Look, in the sky: it’s a bird; it’s a plane! Actually, it’s a bird and a plane. Both are making slow circles in the blue skies above Hood River.
Like the soaring bird, the aircraft has caught a draft of warm air called a thermal, rising from the valley of the Columbia River Gorge.
The plane is a glider and what makes gliders unique from other aircraft is that they have no engine. They stay aloft by the aerodynamic contours of their outstretched wings as they slice through the rising updrafts of the thermals. And the only thing steering them into those currents of air is a pilot. In this case, the pilot is a teenager who’s not even old enough to drive a car.
Gliding in the skies is a form of freedom and responsibility taken on by a group of teenagers in the Columbia Gorge who come together through the nonprofit organization Hood River Soaring.
“A lot of people don’t think a 14-year-old in the sky above you would be very safe,” said Fox Gossett, a glider pilot-in-training with the club. “But it’s not just any 14-year-old in the skies above you — it’s an educated 14-year-old in the skies above you.”
Not your typical after-school activity
At the Hood River airport, in the grassy field alongside the paved runway, about a half dozen teenagers gather after school. Some were dropped off by parents, some rode their bikes. They range from ages 12 to 16. Most aren’t old enough to drive a car along the local two-lane farm roads, but here they are learning to fly gliders several thousand feet above the Hood River Valley.
The students can qualify to fly solo in a glider at age 14. At age 16 they can qualify to take passengers. Before they earn their wings, however, they start as ground crew.
Two teenage boys putter down the side of the runway in a golf cart. They deliver a long yellow nylon rope. This rope will be connected to a small airplane, the type commonly referred to as a “crop duster.” It’s a compact plane with a powerful engine, good for flying low over farm fields. It’s also good for towing gliders up into the skies over Hood River.
The end of the yellow rope is connected to the nose of the glider. The students learn the proper hand gestures to signal the rope being connected, with an upraised arm and open hand, then they make a fist, letting the pilot know the tow rope is securely latched.
They are earning their “ground badge.” It sounds similar to Boy Scouts earning merit badges, but what makes this club unique is that the responsibilities and consequences are far beyond most teenage sports and after-school activities.
“I mean, it’s almost illegal for kids to take that kind of responsibility in so many other areas — kind of like letting your kids sail around the world or something like that,” said Brian Hart, the coordinator of the youth program and also a parent to one of the pilots. “But because they train so much for safety, I feel my son is just as safe here as in a car. Probably safer.”
Training for “rope break”
Fifteen-year-old Fox Gossett latches the clear canopy over the cockpit. Behind him sits Geoff Curtis, his instructor. Like other instructors with the Hood River Soaring club, Curtis had a long career in aviation. He’s now passing down his knowledge to the upcoming generation.
After dozens of lessons over the past year, Curtis lets Fox lead the pre-flight check.
“At this point I’m just ballast,” he says, jokingly.
Pilots are famous for their even, almost deadpan, speech. Fox has learned that this mannerism is not simply for effect, but actually an intentional counterbalance to the degree of danger pilots face on a daily basis. It’s a way of staying perpetually calm and clear-headed in the most high-stakes moments. Fox ticks off his pre-flight checklist in a slow, deliberate voice: “Altimeter, set; ballast, set; canopy is closed and locked; ready for takeoff…”
Fox gives his ground crew the thumbs up.
The youth crew member, Anastasia Mitsky, swings her arm, signaling the pilot of the tow plane to move forward slowly to take out the slack in the tow rope.
When the rope is straight, Anastasia holds her arm straight upwards, then drops it, letting the pilot know he can accelerate for takeoff.
The drone of the tow plane’s engine pitches higher. The powerful crop duster begins to move forward on the runway.
The yellow rope draws taut and soon the glider is being pulled. It’s so light in comparison to the tow plane that it seems to wiggle and wobble. With a much longer wingspan, the glider lifts off the runway before the powered plane.
Soon, both are airborne, but Fox needs to work the control stick and foot pedals in the glider’s cockpit to stay in position behind the tow plane.
If the glider swings too far off in any direction, it can actually yank the tail of the tow plane. If the glider climbs too high too soon, it can tip the nose of the tow plane down, even causing a crash.
“I mean, you got two things on a tether,” Hart said, “and anytime you have two things tethered that’s the potential for a lot of hazard.”
As both airplanes lift off the runway, the horizon of trees and buildings begins to reveal an expanse of open blue sky.
