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Gliding is peaceful pastime for Tucsonan

Tucsonan David Lowe at El Tiro Gliderport in Marana (Courtesy David Lowe)

Ever had that dream when you’re soaring above the earth, peering down at the miniaturized version of life, whistling through the clouds, watching the birds swooping by? Welcome to David Lowe’s favorite hobby: gliding.

A lifelong aviation enthusiast, Lowe became hooked on gliding after his first ride in 2007. Lowe was no stranger to the skies as a certified private pilot and licensed commercial hot air balloonist with 34 years of experience. He currently has a commercial glider pilot rating and just finished a two-year term as president of the Tucson Soaring Club. He is an assistant professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Aeronautics, where he’s taught for more than 10 years. He and his wife, Anne, the recently retired outreach and Northwest Division director of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, have lived in Tucson for 11 years.

“Gliding is the sport where you fly an aircraft that looks just like an airplane, except that it doesn’t have an engine. We are towed into the air by another aircraft, and then use ‘thermals,’ rising columns of warm air, to sustain flight. My longest flight has been close to five and a half hours, all without the use of an engine,” Lowe explains.

As a member of the Tucson Soaring Club, Lowe conducts his gliding flights out of El Tiro Gliderport in Marana, about 30 miles northwest of Tucson. The club was established in 1967 and flew out of Ryan Airfield before moving to its present location in 1983. According to the club’s website, it maintains 15 certified flight instructors who instruct all levels of interest and ability, including student gliding pilots, aerobatic competitions and cross-country racing.

Over the Sonoran Desert, glider pilots sometimes ride thermals along with the hawks, says David Lowe, former president of the Tucson Soaring Club. (Courtesy David Lowe)
Over the Sonoran Desert, glider pilots sometimes ride thermals along with the hawks, says David Lowe, former president of the Tucson Soaring Club. (Courtesy David Lowe)

Tucson provides the ideal climate for gliding with long, hot summers; it provides the essential “thermals” that maintain the glider’s ability to sustain a long flight. “Most club members will stay within 10 miles of the airfield, but [some] will fly from Tucson to Nogales then east to Wilcox, then up to Eloy and back to our airfield in Marana,” says Lowe, noting that a flight of this nature may take upwards of four hours.

Recalling his favorite gliding flights, Lowe says, “I remember a particular flight which was coming to an end late in the afternoon. The sun was going down and the earth just seemed so peaceful as the shadows started to lengthen. It was quite beautiful to see from the air! Sometimes we also get to thermal with the many hawks that call the desert home. That is quite an experience and sight!”

Lowe advises that first-time passengers may be surprised at how high you can climb, and therefore how long you can remain in the air. Also, a gliding passenger should expect to hear only the wind as it flows over the canopy, quiet and smooth. The club’s main gliding is done on Wednesday and Friday afternoons and on weekends.

Sarah Chen is a freelance writer living in northwest Tucson with her husband, son and daughter.