Infinity & beyond

Ido Millet has been flying planes for 27 years, yet he’s never once used an engine. His planes don’t need them.

A professor of information systems at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, during the week, Millet frequents the Aero Soaring Club at the Dart Airport in Chautauqua on weekends and holidays to take passengers soaring over Chautauqua Lake in sailplanes. The sailplanes look, feel and fly just like any aircraft — minus the engine.

“They fly just like a power plane flies, except that, in the case of gliders, the thing that pulls you forward is gravity,” Millet said. “So while gravity is trying to pull you down, the shape of the glider converts that energy to forward motion exactly the same way that a skier can gain speed using gravity.”

A feat of the Bernoulli effect, the shape of the plane’s wings keep it afloat. Their planes are shaped in such a way that they create a low-pressure area above their wings, drawing uplift from the relatively higher pressure below.

Millet’s rides begin from behind a tow-plane. After checking and double-checking the efficacy of the gauges, rudders, flaps, brakes and tow release, a tow-plane drags the glider into the air. Both Millet and the tow-plane pilot are connected by radio, but they communicate through feel of the flight. If one plane flaps its wings, the other plane knows there’s a problem. If the sailplane tugs to the right, the tow-plane pilot feels the jerk and banks accordingly. In the glider, Millet needs to trail to avoid putting too much stress on the tow-plane, while avoiding the wash from its propeller.

Once the planes reach 2,500 feet, the passenger yanks the release cord (under instruction from Millet) as the tow-plane cuts left and the soarers cut right. From there, they’re alone in the friendly skies, relying on different forms of uplift to stay afloat.

“Flying the glider itself is fairly easy,” Millet said. “Now staying up in the glider and finding thermals and going higher in those thermals of other weather phenomena, that also requires some skill that you acquire over the years. It’s not about gliding down — that’s why it’s called soaring. You try to find lift sources to get up and stay up.”

The Bernoulli effect is not the only source of lift for the planes. On sunny days, the radiation from sunlight heats the ground, especially at darker colored pavement such as blacktops and asphalts. When the hot air from the ground rises, skilled pilots know to capitalize and soar in an ascending circle to maintain or increase their elevation.

“That’s why birds are circling,” Millet said. “It’s not that they’re disoriented or anything like that. They’re circling to stay in the area. And you can see that they don’t flap, they just go up. And this is one of the key things that allow birds to migrate.”

Given Chautauqua’s geography, Millet and the other pilots rely on thermals as the main lift source. Thus they prowl through the air like hungry cats in an alleyway looking for the geothermal bump to kick up their elevation.

As striking as the plane’s independence is its silence in the air. While standard commercial jets rumble and roar from their multiple, powerful engines, the quiet is almost overwhelming when coupled with the views from a half-mile up.

The plane’s descent is strikingly smooth as it hits the grass runway and rolls up to within 50 feet of the parking lot. The riders emerge exhilarated, while relieved to feel their feet on steady ground. To Millet however, it’s just another day at the (other) office.

To wrap up the experience, Millet slices up a watermelon to share with his riders, as he does with every group.

“It started a few years ago,” he said of the quirky pairing. “It’s just always struck me as a good combination.”

Having gotten into soaring 27 years ago when some friends took him for a ride, Millet encourages the riders to look for a club of their own and, one day, work their way up to a solo flight. After all, U.S. law requires riders need only to be 14 years old to operate a sailplane.

Millet offers soaring tours every weekend at Dart Airport. Discounted rates for those with a gate pass are also available through the Institution.  Classes area available through Special Studies.