'You're up there with the hawks and buzzards'

Friday, January 18, 2008
Photo submitted Ron Murphy makes the final checks on his 1966 fiberglass Libelle sailplane before taking a flight.

Ron Murphy of Lewisburg loves to soar silently above the world, seeking the rising air of thermals or the lifting effect to be found along mountain ridges. He flies in a sailplane that has been towed aloft by a small airplane and then released.

"You have to experience it to see how it really is," Murphy says enthusiastically.

He took his first ride in a sailplane, also called a glider, in 1971, and has been doing it "every chance I get" ever since.

What's it like to fly like this? "At this time of year it's cold," Murphy says. "The sailplane has a small battery to work the radio, GPS, and altimeter, but no heater. You are right up there with the hawks and buzzards, seeking the same lifting air that they do. At certain times of year, you might get into a flock of migrating birds, or even butterflies."

Is it dangerous?

They say "the trip to the airport is the most dangerous part of the flight," Murphy answers.

Murphy does wear a parachute, but hastens to add that he has never had to use it. The sailplane has retractable landing gear, so it can glide down and land on any relatively flat, smooth field.

Murphy flies from Puckett Gliderport near Eagleville, which has been home to Eagleville Sailplanes for 40 years. Garland Pack founded the club in the 1950's with Army surplus gliders he bought for $15 each. In those days they were made of metal, wood and canvas. Nowadays, a sailplane has carbon fiber wings 50 to 80 feet wide and can cost up to $40,000.

Soaring is not just done for the beauty and novelty of flying with the birds, Murphy points out. It's also done as a competition, either in groups of gliders all flying at the same time over the same course, or as individuals flying a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale "task."

For example on New Year's Day, Michael Poe and Werner Rüegger from Eagleville Sailplanes broke a Tennessee state distance record for a free three-turnpoint motorless flight by soaring 339.9 miles in 5.4 hours. Last April, Bob Richards, also a member of the Eagleville group, completed the first FAI 500 kilometer triangle ever flown in Middle Tennessee, doing 325 miles in 6 hours.

Getting into the soaring record books is partly skill and partly luck and the challenge is endless, with no day's soaring exactly like any other, Murphy says.

Even experienced pilots can end up paying a surprise visit to a farmer's field instead of breaking a record. Gliding is growing in popularity. Not surprising considering that you can fly all day without burning oil or polluting the environment.

When small plane owners are wondering if they can afford the gas to spend a day in the air, glider pilots just have to pay for the tow to get airborne. At current gas prices, the trip to the glider port might be the most expensive, as well as the most dangerous, part of the day.

The group's Web site, eaglevillesailplanes.com, has pictures and much more. It's hard to find Murphy in the pictures, though. He's usually behind the camera. Photography has been his business for 30 years. Perhaps you have already met him when he photographed or videoed your wedding or other special event. Now he has added restoration of old pictures and putting home movies on DVD to his list of services.

Not to mention aerial photography, either from the glider or from a small plane. But if it looks like a great day to soar, the business may have to wait.

"If the clouds look good, and the wind is hitting the ridges just right I may not be photographing something, but out soaring with the hawks," Murphy says with a smile.