By Jaime Thomas
To Charles Cramer, there’s nothing better than gliding alongside clouds in a 2,400-pound, engineless plane.
At 86 years old, the former Granville resident is the oldest member of the Tucson Soaring Club in Arizona and regularly takes to the skies, hunting thermals that can lift him 600 or 700 feet per minute.
“Those are cloud streets; they’re very identifiable places,” Cramer explained. His passion for and extensive knowledge of soaring, which he said began at birth, is obvious.
“Ever since I could make a paper airplane and send it up at the chalkboard. I was born in 1927; that’s the same year Lindberg flew the Atlantic, so I don’t know if that has anything to do with it,” he said. His hobby of building radio-controlled, model gliders floated throughout his life, but it was a popular spot near San Diego that really got him hooked.
“The first time I saw a glider was in 1958 at Torrey Pines. It soared out on the Atlantic and along the ridge line and came roaring up the cliff. When I saw this I said, ‘One day I’ll do that.’” And do it he did.
“My life has been soaring ever since my wife passed away, and I enjoy the beauty of flying along the clouds.”
At the age of 70, he trained with the Tuscan club, soloed after 20 flights and passed a written exam and a series of tests with an examiner.
“The feeling of being weightless and with Mother Nature and not having to listen to an airplane motor, and to fly with a red tail (hawk) on your wing, it’s an experience that’s almost a religious experience, I feel,” Cramer said.
The seemingly effortless flying of hawks is the same as that of a glider—they climb without flapping their wings, instead circling and lifting on thermal air. Cramer explained that thermals combined with wave lift, when winds reach 22 to 25 miles per hour, help the aircrafts along for hours.
“In soaring you have to study quite a bit of meteorology. You are harnessing the power of Mother Nature.”
Because of its rising thermals that can carry pilots up to 18,000 feet, Cramer said Tucson is among a few world-class soaring areas. He has soared his single seat Rolladen-Schneider sailplane in Vermont and Saratoga and abroad in Holland and Germany, but finds the air above Tucson to be “supreme.” He even glided in a cross-country flight.
Within the flying club, members regularly compete with other gliders and online with GPS’s, which keep track of and record speed and distance. Whoever flies the furthest and fastest, going and returning without a motor, is the day’s winner.
Flying only by the energy and heat of the sun, the pilots can stay in the air for six and a half to seven hours.
The club keeps two Pawnee crop-duster planes and a third tow train to get the gliders started; they then fly between 45 and 135 miles per hour at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet. The lack of engine noise in the fiberglass sailplanes is part of beauty for Cramer.
“It’s the solitude, silence and just the joy of soaring with the birds. To be soaring along the edge of a cloud silently and rising—it’s a marvelous experience,” he said.
Certified gliding instructors also help new pilots into the sport. Youths can start in their early teens and can solo by age 14; the 125-member club has also helped paraplegic aeronautical students get off the ground.
The club flies on a rented, WWII airfield that has eight runways. Cramer serves as airfield manager and also maintains the runways, clearing sagebrush and mesquite with a 1945 Case tractor and brush hog.
Though he moved to Arizona about 23 years ago, Cramer, a WWII veteran, still regularly visits his houses in Granville and Lake St. Catherine.
“I’m past 86 and still soaring, and I’m very proud of it,” Cramer said.