Have you listened to friends talk about their “bucket lists?” They roam the world checking off places to visit and experiences to have before they kick the bucket.
But some items on people’s lists can be checked off right here in Kern County. And that’s what I set out to do on a recent crisp morning with my husband, Jack, as we headed to the Mountain Valley Airport in Tehachapi. The private airport, east of Bakersfield, is the home of Skylark North glider flight school.
When it comes to adventures, my theory is “mi bucket list es su bucket list.” And good-natured Jack usually goes along with most of my plans.
Years ago, we both earned private pilot’s licenses, which for a variety of reasons are gathering dust in our wallets. So, it was an easy sell to get Jack back into the air with me — even if it was in an airplane that did not have an engine.
In addition to giving flying lessons to aspiring glider pilots, Skylark North offers “joy rides” to adventuresome souls in four categories: granny sleigh ride, a 10-minute up-and-down ride within the airport’s flight pattern for $75; scenic ride, a 15- to 20-minute ride over the Tehachapi Mountains or wind-turbine ridges for $100; basic orientation flight, a 15- to 20-minute in-flight introduction and about 10 minutes of ground instruction for $125; and the best, a 30-minute flight for $150.
We went for the best, which climbs 4,000 feet above ground and circles the Tehachapi Valley, taking in mountains, wind turbines and everything in between. During the flight, you often will encounter red-tail hawks and turkey buzzards.
I went first because, well, it was my idea. Bill Laningham, a retired air traffic controller, longtime private pilot and licensed glider instructor greeted us outside the Skylark North terminal and escorted us to an awaiting two-seat Schweizer 2-33 glider.
Right off, I realized the ride was not going to be like the ones I used to take in my old Cessna 172. The glider was sleeker and set closer to the ground to make it lighter and less wind-resistant.
Laningham pointed to the front cockpit and told me to get in. My first thought was to wonder how. My second was to notice how little room there was for my long legs and butt.
But Laningham offered his hand to steady me and I hopped in. I reckoned I would worry later about how I was going to get out.
After the usual amount of pilot fiddling and pre-checking, Laningham gave me some basic safety and flight instructions. A tow rope was connected to the glider’s nose. On the other end of the rope was a Piper Pawnee, a sturdy-looking, retired crop duster with the mechanical guts capable of yanking the glider and its two passengers into the air.
The Piper pulled onto the runway ahead of us, taxiing until the rope was taunt and then gunning its engine. Soon we were rolling along behind. With a smooth grace, both tethered airplanes climbed to above the airport. Then, a latch was pulled and the tow rope disconnected.
It was now up to the wind currents and the skills of an experienced pilot to keep us in the air. Rather than the noisy clatter of a small airplane’s engine, only the sound of the wind hitting the glider interrupted the breath-taking view of the Tehachapi Valley and the sensation of flying like a bird.
With a tap on my shoulder, Laningham turned the controls of the glider over to me. It was similar to flying a single-engine airplane, but a bit smoother.
The 30-minute flight passed too quickly. It was time to land on the thin runway that stretched below. Laningham took control, lining up the nose of the glider and its small wheel, which was just a few inches from my feet on the outside of the cockpit. My long-ago Cessna landings had been none too smooth. I knew there was even less margin of error for this low-bellied glider.
But with some deft maneuvering of the joystick, Laningham brought the glider gently and smoothly to the ground and to a stop. And then, in a struggle that lacked even a hint of grace, he and a strong buddy yanked me free of the cockpit.
After a fun day of bucket list soaring over Tehachapi, we thanked Skylark North owner Larry Barrett and his wife, Jane, for the experience.
Gliders, or sailplanes have been common sights over Tehachapi since 1961, when Fred and Goldie Harris opened their Holiday Haven Soaring School. The airport was also used for the filming of the 1967 “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” true-life adventure “The Boy Who Flew with Condors.”
In 1979, Larry Barrett purchased the airport, which has since been renamed Mountain Valley, and moved his already popular soaring school, Skylark North, to Tehachapi. Jane Barrett said she learned to soar as one of Barrett’s students.
“It was unlike anything I had done. It was cheaper than therapy and much more rewarding,” the former teacher and psychology major jokingly recalled. She now helps manage Skylark North, which also trains pilots with the Air Force Test Pilots School, the private National Test Pilot School, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites.
Before we put Tehachapi and soaring into our rearview mirror, we capped off the grin-worthy day with a hearty meal at the Raven’s Nest, the airport’s sandwich shop.