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Gliding in the Western Carolinas

The most unique gliding operation in the western Carolinas

For centuries, humans have harbored an insatiable fascination with the boundless skies above. Hovering between the earthly realm and the heavens, daring fate, and flirting with the sun, humanity's quest for flight has been an enduring testament to the human spirit.

This enduring fascination with flight found its roots in the observation of nature. Long before Leonardo da Vinci, who marveled at the graceful flight of birds, humans looked to the skies with envy and awe. Da Vinci’s intricate sketches of winged creatures inspired his visionary concepts of flying machines, devices that, while never achieving flight themselves, planted the seeds of innovation for generations to come.

Soaring, or gliding, is a remarkable sport that combines the beauty of flight with the art of harnessing nature’s forces. Its rich history, the intricate mechanics behind it, and the unique thrill it offers make it a truly captivating endeavor. Whether you’re a seasoned glider pilot or someone intrigued by the idea of soaring above the skies, there’s no denying that this sport holds a special place in the world of aviation. Soaring enthusiasts will continue to explore the boundless possibilities of unpowered flight, pushing the limits of human skill and technology in the quest to touch the heavens without engines.

The history of soaring dates back to the late 19th century when pioneers like Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute began experimenting with unpowered flight. Lilienthal, often referred to as the “Glider King,” made significant contributions to the development of gliders with his innovative designs and extensive research on aerodynamics. His work laid the foundation for modern gliding.

In the early 20th century, gliding clubs started to emerge, and soaring became a recognized sport. The sport grew in popularity and evolved with advancements in materials and technology. Today, soaring is a global sport with a dedicated community of enthusiasts and competitive pilots.

Our journey into the world of soaring led us to The Downtown Memorial Airport (SPA), a small yet welcoming facility nestled near the intersection of 77 South and Highway 26 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. This Class D airport, once a bustling hub for Eastern Airlines, has now become a haven for personal aircraft and the exhilarating sport of soaring.

Carolina Soaring Association

A brief tour of the facility there unveiled a thoughtfully designed space, complete with a briefing and conference room, as well as a flight observation tower providing a panoramic view of the runways and activities below. The airport’s history, chronicled in murals and photographs, showcased its evolution from a mail transport hub to a regional service provider and, ultimately, its resurgence as a testament to the region’s civic efforts.

The Carolina Soaring Association (CSA), founded in the late ‘80’s, it has grown from a modest group into a vibrant community 25 members actively engaged in flying. The club boasts ownership of two gliders with many members as proud owners of their soaring wings. Diverse in age and nationality, CSA members share a camaraderie marked by dry humor and good-natured banter. To them, soaring is not just a hobby; it’s a therapeutic and addictive experience that beckons them back to the skies time and time again.

Their members come to the club from all over the carolinas. Members drive down from Asheville and Black Mountain, and all the way up from south of Columbia, SC., illustrating the draw that this club has, and the unique experience that they offer their members.

The club President, Ulrich Neumann—who also goes by Uli—was our guide for the day. He’s been soaring for most of his life. While it was his job that brought him to the area, he says that having the ability to fly out of a relatively busy airport such as SPA is a very unique thing and soaring absolutely keeps him living here in his retirement.

“The club is always welcoming members—preferrably folks who already have some aviation experience. But, we also train total newbies. Come join us.” says Uli.

Despite their cheerful demeanor, CSA members maintain a steadfast commitment to professionalism and adherence to safety procedures. In the world of soaring, the safety of fellow enthusiasts takes precedence, a testament to their loyalty and dedication to the pursuit.


The technology behind gliders, known as sailplanes, is a blend of simplicity and sophistication. Unlike hang gliders, sailplanes feature closed cockpits and are flown from a seated position. These lightweight yet meticulously engineered polymer composite structures demand precision and safety. Sailplanes come in various designs, with differing wing spans and purposes, from racing to acrobatics. While the sport is often dubbed “sky sailing,” the consequences of equipment failure are far more dire than flipping a catamaran.

Sailplanes can be equipped with oxygen systems to reach higher altitudes, and there are two primary methods for launching them into flight. They can either be towed behind a powered aircraft or launched into the sky using a winch system. The Carolina Soaring Association favors the latter, as it offers cost-efficiency and reliability. In Europe, where fuel prices are considerably higher, winch systems are a staple, with around 2,500 in operation compared to just 50 in the United States. The advantages of winch launchers lie in their ability to get more pilots airborne throughout the day, a fact that brings joy to glider enthusiasts and their wallets.

Approaching the sailplane, you’ll notice familiar elements akin to conventional “prop planes” in its rudders and controls. Once in the cockpit, the pilot radios “Ready” to the winch, and the tension in the towline slowly increases. A distant roar down the runway from the winch engine is followed by a swift ascent into the sky.

Those initial moments make for a truely thrilling sensation. The experience is nothing short of euphoric—as if one had sprouted wings. The steep 45-degree climb during ascent presss you firmly into the seat. Then, as you level off, the pressure subsides, and you senses adapt to the new altitude and the almost uncanny silence.

The world record for the longest flight is currently 3,058 Kilometers, and while that is only achievable under very specific atmospheric conditions, CSA members regularly fly 300-400 kilometers. They told us that Lake Lure is a favorite destination on really good weather days, and that flying in and around the mountains provides truly spectacular views.

The Carolina Soaring Association serves as a living testament to the enduring spirit of adventure in America. In the Carolinas, the age-old tradition of exploring the skies continues, an ode to the Wright brothers’ legacy. In a world that often craves excitement and daring, the CSA stands as a beacon of inclusivity, crossing generational and gender boundaries, and deserving of accolades for preserving the adventurous spirit that defines the American experience. All we can do is strive to keep pace with their soaring ambitions.

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