I began glider school based on the belief that learning to fly without power would make me a better powered-pilot. I base out of Truckee, California, and there happens to be a rather renowned glider school at the airport. They operate from May to October and are a premier location in the world to fly gliders or “Soar” largely due to the incredible winds created by the mountains.
The Sierra Nevadas are a neat place to be a VFR pilot. Winds are always present past 10:am and get pretty dramatic by the afternoons, especially in the summer. It’s often an uncomfortable flight coming in and out of the area as mountain waves, rotors, and ridgeline winds toss you and your aircraft about.
I remember one time, in particular, I was flying from Salt Lake City back home to Truckee. I was north of Reno-Stead airport flying westbound in the late morning in calm air cruising at 10,500 ft when NORCAL contacted me:
CONTROLLER: “Cessna 358Sierra NORCAL”,
PILOT: “358 Sierra Go ahead”
CONTROLLER: “358Sierra are you planning on going through Verdi Pass?”
PILOT: “Affirmative, 358Sierra”
CONTROLLER: “58Sierra be advised reports of downdrafts around Verdi Pass.”
PILOT: “Roger. 358 Sierra”
About a minute passes.
CONTROLLER: “58Sierra, are you still heading toward Verdi”
PILOT: “358Sierra, Affirmative”
CONTROLLER:”That PIREP was issued by a 747, 58Sierra”
PILOT: “NORCAL approach be advised Cessna 358Sierra has TWO hundred and THIRTY horse power.”
CONTROLLER: “358Sierra be advised that a Boeing 747 has about 100,000 horse power.”
PILOT: “NORCAL approach 358Sierra is climbing from 10,500 to 12,500 feet and turning 30 degrees north toward Sierra Valley”
CONTROLLER: “I think that’s a good idea 358Sierra”
I flew north and identified a small high elevation pass that was not big and quite narrow with much less elevation change from one side of the pass to the other. Thinking of the winds like I would water coming over the mountains and falling into the valley, I estimated that the cooler heavier air up beyond that pass would spill through the pass in a fast moving but steady fashion. So I aimed the airplane at that little pass and sure enough, my groundspeed dropped from 120 kts to about 72 kts as I approached. I descended and turned toward one side of the pass (the peak to the north) to give myself better positioning to turn into descending terrain, if need be, and felt the right wing dip as I got near. This was expected and so now I kinda knew my limits on that side of the pass and stayed in the main stream of flowing air. On the other side of the pass is a big valley and as soon as I entered that valley the air felt completely stable. No signs or clues that just south of me on the ridge 50+kt winds were pouring like a waterfall down into the valleys bellow.
It’s a thrilling experience for a pilot to go into a situation like that, apply what you have been taught and be right! It’s validating and affirming when the skills you have been taught see you safely home. When the wheels touched down that day I was still on cloud 9! Which, of course, made me incredibly chatty about it to my passenger, who didn’t give a crap.
It’s such a common experience up here to do battle with what feels like a sudden, strong downdraft and/or gusts of wind hitting you from the side and blowing you off centerline on low approach when the windsock is completely limp. It’s just how the Sierras are.
From what I have been told this windy environment is what makes the area great for Soaring. In my mind, that translates to a glider pilot having a better understanding of how the winds are behaving in their respective environment and how to use those attributes to the aircraft’s advantage.
I have a deep desire to become more comfortable with flying in the conditions mountain flying presents. I have received mountain flying training and that went a LONG way to building the skills I desire however I couldn’t help but notice that, as all the powered pilots landed and put their aircraft away before the afternoon winds got too bad, the glider pilots all were all taking off and flying excitedly into these dramatic winds. So when I went over to the Glider school I was on a mission.
I heard that these pilots learn to read the terrain in a way a powered pilot never even thought of. They look for exposed rocky patches and “dip a wing into an updraft” using it to climb 2, 4, 10,000 feet higher into the air. So cool. In my mind, a glider rating was the door to being able to see the invisible and ultimately become a super pilot.
This year I was going to get that rating and become one of those pilots.
Pulling up to the Soar Truckee building in my truck I felt the usual anti-social anxiety I always feel building in my gut when confronted with just about any other human being. I hate looking like an idiot, although I have reconciled myself to that inevitable fate. The building is small with a wooden plank deck and sliding glass doors leading to one room (that I could see) and as usual, for airplane places, had airplane people sitting out front enjoying hangar talk and sunshine.
Why is this situation so terrifying for me? I was raised by a good man who taught me that to interrupt adults or make a fool of yourself was deserving of a sharp smack to the back of the head. Manners you see, very important.
So with my social anxiety peaking, I walk up to these men and politely (if I do say so myself) interrupted, “Excuse me, I’m looking for someone who can teach me to fly a glider“.
