2016-05-01 / Up Close

Soaring to Great Heights

with Tom Knauff & Doris Grove
Tyler Disalle

Tucked in between the mountain ridges of Central Pennsylvania is a place that has been described by some as the mecca of gliding — the Ridge Soaring Gliderport, a sanctuary for Tom Knauff and Doris Grove, who are nothing short of legends in the gliding industry.

Knauff was about 15 years old when his neighbor in Pleasant Gap, a man named Clark Hile, took him for his first airplane ride over the Grange Fair. He soon decided he wanted to learn how to fly. After scrounging up his earnings from delivering newspapers, he got up early one morning and rode his bike 27 miles to Lock Haven, where the Piper Aircraft Corporation was located.

“At that time, you had to have eight hours of flight training to be able to fly by yourself. I got there early enough in the morning with the intention of doing all eight hours that day, because I didn’t want to have to make that trip again,” says Knauff, who only got the standard 30-minute lesson that day.

With his parents unable to pay for a college education, Knauff entered the Air Force after graduating from Bellefonte High School with the intention of becoming a fighter pilot. But his bad vision disqualified him from flying, and he instead became a mechanic.

After leaving the military in his early 20s, Knauff ventured into the auto sales business, a job he says he hated. But in 1964, Knauff caught wind of a glider club being started at Penn State and became one of its original members.

“Some people got together and put a thing in the newspaper saying anybody interested to show up at a meeting,” Knauff says. “I became a flight instructor with [the club]. I really enjoyed it — flying in general, but teaching is where it all started.”

Noticing that the soaring conditions in Central Pennsylvania were advantageous to gliding, Knauff began to brainstorm an idea for opening his own gliderport, but he needed a partner. That’s where Grove came in.

Knauff and Grove actually met in 1948. They lived across the street from each other in Pleasant Gap, though Grove claims she wasn’t fond of Knauff at first.

“He was a brat. B-R-A-T!” she says emphatically.

When her family moved to Florida for her brother’s health, Grove moved in with Knauff and his family.
“She took my bedroom, and they sent me to the attic,” Knauff says. “So we’re still trying to get even.”

There’s only two things that people do other than space travel that is truly a three-dimensional world. One of them is scuba diving, and this is the other one.” —Tom Knauff

Eventually, Grove joined her family in Stuart, Florida, to finish her senior year of high school. After raising six children from her first marriage and dealing with strokes through much of her early 30s, she decided she wanted to do something for herself. She began taking lessons in power flying and eventually returned to Centre County to enroll in aviation classes at Penn State.

One night following class, Grove decided to go to downtown State College with a group of friends. She was at the Phyrst when she heard a familiar voice call out from behind her, “Doris Ferne Yingling!”
It turned out to be Knauff, who immediately noticed the flying textbooks Grove had in her hands.

“I had my books with me, and he said, ‘You’re into flying? Why don’t you come out to the gliderport?’” Grove remembers.

Tom Knauff and his wife Doris Grove.Tom Knauff and his wife Doris Grove.Grove accepted Knauff’s offer and joined the glider club. He told her about his idea to open his own gliderport, and she urged him to follow through with it. Knauff asked around, looking for potential business partners, but was unsuccessful. Grove decided to speak up.

“I said, ‘How about me starting a gliderport?’” Grove recalls. “He went, ‘You? But you’re a woman.’ I said, ‘Well yeah, that’s right. I’m glad you noticed.’”

Knauff gave in, and the two opened the Ridge Soaring Gliderport in Julian in 1975. Since then, they have set national and world soaring records and were both inducted into the U.S. Soaring Hall of Fame. Among other accomplishments, Grove became the first woman to fly a glider more than 1,000 kilometers, while Knauff flew the world’s longest recorded glider flight of more than 1,000 miles.
After years spent together as business partners, they eventually married, though neither can recall when that actually was.

“I finally ended up marrying him after he asked me the fifth time,” Grove says.
Together, they’ve started flying contests throughout the U.S. and flown to so many countries that they both have lost count. Knauff and Grove are even Hollywood famous, having acted as stunt pilots in the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair.

As certified flight instructors, Knauff and Grove have had many of their students go on to be pilots for commercial airlines, as well as the Air Force and Navy. Their flying knowledge is so highly regarded that they were even asked by NASA to train some of their astronauts. Knauff also wrote multiple books that have become the standard guides for flight training in the soaring world.

Today, they continue to operate the gliderport, which is open for rides and instruction six days a week, Ridge Soaring Gliderport opened in 1975.Ridge Soaring Gliderport opened in 1975.depending on weather conditions. People come from all over the United States to fly here, and Knauff says the climate in April and May make those months prime flying times.

That’s because gliders rely on the forces of the atmosphere to keep them airborne. What makes Central Pennsylvania so renowned in the industry is something called ridge lift, which is created when wind hits the sides of ridges, allowing gliders (and for that matter, birds) to fly for long periods of time. When the terrain changes, pilots rely on finding thermals, or columns of rising air created by the warming of

Earth’s surface, to keep them in the air. Scanning for terrain that takes in more sun than others is crucial, and looking for cumulus clouds and large birds soaring without flapping their wings are some of the other tricks of the trade.

“It is a spectacularly beautiful thing,” Knauff says. “There’s only two things that people do other than space travel that is truly a three-dimensional world. One of them is scuba diving, and this is the other one.”

Though they live right across the street (an 800-foot walk from the gliderport), at 78 and 82 years old, respectively, both Knauff and Grove say they’re ready to call it quits but want to make sure the facility is preserved. They both look back on the lives they have lived and use the same word to describe it — “amazing.”

“All the world records, and all the competitions that we won and lost — we’ve done all that. We’ve reached a point in our lives where that’s not terribly important to us anymore,” Knauff says. “You do not have to do anything heroic to do something that’s memorable.” •SCM

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