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The TG-15A (Schempp-Hirth Duo Discus) is a conventional two-place high performance sailplane with tandem seating used by 94FTS Advance Soaring for cross-country training. The TG-15A is commonly known as "the  white glider": or the "Duo" in the civilian community. Glider cross-country soaring competitions are flown at the regional and national level in the TG-15A.
(Photo by TSgt Samuel Bendet)

Air Force Academy cadets fly in a TG-15A glider Feb. 23, 2010, above Colorado Springs, Colo. Cadets typically fly 10 to 15 training sorties in the TG-15A and undergo 50 hours of cross-country upgrade training before they can fly cross-country solo in the TG-15B. (Photo by TSgt Samuel Bendet)

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- In its commercials, the popular energy drink Red Bull claims to "give you wings." The Air Force Academy soaring program in Colorado Springs, Colo., actually does.

While the academy's flying program boasts it can take someone whose feet have never before left the ground and teach them to soar, that statement just might sell the program short.

It can actually take someone whose feet have never before left the ground and teach them aerial "gymnastics."

Just ask Cadet 2nd Class Charlie Meyer and Cadet 1st Class Justin Lennon, who are members of the glider aerobatic team at the academy. The Falcons recently finished second in glider aerobatics and outperformed rival Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for the first time.

Both Meyer and Lennon said that nothing they had done prior to joining the Air Force Academy could have prepared them for glider aerobatics. Neither of them had ever done anything remotely close to it.

"Our goal (truly) is to take someone who has never been in
a plane before and teach them to fly," Meyer said.

Academy glider pilots compete in two categories: sportsman and advanced. The former is for juniors, the latter for seniors.

One of the unique aspects of competitions in this sport is that there are no age categories. Private individuals can bring teams to compete against college-age flyers. Some people start by entering competitions and working their way up to professional sponsorship.

"You got 20-year-olds competing against guys who have been doing it for 20 years," Meyer said. "You have to pay attention
every second you're in the air. You don't have the luxury of moving around, so you monitor your position constantly."

To learn to fly glider aerobatics safely, training at the academy follows a progression. Cadets first learn basic flying. After a process that includes about 65 flights, they reach the level of instructor. Another 30 flights or so qualifies them for aerobatics. The next step is competition in the sportsman category. The concluding upward bump, to intermediate, requires 10 more flights.

Glider aerobatics is different from other intercollegiate sports in another respect as well. Whereas most teams spend the regular season tuning up for a conference tournament or some sort of championship event, glider aerobatic teams have a much more limited window.

The season starts in September and runs into November.

When the season ends, the placing is definitive.

Each event tests flyers in three types of routine: known, free and unknown. The free routine is determined by the individual.

Judges watch pilots' routines from the ground and assess
a grade for each maneuver. The grade is multiplied by the num-
ber of points awarded for each move, so the score is rendered as
a percentage of the total possible points.

Cadets also fly demos, meaning they have something akin to the all-star games familiar in other sports. But unlike those exhibitions, glider aerobatics demos take place more often than once a year.

As a senior, Lennon is done with competition for the Falcons, so he is passing on the lessons he's learned to those who will have opportunities to use them. He's also scheduled to fly the glider demo at the academy's graduation.

"What I think about is making your own roller coaster," he said. "It's so much fun, and it's all hands-on. Once you get used to it,
it's great."

Even if your feet have never before left the ground.