A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

A pilot’s intro to soaring

April 23, 2022
Emilie Phillips

I went into my second day of gliding with my usual attitude. I wanted to ace it, and I wanted to learn as much as I could. There was learning to preflight gliders, get the towing golf carts out of storage, manage batteries, the sign up sheets. Then there was flying the glider, the tow, tow release, coordinated turns, and landings. Maybe that would be easy, but the glider pilots seemed to have low expectations of power pilots. Then, at the end of the day, learning to clean up and put everything away safely and securely.

Saturday was going to be the first day of soaring for the club this spring. The weather looked sunny and calm — easy conditions — so the e-sign up schedule was packed. I did my best to arrive early-ish. All but one of the gliders was already being towed to the grid. I had almost missed my chance to learn preparation. I observed a couple people preflighting the last glider, but no hands on time. I hoped I would have better success with the flying.

I had put my name down on the list when I first arrived. There were 6 people ahead of me. I knew who was directly ahead of me in the metal Blanik, and I knew who was flying the bulbous yellow Schweizer 2-33 whose preflight I had watched earlier. Those were the two gliders and with them the two instructors I expected to be flying with.

Next batch waiting

The official rules say to stay off the grid (the staging area at the end of the runway) unless you are ready to fly. I stood off to the side with the guy running the flight list. After watching several tows from a distance, I decided I wasn’t learning anything. I discussed my dilemma with another pilot walking by. He said it was also ok to be on the grid if I was learning to launch gliders. The sun was still too low to make strong thermals. The grid wasn’t busy yet. Now would be a good time to learn the ground procedures. I headed out to the grid, and that’s when things started going better.

I watched a couple demos of launching a glider. Then another group of early helpers showed up with yet another two seat trainer — the ASK-21. As a trainer, it got top priority, so they parked it at the front of the line.

“Who wanted the ASK-21?” they asked.

I knew two people had signed up for the ASK-21 online. I hadn’t. It was high performance and more expensive to rent. But here I was, the only person waiting for instruction, and there was an instructor, Tony, at the ready. Thus I jumped ahead of the yellow Schweizer and the metal trainer. Tony gave me a quick review of the glider and off we went.

He was a good instructor and let me fly the tow with input from him and occasional gentle corrections on the controls. In a lot of ways the tow is similar to formation flight. The big differences to what I do in the RV-4 are:

  • If the tow plane bounces in turbulence or starts to turn, don’t correct immediately. Wait 2 seconds. You will hit the same turbulence and the problem will fix itself. Or for turns, 2 seconds is how long you need to wait to not cut the corner.
  • Hold the stick lightly and don’t over correct. Similarly, the glider is slow to respond to control inputs, so wait for a response rather than pushing father. And anticipate the end of turns.
  • It is important to not get-above the tow plane in flight. Still necessary, but less critical is not getting low. (We were doing “high” tows. That might be different on low tow.)
  • Most important is keeping focused on the tow plane during initial roll-out. The glider rapidly goes through 3 phrases: rolling on the ground with minimal rudder and aileron-control, hovering above the ground while the tow plane is still on the ground, and finally climbing out with the tow plane. I made several mistakes here over the day, the worst of which was closing my air vent while we were moving. In momentarily looking inside the cockpit, I missed the transition from one phase to another and the instructor had to catch it. Now I know I need “close noisy vents” on my personal pre-takeoff checklist.

At the top, releasing from the tow rope was a lot less eventful than I expected.

We practiced many of the things I would try in any new airplane:

  • pitch for various airspeeds. Notably:
    • Nose much lower than a plane.
    • It takes a while for the-airspeed to stabilize.
    • Max lift/drag and min sink rate are the two key speeds.
  • slow flight and stalls: quite easy.
  • turns, Dutch rolls:
    • As expected, the glider definitely needs lots of rudder.
    • Gliders use a different instrument to show how much rudder pressure is needed. When I focused on my inner ear sensations, I generally did ok. When I focused on the yaw string, I had a 50% chance of being exactly backwards. And when I focused on something else, Tony said I was often way off. But overall he thought I did quite well.

Somewhere in there, the vario started beeping cheerfully. That means we found lift! Tony talked me through using the minimum sink speed and 45° bank turns to climb in the thermal. We went up. Then the vario stopped beeping and we went down. Next Tony explained that when you find better lift, straighten out and go forward for a couple of seconds farther into the good lift, then turn. Tighter turns keep you in the thermal. And as I learned in canyon flying, the slower you fly, the tighter you can turn. Up we went some more. I felt the glider start to stall a few times going too slowly, but I recovered before we lost altitude. Tony seemed to, every time, spot the lift before me. I asked him how he does it. He said he feels the bump in his seat. Now I focused on the up and down motions I felt.

There a bump! Level out. Wait. Wait. Turn tight and slow. Look left, look right. No gliders close by. Oh, the vario says I’m not climbing as fast. Where was I when I found the good lift? Adjust my turn to head that way. Hey another bump!

