If soaring like a bird over rivers and valleys sounds like fun, then a visit to the National Soaring Museum and the Harris Hill Soaring Co. in Elmira, New York should be on your bucket list. The Finger Lake Region is known for vineyards and lakes, but did you know it is also the soaring capital of the U.S.?
Soaring has been a popular pastime in the Finger Lakes region of New York state since the 1930’s when the first USA National Glider Contest was held there. The Harris Hill Soaring Co. has been giving glider demonstrations to the public since the 1960’s. I recently had the chance to be a passenger in an ASK-21 glider so I can tell you that it is an experience not to be missed.
What is a glider and why would anyone want to fly in one?
What is a glider you ask? According to The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a glider is defined as a heavier-than-air aircraft that is supported in flight by the dynamic reaction of the air against its lifting surfaces.
In other words, a glider flies through the air without a motor much like a paper airplane does. That might sound terrifying if, like me, you are afraid of heights, but I felt completely at ease from take off to landing. It might have something to do with the fact that passengers fly with FAA certified pilots so once in the cockpit, I let the professional take over and sat back to enjoy the ride.
Before your flight, a stop at the National Soaring Museum next door will enhance your appreciation for the art of flying and the determination it took mankind to get up in the air. Although humans have dreamed of flight as far back as Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th century, actual flying contraptions were not realized until the mid-19th century. The Wright Brothers brought the reality of flying a motorless plane to America in the early 1900’s but it wasn’t until after World War I that gliding became a recreational activity.
What to expect?
As a passenger, you are harnessed into your seat in the front or the back of the plane, depending on the pilots preference and your weight. The glider has a cable that attaches to a a small propeller plane. The motorized plane takes off and you are pulled along with it.
It was exhilarating to feel the glider silently rise up in the air even before the motorized plane. When we reached an altitude of about 4000 feet the connecting cord was released and we were flying free. The 360 degree views of the beautiful Chemung River and surrounding area from that height is a once in a lifetime experience.
What to know before you go:
- flights are available from Memorial Day until the end of October each year on weekends and also weekdays during the summer
- each flight lasts about 15-20 minutes
- bring Dramamine or anti-nausea wrist bands if you are at all prone to motion sickness
- bring sunglasses and a hat for very sunny days
- there are no age requirements but remember it is only the pilot and the passenger so you have to know the temperament of your child
- there is a passenger weight limit of 245 lbs
- call before you go because they don’t take reservations
- cost is $100 per person
Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum
If soaring in a glider whets your appetite for aviation and local history then the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY should be your next stop.
A man of many firsts, Curtiss accomplished a lot in the world of aviation during his lifetime. He flew the first officially witnessed flight in North America, came in first at the international air meet in France, and made the first long-distance flight in the U.S.
The museum (actually named after his son) is dedicated to his life and love of aviation and also his early interest in motorcycles. For transportation buffs, the museum also houses a collection of vintage boats, bicycles and automobiles.
Where to Stay, Eat & Play in and around Hammondsport
There are many quaint towns near the Soaring Museum. The Finger Lake region is known for its many historic bed & breakfast accommodations but these are not practical for families. Some options are the Radisson in the nearby town of Corning or the cottage suites at the Inn at Grist Iron near Watkins Glen.
Though further away, the new Hammondsport Hotel (a Best Western Plus) was a great option because of its large rooms and its location near other things we planned to do in the area.
This new hotel has all the comforts and conveniences families like including modern spacious rooms, free parking and an indoor pool. From this hotel you can walk across the street to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum. The Finger Lakes Beer Company conveniently located next door and further down are some restaurants.
The lakeside downtown of Hammondsport is only a short drive away from the hotel. Everywhere you look this is charm. We enjoyed a pleasant stroll around the town square that is lined with historic cottages, and locally owned shops and restaurants. We dined at a popular bistro called Union Block, which served traditional Italian food. If you love jalapeños then try their stuffed pepper of the day (which though not Italian are still tasty!). For breakfast and lunch, Keuka Bakery had fresh sweets and savories as well as seasonal favorites. Their pumpkin cookies reminded us that fall was upon us.
Depot Park is at the southern end of the town along Keuka Lake. At the dock, you can catch a tour of the lake or local wineries with Keuka Water Taxi. After enjoying a twilight tour of the lake we headed over to Snug Harbor restaurant where we enjoyed el fresco dining with a sunset view.
Of being a aviator, Curtiss once said, “It is hard enough for anyone to map out a course of action and stick to it, particularly in the face of the desires of one’s friends, but it is doubly hard for an aviator to stay on the ground for just the right moment to go in the air.”
Lucky for us, a trip to the Finger Lakes and glider flying is easy to map out with the help of the local chambers of commerce and you can even take your friends.