Winging It in an Engineless Plane

"GMA Weekend" anchor Kate Snow breezes through the sky in a glider plane.

November 21, 2009, 2:51 PM

JULIAN, Pa., Nov. 22, 2009— -- The first time I ever saw a glider plane was actually about 10 years ago. My parents bought my brother a flight at a tiny airstrip near their home in the middle of Pennsylvania. The whole family gathered for the big event.

I can still remember the warm sun on that autumn day, the big smile on my brother's face when he landed and his descriptions of floating along through the air.

So that's how I found myself reading a textbook about glider planes as my husband drove me and my kids to that same airstrip last week. I'll be honest. I was cramming.

My co-anchors and I have all taken turns at having a "weekend adventure" -- something we'd probably never try otherwise. These are the kind of stories that make us realize we do, in fact, have pretty cool jobs.

I chose to take a flying lesson in a glider plane with two of the very best. Yes, that's right. Two of the very best glider pilots in the world operate just outside of State College, Pa. Remember the glider scene in the movie "The Thomas Crown Affair"? Tom Knauff and Doris Grove shot those scenes right here.

"Most everybody has a desire to be able to fly," Knauff told me when I first arrived.

Boy did I.

I spend a lot of time in noisy jet planes. But this would be different. Being in a glider, or a soar plane (they're essentially the same thing), is the closest any human can come to soaring like a bird.

"What we are able to see and do is unique, and beautiful," Knauff said. "I think the beauty of this thing, what we do is understated."

The glider planes look futuristic and sleek. But for pilots, they're really like returning to an earlier era of flight. The Wright Brothers flew a glider -- with controls that aren't so different from what they use today. They are simple machines. Gliders are lightweight with no motor, just a smooth fiberglass tube with long narrow wings. Like the birds, air flow, currents and "lift" keep a glider afloat. In my textbook I learned about ailerons, the rudder and the elevator -- the main controls that make a glider turn or change speed.

Glider Flight Like 'Floating on Air'

"The difficult part is all your previous life experiences don't really prepare you," Knauff told me. Even knowing how to drive a car is not helpful, he said.

Luckily I was able to pass a written test. (The cramming worked.) And I was off to see my ride.

Knauff's wife, Doris Grove, showed me around the plane.

She is quite a woman. She had six children during a first marriage, and decided in the 1970s that after her sixth went off to school, she wanted to do something for herself.

"I took her out to the bus for first grade, and when the bus was starting to go, I said, 'Bye Rosalie,' and I ran in to the Yellow Pages (to see) where I could go learn to fly," Grove said.

Flying was still a boy's club then, and one instructor after the next turned her away. She remembers one guy in particular. She politely asked if she could have a lesson.

"He hit the counter with a bang and did a turn and said I am not going to teach another damn woman to fly!"

Do you think that stopped Doris? No way. Eventually she found an instructor willing to -- as she says -- "teach a girl."

Knauff was looking for a business partner to help him open a glider port. Grove volunteered.

"And he said, 'You? But you're a girl.' I said, 'That's right. I'm glad you noticed,'" Grove remembered.

Somewhere along the way they got married in Vegas. Neither of them can remember exactly how long ago that was. Doris Grove is now 76 and flies nearly every day. She'll be my instructor in the sky.

There are no parachutes or helmets worn in a glider plane. There's no radio control tower to contact. Grove and I settle into deep seats in our two-seater plane, almost fully reclining. My feet are out in front of me on two rudder pedals. I'm in the front seat; Grove in back.

After a motor plane tows us up to about 5,000 feet, I pull a yellow knob that makes a loud bang. That unhooks our tether to the tow plane, and we're on our own.

It is breathtaking. It's hard to describe the feeling of floating on air. The only sound is the wind rushing past.

"Whenever it's bouncy, you just kind of say, 'ride 'em cowboy!'" Grove yells from the back.

I love her attitude.

Glider Offers Bird's-Eye View of Autumn Scenery

Grove teaches me to turn the plane by moving the stick and pushing in the proper rudder pedal at the same time. We're doing 360s in the sky. Cool.

I learn quickly that it really doesn't take much movement to change the path of a glider plane. A tiny shift of the stick can cause the turn to roll or turn.

"It doesn't take very much, does it?" Grove asks. She's a great cheerleader. She tells me I'm doing pretty well. I'm guessing she says that to all of her first-timers.

Sooner than I had hoped, it's time to land. It's a windy day and there are no "thermals" -- columns of rising air that might keep us aloft a bit longer.

I take a moment to soak in the scenery. Autumn is just giving way to winter in this part of the country. Most of the leaves are down now, and the landscape below is stark but beautiful. We're flying near a ridge right next to Happy Valley.

Grove tells me one of the things she most enjoys is watching the seasons change.

She takes over the controls and steers the plane into a downward descent, bringing us in for a perfect landing on the grass. We're at a full stop within seconds. Amazing.

She and Knauff say they're not sure how much longer they'll run the place. They dream of retiring. But they sure seem to love their work.

"Somebody told me in high school, 'Find something that you love doing, and you'll never have to go to work a day in your life.' And that's been our story," Knauff said. "We have fun every day."

For more information about Ridge Soaring Gliderport or Doris Grove and Tom Knauff, please visit their web site.

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