A half-century of soaring: Torrey Pines Gulls glider club celebrates 50 years of flying over La Jolla

Torrey Pines Gulls Steffen Peters and Phil Davy launch an Arcus 6-meter scale sailplane at the Torrey Pines Gliderport
Torrey Pines Gulls members Steffen Peters and Phil Davy launch an Arcus 6-meter scale sailplane at the Torrey Pines Gliderport.
(Ian Cummings)

“It’s an addicting sport,” Ian Cummings, president of the Torrey Pines Gulls, said of the remote-controlled flying that lures enthusiasts like himself to La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Gliderport. “Everybody starts out with one or two planes, and then they say, ‘My garage has been taken over!’

“I’ve lost count of how many I have.”

It’s that kind of passion that has allowed the Gulls, a club for those who like to send their model planes soaring, to glide through 50 years of motorless aviation.

The Torrey Pines Gliderport, which sits on a cliff above Black’s Beach, is a “world-renowned” location for soaring, according to club historian and La Jolla resident Gary Fogel.

“Every day we have the sea breeze that hits this cliff and creates a rising air current,” Fogel said. “It’s this unique combination of things that creates this lift for us. Given that lift, you can launch an aircraft that has no motor. If you know where to fly, you can stay in that rising air current as long as that wind is there.”

For its promotion of this kind of aviation, the Torrey Pines Gulls were named Club of the Month for November by the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

Soaring is “perfectly ‘green’ technology and environmentally friendly,” Fogel said.

Flying without a motor, however, “presents its own challenges,” he said. “You have to understand where the lift is, you have to design your aircraft to be able to handle the radio equipment.”

Soaring requires a “certain level of skill and understanding of the atmosphere in order to make that happen,” Fogel added. “We’re trying to extract energy from the atmosphere.”

Gulls member Thomas Moller launches his 4-meter ASH-26 scale sailplane off the cliff at the Torrey Pines Gliderport.
(Ian Cummings)

Cummings said “it takes a lot of time to learn how to do it.”

“We fly a really wide variety of model planes out there,” Cummings said, “from very simple, small planes with few controls to very sophisticated sailplanes.”

Gliders’ wingspans can range from 18 inches to 18 feet. They’re made from materials including foam and fiberglass and cost from around a hundred dollars to thousands.

Some planes are designed and built by club members and some are purchased online.

The Torrey Pines Gliderport is owned by the city of San Diego and leased for private use, Cummings said. It is managed by the Federal Aviation Administration. He said the Gulls have “an arrangement with the city that allows us to fly there,” alongside hang gliders and paragliders.

Fogel said “we understand and respect this location and its importance to gliding. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to ensure we are good stewards of that property.”

The club also flies out of fields in Encinitas and Poway.

The Gulls currently have about 130 members, Cummings said. They gather at the gliderport as often as there’s a good wind, and they have meetings (currently via Zoom) to discuss aviation. There also are soaring competitions, holiday parties and other activities.

“One of the most fascinating things about this club is the diversity of the membership,” Cummings said. “We have doctors, lawyers, aircraft pilots, engineers, plumbers, photographers … every walk of life. We’re so enthralled with these planes and flying them that that’s always the topic of conversation. It ties us all together.”

Fogel, whose father was one of the first club members, said he “grew up with the club. There are cases where you have a father-son or father-daughter relationship, passing it on to the next generation of people out there trying to fly.”

Mark Baldacchino holds his 1979-era Bird of Time RC model sailplane.
Mark Baldacchino holds his 1979-era Bird of Time RC model sailplane, which took a year to build.
(Ian Cummings)

Fogel has written three books on local gliding, and Cummings calls him the “resident expert.”

“La Jolla has had a tremendously long interest in gliding,” Fogel said, noting that gliders were first flown locally in 1910 near Mount Soledad.

“In 1930, there were two really important glider launches off the top of Mount Soledad,” Fogel said. One was by was Anne Lindbergh, the first woman in the country to receive a first-class glider license after the launch. The other was by Charles Lindbergh, whose launch set a distance record at the time — all the way to the beach.

From the 1910s to the 1950s, gliders carried people — “there was no way to control it otherwise,” Fogel said. But in the 1950s, amateur radio operators figured out a way to make radio equipment small enough to fit inside the planes, which could then be controlled from the ground.

A local dentist named Bob Chase set a soaring endurance record at the Torrey Pines Gliderport in 1956, Fogel said, controlling a model glider for 8½ hours remotely. “That really started interest in the radio-controlled aspect of things,” Fogel said.

As people began to gather regularly to pursue gliding, the Torrey Pines Gulls formed in 1970 as only the second Academy of Model Aeronautics club dedicated to soaring at the time, Fogel said.

Being on the ground is no less challenging than being in the plane, Cummings said. “You’re doing all the controls with this little device in your hand. Mentally, we are in the planes.”

“You have to think like you are,” Fogel added.

Gliding is “amazing when you understand the principles of it all,” Cummings said. “At some point, you have to take this model for the very first time, you’ve got to have that leap of faith” that the glider won’t go soaring off the cliff into the ocean.

“But a lot of that thought process is done ... before you ever take it out there,” he said. “You’ve tested everything, made sure it’s balanced. … Maiden flights almost always go extremely well.”

“You just stand at the edge of the cliff and you’re going to throw [your plane] into this magic thing you can’t see, and it goes up,” Fogel said. “It’s incredible.”

The club is looking at ways to celebrate its 50th anniversary during the coronavirus pandemic. “We welcome people to come join us,” Cummings said.

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