A big man steps out of his flip-flop sandals and climbs into his cramped cockpit. He's a glider pilot, known island-wide as "Tall Don" Rohrbach. You're behind him, in the jump seat of a sleek, orange aircraft. It's a Schwietzer 2-32 sailplane, needle-nosed, low to the ground with a vast wingspan. Next to you, an engine fires and a prop whirls to life; the tow plane is rolling out. Rohrbach shouts back a few last instructions. "Don't pull that handle unless you want to release the towline," he says. "And if you're going to be sick, try to tell me ahead of time."
The 200-foot nylon line pulls taut and you lurch onto the runway.The tow plane floats off the runway and you're right behind, yawing gently from side to side until you reach cruising speed. The green grounds of Dillingham Airfield fall away, and the startling blue Pacific spreads beneath you. Your ride banks inland and you follow in a steep, rounding climb. When you top 3,000 feet, Rohrbach pulls up on his stick and you rise above the tow plane. With the slack off the rope, Don yanks the release handle and the line pulls free. The tow pilot, free of his load, waggles his wings and flies away. You're on your own, alone with the wind.
But you go up, not down. With Oahu dwindling at your feet, you mount the thermals and rise over Waianae Range at a rate of almost 300 feet a minute. Waianae Mountain Range is the land form that gives the west end of Oahu some of the most reliable gliding air in the country. Hour after hour, the ridge deflects wind off the ocean in a steady updraft ideal for sail planes. The record for a continuous glide here is more than 70 hours. And so soaring clubs have taken over one end of Dillingham, a WWII-era airfield that sits adjacent to the beach. Rohrbach works for The Original Glider Rides, one of two commercial companies offering scenic glider rides of 20 or 30 minutes each.
"That's the route the Japanese took on their way to Pearl Harbor, "notes Rohrbach, pointing up the valley toward the Pali Pass. He flies lightly, feeling through his stick the movement of the wingtips through the air. He banks in constant graceful curves. You head out over the water, a sheet of azure that clearly reveals stocks of coral. Rohrbach keeps his eyes peeled for schools of yellowjack tuna. If he sees any, he may go fishing later. The viewing is so fine that gliding rides have become popular with whale watchers, and Rohrbach has become a source of whale population information for Hawaii's marine fisheries office.
"In water this clear, a 45-foot whale sticks out like a sore thumb," he says. "They love to calve off of this coast. We've had three babies born here this year."
After half an hour, you slowly climb down from the sky, zeroing in on the landing strip at Dillingham. You touch down, lose speed until one wing drops and skids on its metal strut and rolls to a stop ... about six inches from Tall Don's waiting flip-flops.