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Also, the past few weeks, June 17 through July 2, saw the air near Vilnius full of gliders competing in the Lithuanian National Championship. Hosted by Vilniaus Aeroklubas, the local glider organization, the competition drew 20 pilots from throughout Lithuania along with spectators from Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Germany and the United States.
Vilniaus Aeroklubas was established in 1958 and currently boasts over 60 members. They call home a small airfield located approximately 35 kilometers south of Vilnius. The club is one of 14 active gliding organizations in Lithuania, the most of any country in Eastern Europe. Lithuania has been a stronghold of engineless flight since shortly after World War II.
Germany, France and England also have very strong roots in the sport of gliding. Germany's gliding history carries a heavy military background as all Luftwaffe military pilots were required to have 20 hours of flight time in order to prepare them for the nuances of flying without an engine through wind thermals and updrafts.
These days, many people begin their flight orientation in gliders and move on to earn their private and commercial pilot's licenses. To receive your international glider pilot license requires classroom work, theoretical flight testing, and a minimum of 20 hours flight time with an instructor before you are ready for your first solo.
At first, the prospect of engineless flight may seem completely counter-intuitive, but in reality it is quite safe. The wingspan on gliders is immense and that creates an in-flight stability that cannot be found on most self-propelled planes.
Alfredas Lankauskas, an experienced glider pilot from Siauliai, feels that gliders are intrinsically safer than planes.
"The size of their wingspan, the lack of complicated parts, their ability to fly without an engine, and the fact that they can land almost anywhere that has a short, flat surface all make gliding a safe sport," said Lankauskas. Also increasing the safety of gliding is the fact that pilots obey visual flight rules and never fly at night or in the rain. Gliding is dependent upon air thermals which are not present during rain.
The rainy weather during the national championship kept competitors' eyes scanning the skies for signs of dark clouds throughout late June. When they were able to sneak up between rain storms, pilots used GPS receivers that gave vectors and turning coordinates for the competition. Software tracking systems measured their progress on the course.
"We have been using GPS receivers for the past four years. They measure the accuracy with which you fly your route," said Tomas Kuzmickas, a Vilnius-based pilot who will be competing in the World Junior Championship in France later this summer.
"Before GPS, we used ground-based cameras to triangulate the integrity of a pilot's course. GPS is much more accurate."
The speeds and heights reached in gliders also differ considerably from those of planes. As gliding is extremely weather dependent, possible altitude depends on the cloud base, which throughout the Baltic states is normally somewhere between 500 meters to 3,500 meters. The speed of a glider in flight can range from 80 kph (stall speed) to 300 kph, which can be achieved when engaging in a steep aerobatic dive.
Vilniaus Aeroklubas also has a two-person sport glider and offered The Baltic Times a ride.
Manned by a local test pilot with more than 30 years of gliding experience, the glider reached the cloud base at an altitude of 1,200 meters before releasing the tow-line from the plane in front. The initial impression is one of complete silence as you float high above the earth completely removed from your normal environment. This peace can be interrupted quickly if you are one who enjoys aerobatics and swooping dives.
Gliders are capable of loops, near vertical dives and twisting wing dips, which are all done with only the noise of air whistling around the canopy. Gliding is such a unique and peaceful experience that the attraction to this hobby and the enthusiasm of the pilots is easily understood.
Gliding was a very popular pastime during the days of communism, and Vilniaus Aeroklubas still possesses nearly 40 gliders in various states of use. "Much of our equipment and gliders are still government-owned; we are thankful for the high quality planes and keep them in shape," said Kuzmickas.
Gliding is an extremely expensive hobby if you want to purchase and maintain your own plane and trailer. However, members of Vilniaus Aeroklubas say that the majority of local pilots pay a $40 membership fee, use the club's gliders and are only required to chip in the gas money for the tow into the air from a barnstorming biplane located at the small airport.
If you are interested in experiencing this unique hobby or watching the first World Women's Gliding Championship, head to Pociunai. A great resource listing all contact information and upcoming events is the Lithuanian and English Web site maintained by Tomas Kuzmickas as a devotion to his passion: www.soaring.lt