The ground school instructor was Tony Doherty, who also happens to be the sales manager. On weekends, when business is heavy, he sometimes flies a towplane, too. It is that kind of school.
"The first thing I want to impress upon you," Doherty told the class, "is that soaring is safe. When it began there were crashes, and a few people were killed. The sport received a lot of bad publicity. Well, we've more than lived that down. Today, an accident of any kind is extremely rare. In 20,000 flights at this school we have had only one injury, very minor. A woman tried to three-point a 2-22 and strained her back. The last fatal accident at Chemung County Airport occurred 15 years ago. A tow car overturned and killed the driver.
"Ninety percent of the students we get now," he explained, "are power pilots. We had 25 airline captains go through here last year. Flying a power plane can become monotonous; too much mechanization, too much noise, not enough sport. If you have an exciting flight in a power plane, it means something was unusual, something went wrong. In a sailplane almost every flight is exciting."
"Oh?" said a student.
"In a pleasant way, of course," said Doherty. "Soaring is fun. And for a pilot who already knows how to fly and knows something about FAA regulations and meteorology and aerodynamics, soaring is easy. A little dual instruction and off you go."
Doherty looked the class over and smiled. "A child," he said, "can fly one of these." Maybe, I thought, I should go home and send one of my sons up here. Still, it was very reassuring.
Doherty told us about the Schweizer sailplanes we were to fly, which was even more assuring. These are truly remarkable machines. The 1-26, for example, without its fabric covering, looks like a replacement part for the Brooklyn Bridge. Built around a frame of tubular steel rods, it is stressed to withstand 9� positive Gs and 6� negative Gs, far more than any light plane, more than most military types. You can roll a 1-26 and loop it and even do outside maneuvers in complete safety, if you happen to be unbalanced enough to enjoy outside maneuvers. Because the 1-26 weighs less than 400 pounds, yet boasts such amazing structural strength, it is possible to dive one into the ground from 300 feet and walk away. No such guarantee comes with the 1-26, but it has been done. There is little point in making a sailplane so sturdy, but that is the way Ernie Schweizer operates.
"We don't mind giving up a little performance," he says, "to keep people alive."
"Chances are," said Doherty, "you'll never find out how tough they are. You have to work pretty hard to get in trouble. A well-designed sailplane is almost impossible to spin. There is no motor, so there is no torque, and you can recover from a stall in 30 or 40 feet. The spoilers on the wings—they resemble the dive brakes on a jet—enable you to control your descent. Spot landings are very simple. Because the sailplane is so light, the brakes are unusually effective. And because there is only one main landing wheel, crosswind landings are no trouble at all. Even after you touch down, you can keep the upwind wing lowered. You can hardly ground-loop one if you try.
"Still," he said, "these are airplanes. They will come down. And for some reason, power pilots have the most difficulty remembering this. At first, an experienced pilot doesn't completely trust a sailplane. Then, after a few flights, he shifts to the other extreme; he thinks he can stay up forever. We borrow a skin-diving phrase and call it rapture of the heights. So don't get overconfident. Plan your flight, watch the terrain and your altitude, always be sure that you can reach the airport. If you are forced to land on a highway or in some farmer's field, you won't have any trouble. But it's embarrassing, and we have to come after you and take the wings off the plane and load it on a trailer. It's much easier to land here."