Pemberton Soaring Centre lets you fly like an eagle

On Pemberton Soaring Centre’s glider flights, thrill seekers get loops and spins, while scaredy cats get a stunning bird’s-eye view

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      There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love amusement-park rides that flip them upside down, and those who don’t. My husband, Mike, and I fall into opposite camps. He could ride a roller coaster all day. I once threw up on a Ferris wheel.

      It follows that we’re each approaching our glider flights in different ways. Driving out to Pemberton Soaring Centre, he’s totally jazzed about flying on a plane that doesn’t have an engine, while I’m more than a little nervous. “I can’t wait to do all those loop-de-loops,” he says. I’m opting for a gentler scenic flight without any fancy tricks. “You couldn’t pay me to do that aerobatic flight,” I reply.

      Located about 20 minutes north of Whistler, Pemberton Soaring Centre offers glider flights for both thrill-seekers and people partial to straight lines. I may dislike amusement park rides, but I’ve always yearned for the superpower of flight. Except for hang-gliding, a glider is the closest I’ll get to soaring freely like a bird, so I’ve popped a couple Gravol and I’m ready to go.

      Soaring Centre owner Rudy Rozsypalek greets us at Pemberton Regional Airport, which is really just a landing strip on a grassy field with the postcard-worthy backdrop of Mount Currie. As he leads us out to the glider, he explains that because the aircraft holds two people—a passenger at the nose and the pilot behind—he’ll take Mike and I up separately. I’m reassured to hear that he’s been a pilot for 34 years and has been running this business for 18.

      The sleek white L-23 Super Blaní­k sits low on its wheels tipped slightly to rest on one of its wings. Besides the absence of an engine, the glider is distinguished by its graceful 18.2-metre wing span, which is almost double that of a Cessna. Rozsypalek picks up the resting wing like he’s picking up a bicycle. He instructs us to grab the other and we all roll the aircraft into takeoff position; even at 304 kilograms empty, this is surprisingly easy.

      Rozsypalek opens the glider’s Plexiglas canopy and I climb into the cockpit and stretch out like I’m in a kayak. It’s both exciting and terrifying to see the glider’s dashboard in front of me as well as a control stick and rudder pedals. Rozsypalek buckles me in across the chest and warns me not to touch anything. Because the aircraft is also used for training, it can be flown from either seat, and my controls will move in tandem with his. “If you want to hang onto something, hang onto your seat belt,” he suggests.

      He attaches a 60-metre towrope to the glider’s nose, linking it to a perky yellow Citabria two-seater plane down the tarmac. Rozsypalek explains that the Citabria will take off and pull us up to our desired altitude, about 5,000 feet. Then the towrope will be released, and the glider will fly on its own.

      “You can stay up all day on a glider if you want to,” Rozsypalek says because, unlike a conventional plane, it never needs to refuel. The glider gains altitude by riding thermals (pockets of rising air) and other forms of lift. As the pilot circles in a thermal, the glider will rise too.

      Rozsypalek climbs in behind me, secures the canopy, and radios to the tow pilot to take off. We’ve hardly begun rolling before we’re gently airborne, then climbing steadily.

      What a thrill! I’ve been in small planes before, but this is totally different. Because the pilot is behind me, I have an unobstructed 180-degree view through the cockpit. This creates an incredible feeling of openness and freedom—a unique bird’s-eye perspective. There’s also no chop-chop drone of an engine; just the whoosh of the wind that’s low enough for us to converse without headphones.

      After he radios the Citabria, the tow rope pops and drops. Then it’s just us, gliding at about 110 kilometres per hour, climbing to about 6,000 feet. We fly parallel to Mount Currie’s rugged north face, so close that I can pick out individual trees and gaze down on meringuelike pillows of snow. Rozsypalek points out the glacier of Ipsoot mountain and the ski runs of Whistler Mountain in the distance.

      A bird's-eye view of Pemberton Airport and the valley from the glider. Michael Manz photo.

      My stomach lurches as the aircraft turns, but I’m so captivated by the panorama that I forget to be afraid. We fly over the emerald golf courses and pastoral fields of the Pemberton Valley, trace the Lillooet River, and take in the silty turquoise depths of Lillooet Lake. High over the Mount Currie Indian reserve, Rozsypalek points out that the layout of the reservation’s roads was designed to resemble an eagle from the air. (Cool!) At one point, we slow to about 80 kilometres per hour, and it’s so quiet that it almost seems like we’re not moving. The glider feels like a tiny ant in a limitless sky.

      When we land, it’s like a real-life video game. Since I’m in the cockpit, I see the white centre line of the tarmac getting larger and larger head on until we finally touch down. When I climb out of the glider, I’m exhilarated—and then woozy.

      Mike goes up next, and follows a similar route but flies further, higher, faster, and with more thrills. He gets up to about 8,000 feet and flies to about 200 kilometres per hour doing loops, wingovers, spins, and stalls. After he lands, he leaps out of the aircraft and bounds toward me.

      “Did you see that?” he says, giddy as a schoolboy. “It didn’t feel like I was upside down,” he says of the backward loops. “It felt like the earth was turning around me, like the whole view turned around me! You see the whole mountain range flying upside down like the reflection in a lake.”

      He raves about the stalls, when the glider flies straight up to a certain point, and then swoops down. “You feel all these g-forces pushing you into your seat. Just before the plane starts to fall, it’s totally silent.”

      Sounds like my worst nightmare, but for him, it was clearly a dream flight. As we drive away, we rave about the awesome scenery and about how the flight gave us a whole new perspective on the area. Both right-side up and upside down, it was a good one.

      Watch a video of some of the advanced tricks available for thrillseekers through Pemberton Soaring Centre.


      Access: Pemberton Soaring Centre is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from April through September. Flights vary in length and style and start at $94; see the Pemberton Soaring website. Pemberton lies about two-and-a-half hours north of Vancouver on Highway 99. The writer and her husband flew as guests of Pemberton Soaring Centre and stayed as guests of Pemberton Valley Lodge, located in town a five-minute drive away.

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