My First (Real) Glider Flight
By Corey Cassavant, EAA 675051
I’ve had the “opportunity” to be the pilot of a powered aircraft that suddenly turned into a glider a few times in my life. (Incidentally, none of those engine failures were in my current aircraft, so don’t be shy to come flying with me.) I love flying, but it’s never been anything like the free-as-a-bird, gentle-breeze-in-your-hair feeling I dreamt about as a kid. I’ve always wondered if the feeling of peace and serenity I’ve longed for could be captured by glider flying. Then last July my wonderful bride bought me a gift certificate for a glider intro flight as my birthday present.
It was a hectic summer, and I didn’t seize the opportunity to use the certificate until October. After a nice long fall drive with the family through the countryside, we arrived at Sylvania Soaring Adventures in Beloit, Wisconsin. The organization used to be located at Sylvania Airport, hence the name, but it moved to Beloit Airport (44C) in 2003. You could see the Illinois state line from Beloit airport, and in fact we crossed over into Illinois a few times while maneuvering on our flight. It was one of those vibrant fall afternoons. The sun was beaming through the yellow maple leaves and painting a stark contrast against the sky-blue hangar building. I was about to meander into the office when an older lady in a green golf cart came tearing around the far corner of the hangar. She was brisk and straight to the point, and soon wehopped into the golf cart to head out to the runway. The electric golf cart seemed to only have two speeds: stop and go-go-go! By the time we stopped, my son was giggling like, well, the 4-year-old boy that he is.
There was a gaggle of people around, and the airplanes were prepped and ready to go, but no one seemed to be flying. I took note of the mostly limp wind sock and thin high overcast that was killing any thermal lift. Apparently my choice of soaring days wasn’t ideal. Once they found out I was there to fly, most of the people standing around started doing something simultaneously. We walked up and down the row of airplanes all begging to go flying and made our selection. I felt like I was picking a puppy at the pound and letting down all the other airplanes that I didn’t choose. We were to fly a Grob 103. It’s a two-seat, fiberglass, T-tail, mid-performance glider that’s a nice compromise between an older Schweizer and very high-performance gliders which can be a bit tricky.
As I stepped into the cockpit, I discovered that this aircraft, like my Quicksilver, sat on its tail until occupant weight was placed on the seat. What I didn’t quite account for was that the aircraft was free to tip side to side on the single main wheel and alternately dig its wingtips in the grass if I leaned too far to one side. While I was buckling in my five-point harness, one of the fleet of golf carts pulled up in front of the glider and clipped on a rope. I suspiciously raised an eyebrow but held my questions until the end of the briefing. At my original home field Aero Park, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin (76C, now cleared to make room for an office development), we used to tow hang gliders aloft with a heavily modified Toyota. I wondered for a second if something similar was afoot, but I quickly dismissed from my mind the silly picture of a golf cart towing a full-sized glider.
There were no headset wires to plug in and untangle or kneeboards to contend with. In fact, our flight gear consisted of jeans, T-shirts, and sunglasses. The cockpit felt snug, streamlined, and efficient. Most of the instruments were familiar (with the conspicuous absence of engine gauges), and the variometer was predominantly placed. There were two control levers on the left side of the cockpit that I wasn’t familiar with. One controlled the lift spoilers on the wings. The other was a bright orange handle whose purpose wasn’t immediately apparent. This particular aircraft has a unique feature that couples the rudder pedals to hand controls. This extra control lever allows pilots with limited or no leg function to fly the sailplane. How cool to be able to share the skies with those who might not otherwise have the chance!
Once my instructor and I were buckled into the cockpit, a wing walker picked up a wing and held us level. The golf cart slowly took up the slack in the very skinny rope and towed us onto the runway. Once we were lined up on the centerline, a Pawnee fired up with gusto and taxied to the runway in front of us. Another golf cart brought a rope that I deemed to be of much more appropriate girth and strung it between the two planes. It all seemed like a well-choreographed ballet to me. The ground crew asked me to pull the tow rope release handle so they could attach the rope. Then they gave it a mighty tug (by hand) to make sure it would stay attached. We fastened our canopies closed and gave a thumbs-up to let those around know we were ready to go. All was still for a few moments.
