Gliderport use threatened by UCSD growth; University says it looks for ‘best use’ of the land


When the famed pilot Charles Lindbergh launched a motorless sailplane from Mount Soledad in 1930 and headed north above the coast, he was the first person to realize the cliffs at Torrey Pines generate a lift that can be used for gliding, writes Gary Fogel in his book, “Images of America: The Torrey Pines Gliderport.”

Since the 1930s, sailplanes have been taking off from the Torrey Pines Gliderport (with a three-year break for World War II) until 2009, the last year a license agreement was signed between the Associated Glider Clubs of Southern California (AGCSC) and UC San Diego — the owner of the land where the runway sits.

Prior to that, the sailplanes that once flew “whenever the wind was good,” were restricted to flying the windiest month of the year, February.

“It’s a fantastic thing to have a historic site operating the way it always had, so it would be a huge loss, not only for San Diego but the country, to shut one of the last glider operators,” said Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) director Bruce Coons. “We’ve been supporting the effort to keep the Gliderport working for 10 years now.”

The flying of sailplanes at Torrey Pines Gliderport was first curtailed in 2009, when UCSD built the Stem Cell Core Facility at 10010 North Torrey Pines Road. AGCSC historian Fogel told La Jolla Light between construction staging and trying to meet the requirements the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) demands, “We haven’t been able to operate.”

UCSD’s director of marketing and communications Laura Margoni wrote in an e-mail to the Light that the Regents of the University of California have issued licenses “periodically for more than 20 years (stemming) from requests made by AGCSC, which uses the university land to launch and land their fixed-wing gliders. AGCSC has not signed a license agreement since 2009.”

For Coons, who has been at most meetings between the associated gliders and UCSD, “(The university) assures us they want to continue operations, but they’ve been putting so many restrictions on it, they’ve made it impractical.” Some of those restrictions include a runway redesign that took place in 2009 with CalTrans approval, financial obstacles and high insurance requirements. “Their insurance requirements are higher than anything that’s ever happened in the world of soaring in America,” Fogel said.

With UCSD’s growing development in mind, Fogel fears the future of the sailplanes at the Torrey Pines Gliderport is doomed. The construction of the university’s proposed Living & Learning Neighborhood (2,000 residential beds, 1,200 parking spots and several academic and community buildings) on North Torrey Pines Road is slated for completion in 2020, and although the likely 10-story buildings won’t affect the runway, in Fogel’s opinion, “What would (affect us) is the construction staging for those projects because the Gliderport is a great place for them to store their equipment.”

At the project’s Environmental Impact Review scoping meeting in May, Fogel said he wrote a comment for the use of the sailplane runway to be taken into consideration when planning construction at the university’s new hub.

What’s a sailplane?

A sailplane or glider is an airworthy vehicle that flies without an engine, manned by a pilot. To make that possible, Fogel said, the secret is in the takeoff. “If you’re flying a kite, and you have a tight string and pull on it, (the kite) goes up. If you pull on that line really quickly, it will go up really quickly. It’s the same thing for the gliders,” he explained.

On a windy day, Fogel continued, a sailplane can be launched by a truck or a car, but in general pilots use a winch mechanism. “When they get to the top of the line, they release it, and then they’re free to fly as a bird,” he added. In the Torrey Pines wind lift, a glider may soar all day or “until they need to go to the bathroom.”

Without an engine, the flight of a sailplane is silent. “A glider has no motor, so it’s always falling,” Fogel explained. “If you have wind that’s going up, you can keep flying. Good pilots know where to find that. To someone who doesn’t know, it looks like magic, but if you know, as long as you can find that current, you stay up.”

Torrey Pines lift

“Most days in San Diego, we have the ocean next to us, which remains cool, cooling the air above it, while the desert to the east is heating the air. That combination creates a sea breeze from 1 to 4 p.m. almost every afternoon traveling west to east. When it hits the tall and almost perpendicular Torrey Pines cliffs, it has to go up and then goes over the cliff, and that upward current extends very high over the cliffs, and further than you might think,” he added.

The upward-moving air is used by all types of gliders to experience motorless flight at Torrey Pines Gliderport.

Gliderport history in La Jolla

Reassured by Lindbergh’s discovery of the Torrey Pines lift, high school students began trying out their gliders at Torrey Pines Gliderport in the 1930s. “Some of them learned to build gliders in woodshop class at San Diego High School,” Fogel explained. Woodbridge “Woody” Brown, a La Jolla resident known for his surfing and surfboard shaping, was also a gliding pioneer at the spot.

