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An avid glider since the age of 16, Josephine Zhao, 20, is a member of the Winnipeg Gliding Club, one of the many clubs across the country that offers introductory flights.Mike Maskell

When Josephine Zhao first took to the air in a glider, her feelings ran the gamut from nervous to feeling free as a bird.

“It was magical to be so high up in the air and so alone in the sky,” recalls the University of Manitoba mechanical engineering student.

A member of the 63-year-old Winnipeg Gliding Club, Zhao, who was also an air cadet, recalls her introduction to the sport clearly. Up in the two-seater, engineless aircraft with her instructor, her eyes were newly opened to the beauty of her surroundings.

“I was looking at the fields and Lake Winnipeg, seeing them like never before,” says Zhao, 20.

Although the plane was completely enclosed, she found it was not a silent ride.

“The sound of the wind increases as you speed up, and quiets as you slow down. It’s 100-per-cent better than driving a car with the windows down,” she says.

While she found the flight exhilarating, her adrenaline really kicked in during the landing. “The ground rushes up at you very fast,” she says.

Introductory flights are offered at clubs across the country, and you don’t need to be a member or have any prior experience. They are usually 20 to 30 minutes and cost around $200.

Tom Coulson, a 65-year-old retired software engineer and an instructor at SOSA Gliding Club in Rockton, near Cambridge, Ont., has been flying gliders for 42 years, and it all started for him after taking one introductory flight.

When he takes newcomers to the sport up in the air, he first asks if they want an introduction to actually flying the plane, or if they just want to ride. For those who want to try their hand at a little piloting, he gives them a brief lesson.

“The control stick is in the middle of the cockpit,” he explains. “If you push it forward, the nose points down. If you push it back, it points the nose up. You push it to the side for a roll or bank. The rudder pedals create yaw [a twist] allowing the pilot to point the nose left or right.”

A glider must be launched into the air by either a tow plane or winch. On an introductory flight the licensed pilot is the one to release the tow rope.Luke Szczepaniak

But before you can even think about gripping the controls, a glider must be launched into the air by a tow plane. On an introductory flight the licensed pilot is the one to release the tow rope.

For the people who have not flown before but want to try, Coulson lets them follow along on the controls with him, but he always lands the plane.

Piloting a glider is all about catching thermals, which are warm air columns that rise from the earth where hawks often float about. Once a glider is released from its tow rope, it begins a gentle descent, but a thermal will allow the plane to ascend.

“On an intro flight we might do some thermaling, but we are careful not to do too much because it can be a bit disorienting for first-timers,” says Coulson.

“The sound of the wind increases as you speed up, and quiets as you slow down. It’s 100-per-cent better than driving a car with the windows down.

Josephine Zhao, air glider

Safety is of paramount concern and before every flight there is briefing when guests are told how to undo the seat straps and open the canopy, and what they can and cannot do in the cockpit. As for the aircraft, it undergoes a daily inspection at the beginning of the day and an annual maintenance checkup by licensed aircraft mechanical engineers.

There are no upper age restrictions as long as an individual can get in and out of the plane. The youngest rider Coulson has taken up was 8. Weight maximum is 240 pounds, and some clubs will take up guests with disabilities.

The season starts in April and runs until the end of October. Some clubs take walk-ins, but many, like SOSA, prefer online bookings. No special preparation is necessary, although Coulson says it is wise to dress for the weather in layers since the airfield can be a windy place.

At 2,000 feet up in the air, Josephine Zhao sees the world, 'like never before.'Andrzej Konarzewski

If you are looking for a club to book your first sky adventure, Coulson, who is also the office manager for the Soaring Association of Canada (SAC), says the association website can point you in the right direction.

“We have 24 member clubs that are located in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.”

As Coulson and Zhao prove, gliding for the first time can really draw a person into a life-long passion.

“I feel a great sense of control when I’m up in the air, no engine, free falling in the sky,” Zhao says. “And the flying changes every day. I have to make all the decisions. I have to rely on my instincts.”

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Soaring like a bird comes in many forms, and one of the closest to actually being a winged creature is hang-gliding.

“You fly lying face down, the sail wings are above you and it’s totally quiet,” says Michael Robertson, owner of High Perspective hang-gliding school in Pickering, Ont. “Since you are in the open air, you can feel and smell the atmosphere around you.”

Dedicated to sharing the joy and freedom this type of flying offers, the school, which has been in operation for 51 years, offers Tandem Discovery Flights where you can take to the skies with a certified instructor. Launched with a hydraulic winch, the tow rope is released at around 1,000 feet and a gentle landing is ensured thanks to the wheels on either end of the control bar.

Sessions are approximately 30 minutes, with a safety briefing and 10 to 15 minutes in the air. Robertson notes weight must be between 60 to 240 pounds and there are no age restrictions. Cost is a little under $200; helmets are provided.