Alby was, at first, a mythical albatross that fledged in soaring pilot Sergio Colacevich’s mind.
Sergio, a record-setting soaring pilot and a retired California Department of Transportation engineer, formally introduced the concept of Alby’s journey in the September 2008 issue of Soaring magazine.
Described as a curious and adventurous young albatross, Alby, who was confined by nature to a life above the oceans, wanted to experience soaring across North America. He wanted to behold terrestrial wonders, from towering mountains and arid deserts to lush emerald farmlands and whitewater rivers.
Alby was drawn to the humans who were able to soar in silent, sleek-winged craft along California’s coast. These soaring people ineffably understood Alby’s desire, and invited him on an unprecedented, historical soaring relay flight.
The mission: Fly Alby, a beautiful bronze sculpture, from coast to coast.
“What’s it all about, Alby?”
To adapt a phrase from a 1960s song … “What’s it all about, Alby?”
The answer, in part, is this: Alby’s mystical and historic transcontinental soaring relay flights were about reaching deep within to embrace challenges, responsibility, and freedom.
It was also about those who are irresistibly captivated by truly awe-inspiring moments of soaring flight, and who appreciate a bird’s eye view of terrestrial grandeur via their finely-tuned flying skills.
“Alby’s Voyage” was — and continues to be — a remarkable way to demonstrate the power of soaring flight to those who may not have experienced the intricacies of utilizing the power of nature to remain aloft. It also is a celebration of that ethereal realm bounded only by one’s own horizon.
Imagine this: Alby flew a cumulative distance of about 4,370 miles (remember, soaring flights are not strictly “linear”), ranging from the lowest altitude of -210′ in Death Valley, California, to the lofty sphere of 20,496′ (thanks to wave lift).
Each leg of the journey required thorough pre-planning and, once airborne, instantaneous decision making to yield the best outcome.
Aspiring to Inspire
Alby’s name was derived as an abbreviation of “albatross,” and inspired an acronym for “America Land and Blue Yonder.”
Numerous soaring pilots aspired to fly with Alby cross country from one soaring site to another, and were carefully selected from a pool of applicants.
“Alby’s Voyage,” according to Alby’s website, was promoted by the Pacific Soaring Council, which represents approximately 400 glider pilots in Northern California and Nevada, and encouraged by the Soaring Society of America, which has about 12,000 members in the United States.
Imbued with myriad personas of those who flew with him, Alby was transformed from a small and beautifully-sculpted bronze Laysan albatross — created by Sherri Treeby and Lee Leuning of Legacy Bronze — into a transcendent spirit as he went along on inspirational soaring flights “from sea to shining sea.”
Out of the Box
Nearly seven years after the first leg was flown by Sergio over the Pacific Ocean near Bodega Bay on Oct. 10, 2008, Alby arrived at the Atlantic Ocean at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on Sept. 14, 2015.
It took 28 successful soaring flights (out of 58 attempted flights) to carry him that far, but Alby’s journey wasn’t quite completed.
Inevitably, Alby encountered a variety of challenges, setbacks, and frustrations due to weather conditions and scheduling delays, and many flights were attempted, but not successful.
However, more than three dozen soaring pilots across the country showed no lack of perseverance as the aviation community cheered them on through the years.
One of those pilots, Sarah Arnold, owner of Chilhowee Gliderport in Tennessee, wanted to fly a leg of the transcontinental adventure. Though she had been approved to fly with Alby back in 2009, it turned out that Alby had a better chance of getting across the mountains via a more southerly route.
Additionally, Alby had experienced a few delays, and Sarah was continually busy running her glider operation, as well as traveling to the Czech Republic in May to compete in the 2017 FAI Women’s World Gliding Championships, where she brought home the Silver Medal.
On Aug. 5, 2017, Shane Neitzey flew Alby in his 15-meter fiberglass Schleicher ASW-27 from Front Royal, Virginia, to Karl Striedieck’s Eagle Field in Pennsylvania. A couple of weeks later, Karl, a world record setting glider pilot and U.S. Soaring Hall of Fame inductee, gave Sarah the opportunity to fulfill her dream of flying with Alby.
