Day Trips

Marfa Gliders give visitors to West Texas a bird's-eye view of the landscape

Day Trips
Photo by Gerald E. McLeod

Marfa Gliders gives visitors to West Texas a bird's-eye view of the landscape. From the front seat of a two-seat sailplane, the rugged terrain looks like a tapestry of geological formations, and the sky seems to pull you out of gravity's grasp. At the vantage point of 2,000 feet up in the air, you feel a release of tension all the way to the seat of your pants.

Soaring is nothing new around Marfa. The mystery lights have been flying across the desert east of town for years. Part of a much newer phenomenon, glider pilots have discovered that the area's winds and thermal updrafts power some of the best gliding in the country.

Besides hosting regional contests, Marfa was the site of several national soaring competitions and the 1970 World Soaring Championship, the first international event held in the U.S. On April 5, the Marfa airport will be recognized as a national soaring landmark by the National Soaring Museum.

It's a combination of the dry air, wind currents, and heat that make the skies over Marfa ideal for soaring, says Burt Compton, chief pilot of Marfa Gliders. Not only is he a certified Federal Aviation Administration glider pilot instructor; he also gives rides to tourists.

"We don't do any wild maneuvers or upside-down loops," Compton says. "We want you to enjoy your introduction to soaring." Riding with him is a thrill that theme parks can only hope to imitate, and, in some unexplainable way, it is as relaxing as a massage.

Even if you, like me, are not particularly fond of heights, gliding has the beauty of soaring like an eagle wrapped in the romance of defying gravity. Watching one of the sleek airplanes effortlessly slide through the air is amazing. Riding the wind under the Plexiglas dome of the cockpit is nothing short of exciting.

The 15- to 20-minute flight begins with being strapped into the narrow cockpit with Compton in the seat behind you. You have your own set of gauges to monitor the air speed and altitude. This is the same aircraft that he uses to train pilots.

"I never get tired of going up," Compton says. "I've got the best job in the world. What could be better than having your office 2,000 feet above the ground?"

With a slight lurch, the tow rope snaps tight as the tow plane and glider race down the runway. At about 60 mph, the ride becomes glass-smooth as the glider rises above the still-taxiing tow plane. In an instant the ground begins to drop away.

Even 100 feet away, the roar of the Cessna engine fills the glider's cabin as the planes make two large circles over the airport. Outside the glider's window, the landscape is a diorama of textures and features. The highway is a black ribbon pulled tight from horizon to horizon. The town of Marfa, three miles away and 2,000 feet down, looks like a shiny button on the vast fabric of the flat plateau.

When Compton releases the tow rope, the sound rattles through the cabin. Suddenly, we are hanging in midair as the tow plane becomes smaller. The only sounds are the whisper of the wind and the beating of my heart.

Gently, Compton dips the nose of the sailplane into a wide turn. A combination of the wind pushing us and gravity pulling us takes over. The needle on the air-speed gauge approaches 100 knots, up from 40.

I imagine a whooshing sound as the aircraft circles around into the wind again. Once more, the airplane seems to sit on the air currents. The peaks of ancient volcanoes on the horizon barely move, and the sun spreads golden light across the sky. As we turn back into the river of wind, I experience the sensation of walking on air. Too soon gravity pulls us back to the asphalt runway, and the ride is over.

Marfa Gliders operates out of Marfa Airport, just north of town on Texas 17. Afternoons are the best time to fly, and weather can delay or cancel flights. The ride currently costs $100, with discount coupons available at local hotels. For more information, call 800/667-9464 or go to

867th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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Marfa Gliders, National Soaring Museum, Burt Compton

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