grange, Texas in one trip.

“It’s an incredible high. It compares to nothing else in my experience, for sure,” he said.

Boone agrees. He too has won a couple of local competitions. The Sunflower Gliderport hosted a national competition in the summer of 2019.

“We had 16 glider competitors from all over the nation and every day racing courses were established depending on the weather and the conditions for those pilots to compete against each other for distance and speed,” Boone said.

Boone and Condon said they are grateful to live in an area that is conducive to soaring and they are optimistic about the future of gliding in Kansas.

“Not planning on quitting anytime soon. Still got work to do,” Condon said.

Click here to find out how to fly a glider plane at the Sunflower Gliderport.

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