There was no radio communication between the two pilots. A wag of the rudder indicated to the tow pilot that we were ready to go. He gently taxied forward to tension the rope. I looked out at the wing walker and wondered how a fellow of his build was going to run with us down the runway all the way up to stall speed which was when I figured we would gain roll control. I heard a roar in the distance and sank back in the seat as the Pawnee began our takeoff roll. The wing walker took maybe three to four walking-pace steps, then let go of the wing, and we had fully adequate roll control. It doesn’t take much roll force to pivot an aircraft about centerline gear. About halfway down the runway, we lifted off but kept low to avoid pulling the tow plane’s tail up at a time when he wanted it down most. Once we were up and climbing, the instructor gave me the controls to try my hand at staying in the tow position. He warned me not to get too much out of position, or we would pull the tow plane out of shape and force the tow pilot to release us. The controls were slow to respond but needed very little deflection. The combination made it easy to overcontrol if you tried to put in more stick to rush the airplane to respond. With a little coaching and a light touch, I was able to keep the sailplane right where it needed to be. Sweet…
Once we reached 3,000 feet above ground level (AGL), the instructor had me pull up and then dive slightly to put some slack in the rope before pulling the release. The tow plane broke one direction and we broke the other. Again, ballet. We did some turns and I was amazed how much rudder this aircraft took. With the ailerons so far out on a 17-meter wing, the adverse yaw was huge. The plane felt less freely maneuverable than I expected. The lag time in the response to control inputs also seemed more prevalent now that I didn’t have the tow plane nearby as a reference. I had a tendency to get slow in the aircraft because there was no immediate chastisement from the airframe to my gradual, inattentive pull on the stick. Also the ride wasn’t as quiet or serene as I expected it to be. There was no turbulence, but there was more air noise and vibration than I expected for a sailplane.
Perhaps I was just more aware of it due to the fact that we weren’t wearing headsets. Next we did some stalls, which were really a non-event. Whenever things quieted, I relaxed back pressure until I heard the air noise return. If I held the stick forward for too long, the airspeed would continue to build. This was one clean little airplane.
We hunted around for some lift and were actually able to find a small thermal over a school parking lot. There were no cumulus clouds to use as clues, so we were glued to the variometer to figure out when we were in and out of the weak thermal. Holding the airplane in a steep turn while maintaining best glide speed was a challenge. We were trying to turn as tightly as possible to stay in the thermal, but not too steeply so that the g-load robbed us of glide performance. At the same time, I was trying to maintain airspeed with the aforementioned lagging pitch response and also trying to anticipate where the thermal would drift in the wind. Since I was unfamiliar with the plane, it all felt somewhat unnatural to me. I don’t think I ever got the hang of it, but my instructor was very generous with his critique. After all, it was just my first lesson.
When we were down to 1,000 feet AGL, we entered the traffic pattern to land. I wondered how we would manage our descent in such a slippery airplane. By the time we were midfield on the downwind leg, we had hardly lost any altitude. Right about the place where I would normally make a power reduction, we deployed the lift spoilers about halfway. There was no noticeable pitch change like there is with flaps, and I don’t think we really had to pitch down to maintain airspeed. There was just a slight increase in the roughness of the air noise around us. In this configuration, the airplane descended just like any Cessna or Piper I’ve flown. On short final, I noticed the same wing walker at the runway edge with his arm outstretched. We touched down on the single main wheel and balanced in all three axes, keeping the nose wheel and tail skid off the runway. As we rolled out, I watched the wingtip as it approached the wing walker, slowed, and stopped precisely between his thumb and fingers without him ever moving his arm. These guys were good.
The Pawnee had landed long ago and was waiting for us as we climbed out of the airplane. (Note to other newbies like me: The canopy stays open much better if the airplane is resting on the right wing than the left. Lesson learned.) The ground crewmen resumed their choreography and began prepping the airplane for the next flight. Another prospective student had arrived to check out glider flying. I hope she enjoyed her flight as much as I did.
We headed into the hangar building to do the usual paperwork. My son was having a grand ole time riding a vintage pedal plane around the office area. Meanwhile the instructor debriefed me on what we did and how I performed. He was generally complimentary and identified a few areas that I could focus my practice on if I came back for some more time in gliders. I just might do that. He was a friendly low-key individual, and I enjoyed flying with him. In fact the whole operation had a welcoming feel of laid-back professionalism about it. I now have 0.5 hour of glider dual in my logbook. If you would like some similar time in your logbook, check out Sylvania Soaring Adventures at www.SoarMidwest.com.
FAA Part 61.321 describes how glider category privileges can be added to your existing sport pilot certificate. There is no minimum dual instruction, flight time, or written test. You must obtain a logbook endorsement indicating you have received ground instruction and demonstrated the flight proficiency requirements for the additional light-sport privileges you seek. You must then successfully complete a proficiency check from an authorized instructor other than the instructor that provided the training for the endorsement.