There is no shortage of amazing things to do when visiting the Hawaiian Islands.  One of my favorites is taking a glider ride at Dillingham Airfield on the northwest tip of the island of Oahu.  On the Big Island (Hawaii), definitely visit the Martian-like summit of Mauna Kea.

Dillingham Airfield

Getting to Dillingham Airfield

Dillingham Airfield is two miles from the village of Mokuleia and a 60-minute drive from Honolulu.  You can drive yourself or arrange transportation for a fee by contacting the glider company.  There is even a bus from the Ala Moana Mall in Honolulu.  It takes around 90 minutes.

Dillingham Airfield is a joint civilian and military airport used primarily for daytime civilian gliding and skydiving.  At night, the U.S. Army uses the airfield to train helicopter pilots for operations using night vision devices.

The airfield is in a perfect spot for glider flights.  Constant, strong sea breezes smack into nearby sharply rising bluffs generating powerful updrafts that supply the lift required for non motorized, heavier-than-air flight.

Steep bluffs (na Pali in Hawaiian) near the airfield

Glider Rides at Dillingham Airfield

Honolulu Soaring runs the glider operation.  It offers flights for one or two passengers plus the glider pilot.  The company has three Schweizer SGS 2-32 gliders used for scenic flights and one Schleicher ASK-21 used for aerobatic flights.  Tow planes are Cessna L-19 Bird Dogs.

Honolulu Soaring offers a variety of rides that range from 10-60 minutes in duration.  Prices vary by the length of the flight and the type of flight selected.  Currently, a basic one-hour flight runs about $250.  That’s a very steep price but one I’ll spring for on rare occasion.

My Flight

I’ve flown gliders here a couple of times.  This flight was in a Schweizer.  Next time I’m going for an aerobatic flight.

Positioning Bird of Paradise, N5761S, for my flight

I sat in the front of the cockpit, and the pilot sat behind me.  We each had a control stick and rudder pedals.  Being a private pilot of single-engine airplanes, the pilot promised to let me do the flying after we were in the air.

Once we were hooked up, the L-19 Bird Dog towed us down the runway and into the air.  The glider lifted off soon after we began the takeoff run.  The pilot kept Bird of Paradise a few feet off the runway until the tow plane was airborne.  Then a climbing turn to the right had us headed straight for the cliffs.

The view just before releasing the tow rope

The pilot released the tow while we were still well below the crest and we continued forward into the face of the cliffs to catch the updraft.

Mission completed, the Bird Dog heads home.

With no engine to power over the ridge that towered above us, on these rides I initially experience some internal concern about the validity of the theory of non-motorized flight.  Although the updraft is invisible, I soon learn it is there.

The updraft gave Bird of Paradise enough lift to easily clear the ridge and climb to altitude.

Above the cliffs. “Look ma, no engine.”

It only took a couple of minutes to spiral up several thousand feet.  The pilot then let me take over.  I used the abundant lift from the gliders long wings to fly up and down the coast losing altitude very gradually while maintaining 60 knots of indicated airspeed.  When we wanted more altitude, the pilot instructed me to head back to the bluffs to hit the updraft again.  In the one-hour flight, we repeated this pattern three times.

North Shore of Oahu near Dillingham Airfield

As a pilot of powered aircraft, the glider seemed eerily quiet.  There is no engine noise or vibration.  Only a small amount of wind noise and occasional radio chatter broke the silence.  It was easy to concentrate on the magnificent views of Oahu and the vast Pacific.

Silence and visibility unlimited

The single-engine Cessnas and Pipers I’ve flown all have yokes.  The glider’s control stick seemed more like real flying.  It didn’t take long to get the hang of flying it.  A stick was more natural than a yoke actually.  I now claim to be a real “stick and rudder” pilot.

It was a busy day for Honolulu Soaring.  All of their gliders were in the air.  I got to do a few semi-close passes with some of the other gliders.  That is a no-no in civilian aviation with powered aircraft.

A glider approaches…
And I slide over the top…  Fighter jocks would call this “waxing his tail.”  Hell yeah!

After instruction in aerobatics, perhaps Honolulu Soaring would let me try going canopy-to-canopy a la Maverick in Top Gun… or not.

The Schweizers’ long thin wings give them a majestic appearance as they gracefully maneuver like birds of prey.150


Dillingham Airfield runs a skydiving program as well.  Gliders must keep an eye out for skydivers who occasionally came floating down near our play area.

A skydiver silhouetted against cloud

The 60-minute flight went quickly.  When it was time to land, I forced Bird of Paradise to descend and entered a left-hand landing pattern for Runway 8.

On left base for Runway 8

After I put the aircraft on final approach, the pilot took over and completed the landing.

Final approach to Runway 8 – note the runway threshold is displaced quite a distance from the beginning of the pavement

Due to the amount of lift a glider’s wing generates, the landing approach path is shallower than for a powered aircraft.  The glider is close to the ground for a much longer time before touchdown.  Those long wings refuse to stop flying even at very low airspeed.

Next to Bird of Paradise after one heck of a good time

Final Thoughts 

Any one can take a glider ride at Dillingham Airfield.  Pilot experience is completely unnecessary.  The Schweizer SGS 2-32s accommodate up to two passengers (max total weight 350 pounds) in addition to the pilot.

If you have a friend who does not want to fly, they can also take the trip to the airfield and enjoy the terrific beach that is just across the road.

Kite surfing at the beach next to the airport

Have you ever flown in a glider or have the desire to try it?  If you are on Oahu, definitely experience a glider flight at Dillingham Airfield.  It will be memorable.