Soaring with eagles—five minutes from home

by Mary Jo David

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When was the last time you glanced up in the sky just in time to admire a raptor in flight—perhaps a hawk or an eagle—gliding ever so elegantly, almost effortlessly, overhead?

As it happens, that experience is available locally to anyone who has the desire (and nerve) to try soaring, which is the official term for riding in a glider. If you’ve traveled Doyle Road heading into or out of Gregory between April and November, you’ve likely noticed the regular weekend glider activity at Richmond Field.

The Sandhill Soaring Club calls the airfield “home,” and its members assemble regularly—some driving from as far as Trenton, Canton, and Lansing for the camaraderie with fellow club members, to assist those studying for their glider licenses, and to promote the experience to anyone who wants to try a glider ride firsthand. Some members hail from back when the Rosetti Club from the east side of metro Detroit merged with the Huron Valley Club around 1984.

On one of the first truly beautiful days of spring, not-so-local Steve Ladouceur, a Windsor, Ontario, transplant who recently moved to Midtown in Detroit was sitting patiently on a picnic bench waiting for a glider ride.

“Previously I took private pilot lessons. I’m trying gliding with hopes of falling in love with it,” he explained.

It’s clear from the start, the Sandhill Soaring Club is a tightknit, experienced, and likable group. On the day of the interview, more than enough volunteers were there to fill in as tow pilots, glider pilots, and wing runners (to run along and keep the wing up at the beginning of the tow) for the day’s activities.

Sandhill Soaring Club owns six gliders and provided about 350 commercial rides, which the club calls “discovery rides,” last year. It is an all-volunteer organization and, according to its website, the club has trained dozens of glider pilots, ranging in age from 14 to over 70. Many of these pilots have gone on to enjoy cross-country flying in gliders, and several have competed in soaring contests at the regional and national level.

According to longtime members Chuck Stoltz and Raymond Pasquantonio, over time, among its members, the club has counted glider pilots, power plane pilots, military pilots, airplane pilots, and even an astronaut. Just a few years ago, if you had visited the field, you’d have seen a WWII seaplane pilot among those volunteers “running wing” as the gliders took off.

Currently the club has about 90 members. Two of its current members—Safu Nana and Mark Grant—are recipients of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, which recognizes pilots who have conducted 50 or more consecutive years of safe flight operations.

At the younger end of the spectrum, young Jacob Broesamle, 12 years old, of Gregory, has had seven lessons toward his goal of becoming a glider pilot (glider pilots must be 14 to become licensed).

“I’d much rather be up in a glider than playing soccer,” Broesamle said. “When I’m up there, I already feel like I’m a pilot.”

My own bird’s-eye view

When driving five minutes from home to conduct the interview for this article, never in my wildest dreams did I believe I’d end up experiencing a ride for myself. But before I knew it, I was harnessed in, bumping across the airstrip, gaining height and—on a cue from glider pilot Nana—I was releasing the tow rope and waving “so long” to the tow pilot!

To write about soaring without experiencing it, I would have missed out on the bird’s-eye view of the chain of lakes below, the almost-ready-to-be-tilled patchwork of farm fields marked by some of the area’s proud but aging barns, the Stockbridge water tower to the west, and even the storage silos of Chelsea’s Jiffy Mix factory off to the south

Just as impressive as the views from 3,000-plus feet was the sense of peace and quiet; while soaring in the glider, there was no engine noise and no noise from traffic on the road. Aside from Nana pointing out sites and answering my questions, the only other sound was an occasional admonition from my dear departed mother, who seemed to have taken up residence on my shoulder and was whispering in my ear, “Are you crazy?!”

Be assured, I am anything but crazy, and in fact, I now consider myself lucky to have experienced something that I had only ever admired from a distance before. As if to reinforce my decision to test out my wings on that day, within five minutes of landing, Broesamle’s dad pointed to a tree not 50 feet from where we were standing. And there I saw, for the first time ever, a bald eagle. And that magnificent creature seemed to be saying, “Way to go, gurrrl!”

Just in time for Father’s Day, here’s the information you need to learn more about trying your first glider ride at Sandhill Soaring Club: Web: sandhillsoaring.org Location: Richmond Field (69G), 19935 Doyle Road, Gregory, MI 48137.

A subset of the Sandhill Soaring Club members and volunteers who were on hand at Richmond Field for the first beautiful spring day of the season. Pictured front (l-r): Chuck Stoltz, Safu Nana, Ray Pasquantonio, Jacob Broesamle; back seated (l-r): Jim Nowacki, Mark Grant, Mike Endicott; back standing (l-r): Reid Baldwin, Mauricio Pajon, Dave Kerrigan, and Bernardo Bahia. Photo credit Mary Jo David

 

Club members Safu Nana (back) and Mark Grant are recipients of the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for 50 or more consecutive years of safe flight operations. Photo credit Mary Jo David

 

Glider take-off behind tow plane at Richmond Field in Gregory.
Photo credit Bob Garypie, Rebound Photo

 

An almost empty hangar at mid-day on a busy Saturday at Richmond Field. Parts of old antique gliders grace the walls at the back of the hangar. Photo credit Mary Jo David

 

Soaring below the clouds. Photo credit Bob Garypie, Rebound Photo

 

On a tour of Richmond Field, club member Raymond Pasquantonio, of Canton, points out Richmond Field on the clubhouse map. Photo credit Mary Jo David

 

Jacob Broesamle, of Gregory, has taken seven
lessons toward his goal of becoming a glider pilot.
Photo credit Mary Jo David

 

Mary Jo David (front) and Safu Nana getting ready for takeoff. Photo credit Mike Endicott, glider operations director.

 

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