LITTLEFIELD, Texas — A sailplane shoots across the sky over the Littlefield Municipal Airport — the sleek white flying machine striking a sharp juxtaposition against the blue.
It was time for takeoff for a dozen cadets with the United States Air Force Academy’s Sailplane Racing Team.
“You just create your own roller coaster,” Cadet Second Class Nikita Webb, member of USAFA’s Sailplane Racing Team, said.
For more than 30 years, the Air Force Academy has sent the team to Littlefield, about 45 minutes Northwest of Lubbock, to sharpen cadets’ cross-country flying skills and prepare for racing competitions. The team said the town (population roughly 6,000 people) is actually one of the best places around the country to practice taking to the sky. The flat terrain and West Texas wind help make it an ideal spot.
“There’s great weather, there’s very little air traffic in the air … [The cadets] may end up having to land out in a field — and it turns out there’s a lot of great fields to land in around here,” Director of Advanced Soaring Operations at USAFA 94th Flying Training Squadron Captain Matthew Bell said.
The training has happened nearly every year since 1989 as a part of a partnership with the airport and the Caprock Soaring Club, which sponsors and helps the cadets during the training.
The cadets practice soaring in sailplanes — otherwise known as gliders. The flying machines look straight out of a space movie, but there’s one catch to flying them.
“You’re up there without an engine,” Bell said.
The gliders can go up thousands of feet and stay in the air for six hours — all without an engine.
“It can be quite peaceful, and other times it can be quite a challenge,” Bell said.
The gliders are all about the weather, wind and thermals, rising air that comes off the ground and helps the plane climb.
But if Mother Nature changes her mind, that could mean trouble.
“If we’re really, really high up there, like 17,000 or 17,500 feet, you’ll look out of the canopy, and you’ll be like, ‘Wow! Yeah, we’re pretty far up, and I have about three inches of plastic between me and that,” Sailplane Racing Team member Cadet Second Class Garrett Dean said.
But how does a plane take off without an engine?
“We take another plane, tie a rope to the back of it, put that rope on the front of our plane, and they drag us into the air. Then, once we’re [sufficiently airborne], we’ll pull a little lever that releases us, and then, we’re free to go fly,” Dean said.
Up in the air after the glider is released, all they can hear is the wind — no engine noises or screeching jet. The Air Force Academy uses glider training to teach future pilots the fundamentals of flying.
Twenty-one-year-old Air Force Academy senior Walker Carroll said he knows that firsthand.
“It’s extremely rewarding coming back after a five-hour flight, and I’m like, ‘wow, I did that by myself,'” Carroll said
His father also attended the Air Force Academy, and he trained on gliders in the same program 32 years ago — two generations learning to soar in Littlefield.
“I almost feel like I’m a member of the team again … They’re the best of the best,” pilot and Air Force Academy graduate John Carroll said.