Then, Fox hears a click and feels a barely perceptible shutter in the glider. His heart leaps. He knows exactly what has happened in a split second. The tension from the tow rope is gone. The yellow rope has been released and now flutters behind the tow plane.
Fox had expected to climb to some 3,000 feet into the sky before the release. But his instructor Curtis quietly pulled the release cord early, a surprise drill to prepare students for the actual situation of a rope break.
Fox radios flight control and informs them of his unexpected landing. His hands are shaking on the stick, but his voice is calm. As he banks the plane to circle it around to land, the outstretched wings of the glider dip gracefully as if executing just a simple, standard maneuver.
Making flight affordable
In the grassy area along the runway, Paul Woolery looks on. Unlike the youth in the program, Woolery didn’t start his glider training until he was 59 and soloed on his 60th birthday. When Woolery was a teen, some of his friends took flying lessons. He had wanted to learn to fly but couldn’t afford the lessons.
So when Woolery helped form the Hood River Soaring Club in 2016, he wanted to make flying accessible to all would-be aviators. He wanted teens to get started sooner than he did so it could change their lives at a critical moment in their development, he said.
As after-school activities go, flying can be on the expensive side. Hart says every student is different, but the typical cost for a student to go from beginner to soloing is around $5,000.
To help the youth afford the costs, Hood River Soaring, a member of the Soaring Society of America, offers scholarships and work-study opportunities. That’s how Victoria Irvine, the club’s first young woman to become glider certified, paid for her training.
Fox also received a scholarship and earned money doing yard work for neighbors.
His mother, Erin Gossett, a registered nurse, picked up extra shifts at the local hospital to help cover the cost.
“It’s part of his education, so I work a little harder,” she said. “I think of it like: I’m going to work at the hospital for an extra shift, but that’s going to get him x-amount of glider rides.”
Up up and away!
Erin Gossett stands at the side of the runway, watching her son prep for his next flight. The instructor’s seat behind him is now empty. It is time for Fox to fly on his own.
“He’s been flying here over a year, he’s had many practice flights, he’s fully prepared, so I’m going to go relax,” said Curtis, his instructor. “His mother over here probably is more nervous than he is.”
His mother clutches a small box in her hands. She smiles as other parents arrive and nods hello as folks gather to watch her son’s major moment.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the most relaxed I’ve ever been,” she said.
Club coordinator Brian Hart’s son Jonathan is volunteering as Fox’s ground crew. He hooks the tow rope and then signals the tow plane to take out the slack. The plane roars as it picks up speed. The glider lifts.
Then up, and up. Tow plane and glider climb, swinging a wide arc around the airport.
From the vantage of the cockpit, the farm fields, roads, and even his high school, fall away. The details of the earth become miniature as the world of the glider becomes focused on the acute vibrations of the wings, the tremor of the stick, and the rush of air slipping over and around the plane.
Fox checks the altimeter. At about 3,000 feet, he looks to each side of the glider to confirm he’s in open airspace.
“He’s clear, I’m clear,” he says aloud to himself, the practice drilled into him.
He pulls the cord, releasing the tow rope.
From the ground, Erin Gossett looks up and sees the smooth, slow parting of the two planes. Her son is now truly flying on his own.
She cups her hand over her eyes to shadow the sun. The glider looks small, like a distant white bird.
She feels the paper box in her hand. It is fairly light, but inside is something solid. It represents a lot of things. Today it will represent Fox’s graduation as a pilot, but more than that: a milestone step from boyhood to young adulthood in terms of responsibility and self-direction. It also holds the memory of loss. It belonged to her husband, Fox’s father. He died when Fox was young. She’s been saving his watch for this moment.
Rise and bank — the search for lift
As Fox completes his bank, he levels the glider. With the drone of the tow plane engine far in the distance, the primary sound is the whoosh of air sliding over the plane’s surface.
“As soon as you release, it suddenly turns quiet,” said Fox. But he doesn’t pause long enough to relax and savor the silence.
Once the glider is released from the tow plane, it is essentially in a controlled fall back to Earth. So Fox must find whatever updraft he can.
The sky above Hood River is an especially dynamic place for gliders. Thermals are columns of warm air rising upwards, often indicated by big fluffy cumulus clouds. Wind deflected upwards when it hits a ridgeline is called “ridge lift.” And especially notable to local glider pilots is a phenomenon called “mountain wave” where the Cascade mountains create a roller-coaster-like series of air moving upwards and downward. If a glider pilot can catch the upward lift, it can take them sometimes as high as 25,000 feet — the airspace reserved for commercial aircraft.