Karl allowed Alby to hitch a ride in his L-19 when he flew down from Pennsylvania to view the solar eclipse at Chilhowee Gliderport. Arriving the day before the eclipse, Karl and Sarah hopped in a fabric-covered 1976 Schweizer SGS 2-33A for a short, unofficial flight with Alby.
Alby was normally cradled safely in a box during the transcontinental soaring saga, but this time, he wanted out of the box, so Sarah and Karl took turns holding Alby so he could see the forested Great Smokey Mountains and the glittering, winding path of the Hiwassee River.
Karl and Alby returned to Eagle Field, Pennsylvania, keeping the possibility in mind that Sarah and Alby might fly together again for the final leg to Elmira. To that end, Karl kept a close eye on the weather forecasts. In the meantime, Sarah was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame during the end of October 2017.
Alby was soon homeward bound to reach his permanent place of residence at the National Soaring Museum at Harris Hill in Elmira, New York.
The last leg of Alby’s odyssey was flown by Karl and Sarah in his Duo Discus, a 2015 Schempp-Hirth 20-meter fiberglass ship. The timing for this final flight, thanks to Karl’s patience and the powers of nature, turned out to be just right.
Karl saw that the forecast for Nov. 10, 2017, indicated optimal conditions for the flight, and alerted Sarah. She and her husband Jason, who is also a pilot, made arrangements to be away from Chilhowee Gliderport for a few days, and drove north from Tennessee.
Karl flew the takeoff from Eagle Field, his ridgetop airfield, handily climbing directly into ridge lift, where Sarah took the controls. It was a spectacular flight, as described by Sarah from her perspective as a competitive cross-country soaring pilot.
“After a fast ridge run from Eagle Field to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, we climbed to around 5,800′, circling in a thermal for lift,” she reports. “From there, we flew the rest of the 110-mile flight without circling in thermals.”
Those sky conditions, known as “cloud streets” in soaring lingo, enabled Karl and Sarah to experience a mystical and poignantly-memorable flight for Alby’s last leg.
“An albatross soars hundreds of miles by dynamic soaring, extracting energy from a vertical wind gradient by pulling up while going into the wind, then descending downwind, without flapping its wings,” Sarah elaborates. “A special thing about our flight was that it was similar to the Albatross’s dynamic style. We didn’t circle to stay in the lift, but we did bank and turn, zig-zagging through the thermals on course, pulling in lift and pushing in sink.”
Nearing their destination, both pilots were chilled from zero-degree temperatures along their 6,000′ MSL cloud streets. Karl flew the pattern, coaxing his nearly-frozen hands and feet to make a smoothly-controlled landing in strong, gusty winds.
Nine years and one month after the very first leg of this historical soaring saga, Alby arrived at his new home in the National Soaring Museum at Harris Hill in Elmira, New York.
All told, it took Alby a total flight time of 190 hours and 9 minutes to soar across America, thanks to 38 pilots who volunteered for the task. Pilots who successfully completed their legs received a distinctively-numbered pin.
Throughout the years, Sergio and PASCO shepherded this flock of pilots via emails and the website resplendent with updated and detailed progress reports.
Sergio reflects that the key “Albymasters” included: “Bob Korves, who created Alby’s travel box; Ramy Yanetz, who created the website layout; Frank Peale, who uploaded and composed the website articles; Jonathan Hughes, who entered all the flights and their descriptions in the map; and Larry Roberts, who fixed all computer problems and vagaries during the life of the project.”
When the final flight was completed on Nov. 10, 2017, Sergio sent the Alby pilots the following kind words: “You have shown to the world the American resolve and dedication to a meritorious, symbolic cause. It has been an inspiration to see glider pilots all along America take the initiative and each do their part working hard for a common goal.”
So…“What’s it all about, Alby?”
On one level, it’s about the sport of soaring, which reaches far beyond the aerial boundaries of the local gliderport. On a deeper level, it’s about nurturing our ability to transcend everyday life.
Alby is far more than an inanimate bronze albatross. Alby has become the touchstone from which we may draw inspiration to succeed in the flight of our lives, transcending time, distance, and obstacles as we share our cumulative, collective journey.