Where do balloons go?
One man knows.
He’s Steve Leonard, a sailplane pilot.
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He’s been there and back again.
Soaring with eagles
Sailplanes look like airplanes.
They don’t have engines. A tow plane pulls sailplanes into the air with a cable.
A gifted pilot like Leonard will cast off the cable, find a thermal – a rising bubble of air – and ride it sometimes tens of thousands of feet high.
Leonard once soared with geese.
Harry Clayton soared with hawks.
Tony Condon soared with bald eagles. Three times.
“We guarantee no engine failures.”
That’s a glider/sailplane pilot joke. Clayton trots it out when first-time passengers ask whether sailplanes and gliders are safe.
And they always ask.
Sometimes even good pilots don’t make it home.
Clayton once flew a sailplane from Yoder 225 miles into eastern Nebraska. He ran out of thermals and landed in a hayfield.
A farmer was loading hay bales onto a wagon.
He didn’t see Clayton sailing down from behind.
The farmer’s wife saw. She was driving a tractor pulling the hay wagon the farmer was standing on and was so startled that she let the tractor drift to one side.
Sailplanes soar with little noise, so Clayton could hear the farmer yelling at her: “Why can’t you drive in a straight line?”
“The plane!” she said.
The farmer turned and saw Clayton coming down, wings glistening in the sunlight.
Clayton’s landing wheel hit the hayfield. Thump-thump-thump-thump. The sailplane stopped beside the hay wagon.
Everybody had a good laugh, Clayton said.
“I’ve come down like that a few times in some farmer’s field,” he said.
“I have yet to meet an irate farmer.”
The point of it all
Gliders are small motorless soaring craft that glide only downward.
Sailplanes are bigger craft that soar higher and farther. Steered by a pilot like Leonard or Condon, who know how to find the rising air in thermals, they can soar more than 500 miles and climb tens of thousands of feet.
Leonard once rode thermals to 24,000 feet – 4.5 miles up.
Thermals are bubbles of warm air rising over dark patches of ground that absorb and radiate heat from the sun. Hawks, eagles and sailplane pilots circle into thermals, rising with barely a calorie burned.
When they get up there, they look down.
That’s the point, after all.
Art and technology
Condon teaches Textron Aviation employees how to fly powered airplanes. He flies gliders and sailplanes for fun all over the world.
In August, he placed ninth in a world gliding championship at Pociunai, Lithuania.
In the spring, he soared thermals over Athens, Tenn., where he saw bald eagles circling.
He steered into their circle.
“Treat eagles with respect, and they’ll let you circle with them for a few turns.”
Pilots who soar become obsessive, he said, about weather, clouds, wind direction, air temperature – and numbers: How high did YOU go today? How far – and how fast?
“You’re flying an aircraft that’s always trying to descend,” he said. “And you try to make it climb without power. It’s art and technology.”
Sailplane soaring is like chess in one way, he said: easy to learn, hard to master. Good pilots like Leonard claim they’ll never master it entirely, he said.
Condon heads the Kansas Soaring Association as president. On a recent Saturday, he flew gliders in 13 flights over the Sunflower Glider Port south of Yoder, teaching kids and adults how to fly.
The top of the clouds
Thermals are to pilots what waves are to surfers.
To find them, pilots look for two things: dark ground below and cumulus clouds above – clouds with flat, slate-gray bottoms and white cauliflower-looking clouds going up. Cumulus clouds sit atop thermals.
Pilots steer toward these features, then find a thermal by feel, pilot Brian Bird said. “You can just feel it in the aircraft.”
Leonard once cut loose from his tow plane at 7,000 feet above sea level over Marfa, a high-desert town in far west Texas.
“I found good, high air,” he said.
His sailplane began to climb.
At 10,000 feet, he pulled on his oxygen mask.
“Then I got to the base clouds.”
He sailed along the edge of the ridge of clouds and got excited.
He knew that above Marfa, it was common to find strong air currents from the southwest.
Currents like those, when they run into a cloud ridge, will climb to get over it. So he raced toward the edge of the cloud formation, soared into one of those uprising currents – and soared higher than he’d ever soared before: 15,000 feet; 18,000; 20,000.
Then 24,000 feet – to the crown atop the clouds.
“Sounds nice and simple, doesn’t it?” Leonard said. He laughed.
“It’s not simple.”
Be a bird
Bird taught soaring to newcomers at Sunflower Glider Port recently, piloting a Grob G-103 Twin Astir, a two-seater built in Germany in 1983. At 2,000 feet, he cut loose from the tow plane and circled, searching for thermals.
It got hot under the canopy, but pilots tell soaring passengers to slide open the little porthole on the canopy’s left side. Stick your hand out, and cool air rushes along it into the cockpit, cooling your face.
