Friday, March 23, 2007

Santiago Soaring Club

Pilotando con las Águilas

(Flying with the Eagles)


George Saunders

Hello Central Indiana Soaring Society!

Nancy and I are enjoying our teaching assignments here at the University of Concepción, Chile, where Nancy is a Fulbright Scholar. We are doing a program evaluation of their English Online Program and teaching in the program.

I just met with the Concepción Glider Club (Club de Planeadores de Concepción) and they have accepted me as a member, making me their 6th member. They have a tow plane, a two-place glider (that is not registered!) and a single seat glider (that is!). Another Chilean club is lending them a registered Blanik L-13, so they are looking forward to more active soaring in the future.

In contrast, I visited the Santiago glider club with over 200 members. What an outfit!

They have an office with a full time manager, …

… an air conditioned control tower, …

… a full service restaurant, …

… tennis courts, …

… a swimming pool, …

… closed and open hangers for scores of sailplanes -

- all in less space than the Alexandria airport! They just signed their third 30-year lease with the City of Santiago. They are located in a valley, just 20 minutes outside of Santiago. This valley is devoted to sports – tennis clubs, golf clubs, a polo club, and a glider club. The club’s annual dues are about the same as ours, but members also buy $4000 in stock when they join the club.

I was introduced to Alejo Williamson, who volunteered to take me up in a Blanik L-13, just like our L-23, but with flaps. Alejo is in the center of the picture below -

It turned out that Alejo is their most famous glider pilot. In 1964, he was the first man to cross the Andes in a glider, flying from Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza, Argentina. When he returned, he was greeted by the President of Chile and given a ticker-tape parade through downtown Santiago.

Alejo spoke no English and my Spanish is rudimentary … to put it kindly. So he drew out the landing pattern, said he would handle the radio and gave me simple directions. When he wanted me to fly, he would yell, “Jorge piloto!” When he wanted to fly, he would say “Alejo piloto!” When he wanted me to turn left, he would say, “Izquierdo!” When he wanted me to turn right, he would say, “Derecha!” When he wanted me to go straight, he would say, “Derecho!” Armed with these simple instructions, we move the Blanik into line and waited our turn.

I liked their operation. They had a paved taxiway parallel to the runway. Near the end of the runway they had an angled taxiway that led from the main taxiway to the runway. The gliders lined up on the angled taxiway. The tow plane pulled them off from the angled taxiway, so they never had a glider sitting on an active runway.

We had a great hour-long flight.

We towed to 900 meters above ground, just above a ridge.

We caught lift from the ridge and from the thermals coming up from the canyons below. We were joined by other sailplanes and two eagles.

At one point, we were headed straight toward a mountain. Alejo hollered, “Derecho!” Wait! Did he say “Derecho!”?! Should I go straight?!? Or did he really say “Derecha!” and he meant go right?! I decided to punt and yelled, “Alejo piloto!!” He took over the controls and flew us right to the mountain. I thought the wing was going to scrape the sage brush! This Indiana pilot was NOT happy! However, after an hour of acclimatization, I began to enjoy the mountains, especially with an instructor for whom these mountains were a second home (or maybe a first home).

We could see the Andes in the distance, snow-covered even in summer.

We were never far from this city of 5 million people.

After flying for an hour, I was tired and suggested we head in. We glided down the mountain slopes, practicing our control. We got into the landing pattern and landed on Runway 25.

The photo above is an old picture that was posted on their clubhouse wall. Today there is a freeway where the wash is and the runway is 20 feet closer to the taxiway. But you can see, from left to right, the hangars, the office, the control tower, the clubhouse/restaurant, the playground for kids, the swimming pool and the tennis courts.

We had the requisite after-flight refreshments on the covered patio of the club house.

Afterward, Alejo showed me the route of his trip over the Andes.

Alejo invited me back to fly the winter wave over the Andes. I plan to take him up on it.

See you in August!

Jorge Piloto