Wild Blue Yonder


Princeton Packet - September 12, 1997

by Lisa Tarriff Staff Writer

For Princeton resident Marty Schneiderman, flying is more than a means of transportation-it is a sport, a challenge, and a thrill. He is one of about 15 members of the Princeton-based Soaring Tigers club, a group dedicated to flying motorless planes. The club gathers nearly every weekend, weather permitting, at the Van Sant airport in Erwinna, Pa., just west of the Delaware River.

The club is largely instructional, Mr. Schneiderman said. Its members seek the thrill of soaring through the air without the benefit of an engine. Many club members obtain their pilot's license and then go on to become instructors themselves. The number of members the club can admit depends on the number of instructors available to teach.

Members of the group are challenge-seekers. Some flew remote-controlled planes as a kid. Some see gliding as a sport comparable to sailing.

"I was always into airplanes as a kid," said West Windsor resident and club member Marc Sibilia. After taking a glider ride in California, Mr. Sibilia said he knew he wanted to learn to fly." Group member Tom Saunders, a resident of Manalapan, said he has sailed his whole life and decided he wanted to fly a plane. He took power lessons, but at the same time researched soaring."I decided I wanted to learn to fly as a sport, rather than as a means of transportation," Mr. Saunders said. The difference between a glider and a power plane is the same as the difference between a sailboat and a motor boat, he added.

The Soaring Tigers club was established in December of 1974, at which time it was known as the Soaring Society of Princeton University. The group operated from Forrestal Airport on the Princeton University campus from 1974 through June of 1989. In June of 1989, Princeton University closed Forrestal Airport so the land could be used for commercial development.

And while a commercial plane is a fine way to get from here to there, gliding, club members say, is a true adventure. "Gliding you do purely for sport," Mr. Sibilia said at a recent gathering of the club. "It's a real challenge."

Mr. Schneiderman learned to fly as a member of the Soaring Tigers 21 years ago, and has taught several classes, including one a Princeton Adult School. He will teach there again in spring. The challenge of motorless flight, he said, lies in keeping the plane aloft. "It's more of a challenge to be able to stay up and read air currents," he said from the cockpit of the club's plane. "You're constantly having to make decisions in order to maintain your altitude and to stay up."

A tow plane connected to the glider by a rope carries the glider to an altitude of about 2500 feet. When the pilot pulls a ball inside the cockpit, the glider plane is released from the tow plane. From there, it is the responsibility of the pilot to navigate the air currents to keep the plane aloft. "It's important to have the right altitude," said Mr. Saunders. "There's no engine to rev the plane up again if you don't have enough altitude." "It's pure flight, but it does require mastery of the aircraft," said Jennifer Molnar, a resident of Yardley, Pa., and member of the Soaring Tigers.

For that reason, Ms. Molnar said, the sport especially appeals to people with a technical background. To receive a pilot's license, members have to demonstrate proficiency in all flight operations and complete ground instruction or a home-study course. They also must complete a Federal Aviation Administration written test, and have seven hours of solo flight under their belt.

Fernando De La Pena, a resident of Jersey City who was considering joining the group on a recent Sunday, said he wanted to try gliding for the challenge. Mr. De La Pena has tried rafting and sky diving and was looking for a new thrill. "I haven't done bungee jumping because she won't let me," Mr. De La Pena said, gesturing toward his wife, Lorena. "This seems the closest you get to flying in a pure way," said Princeton resident Peter Meyers. "A power plane has more freedom, but it's more noisy. And, it doesn't have the daredevil aspect of hang gliding or parachuting."

Mr. Schneiderman, a management consultant for a computer firm who claims his poor vision prevented him from becoming a commercial pilot, said although gliding is not dangerous, it does require a certain amount of precision. For example, he said, if a power plane pilot goes in for a landing and determines his altitude or speed is not what it should be, he can readjust and try the landing again. A glider pilot has no such luxuries. Once a pilot decides to land, he must land.

"For this reason, we have to be more conservative and have more back-up plans," said Mr. Schneiderman, who claims he can almost always land in the exact same spot he started. "You get once chance to land. You can't start all over again." But, he added, "it doesn't mean it's scary and it doesn't mean it's dangerous." "A glider is safer because you don't depend on the engine," said West Windsor resident Sharon Sibilia. "There is no engine to blow up."

Another attraction of the sport is the bird's eye view from the cockpit of the two-seater plane. From the Van Sant airport, pilots can see the Delaware River, Philadelphia and other small lakes.