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Omaha Magazine

Gliders on the Storm: How Sergeant James Clark Got Back-To-Basics in the Air

May 26, 2020 08:45AM ● By Houston Wiltsey

 Sgt. James Clark always wanted to fly.

“I knew that I wanted to be a pilot when I was 5 years old,” Clark said. “Back in those days [the early 1960s], air travel was still unrestricted and jet aircraft were just emerging, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear the sonic booms of the pilots at Offutt [Air Force Base].” 

It was seeing, and hearing, these flights, along with accompanying his uncle—a pilot—on journeys in the cockpit, that pushed Clark to join the Air Force upon graduating high school. Since then, he’s logged roughly 7,000 hours in the sky.

“I’ve worked as part of a KC130 refueling jet crew, flown corporate airplanes, and piloted commercial helicopters,” he said. To this day, he continues to hold an airline transport pilot license, the highest level of certification a pilot can attain.

With all this experience, it’s surprising that Clark’s current aviation obsession is the most basic method of flying—gliding.

“I did it backward,” he said with a laugh. Even though Clark had been flying motorized aircraft for more than 30 years, he said that he didn’t give gliding a real shot until 2012 when he found out that a couple of his friends were members of the Omaha Soaring Club. He was hooked on this form of air travel from his first flight.

 “It’s the basics of flying,” he said. “Your glider is attached to a plane by a 200-foot rope, you’re dragged up into the air and relying on...you’re just relying on stick and rudder movements.”

“It’s a very peaceful experience,” he continued. “You’re flying for yourself, not worried about moving someone or something from point A to point B. You’re just catching thermals [columns of rising air caused by the warming of the ground] and see how long you can stay up for.” 

Clark claims that the pace can be so leisurely hawks will sometimes land on the wings of his glider. It is not a huge problem. Clark rebalances quickly, and his new rapturous friend rides along for a bit.

After becoming president of the club in 2016, Clark has made it his mission to spread his love to newcomers of all ages and skill levels.

“We’ve got a lot of different types of people—attorneys, doctors, railroad engineers, we’ve even got a high-school-aged kid,” said Clark of the club’s 35-person membership body, all of whom have access to the club’s two gliders—a LET L-23 Super Blanik two-seater for training and a single-seat LET L-33 for more experienced pilots.

“What I love most about the experience is surrounding myself with these high-caliber people,” he said. “When you fly for a living, you encounter a lot of people that are always looking to push the limits and see who can go faster, fly higher. With gliding, it’s much more communal. Usually, when you go out to fly on a Saturday, you might only get a 20 or 30 minutes session in the air, but everybody sticks around to help everyone else out with their sessions.” Despite the communal spirit, Clark still looks for ways to challenge himself in the air. 

That challenge comes in the form of badges which pilots attain by traveling certain distances, achieving certain heights, and staying in the air for certain durations.

Clark is currently earning his Silver Badge, which involves traveling 50 kilometers over five hours and reaching a height of 1,000 meters. To practice, he takes trips across the country to a wide variety of locations, including Arizona, Colorado, and Lake Tahoe along the California border.

However he’s gliding, Clark said the most important part of the experience is using it to find balance.

“I just look at it as one spoke in the wheel of life,” he said. “Gliding is there to make me feel rejuvenated so I can tackle the next week feeling 100% because, really, that’s what any good hobby should do.”

Visit omahasoaring.org for more information.

This article was printed in the June 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.