A School of Mines graduate recently broke a Utah state glider plane distance record. Steve Rathbun flew a glider, or sailplane from a location near Salt Lake City to Hot Springs South Dakota. Sail planes have no engine. Rather, glider pilots use thermals or uplifting currents created by mountains, deserts and even towns to soar through the sky.
Steve Rathbun says it takes a lot to get a glider in the air. When taking off, a small engine airplane leads the glider into the sky, sort of like a tug boat pulling a steam ship out of a harbor. Rathbun says it’s once you’re in the air and flying, 18,000 feet above the ground, that the real skills comes in.
“You’re looking for all kinds of signs of lift and looking at the clouds and any other weather indicators to tell you what’s going on with the atmosphere and always trying to keep a plan A and a plan B, plan A if everything goes well and plan B if you don’t stay up,” says Rathbun.
Rathbun says that kind of multitasking takes years to form; flying glider planes isn’t something you learn overnight. For Rathbun, his training began early in life.
“And I was kind of a nerdy kid and I liked to build model airplanes and gliders and what not so it was always just part of my being and I would always bug my dad and say “Dad, I want flying lessons.” His response was always, well, yeah, flying’s expensive you better save your money son,” says Rathbun.
Rathbun started hang gliding when he was young and worked up to glider plane piloting. Since then, he’s spent 700 hours flying gliders. He says that each time he flies he tries climbing a little higher or going a little further in distance.
“Soaring kind of becomes a way of life, it’s something that you think about a lot and even during the winter months you’re always planning this kind of thing and dreaming of these opportunities so when it comes time to do it you’re prepared and you just do it and if you try and you fail and you don’t quite make it then you just try again next time,” says Rathbun.
Rathbun says he was inspired to be a pilot by his late father, Grove Rathbun, a skilled aviator and Air National Guard fighter pilot from South Dakota. Grove is set to be inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame this fall.
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