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Soaring program gives cadets wings

Air Force Academy cadets fly in a TG-15A glider over Colorado Springs, Colo., Feb. 23, 2010. Cadets typically fly 10-15 training sorties in the TG-15A and undergo 50-hour cross-country upgrade training before they can fly cross-country solo in the TG-15B. The 94th Flying Training Squadron conducts more than 30,000 sorties per year in support of the Academy Soaring Program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel Bendet)

Air Force Academy cadets fly in a TG-15A glider over Colorado Springs, Colo., Feb. 23, 2010. Cadets typically fly 10-15 training sorties in the TG-15A and undergo 50-hour cross-country upgrade training before they can fly cross-country solo in the TG-15B. The 94th Flying Training Squadron conducts more than 30,000 sorties per year in support of the Academy Soaring Program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel Bendet)

Air Force Academy cadets fly in a TG-15A glider over Colorado Springs, Colo., Feb. 23, 2010. Cadets typically fly 10-15 training sorties in the TG-15A and undergo 50-hour cross-country upgrade training before they can fly cross-country solo in the TG-15B. The 94th Flying Training Squadron conducts more than 30,000 sorties per year in support of the Academy Soaring Program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel Bendet)

Air Force Academy cadets fly in a TG-15A glider over Colorado Springs, Colo., Feb. 23, 2010. Cadets typically fly 10-15 training sorties in the TG-15A and undergo 50-hour cross-country upgrade training before they can fly cross-country solo in the TG-15B. The 94th Flying Training Squadron conducts more than 30,000 sorties per year in support of the Academy Soaring Program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel Bendet)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- People know that the sport Cadet 2nd Class Charlie Meyer and Cadet 1st Class Justin Lennon participate in looks cool. But few of them have any idea what makes one cool-looking performance better than another and what the Air Force Academy team accomplished this past season.

So Cadet Meyer and Cadet Lennon, members of the glider aerobatic team, offered what in another context might be called a "crash course."

One of the unique aspects of competitions in this sport is that there are no age categories. Private individuals can bring teams to compete against college-age flyers. Some people start by entering competitions and work their way up to professional sponsorship.

"You got 20-year-olds competing against guys who have been doing it for 20 years," Cadet Meyer said. "You have to pay attention every second you're in the air. You don't have the luxury of moving around, so you monitor your position constantly."

Glider aero is different from other intercollegiate sports in another respect as well. Whereas most teams spend the regular season tuning up for a conference tournament or some sort of championship event, glider aero teams have a much more limited window.

The season starts in September and runs into November. The placing when the season ends is definitive, and the Falcons are coming off a string of historic success. The team recently finished second and outperformed rival Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for the first time.

Academy glider pilots compete in two categories: sportsman and advanced. The former is for juniors, the latter for seniors. Each event tests flyers in three types of routine: known, free and unknown. The free routine is determined by the individual.

Judges watch pilots' routines from the ground and assess a grade for each maneuver. The grade is multiplied by the number of points awarded for each move, so the score is rendered as a percentage of the total possible points.

Glider aerobatics training at the Academy follows a progression. Cadets first learn basic flying. After a process that includes about 65 flights, they reach the level of instructor. Another 30 flights or so qualifies them for aerobatics. The next step is competition in the sportsman category. The concluding upward bump, to intermediate, requires 10 more flights.

Both Cadet Meyer and Cadet Lennon said that nothing they had done prior to joining the Air Force Academy could have prepared them for glider aerobatics. Neither of them had ever done anything remotely close to it.

"Our goal is to take someone who has never been in a plane before and teach them to fly," Cadet Meyer said.

Cadets also fly demos, meaning they have they have something akin to the all-star games familiar in other sports. But unlike those exhibitions, glider aerobatics demos take place much more often than once a year. Several months after the Academy's first-ever invitation to the Royal Air Tattoo in England, cadets still recall that demo as the thrill of a lifetime.

As a senior, Cadet Lennon is done with competition for the Falcons, so he is passing on the lessons he's learned to those who will have opportunities to use them. He's also scheduled to fly the glider demo at the Academy's graduation.

"What I think about is making your own roller coaster," he said. "It's so much fun, and it's all hands on. Once you get used to it, it's great."