Gliding was taking off at Torrey Pines when in the early ‘40s, the area was occupied by Camp Callan, a training center operational during World War II, “ironically, for anti-aircraft training,” Fogel pointed out. After the conflict ended in 1946, the sailplanes came back. In the ’50s, San Diegans visited the Gliderport to watch the airborne men and women soar. Tournaments and gliderclubs were organized.

In 1956 and 1958 elections, San Diegans voted to give away (at no cost) 500 acres of City land to UCSD for its expansion. “The sailplane club at the time went to the City and said, ‘Do you realize you’re giving away part of the Gliderport?’ They tried to stop that from happening, but not successfully,” Fogel said. “Roger Revelle recognized this Gliderport issue with the property use. There are newspaper clips about him saying he wanted the flying to continue.” (Revelle, who died in 1991, was a scientist and scholar who was instrumental in UCSD’s formative years.)

During the early ’70s, other forms of gliding reached the Torrey Pines Gliderport. Hang gliding (a foot-launched flying apparatus where the operator is suspended from a harness) enthusiasts arrived in La Jolla, recognizing the superior soaring conditions that exist at the location, Fogel reports.

Paragliders — where the pilot sits in a harness suspended below a fabric wing comprised of interconnected cells — and model sailplane experts, who fly miniature versions of sailplanes with no engine controlled by radio, took advantage of the wind conditions at Torrey Pines, slowly making up the four Gliderport uses: sailplanes, hang gliders, paragliders and model gliders. The last three occur in the City park portion of the Gliderport, while the sailplane runway still sits on UCSD land.

“There’s a lot of traffic at that Gliderport because you have those four forms of flying. There are times when it’s pretty crowded. There are specific rules for that, and when enforced, allow for safe operations to continue,” Fogel said.

The 1989 long-range plan for UCSD first threatened the existence of the flying resource. “The plan had half of the Gliderport slated for development,” he related, adding that the sudden threat helped spur interest in saving the area, and the historical designation process began.

In a 1993 letter signed by then-President Bill Clinton, the traditional flying spot was designated “historical” at the national level. “As the only remaining Gliderport in America that’s directly adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, Torrey Pines Gliderport serves as an extraordinary site for the enjoyment of all Americans who are interested in the wonders of human flight,” the letter reads. As a “historical” resource, the Gliderport couldn’t be built upon, and so UCSD changed its plans, sending its growth to the eastern side of campus.

Since then, the Torrey Pines UCSD-owned side has remained largely untouched. UCSD marketer Margoni, wrote in an e-mail to the Light, “UC San Diego has used this university land in the past for construction staging, parking, fixed-wing glider operations and other activities, which is allowable under the Coastal Development Permit issued by the California Coastal Commission.”

The future of flying

UCSD is in the process of finishing the Environmental Impact Review for its long-range development plan. The draft, which was presented to community attendees at two meetings, will be available by early 2018, and will cover the direction the campus will move on until 2035.

Fogel pressed, “My hope would be that in next long-range development plan, the University could make the entire Gliderport a recreational asset rather than an academic reserve. I’m fine with them doing construction staging on their property, it makes sense, there’s a value to them using it like that, but I’d rather say if there’s construction staging, it’s done in a way that allows sailplanes to continue operations.”

For him, an ideal outcome includes a 10-year agreement between UCSD and AGCSC to lease the runway yearly in February rather than negotiating a new deal every year. When asked if the university’s planning department would consider this option, Margoni wrote, “The (California Coastal) Commission does not issue long-term permits for occasional and temporary use.”

California Coastal Commission (CCC) senior planner Diana Lilly told the Light the use of the area as a sailplane runway predates the California Coastal Act of 1976, and therefore, does not require a permit. “As long as they’re doing what they’ve always been doing, they wouldn’t need any permits from us. The operation of these sailplanes ... is not something we have regulated,” she explained. She added that in the past, the CCC has reviewed a number of use permits, but it wouldn’t be involved in a lease agreement between AGCSC and UCSD, unless the use of the land was changed.

Similarly, CalTrans division of aeronautics has been issuing yearly “Temporary Airport Authorizations” for the use of the runway. Aviation safety officer Michael Smith told the Light when it comes down to authorizing use, the most important requirement is that the applicant owns or controls the property at the time. “It doesn’t matter how long it is, you have to own or control the property,” he said.

As for the future of the Torrey Pines Gliderport, Margoni stated, “Through the long-range development plan process, UC San Diego continues to look at the best use of university land for future academic and recreational use to meet its educational mission for all Californians.”