Tony kept quiet, letting me focus. He pointed out when we passed our 3,500′ tow release altitude. I got us up to 4,000′ feet before the thermal petered out. We glided down, expecting to land. Partway down, the vario started beeping. I again focused on trying to feel the lift. We gained altitude. Then another glider came to join the thermal.

Now I had two tasks: track the thermal up and not run into the other glider. I had entered the thermal first, so I set the circling direction. Once both of us were in the thermal, I needed to keep 180° from the other glider. I tried for a couple circles, but it was just too much. Tony guided me safely away.

At that point I was feeling frazzled. No matter if there was more lift, I needed to end the flight. I had just enough mental energy to try the landing.

Afterwards during debriefing, Tony said the landing really showed I was a power pilot. With an engine, if you hit sink, or miss estimate your height, you just add power. In a glider, you can’t risk getting down to stall speed until it is absolutely safe to land. In a power plane (especially STOL), you start flaring and decelerating well above the runway. In the glider, you fly the whole pattern 10(20?)kts above stall speed. And you keep that speed until a foot above the ground. You can use the air brakes or spoilers to loose altitude faster if need be.

People getting gliders ready

We walked the glider back to the grid. That gave us time for debriefing, and me a chance to learn how to walk a glider wing. I could have immediately gotten back in line for instruction, but I needed a break. After eating an early lunch, I walked down to the far end of the field where people were assembling their personal gliders. I talked with three of them long enough I can still put names to the faces. They each had a different goal & perspective on the day. One of them asked me if I was having fun. I had worked so hard to “get it right” on that first flight, I wasn’t sure if I was having fun. But I was achieving my goals.

After lunch, I checked in with the guy running the sign up list to see when I could get my next instruction flight. Apparently, Saturday was his first day running the log. He hadn’t kept up with the instruction backlog. I needed to go directly coordinate with the instructors on the grid. One instructor had gone home, and the other two already had students for their next flight. I claimed the flight after with Eric. While I waited, I ran the wing on one glider and helped tow another glider with a golf-cart.

With Eric, I flew in the Blanik L-23. This is relevant because the vario in the L-23 is an analogue gage which doesn’t beep. We got towed up, did some maneuvers, then I checked the vario and altimeter and realized we were sinking fast and already near pattern altitude. So we landed. It was an absurdly short flight. Next time, I would pay more attention to the vario. When I saw the pilot who had launched before me land, I felt a little better. Maybe there wasn’t much lift anywhere.

Eric agreed to another flight. The sky had turned overcast, so we expected it to be short. We planned out a specific curriculum — many of the same maneuvers as with Tony, but with tighter tolerances. We got towed up to 3,500′ and immediately started sinking fast we flew back towards the airport to be safe. Over the airport was no better. Eric explained that if you are in an air current with sink, it often works to turn 90° to escape into better air. And that’s just what worked for us. We turned north and stopped loosing altitude so fast. Eric pointed out the features on the ground that often make thermals. I can’t remember them all now. The dark quarry was one. Large berms that deflect the wind upward were some others. I found a thermal and circled up. At about 4,000′, we left the thermal and finished our list of maneuvers. The next thermal I found stopped our descent, but not much more. I saw another glider successfully thermalling a little ways off. I felt ready to tackle that challenge again. We started below the other glider, circling in the same direction as it. I climbed up to its altitude, matching its speed and positioning. I couldn’t climb past it, but I was able to maintain position without feeling overwhelmed. We stayed there for several turns. When I was ready to leave, I cleared the airspace around me and gradually veared away from the thermal. The goal is to be careful of another glider coming in. At that point I figured it was time to call it a day. I started down towards the initial point (IP) for the pattern. Before I could get there, we passed through more lift. I couldn’t resist. I turned and circled up. Our list of tasks was done, there was no other glider circling with me. I didn’t even need the lift. Now I was having fun.

There’s an instructor behind my hat

It was the end of the day. We really needed to come down. After going up for a few hundred feet, I relinquished the lift. We were the second to last glider back. This being my third landing, I did it on my own.

A few other noteworthy things Eric taught:

  • When you feel lift, one wing will go up more than the other. The stronger lift is in that direction.
  • Sequencce for turns: pitch, airspeed, look, turn
  • On tow, mark the 50′ increments so you know if you have reached 200′ should the rope break.

The advice for the tow is my biggest challenge. I am still overwhelmed with the basics of flying the tow correctly. So I will be working that.

This story has gotten far too longed thus it is far too late, I hope you will forgive the typos and rambling. Check out all my glider posts.

All Photos

GPS Track

This comes from my Garmin InReach which is low resolution. You can still see the peak altitudes. The last line is my flight home in the RV-4.


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Comments (3)

  • Indeed, Glider pilots have low expectations of Power pilots.
    The prevailing attitude seems to be: “Not to worry. We’ll teach you how to fly!”
    The best part of Soaring is the QUIET.

    • It would be interesting to know the profile of a typical power pilot who goes for the glider rating. Is it low time pilots? Is it pilots that aren’t keeping current because of money or lack of interest?

      • I think that Power Pilots that seek Glider training want to experience something new and wish to be, and will be, better Pilots for the experience.
        It’s all good!