Hollister puts soaring enthusiasts in cloud nine

Ramy Yanetz soars high above snow-capped mountains

When 14-year-old Adam Shapiro of Pacific Grove came to Hollister recently, his goal was to fly where raptors hang out as they glide effortlessly above the rolling hills around the town known more for bikers than pilots—and to do it solo.
He did. Three times.
Shapiro joined the elite ranks of those who glide high above mere mortals that includes the Wright Brothers and every astronaut who has ever landed a space shuttle, which is, after all, the world’s largest glider.
Most who live in Hollister probably don’t know the significance its airport has for the world of gliding and soaring.
There is a difference between the two.
When gliding, the aircraft is towed to a predetermined altitude and released. Without gaining more altitude, the pilot returns to the same airport. Soaring is a much different breed of aviation. Once released by the tow plane while soaring, the pilot seeks out updrafts, or thermals, to carry the plane to higher altitudes. The ride may last an hour as the pilot chases clouds along the coast or beside mountain ridges. Or it may last the entire day as the pilot attempts to reach a distant turning point, and then, hopefully, return. Riders hope it will be the same airfield, but sometimes it’s a farm or any open piece of land.
Hollister residents might be surprised to learn that people who yearn to drift through clouds, on waves of air high above mountain ranges, come here from as close as Santa Cruz and as far away as Europe.
“If someone is vacationing in Monterey or San Francisco, and they want to go up in a glider, Hollister is the only place they can do that,” said Quest Richlife, who started the Hollister Glider Club in 2005.
Richlife, who is originally from Beverton, Ore., has been flying since 1978 when he received his pilot’s license at 21. His flying career reads like a Jack London novel.
“I was living in San Francisco, flying out of San Carlos in a flying club,” he said. “I was building hours and experience, getting my instrument rating and my multi-engine certificate, and then I got my first flying job flying a Cessna for KCBS 740 traffic report.”
Later, he flew the Piper Pawnee, a crop duster also used to tow gliders. He heard there was a need for a tow pilot in Arizona, so he put everything he owned in storage, hopped on his motorcycle and headed off for a new adventure. He lived in a trailer at the airport and over eight months accumulated 3,500 tows.
But he decided Arizona was too hot.
So, in what would seem a natural choice for a young man who loved to fly more than anything else, he headed for Alaska.
He flew for Skagway Air Service, transported passengers, freight, mail and tours of Glacier Bay. From there, he wondered around the country, flying in Cape Cod, Fla., and the Caribbean. Eventually, he found his way back to the Bay Area. In 2004, he was working as an airport operations specialist when someone slipped a note under his office door that said there was a need for tow pilots in Hollister.
“I towed a couple times a month until the owner decided to sell the company,” he said. “We struck a deal in 2005. I had the business until 2013. I ran it every day, towed, gave glider rides and flight instructions. I’m up past 5,000 hours and don’t even really keep my logbook anymore except for things I need for regulatory reasons.”
In the sport of soaring, rewards and glory come as a result of not only the distances flown, but also how they’re flown. In this world, not much has changed since the early days of flight when daredevil pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Florence “Poncho” Barnes risked their lives to break speed and distance records. Before computer-linked GPS devices, pilots who sought to break long-distance soaring records depended on official observers along the way who would track the flights and sign off that the planes went where they were supposed to.
Today, GPS equipment and computer software make it possible to track every move the glider or sailplane makes. When downloaded to a computer, the flight can be seen and analyzed by others anywhere in the world.
According to Richlife, most of the top glider pilots are Germans. This is because soaring in Germany goes back to just after World War I when the defeated Germany was forbidden to construct or fly motorized planes. With encouragement from the government, aircraft enthusiasts turned to gliders. Since the 1930s, gliders have been used increasingly in sports flying, and as designs improved so, too, did the distances.
There are two American flyers—Ramy Yanetz and Darren Braun—who have challenged the best in the world at establishing soaring records. And they did it from Hollister. They excel in what is known as cross-country soaring.
“I’m not sure that these epic glider flights and records are a big deal to the vast majority of the population of Hollister,” Richlife said. “Most people who live and work here are completely disconnected from this sport and what these pilots are doing in the air in these exotic craft.”
Braun, from San Jose, learned to fly powered planes in Hollister in 2000. But he wanted to fly gliders and got his license in 2003. He has been flying them exclusively ever since.
Braun has a self-powered glider that uses a motor to launch without a tow plane or to have as an emergency backup. The ideal, he said, is not to start the motor.
He said he loves soaring because of the challenges.
“You’ve got to use knowledge and experiences to find the energy in the atmosphere to do a lot of soaring, which is basically using free energy,” he said. “It’s environmentally friendly and you get to fly with birds. You’re not just there for the ride. You’re making it happen and allowing the flight to continue. It’s flying by intuition.”