One time Fox caught the upward side of a mountain wave and gained 5,000 feet of altitude in just 15 minutes.
“So I had to stop there because I started getting worried about oxygen,” he said.
As Fox’s glider rises into the sky, he can see the landscape of the Columbia Gorge stretching out before him — the snow-capped Mount Hood and Mount Adams to the south and north, and the Columbia River flowing from the east, and cutting west into the Gorge.
“It’s amazing views,” said Fox, “and there are some magical days where just the whole valley is lit up with lift.”
When lift runs out
To fly a glider is to hop from one pocket of lift to another pocket of lift. Skilled pilots learn to read the air the way experienced river runners read water.
Whatever distance they travel beyond the airport is also the distance they need to return. “It’s sort of like cars with tanks of gas, except with a glider there’s no internal gas tank,” Hart said. “How far you can go on a thermal is your tank of gas.”
If a glider pilot gets too far from the airport and runs out of lift, they’ll need to make an emergency landing.
They need to make their choice quickly as the glider loses altitude. At 2,000 feet, they are scanning for open areas like farm fields. By the time the glider has dropped to 1,000 feet, the pilot needs to have selected their landing spot and started an approach pattern, “just as if they’re landing at an airport,” said Hart.
While the pilot knows the elevation of official airfields, they have to make an educated guess as they come into a farm field. To train for such conditions, students learn to gauge the relative size of cars and trees. They also practice making short landings, since they may not find a clear stretch as long as a runway.
“Since a glider cannot power itself to another airport, every glider’s wings are made to come off to be trailered back to the nearest airport,” said Hart. “The pilot who does the ‘land out’ owes a steak dinner to the retrieval crew. That’s the tradition.”
His son Jonathan actually had to land in a field.
Landing in a crosswind
The winds that make Hood River famous for sports like windsurfing and kite boarding make it exceptionally challenging to land a glider.
“Learning to land in Hood River is like learning to sail on the Columbia Bar,” said Hart.
If a pilot aims straight at the runway, the crosswind will push them off it; so pilots learn to land slightly sideways as they touch down.
As Fox rounds the glider for his final approach, he checks his instruments and glances at the wind sock. He has to control his height and speed carefully. Because he has no engine, he has only one shot. He can’t pull up and go for a second round. Touching down on the runway may be the most critical test of his training.
He fixes his eyes on the numbers painted on the runway. His feet shift slightly to adjust the rudder to the crosswind. He feels the glider drop, then the impact of the tires hitting the pavement of the runway, and the force pushing him back into his seat. With a squeal of rubber, the glider skips up, drops again, and then rolls down the runway.
From the sideline, Fox’s mom holds her phone and films.
“Happy to see him coming down for a safe landing,” she says.
A graduation tradition
With her son finally on the ground, Erin Gossett and Geoff Curtis walk down the runway to meet Fox.
As the ground crew rolls the glider off the runway, Fox pops the canopy of the cockpit.
“Looked good to us, Fox,” said Hart.
“How did it feel?” asked his mom.
“Good,” said Fox. “I was shaking a little.”
Safely off the runway, they gather to commemorate Fox’s first solo. Curtis has a pair of scissors and snips off the lower backside of Fox’s T-shirt — a tradition that goes back as far as any pilot can recall, “maybe even to the Wright brothers,” he says with a chuckle.
Erin Gossett opens the small box with the watch inside.
“I’ve been hanging on to this for a long time,” she says to her son. “If your dad could have seen you today, he would have been amazed at what you’ve accomplished.”
Fox takes the box and lifts the watch from it, turning it for a closer look.
“This is amazing!” he says.
There are few words either of them need to say. This moment is a capstone, but in a larger way, it is just one flight of many before, and many to come. A few minutes circling the sky and coming down safely. All the hours of dedication, the extra shifts worked, the lawns mowed, and the duo they formed through the years after losing Fox’s dad have all come together for this moment in time.
“Give me a hug,” she says. “Glad you’re back on the ground, though.”
Fox says he wants to continue toward getting his license to fly powered planes, and then his commercial license to become a professional pilot.
“Flying gliders has made me mature,” he said. “It has given me a purpose.”
The cut T-shirt Fox wears reads: “Glider pilot in training.”
“Now that you’ve soloed, you’re no longer in training,” someone notes.
“No,” says Fox. “I’ll always be in training. There’s always more to learn.”