Three glider pilots sat in the hangar of the Ely airport on Friday. Janos Sindely, a Hungarian pilot who travelled from China to visit Ely discussed the expected weather patterns of the next two days with Tom Kelley, a member of the United States National Soaring Team and a former national champion. The third, Polish pilot Marek Malolepszy, reminisced about how close he was to breaking a soaring world record in Ely last year.
“I was ahead of the mark for 75 percent of the flight but then the weather turned bad and I had to land early,” Malolepszy said.
It has become a familiar scene at the Ely airport over summer. Ely has become recognized internationally in the soaring community as one of the top places to go to try and break records. Kelley compared the skies over Ely and the Great Basin to being to pilots what a great surf spot is to surfers worldwide.
“This place offers absolutely fantastic soaring conditions ,” Kelley said.
According to Malolepszy, most of the gliding community was not aware of Ely until record-setting aviator Steve Fossett started shattering previous records in his glider here. Fossett, who had made a name for himself by becoming the first pilot to complete a solo nonstop flight around the world in a balloon, recognized that the unique qualities the Great Basin area offered.
“Honestly, all around the world, especially in Europe, no one had ever heard of Ely before. Then, all of a sudden, due to all the soaring achievements being set there, everyone wanted to go,” Malolepszy said.
Shortly after, Tom Stowers began inviting pilots to travel to the area to participate in the Ely Soaring Camp, created in 2002. Sindely first came to Ely in 2003 to be part of the camp. Since then, he said he has found no better place to soar.
“I was hooked,” he said. “I loved it so much that I decided that I had to plan to visit the Ely camp every year.”
The success of the camp helped spread the word about the natural beauty and favorable weather conditions that Ely’ sky held to the entire flying community.
While most of the local community spent their Fourth of July holiday watching the parade down main street or cheering on the Bobcats at the Little League fields, more than 30 glider pilots were circling the skies. According to Kelley, there is a short season during the summer months where the weather allows for the best conditions to set records.
“Pilots come out here from June through September to fly what are known as 1000 kilometer speed triangles,” Kelley said.
The speed triangles are vast patterns that the gliders can travel at high speed due to the meteorology of the area. The 1,000 kilometer distance available over the Great Basin area is known by pilots as the “1,000K diploma” said Kelley. The times, which are recorded by the glider, are uploaded on what is known as the Online Contest (OLC) for other pilots to compare and compete.
The average flight time for a pilot over Ely can range between five to seven hours. The non-motorized gliders are towed into the sky to an average starting height of 10,000 to 12,000 feet above ground before being released.
“The day starts early and goes late,” Kelley said. “My longest flight lasted nine hours. That might seem like a long time but this is what we love to do.”
“There is nothing quite like the view,” Sindely added.
The gliders themselves can range in wingspan from 15 to close to 30 feet. Malolepszy’s prototype glider, nicknamed “Diana” is the only one of it’s kind in the world.
The pilots all agree that the future for soaring in Ely is bright. County Commissioners Richard Howe and Mike Coster spent time over the Fourth of July weekend meeting with the pilots, discussing ways to bring in even more pilots to the city.
“We appreciate the city and county understanding our needs. The commission members this year have had a really close working relationship with the pilots,” Kelley said before adding that Airport Manager Steve Stork has also made a lot of improvements to accommodate the gliding community.
With continually growing recognition from pilots around the world, Howe said that he hopes to one day bring in enough gliders to throw a festival, similar to ones held in Utah.