Learning to Soar With the Gliding Guru of the Mojave

Flying quiet in Yeager Country.

byChris Cantle|
Racing photo

Tall and thin, covered head to toe in white and sun-bleached dusty everything, Dale’s the very picture of a desert eccentric. In the dark of a mobile office trailer perched on the edge of Crystal Airport’s hard-cooked runway he pitches and rolls a model sailplane, demonstrating its control surfaces. Then, a monster dust devil twists the earth at the end of the tarmac into the sky, spectacularly illustrating the same thermal principles he was describing moment before. The animation that tilted and rolled the tiny glider in his hands leaps through his limbs. He breaks for the door.

“It’s lift!" he says, squinting into the sky. "If I were aloft anywhere within glide range, I’d just go straight for that tower of dust. We could arrive at a hundred feet and just go back up.”

A huge funnel of orange-brown silt carries twigs and a plastic bag up and out of sight. “Gentle for its size. What a beauty.” A sailor's whisper of wonder. His voice trails off as the whirlwind loses its core and turns to a blur.

Chris Cantle/TheDrive.com

Minutes later, we're bouncing down the runway, strung on a line behind a little Piper. We're graceful and loud as a wheelbarrow ride until our giant wings bite the air. Then we're slipping sideways and dancing behind the tow plane. I try desperately to stay with Dale's tiny movements. His flicks and catches. But he's right there with the glider, and they're both way out ahead of me.

"I'm allergic to the sun," he says over my shoulder. A cruel thing for a man that spends his days cooking in the jet fighter greenhouse of a glider's bubble canopy.

We find lift just east of the little airport. Dale cuts us loose 1,200 feet up; it's not long before we've picked up another thousand. The Mojave Desert stretches out forever under us one way, a string of mountains the other. A little shimmer on the horizon must be Rogers Dry Lake. Edwards Air Force Base. Yeager country. We dip a wing and make for the mountains, Dale feeling his way across a ridge line.

What I wouldn’t do for a professional’s nuance. Watch a race car driver work. Watch the little inputs, early and often. It’s a hunt. For speed, for efficiency. It’s the same here. And the thing Dale’s chasing with his feet and hands literally adds another dimension to that pursuit. His wing lifts, instantly there’s firm pressure in the stick, bringing the other wing to match. “That’s 50 feet,” he says. Seconds later we clear the tops of pines by 50 feet. I’m hooked.

We trace the shoulder of the mountain range and dip a wing over Angeles Crest Highway. Low, slow and calculated. Dale reels off topographical features, explains where he’s expecting to find lift. The glider’s always descending: if it’s climbing, that’s because Dale’s chosen to descend in air that’s rising faster than our descent. The constant tweaks, the hunt, the engagement of the seat of the pants. It’s an amazing conversation to witness in the quiet of the canopy. Performance. Feet. Speed. It’s all the same. And finding it is art.