Generally speaking, the passengers of small airplanes prefer it when, as they are sailing high in the sky, the pilot does NOT turn off the engine.
That's what makes Payson pilot Ross Hustead's passengers different. They love it when he cuts his plane's engine cold-stone dead right over the center of town. In fact, that's what they pay him to do.
Hustead, you see, is the owner, operator and sole aviator of Sky King Soaring, a new glider-plane sightseeing and flight-instruction company based at Payson Airport. And what makes his rides through the clouds far different from those you'd get elsewhere is that his glider boasts an 80-horsepower engine and propeller giving the plane just enough power to fly high enough to get the wind beneath its wings.
According to Hustead, the number of American companies offering commercial flights in engine-powered gliders can be counted on the fingers of one hand if you've got three fingers missing.
"It's just me and one other guy," he says. "You can't get this experience anywhere else."
Although engine-powered gliders have been around for almost 30 years, they are, naturally, more expensive to purchase than their motorless counterparts, and therefore harder to find.
Traditionally, the most widely-used methods of getting gliders airborne, in order of popularity, are:
Aero tow launches, in which the aircraft is pulled aloft by a 200 foot nylon or polypropylene rope secured by a special hook to the tow plane. The pilot can release from the tow at whatever altitude desired.
Auto launches, sometimes used near ridges or in the desert where strong lift at low levels enables the glider to gain altitude from the release altitude of 400-900 feet.
Winch launches, wherein the plane is attached to a long cable and grounded "fishing reel" mechanism which sucks up the line at a speed that can send the plane to altitudes of 500-1500 feet exactly like a kite before the cable is released.
Engine-powered gliders like Hustead's gleaming white Katana featuring a 53-foot wingspan which distinguishes it from all other aircraft you'll ever spot in the Rim country skies self-launch just like an airplane ... and then fly in the absolute silence and serenity of non-powered flight.
"This is as close as you can get to knowing what it would feel like to be a bird," Hustead says.
Glider pilots must learn to rely on a whole different set of instincts as their fuel-empowered cousins, he explains. The instrument panel in his Katana is loaded with state-of-the-flying-art dials and switches and computers (one screen displays a map showing not only his exact location, but the direction the wind outside the plane is blowing). But none of that is really necessary to an experienced flyer like Hustead.
Instead, the glider pilot's focus is almost entirely on his own skills and judgment in analyzing the terrain and weather. Instead of pulling switches, pushing buttons or passively enjoying the hawk's-eye view of the Mogollon Rim, Hustead actively searched for "lift clues" in the air such as birds, the maturity of cumulus clouds, and ground areas which reflect enough of the sun's heat to thrust his plane ever higher into the blue.
What's the best spot in Payson for such an assist? The parking lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter, which sends enough summertime heat skyward that, after several passes over it, Hustead easily reached an altitude of 9,000 feet above sea level or about 4,000 feet above Wal-Mart.
While making this circular climb, Hustead patiently answered some of the most commonly-addressed concerns of those who mistakenly think his sport of choice is dangerous.
Q: How does the glider stay up?
A: "Well, actually, it doesn't stay up forever," he said. "Once in free flight, a glider moves forward very much as a car on a hill rolls forward without power." The glider's descent is so slight that it is imperceptible without instruments, Hustead added, and if the pilot circles in rising hot air such as that over Wal-Mart the glider gains altitude.
Q: What happens when the wind stops blowing?
A: "Nothing! The glider is not a tethered kite and does not require wind to stay aloft. Heat is what you need. That's why I came to Arizona!"
Q: Are glider rides seasonal?
A: "No. You can go up any time except in heavy winds. That's the only thing that keeps me on the ground."
Q: Are there size or weight limits?
A: "Yes. The glider cannot accommodate passengers taller than 6-foot-four or heavier than 220 pounds but we can make some accommodations for those who aren't a whole lot heavier than that."
Q: Are there any age or health barriers?
A: "No. I've had 84-year-olds fly with me."
Q: How safe is gliding?
Q: "Without an engine, it is often said the most dangerous part of soaring is driving to the airport."
Some quick research on the Internet bears witness to Hustead's claim. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration allows 14 year-olds to fly gliders solo, while in most states they must wait until they are 16 in order to drive automobiles.
Gliders are constructed so sturdily, despite their slender bodies, that some can sustain stresses equaling up to 12 Gs-forces twelve times their own weight. Large commercial airplanes can sustain about one fourth that much force.
Because gliders are so well built, can land at such low speeds, and carry no fuel, the risk of physical injury is slim, even on the rare landing so grossly miscalculated that it damages the ship.
Add an engine to all that, Hustead points out, and you've got an extra, and formidable, safety feature: In case of trouble, turn on the ignition and fly to the nearest airstrip, no matter how far away it is.
To treat yourself to the kind of flight once reserved only for our fine feathered friends (prices start at $49), or for instruction on how to pilot an engine-powered glider yourself (starting at about $100 per hour), call Russ Hustead on his cell phone at (602) 622-2257.