The first time Don Wasness flew in a glider, it was because a friend in Maryland prodd ed him to come along.
That flight took place in 1965 and Wasness became hooked. He has been flying ever since, logging more than 5,900 miles over the years.
“We (pilots) see the world like no one else sees it. We’re sitting in a bubble looking out and we can see so much all around, above and under us. It’s a feeling like no other, and it’s just beautiful,” Wasness said.
Those were Wasness’ sentiments Saturday after completing the final task of the 24th annual Seniors Soaring Championship, a national competition sanctioned by the Soaring Society of America that takes place each year at the Lake Seminole Gliderport in Clermont.
Wasness, now 81, is the only pilot of the 55 competing this year that has flown and competed all 24 years.
His daughter, Marlene Wasness, who has been part of his ground crew since she was in high school, said her dad placed first in the inaugural competition, second the next year and third place the year after that.
“1E is the number he got assigned for his first competition, and he’s kept it. It stands for One-Echo but he’s been nicknamed One-Easy because he makes flying look so easy,” she said.
Marlene’s brother, James Wasness, also helps out with the crew duties for their dad, and before their mother, Dolores, passed away in 2010, she happily did as well.
“She used to come to this competition with my dad every year. She knew he loves flying and she loved watching him fly. She died about 3 ½ years ago and it’s been tough, but we’re still hanging in there,” Marlene Wasness said.
Don Wasness said his intention is to compete in the national competition for as long as he is able.
“I’m 81 now, working on 82, and if I feel as good next year I’ll be here, and every year after that for as long as I have,” he said.
The competition, which started with a practice day on March 8, ended Saturday. Wasness finished 13th out of 55 competing seniors.
Among the 55 were world champions and members of the world team, including Karl Striedieck, 77, a world record-setting glider pilot from Pennsylvania and a member of the U.S. Soaring Hall of Fame, and Rich Owen, an Orlando top flyer and co-coordinator of the competition.
On Sunday, Canada’s Virginia Thompson, a co-coordinator, confirmed that Striedieck was this year’s winner, followed by Owen, who came in second, and Henry Retting, who was third.
Thompson said the week has been a good one. Pilots had five flying days and, except for a bout of bad weather, they would have had more.
The competition is the first of the year for the senior pilots and is always open to the public.
Ground crews, made up this year of volunteers from the civilian patrol and students at Embry Riddle, help secure the gliders to six different tow planes, which take the gliders aloft.
Once in the air, however, the flight and task given to the pilots on each day of the competition is between them and the GPS located in their gliders that track specified GPS waypoints and award pilots points for speed, distance and their ability to stay in the air for the entire task.
The pilots race high performance, fiberglass gliders over distances of 100 to 200 miles by studying the skies for thermals, or patches of rising hot air, keeping them aloft.
The presence of fluffy white cumulus clouds indicates a higher likelihood that thermals are present.
Greg Delp, a spectator, was too young to compete in the senior competition, but along with piloting private flights from Connecticut to Florida each weekend, he flies gliders as well.
Watching the planes go up is a thrill, he says, because he knows what goes into it. He tried to attend the launch at least one day of the Senior Nationals because, “It’s probably the most gliders you can see in one place, just about anywhere.
“It’s a lot of stuff happening at the launch. Then, once they are up and released, you’re constantly thinking ahead, trying to look for a lift, climbing as fast as you can and getting to the different checkpoints,” Delp said. “It’s very challenging.”
For information about competitions, classes or flights available year round at the Lake Seminole Gliderport, call 352-394-5450.