February 19, 2010
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  • Heights glider pilot wings her way into the record books

    For as long as she can remember, Val Paget has reached for the sky and felt at home there. She got her first taste while climbing a 14,000-foot mountain with her father at age 3.

    Yet today the 66-year-old retired English teacher living in the Heights is pushing herself beyond any mountain summit.

    That’s why she became a sky sailor of sorts, eventually flying to a place where no woman has gone before. The flight that drew worldwide attention was when she navigated her glider about 269 miles on one trip – the first woman to go that far while making three turns in a PW-5 glider.

    Her sleek, motorless glider with the 45-foot wingspan made that seven-hour journey powered only by the air beneath its wings. It mimics the flight of circling hawks or buzzards that often like to fly on her wing tips.

    Paget’s record flight on Aug. 8 was validated recently by the Federation Aeronautique International in Paris, which has recognized aviators such as Charles Lindbergh. Then Paget’s aerial exploit was honored just a few weeks ago at the Soaring Society of America’s national convention in Little Rock, Ark.

    Nature’s power
    She said she could have pinched herself as she watched the realization of her dream.

    “Soaring gets you in tune with nature and the enormous power of it,” she said. “Like the movie Titanic you get this feeling that you can rule the world.”

    As a young girl, whenever she climbed to the pinnacle of a mountain like Pikes Peak in Colorado with her father, she always imagined flying off into the sky.

    She knew there had to be an easier way to view mountaintops than making grueling climbs in severe weather.

    So when the youngest of her two daughters left home for college, she took the flying lessons that she had always wanted.

    The then-47-year-old was still teaching English at Spring High School. But while she loved reading, she wasn’t a typical bookworm who enjoyed sitting on the sidelines. She craved adventure.

    So Paget felt hopeful on that August morning when she climbed inside the cramped cockpit, which is about the size of a go-kart, to attempt the world record.

    2,000 feet up
    After being towed on a rope by a plane to an altitude of 2,000 feet, she was cut loose and sailed into the blue sky. From that instant, she had to artfully maneuver the stick and rudder with her hands and feet to catch “lifts” from columns of warm air.

    “If you just lean a little, you can alter your course,” she explained. “It’s like using your knees to guide a horse.”

    Sustaining such a long trip for so many hours requires a lot of expertise, said her husband, Glenn Giddens, a retired control systems engineer and glider instructor. And this trip would have some daunting moments.

    First, she almost aborted when she spotted an ominous thunderstorm. Another glider pilot, who had been flying at her side, had already retreated to the grassy landing field near Waller where they had started.

    Paget knew those dark clouds could suck out all the thermal power needed for soaring. But the storm line appeared to stop moving a few miles before reaching her. “It looked frozen. So I decided to keep going,” she said.

    It was a good decision as she soared along her course, making her three turns near Madisonville, Wallis and Bryan. But on the last leg, she headed into a strong, 20-knot headwind that cut her speed from 65 miles per hour to 25.

    “I radioed that I may not make it back,” she said, believing she might be forced to make an emergency landing.

    Her husband recalled how she had once landed on the city dump in Killeen after she couldn’t get around Fort Hood’s restricted airspace.

    Now the sun was lower in the sky, which meant she also had fewer thermal lifts. Her craft started dropping closer and closer to the patchwork landscape underneath her.

    But the glider never slipped lower than 1,400 feet before returning to the starting point at Waller.

    Setting that record, she said, wasn’t nearly as difficult as the average day she spent in a classroom for 29 years.

    But the trip had its own challenges, lasting seven hours with no rest stops or bathroom facilities on board.

    How did she handle it?

    “Depends,” she said.

    Date: 2010-02-16