There’s a time and a place for gravity — and it’s certainly not while hovering 6,000 feet above the surface of the earth.
That particular corner of the sky happens to be where Karl Striedieck spends a bulk of his spare time, a frequent house guest of the hawks, falcons and other birds that call it home.
Striedieck is a former member of the U.S. Air Force and spent 18 years in the reserves as part of the 146th tactical fighter squadron in Pittsburgh. As a civilian, he’s piloted international flights for Pan American World Airways and has taken home two silver medals from the World Gliding Championships.
In other words, Striedieck may not be able to defy gravity, but he sure is good at working around it.
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“I always wanted to do some soaring so I could fly like the birds,” Striedieck said.
In 10th grade, his class took a field trip to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a facility in Kempton dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey. Striedieck was captivated by the hundreds of hawks and their fixed wings.
He still enjoys watching birds, only now he’s doing it on their level.
Striedieck and his wife, Iris, sponsor a glider plane competition every May at Mifflin County Airport. The 2015 Region 2 Soaring Competition will be May 16 to 23. Each day, the small group of competing pilots may travel up to 400 miles to locations such as Harrisburg or Altoona — without an engine.
The contest not only measures pilots’ technical skills, but their ability to make use of updrafts and boiling streams of air called thermals to stay aloft, like a surfboard riding a wave.
Striedieck estimates that he has logged almost 9,000 hours in the cockpit of a glider plane and said that a pilot continues to learn from every flight.
“It’s a constant learning something new. It’s a challenge. I think that’s why I like it,” Striedieck said.
Getting a glider plane into the air is like flying a kite — with a very expensive string on the end. Gliders are towed aloft by power planes to an altitude of 2,000 feet, where they are high enough to search for thermals.
Due to the glider’s dependence on the right weather and updrafts, Striedieck said, it is not uncommon for aircraft to “land out,” surprising the occasional sheep or cow with an unexpected landing in a farmer’s field. The glider is then disassembled and taken home in a special trailer.
The concentration and attention to detail required is what keeps Striedieck interested in life among the clouds. He was the first glider pilot to make the 1,000-mile journey from Lock Haven to Knoxville, Tenn., and back without landing. He also joins friends on soaring safaris out West, flying over landmarks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park.
“That’s the neat thing about soaring — every flight is different,” Striedieck said.
He enjoys taking others along for the ride and explaining how and what he’s doing to keep the plane from succumbing to gravity.
“Handing my expertise off to other people is something I find worthwile,” Striedieck said.