Sunday, March 15, 2015

Friends in High Places: My Private Tour of Harris Hill Soaring Corporation By: C.P. Stringham

Madam Ambassador!!!

My friend Lisa “The Rage” Roan is a Media Consultant for Pembroke Pines Media Group. The Rage knows everyone in the Twin Tiers. Everyone. She schmoozes with businesses and local nonprofit groups pitching ad campaigns and selling air time for commercials. Think of her as the Media Queen of Elmira. She has won the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce’s Ambassador of the Year award for two consecutive years. On top of that, she gets invited to events all over her media group’s listening area like concerts, musicals, charity events, and so on. When I find myself in need of networking while researching a plot line for one of my books, I can usually count on The Rage for a contact person.
Three weeks ago, I posted on my personal Facebook account that I was looking to interview someone who had flown in a sailplane at Harris Hill Soaring Corporation. Of course, The Rage came to my rescue. She not only knew someone who has flown, but the person she referred me to was one of the facility’s pilots who also serves as a flight instructor. A few private messages were exchanged between us and, just like that, I had an appointment set up to not only interview Todd Knapp, but to also tour the facility.
L to R: The original hangar built during WWII, and my expert guide, pilot Todd Knapp.
Harris Hill is known as the Soaring Capital of America and home to the National Soaring Plane Museum. The flight center and museum are situated on a plateau that sits at 1,709 feet above sea level and is located in Big Flats, NY. The main hanger was constructed during World War II and holds several sailplanes as well as tow planes. The hanger also has a lower level that stores even more sailplanes. The soaring center is a nonprofit organization that depends on memberships and public sailplane rides as well as countless volunteer hours that each member is required to do in order to keep the program running successfully. Perhaps the coolest aspect of this organization is the fact that most of the members have been flying since thirteen or fourteen years of age! In fact, Todd started his flight training at 13 years old. Harris Hill offers a Junior Membership program. Because of this, membership spans over many generations. Todd told me that, Corky, one of their flight instructors, is retired from the Air Force where he served on the ground crew for the famous Thunderbirds stunt fighter jets that travel around the world to various air shows. Another instructor, Heinz, is a former U-2 Bomber pilot. If one were to add up the combined amount of flight time their members have, it would probably blow your mind. While looking into their junior program, I was shocked to learn how affordable it is. The facility subsidizes the cost of the junior program as a means to promote their hobby so that future generations will carry on the tradition. Per the facilities website, out of 600,000 pilots in the United States, only 3.5% of them hold a glider rating. Getting back to the affordability of their program, after checking other popular teen programs in the area, Harris Hill’s junior flying program costs a fraction of what the others do. Speaking as the mother of an equestrian, a flight session costs half of what a one-hour riding lesson costs. For a season, it costs a third less than a season on a youth hockey league.
Top to Bottom: The windsock displaying just
how blustery it was during my tour; old
photos adorning the flight center walls. Below
Clip from Thomas Crown Affair.
I met with Todd on Saturday, March 7th. It was a blustery, cold morning and I found both my pen and fingers uncooperative due to the chill as I attempted to take notes. While the center is closed for the season, the dedicated members were on premises working on one of their fleet planes. Off season allows them time for annual maintenance. From the sounds of things, this tightknit group spends a lot of their free time at the facility just to get together and trade flying stories. For the purpose of my interview, I asked Todd if he could walk me through the preparation time as seen by a first time passenger. The corporation’s choice craft for high performance rides is the ASK 21 designed by Alexander Schleicher of Germany. It is a two-person craft with controls in both the front and back to allow flight control from either seat. He explained the entire process from boarding to flight preparation while educating me about the parts of the sailplane. That particular sailplane was recently put back together after being taken apart and inspected carefully. The entire fuselage shined like a new craft due to the loving attention it received from being waxed and buffed.  Todd told me that each aircraft received the same attention.
Todd’s passion for flying was infectious. The longer I was in his presence, listening to his flight experiences, the more I knew I wanted to take a sailplane ride. I guess that means Todd wears three hats in reality; pilot, instructor, and salesperson because he’s really good at selling people on the experience!  He spoke fondly of Liz, his former instructor, who now instructs in Germany. Harris Hill has also made it to the big screen. He told me how the takeoff scene in the Peirce Brosnan/Renee Russo movie Thomas Crown Affair was filmed there.
Todd invited me back to take a sailplane ride when the season picks up. Harris Hill’s program reopens on April 4, 2015. Mere weeks away. I have to say, I am totally psyched about going for a ride. I love planes and love flying—even though I’m petrified of heights. Petrified. Who got all knock-kneed and almost hyperventilated climbing up the Statue of Liberty? Yep. This girl. A lot has changed since growing older, too. My blood pressure medication can cause motion sickness. In order to make certain my future sailplane flight can happen—and without a hitch—a phone call to my family practitioner has to happen. I’m thinking a mild antianxiety medication and something to combat motion sickness. I’ll have to see what he thinks. I'm determined to make it happen! Todd explained what it was like balancing flight with science. Using natural elements like thermals, ridge lifts, and mountain waves to carry and propel the sailplane. He explained that no two flights were exactly the same. Variations arrived due to weather conditions, passengers, time of day, and season and a pilot has to act on those variations and engage the proper adjustments to the flight.

 Top to Bottom: File photo of a Raptor taking off
at Davis-Monthan AFB; Vern during his retirement
ceremony; the sign outside of Travis AFB announcing
Vern's retirement ceremony. (Ceremony photos by
Kirstan Vanderpool.) 
Seeing the sailplanes invoked long-suppressed dreams I’d had of flying. From the moment I saw movies like Iron Eagle and Top Gun as a teen, I entertained the thought of becoming a military pilot. I took what I think was considered a practice ASVAB while in high school and scored well. That was when the recruiters started calling our house. I strongly considered the Air Force. My parents sort of burst my bubble when they reminded me that there weren’t many female military pilots. They reinforced it by saying the chances of my becoming a pilot were slim to none. And then my thoughts turned to basic training. Hiking in full uniform while carrying a backpack for miles and miles, helped take away the rest of whatever appeal was left after my parents’ sabotage. Nevertheless, I’ve never lost my interest in planes. During our 1997 vacation in Tucson, Arizona, my husband and I stayed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. I was in heaven! Military planes everywhere—retired planes on display around their guest lodging facility and jets taking off and flying overhead! At times, there was so much air traffic, I didn’t know where to focus my attention. I begged my ex-brother-in-law to arrange a ride for me in a fighter jet, but he laughed it off. His feeling was, if he couldn’t get a ride in one and he was a lifer, there was no amount of string-pulling he could do on his end to make it happen for a civilian. Davis-Monthan is also home to the national airplane graveyard. Due to the dry heat of the desert environment, it allows for the perfect storing conditions for retired planes. At the time, Vern told me that most of the aircraft would take very little in maintenance to be flight ready should our military have a need to put them back into service. I would have loved a tour of the graveyard, but tours require special preparation including clearances and so on. Vern didn’t know ahead of time that I’d be interested. He retired in January 2011 after serving twenty-three years, ten months, and thirteen days in the United States Air Force. Even though he and my sister-in-law have been divorced for many years, it doesn’t diminish the admiration and respect I have for him and his years of military service as well as his loving dedication to my niece, Kirstan. 
Admit it, when you hear, "Marverick's going supersonic!" it gives you goosebumps!  
Top Gun
Iron Eagle

                               (Raptor photo: U.S.Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Chris Massey/Released) Airplane Graveyard Near Davis Monthan Air Force Base Photo on Sharenator 

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