On June 7, Braun broke three cross-county records that began in Hollister.    
“I flew from Hollister down to Agua Dulca, between Los Angeles and Palmdale, and back for 750 kilometers (466 miles),” he said. “It took about seven hours, following the coastal ridgeline, which set the all-time record for the longest flight ever out of Hollister.”
Not satisfied with this achievement, Braun has a much longer flight in mind for next year.
“I want to do a 1,000-kilometer flight,” he said. “It would follow a similar route, but go down into the San Bernardino Mountains and back. Normally, when we do this out of Hollister, it will be around April to June because we need the longer days to get more light. It will probably be around June 21, which is the longest day of the year.”
 On Aug. 6, Yanetz, of San Ramone, completed an equally impressive cross-country flight of 711 kilometers (441 miles) from Hollister and out across the Sierras. It took just 10 tries, but he finally made it, as described on social media.
 “Today I finally made it, and crossed the Sierras both ways over Bear Valley south of Lake Tahoe,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I believe this is the first time the Sierras was double crossed in the middle both ways in the same flight. To top it, I went first to the Big Sur coast, so this flights crossed the whole width of California from the Pacific to Nevada. Route was Hollister to Big Sur coast to San Antonio Valley, then across the Central Valley to Columbia and across the Sierras to Lake Tahoe and north of Minden and Carson City, and back across the Sierras near Bear Valley to Stockton.”
He knew before leaving Hollister that he wouldn’t make it back there, so he touched down in Stockton, where he was picked up by his wife.
Whether a flight is verified by observers or GPS tracking, recognition and fame come in the form of bronze, silver, gold and diamond badges. The SSA/FAI Soaring Achievement Badges are not just shiny trinkets to pin on a hat. They signify verifiable flying milestones. They’re a way of keeping score. In Germany, for instance, pilots must earn a diamond badge before they can become instructors.
“I got my silver in 2012, and gold in 2013 out of Utah,” Richlife said. “I towed a glider all the way from Truckee, across Nevada and into Utah to fly out of there. That gave me my gold distance in what’s called my diamond task.
“Back in the day, the badges were where OLC (online contest, conducted by Aerokurier magazine) is now,” he said. “With OLC you just upload your file, the software analyses everybody’s scores. You can look on any given day and see who did what flights and how long they were to see who is leading in OLC points in any region or in the world.”
It’s this worldwide competition that drives Richlife to excel.
“That’s my incentive to do the badges,” he said. “But there are a lot of guys who are good glider pilots and they do good flights, but they don’t want the hassle of the badges. Yanetz and Braun are among the top 20 or so in the U.S. in total OLC points.”
If someone were to decide to give gliding or soaring a try, commitment in time and money is essential. A basic glider will cost around $65,000. A motor-glider will go for about $135,000. Glider pilot lessons will run between $7,000 and $12,000, and take up to eight weeks. This is probably why most people opt to experience a weekend flight, rather than take up the sport.
Hollister Soaring Center (www.bayareagliderrides.com) has been providing glider and soaring services for some 20 years.
“We do three main scenic rides that are based on the altitude they’re towed to,” said Sharon Bush. “The first is the Silver Hawk, which is about a 4,500-foot tow and lasts about 25 minutes. It costs $199 for one passenger. The second one is the Mile High, a 5,500-foot tow that lasts for about 45 minutes and costs $299. The third one is the Monterey Bay, which is an 8,000-foot tow out to the coast line and lasts about an hour and costs $399. There’s a $45 charge of an additional passenger.”
Bush said glider flights give weekend flyers a chance to see the coastline or the Sierras.
“If you go toward the lower Santa Cruz Range you can see the coastline while flying over toward Salinas. It’s the most popular ride,” she said.
Then, for the more adventurous, there’s the aerobatic flight.
“It’s a 7,000-foot tow where you basically go straight up over the airfield,” Bush said. “The duration is based on your own stamina and tolerance. You can do as many loops and wing-overs and rolls as you can stand. You get between 7,000 feet and 2,000 feet to decide how much you can handle. When the passenger says stop, the pilot stops.”
For those concerned about safety, Richlife said that since its beginnings in 1993, glider operations out of Hollister has a 100 percent safety record.
“You can’t say that about a lot of aviation endeavors, such as sky diving,” he said. “There have been accidents involving gliders, but nothing involving a paying passenger.”
He said cross-country soaring is where things get a little risky.
“This is where you start getting into possibly landing in a field,” he said. “One of the more dangerous kinds of soaring is called ridge soaring. That’s when you’re right up on a ridge and there’s some potential for hitting it. We’re talking about a very small spectrum of pilots who are going to do that. As a recreational activity versus the sport, it’s very safe. As a sport, there are risks and it just depends on how much risk you want to put yourself through.”

Leave your comments