Robison takes off from the Ridge Soaring Gliderport in a German-built aircraft.
The Sky's No Limit
Aviation instructor sails to World Gliding Championships
by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor. Photos by Larry D. Kauffman
Published March 14, 2018
Michael Robison had mowed enough neighborhood lawns to stuff his jeans pockets with cash. The recent high school graduate’s hard-earned “wealth” would pay for an elusive experience. The aviation-obsessed teen was going to soar.
Anticipation turned to dejection and dejection to inspiration.
He learned that no rides were being offered that day. Before walking away, the young man noticed that the price for a glider flying lesson was comparable to a one-time ride. The discovery led Robison to an avocation that would transport him across the globe.
Twenty years later, Robison crouches before a panel of countless switches inside a Boeing 727, permanently parked at Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Lumley Aviation Center. He’s surrounded by a handful of eager aviation technology students who are learning the electrical system on the FedEx-donated aircraft. The students dutifully follow his instructions to activate the plane’s engines, resulting in satisfied smiles and a deafening roar.
Robison feels at home in the cramped and noisy cockpit, just like he does in the solitude and silence of his glider. The full-time college instructor is a competitive sailplane pilot.
“It’s amazing on some days how powerful the atmosphere can be.”
“Gliding is definitely a passion of mine. It’s hard to go through a day without thinking about it. It’s neat to talk about,” Robison said.
He does more than talk. Robison has logged 2,500-plus hours piloting sailplanes throughout the world, from central Pennsylvania to eastern Europe to south of the equator. His performance at national competitions led to a spot on the U.S. Soaring Team and participation at two world championships.
“I’ve been pretty lucky over the course of my soaring career to be mentored by some high-class pilots, both at the gliderport where I learned to fly and the competition circuit,” he said.
Mark D. Maughmer, professor of aerospace engineering at Penn State and noted glider pilot and designer, was one of those mentors.
“Mike is one of the good ones,” Maughmer said. “A good pilot is one who does risk management and risk assessment in a conscientious way. Mike is exceptional at that. He is very well-liked and respected in the glider community.”
Growing up, Robison wanted to emulate his uncle and become a Navy fighter pilot. Colorblindness extinguished that hope. He turned to constructing and flying model airplanes before discovering gliding.
The Ridge Soaring Gliderport was just a few miles from his State College home. Situated at the base of Bald Eagle Ridge, part of a chain of ridges stretching to Tennessee, the location hosts pilots from throughout the world.
Soaring is a delicate balance between gravity and atmospheric conditions. As a glider moves through the air, gravity pulls it downward. Air mass, rising faster than a sailplane descends, keeps the aircraft afloat. The narrow mountain ridges accenting central Pennsylvania’s landscape are perpendicular to the prevailing wind and serve as nature’s trampoline, helping the air to rise.
“It’s amazing on some days how powerful the atmosphere can be,” Robison said. “You can fly a couple hundred feet above the mountains at speeds around 130 miles per hour and cover a long distance in a short period of time, all with no motor. It’s pretty cool.”
It’s also challenging, a reality demonstrated by Robison when he returns to Ridge Soaring Gliderport for an early afternoon flight. The blue sky is an inviting destination for his borrowed German-designed, two-seat glider. Robison inspects the sailplane’s exterior – made of a carbon fiber composite – and its long, narrow wings. He straps a parachute on his back and slips into the skinny cockpit.
Most sailplanes are towed by a powered aircraft and set free at about 2,000 feet. Robison can skip that step. His glider is equipped with a 70-horsepower, two-cycle engine, which allows for a quick takeoff.
Approaching 2,000 feet, Robison turns off the engine. He tilts the sailplane’s nose and wings up and down with a control stick located between his extended legs. He directs the aircraft left or right via foot pedals connected to the rudder. He monitors gauges for altitude, air speed and vertical speed. He is an engaged pilot.
The lone sound is generated by wind rushing through a slightly opened side vent. The glider’s transparent bubble canopy facilitates an essential bird’s-eye view of the surroundings. Robison is on the lookout for a puffy cloud – the product of rising air – for an altitude boost.
“You can be back on the ground in 10 minutes if the weather is not good or your skill level isn’t up to par to keep you up,” he said. “My longest flight is over 12 hours.”
Robison piloted his first sailplane just days after discovering the availability of flying lessons at the gliderport. He obtained his glider pilot’s license several weeks later, prior to his freshman year at Penn State. An earth and mineral sciences major, he became president of the university’s soaring club, “occasionally” missing class to fly near and above campus. Following graduation, Robison moved to New York City and conducted contamination assessments at ground zero. But on the weekends and during vacations, he found himself back at the gliderport, soaring and assisting with facility maintenance.
Eventually, he traded city skyscrapers for Pennsylvania mountains for good. Robison moved back home, earned his Airframe and Powerplant Maintenance Certificate at Penn College and opened a glider-repair business. He ran the enterprise for several years before his part-time teaching position at the college became full time in 2011.
“It’s hard not to like teaching here if you’re really into aircraft as much as I have been my whole life,” he said. “The facilities are fantastic. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s neat to see the students make the connections and start to have a passion for aviation.”
Brett A. Reasner, dean of Penn College’s School of Transportation & Natural Resources Technologies, appreciates the passion and expertise Robison exudes in the classroom.
“The firsthand knowledge Mike has as a glider pilot helps in his aerodynamics and cockpit instrumentation classes, and he also helps the students have a better understanding of another segment in the aviation industry,” Reasner said. “He is a student-centered faculty member who truly wants his students to be the best technicians.”
During college breaks, Robison usually competes in a few gliding competitions, whether they be near his home, in California or New York. At the U.S. Nationals, he’s posted two second-place finishes in the Open Class (maximum weight of 850 kilograms, or 1,873 pounds). Those performances led to a spot on the U.S. Soaring Team for the 2016 World Gliding Championships in Lithuania and the 2017 event in Australia.
“I’ve had two once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Robison said with a smile.
“I’ve had two once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” he said with a smile.
The father of two said those experiences wouldn’t have occurred without the support of his wife because the world competition is an all-consuming commitment. Months of preparation end with disassembling the glider and shipping it overseas to be reassembled on-site. After several days of practice, the glider pilots spend two weeks competing against one another. Every day, they earn points based on their speed around a challenging course. The pilot accumulating the most points is declared world champion.
Robison finished seventh in Lithuania and in the bottom third in Australia. He believes unfamiliarity with the borrowed glider used in Australia contributed to that placement.
“The difference between first place and 20th place is pretty small,” he said. “I learned a lot and would love to go back and do it again, mostly for the reason that I think I can do better.”
He’ll get his chance in late July. Robison will compete at the 2018 World Gliding Championships in the Czech Republic. In other words, he’ll have a third “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“Competing is exciting, but really it’s about the experience of traveling to these countries and getting to fly in their airspace,” he said.
Robison’s flight in his home airspace above the sun-splashed Bald Eagle Ridge proves that his genuine love for gliding exceeds his competitive spirit. He marvels at the hawk soaring to his left and is excited to spot and navigate toward that elusive puffy cloud. Emerging from the blanket of white, he is once again greeted by a sea of green coloring the central Pennsylvania landscape. The sight inspires Robison to reveal his chief motivation.
“It’s just enjoyable to go up and look around,” he said. “You can look out and see in all directions. The view is pretty much unparalleled. It certainly makes my world go around.”
A world that fortunately includes Penn College. ■