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Jewish World Review August 16, 2002 / 8 Elul, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

On silent wings and in
shadows, preparing for war | COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. Shadows and silence.

The shadows appear seemingly out of nowhere. The shapes tell you that they're from an airplane, somewhere above.

But it's the silence that accompanies them . . . the silence, in this place where young Americans are training to fight an air war. . . .

The silence is what surprises you. You had half-expected, in the skies above the United States Air Force Academy, to see powerful fighter jets screaming wing-to-wing, like at some muscle-flexing military air show; you had half-expected to hear sonic booms, and the ascending shriek of engines powering up to full force.

But what you see are the shadows -- it is the slow-moving shadows that tell you to look up. And what you hear is. . . .


"They just kind of float up there," said 2nd Lt. Greg Hignite. "It's sort of soothing to look at. We get used to seeing it. The cadets will go up on as many as 100 flights a day."

In gliders.

That is what the Air Force Academy uses to train the cadets who may some day be called upon to pilot the brawniest bombers and fighter jets in the world. That is how they all start -- at the controls of gliders that have no power at all, save the power of gravity, and the wind.

"If you can fly and land a glider, then you're on your way to being ready to fly and land anything," 2nd Lt. Hignite said. "There is no room for error. If you don't line up the runway properly, you can end up in the trees."

He said that the men and women of the Air Force Academy quickly become accustomed to the silent gliders above:

"You don't hear them. A shadow passes over you, or near you. But you never hear them coming. You see the shadows first."

From Interstate Highway 25, the first sight that passing motorists have of the Air Force Academy is of a massive and seemingly potentially noisy warplane indeed: a huge B-52 bomber, on the sloped elevation leading from the road to the academy itself. But the B-52 is not flight-ready; it is there for show, almost like an Air Force logo at the edge of the academy's 18,000 acres of property that extends to the foothills of the Pike National Forest.

Approximately 4,000 men and women go to school here -- selected with the expectation that they may one day become Air Force officers. Yet the training at the controls of the multimillion-dollar warplanes will come later, at different locations; here the preparation for eventual combat comes in the quiet gliders, for a number of reasons.

The runway at the Air Force Academy can't handle the big jets and bombers -- and the powered planes that the runway can handle have provided some fatal problems in the past. The training planes were encountering engine failure at unacceptable rates; some were crashing. And residents of the Colorado Springs area were complaining about the proximity of the training flights to their homes -- both because of the noise, and the safety issues.

So the gliders it is. The way they work . . . .

Here is how 2nd Lt. Hignite explains it:

"A tow plane takes the glider up. There is a cable attached to the back of the tow plane, and it pulls the glider up into the sky. There is room in each glider for two cadets.

"Once the tow plane is at the proper altitude, it is the cadet in the glider who releases the cable. It's done by using a big red rubber ball -- the process is like pulling a plunger. The cadet at the controls of the glider pulls the plunger, and is released from the tow plane.

"At that point, the glider is on its own. When the wind is right, the glider can be up there for 15 or 20 minutes -- the idea is not to land it right away, the idea is to fly it. The gliders have long wingspans, but other than that they look like regular planes.

"The tow plane will have returned to the field. Once that cable is released, the cadet in the glider is in full control -- there's no one else to depend on at that point. We have gliders going up all day long, from morning to darkness, if the weather conditions are right."

It's something that the people who run the Air Force Academy, and the residents of Colorado Springs, don't think about much -- it's part of the visual tapestry of their lives. This is an absolutely gorgeous part of the United States -- the endless skies, and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and Pike's Peak soaring so majestically toward the heavens as to humble the senses. The gliders just become a part of it all -- a part of daily life here.

It's only visitors unfamiliar with the area who are caught unawares -- on the highway, next to the military university in these current American days of high-octane, everything-on-the-line war, and there, above, are the silent, almost ghostly aircraft with no engines, casting noiseless shadows and training U.S. aviators.

"It's a very pleasant sight," 2nd Lt. Hignite said. "Peaceful."

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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