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Fly high in a glider -- just like Orville Wright

Soaring NV

A Soaring Nevada sailplane flying at 17,500 feet, looking at Mount Rose and Slide Peak on the north side of Lake Tahoe.

It’s hard to envision flying without the benefit of engine power, but that’s never stopped some folks from trying.

This weekend, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people are expected to converge on North Carolina’s Outer Banks to attend Soaring 100, a four-day event from Oct. 21 to 24 celebrating the 100th anniversary of a flight they say heralded the arrival of modern soaring.

“On October 24, 1911, Orville Wright came off Big Kill Devil Hill and soared like a bird for a record 9 minutes and 45 seconds,” said Lola Hilton, executive director of the First Flight Foundation, which helped organize this weekend’s event.

Soaring 100 will feature a full schedule of events and activities focusing on gliders, sailplanes and other means of non-motorized flight. Highlights will include the display of two 1911 Wright glider replicas, ceremonial flyovers and landings at the Wright Brothers National Memorial and a talk by NASA astronaut Susan Kilrain titled “Space Shuttle – World’s Most Complex Glider.”

Meanwhile, for those who can’t make it to Soaring 100, glider rides can add a unique element to destination travel. 

“Seeing the scenery from a sailplane or glider is much nicer than seeing it from a powered airplane,” said Jim Short, president of the Vintage Sailplane Association. “There’s no engine noise, the canopy is wide and you get a beautiful view of the world as you’re flying.”

The Soaring Society of America, a  membership organization that supports gliding, offers a map with links to more than 140 gliding locations around the U.S. Most offer scenic flights, acrobatic rides and instruction if you want to take your gliding to a higher level.

Here are four options:
 
Elmira, N.Y.: Having hosted 13 national soaring championships between 1930 and 1946, this town in upstate New York has earned its nickname of the “Soaring Capital of America.” Today, the Harris Hill Soaring Center offers 15- to 20-minute scenic rides ($90–$95, weekends only in October) over the hills, valleys and patchwork farmland at the southern end of the Finger Lakes.

“The geography of the local landscape makes it ideal for soaring,” said Sara Sirianni of the National Soaring Museum, which is adjacent to the center. The museum is home to the largest glider and sailplane collection in the world as well as flight simulators for those who want to “soar” but don’t want to leave the ground.

Boulder, Colo.: Boulder’s location between the eastern plains and the rugged terrain of the Continental Divide make it an ideal spot for gliders, says Brett Hoglan, a tow pilot with Mile High Gliding, Inc.

The company’s most popular offering is the Mile High Flight ($179–$219). A tow plane takes the glider up to 10,600 feet and then disengages; riders are treated to views stretching from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Pikes Peak outside Colorado Springs. “You can see a long dang way,” said Hoglan.

Minden, Nev.: Fifty miles south of Reno, Minden is world famous among soaring enthusiasts because it sits at the foot of the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range and experiences some of the strongest and most reliable “mountain wave” air currents in the world.

For travelers, Soaring NV’s Tahoe SkyRide ($259–$309) offers a glimpse of what the buzz is all about. Climbing a mile above the airport to 10,000 feet, the 45-minute ride incorporates views of Lake Tahoe and can be customized to individuals’ interest and comfort level.

“We can do everything from a very mild ‘keep the wings level’ kind of flight on up to a full acrobatic ride with loops, rolls and stalls,” said general manager Brad Bullion. “It’s all whatever they choose to do.”

Honolulu Soaring

A tow plane takes a glider up above the northwest coast of Oahu, Hawaii.

Mokuleia, Hawaii: Located on the near-empty northwest coast of Oahu, Dillingham Airfield is about as far as you can get from Honolulu without getting off the island. That makes it an appropriate home base for Honolulu Soaring, which has been offering off-the-beaten-path adventures for 40 years.

The company offers a variety of scenic, acrobatic and instructional rides ranging from 10 to 60 minutes ($79–$390), all of which include panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, Waianae Mountains and world-renowned surfing spots like Waimea Bay.

Orville, no doubt, would have loved it.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.