“Can’t find a thermal,” Bird said. “We’ll head back down.”
He remembers the first day he wanted to be like a bird.
Friends and family have pointed out that his full name, Brian Andrew Bird, if you turn the first two names into initials, you have “B.A. Bird,” which, when sounded out, makes for a good pilot name, “Be a Bird.”
The day he first knew he wanted to be like a bird was a sunny day in west Texas, where he grew up.
He was a small boy. He watched a hawk soar.
The hawk gained altitude without flapping its wings.
How did the hawk do that?
Later, after he flew airplanes, gliders and sailplanes and helped train NASA crews to fly the shuttle into space, he knew the hawk was riding a thermal – and going where Bird wanted to go.
“You fly a plane with propulsion, and the ground below all begins to look the same after a while. But I never got bored flying a sailplane. The view always looks different, for some reason.”
Annoying the geese
The man who knows where the balloons go was born into a pilot/glider family, the son of retired Cessna engineer test pilot Bob Leonard, who taught his three sons to build and fly gliders for fun.
One of the coolest things Steve Leonard ever did was soar a mile in the air and see, coming from the south, a V-formation of Canada geese. “A big formation, there must have been 50 of them.
“I decided to see if I could sneak up behind and join up.
“I slowly closed in on their right-hand side. They didn’t like that, so they started a slow left turn. I followed. They kept turning left until they’d done a complete 360-degree turn.”
They looked majestic a mile above ground.
He wanted a closer look.
“So I steepened my turn and tried to come up on their left. They turned right and kept turning away.
“I finally broke off. My dad laughed at me later. But I thought, hey, if they don’t want to fly with me, they just as well can turn and head north and fly on their own to Canada.”
That was a good day, Leonard said.
But it might not be the most fun thing he ever did in the air.
Which brings us back to balloons.
A rising balloon to a child is a wonder.
But to a soaring pilot? That’s a target – a hard target to hit, even for pilots who obsess about precision flying.
Soaring pilots are oddballs, Clayton said – obsessive, compulsive. Many are pilots or engineers, two professions that attract oddballs. Clayton is an engineer. So is Leonard.
Soaring makes them more odd, Clayton said.
But their relentless attention to detail also creates skill, he said.
The good ones can soar a long way on nothing more than 1 gallon of gas for the tow plane.
Leonard and Condon both made it all the way from Yoder to Louisiana, more than 500 miles.
They fly machines made of aluminum, plastic and fabric that would fall quickly to earth unless piloted by compulsively obsessive beings.
They fuss endlessly about weather, air temperature, wind direction, timing, air speed, velocity, cloud cover. And how gorgeous a V-formation of Canada geese looks when it passes you a mile above the Plains.
And sometimes, for the sake of fun, they challenge the immutable laws of physics.
Where balloons go
Among the pilots of the Kansas and the Wichita Soaring Associations, there are few challenges greater, or more weird, than trying to pop a balloon with the wing edge of a sailplane soaring above the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.
Is this even possible? Why would anyone want to try?
But that’s the point.
Sailplane pilots in Kansas know that kids go to the fair. And some let go of balloons.
Leonard knows where the balloons go.
They go up.
And so does he.
And he does it with no engine, while steering a 750-pound sailplane horizontally at 55 mph, while aiming a 57-foot sailplane wing no more than 6 inches thick at the tiny target of a child’s balloon rising from the ground where the kid at the fairgrounds accidentally let go of it.
Timing is everything.
Any normal person might say that popping balloons like that would be impossible.
Unless you are good.
Friends say Leonard is that good.
He thinks so, too.
So did he ever pop a balloon above the Kansas State Fair?
“But I got one in Texas.”
Gliders and sailplanes
Both are aircraft without engines.
They move forward for the same reason that a sled goes downhill: Their weight pushes them down a slope. But you can’t see the slope in the air like you see the slope from a sled. The slope is an invisible path through the air. Their wings make the lift to support their weight, but because there is no engine, they are always sliding downward.
The key difference between a glider and a sailplane is that a glider is designed only to descend; tow it a mile up, and it could travel only about 20 miles. A sailplane is designed to soar much farther and ride thermals; from a mile up, it could go 70 miles. And a pilot riding thermals could travel hundreds of miles.
Source: Steve Leonard
Take a ride
Most glider and sailplane pilots in Wichita and in Kansas are affiliated with the Kansas Soaring Association or the Wichita Soaring Association.
They are not commercial organizations but promote safe flight and aviation.
They invite adult and child passengers to learn glider and sailplane flying firsthand at about $30 to $50 per ride. Pilot training is also available. Contact them at soarkansas.org.