The gentlemen all turned. A grey haired man stepped forward and with a thick Dutch accent asked “Have you ever been soaring before?” I was not familiar with the term soaring and with his accent being SO thick I just stared at him running the noise he made by all possible words I knew. Drawing a blank I simply said, “no?”.
With the basic term soaring confirmed, I was able to announce my grandiose mission with some expectation that these fine pilots would be impressed with my deductive reasoning. I launched into the description of my mission and why I was there being sure to use enough Pilot-like terms and phrases as to give away my knowledge and skills as a powered pilot. I was confronted almost immediately by the all to0 familiar stare of people who actually know what I am trying to talk about, and are trying to carefully choose words that don’t make me feel as idiotic as I just sounded.
First thing learned/remembered: a pilots #1 weapon against embarrassing accidents is humility. I wasn’t off to a great start.
In the building, we went over the requirements for a glider rating:
Because I was already a Private Pilot I would basically have to get an estimated 10-15 flights and pass the flight test to acquire the rating.
Now, one might assume that these flight lessons would be less painful on your pocketbook than lessons for your powered certification. That proved false. You rent a glider, you rent a CFIG, you also rent a tow plane and a tow pilot, and although there is no fuel in the glider, there is in the tow plane and you pay for that too. As you know fuel burn is at it’s highest during takeoff and climb out and you are not being towed by an inexpensive C172, so fuel burn is substantial. I did four flights during my first, 1-hour lesson and the total was just shy of $400. Ouch!
My expectation was set at about $3500 total to get the rating wich meant at my current spend per lesson I was going to complete this in about 9 trips to the field for a one-hour session per trip. This bugged me a little because I didn’t suppose I could learn what I wanted to learn in only 9 hours and I really wasn’t emotionally prepared to spend $400 per hour for more. So I determined to ask as much as I could about how to use the winds to my ultimate advantage, which I was met consistently with “We will get into that later, for now, we will learn how to take off and how to land. We will get towed up to 9000 feet and release, enter the pattern and land.”
As we walked over to the parking area my CFIG explained the aircraft we would be soaring in was a Schweizer SGS 2-33 a two seat, high-wing, training glider. It’s a fabric covered airframe with a fiberglass nose.
With some help from some of the crew at the glider school, we pulled the aircraft out of parking and hand pulled it over to a sort of staging area where it was hooked up to the Tow Plane.
The Tow plane was a white 1965 Piper PA-25
The canopy on the Glider opens up with a small metal latch and you climb into the front seat. The CFIG sits in the seat behind you. The Glider has a stick, not a yoke (love it), and instrumentation is pretty minimal. An airspeed indicator, altimeter, a transponder, and a radio make up the panel. There is a vent for air on the panel also and in a manner of speaking there is a turn coordinator… Not on the panel but actually on the outside of the aircraft attached to the pitot tube is a piece of orange yarn. When in flight if the yarn is slipping off center you add opposite rudder to bring her back to center. This is the opposite of the whole “step on the ball” so it can take a second to adjust to that but still pretty neat to use yarn to see if you are slipping or skidding and by how much.
I was told that you don’t use a headset in a glider. In this glider we do which is fine but I was kinda looking forward to the idea of just having speakers in the cockpit and listening to the unobstructed sound of the rushing wind over the aircraft. Alas, perhaps down the road. Something odd was that I brought my own ANR headset and they insisted that I use their headset. No difference in the plugs, they just seemed to want me to use the old DC green rentals. Okay.
The seatbelts were duel shoulder with a lap belt and really secure you in the seats, although not the most comfortable.
There is a step to climb in and the helpers were still holding the wing. Oh, and on the panel is also a round ball. You pull on the ball to attach or release the tow rope.
There is a lever to the left side of the front seat that operates the spoilers. Spoilers are like flaps except instead of increasing lift they simply spoil lift. When pulled back (in the direction of the rear of the aircraft) the last few inches active the wheel break. When this is first explained to you log it away as a vital part of the landing process, however, it turns out that you really should need the wheel break unless you land long or fast. The reason is that in this glider there is another “break”. On the bottom of the nose of the glider is a strip of metal and wood, a kind of ski, if you will.
It takes a small army of people to launch one of these gliders and so there’s lots of activity around the aircraft while getting ready for take-off. The kid holding the wing up is watching you for hand signals through the glass and you are watching the kid hooking up the tow rope so you know when to open the tow hook with the ball.
Initially, we were towed out onto the runway from the staging area by way of a golf cart. The idea is to pull the release at the right time to put the main wheel on the centerline. Once you do that the wing-kid turns the glider 90 degrees and lines it up. While this is going on you are doing a preflight checklist making sure your instruments, spoilers, flight controls, etc, all work and the tow rope kid is crawling under the nose of the glider to hook you up to the Tow plane, so watch for hand signals there.
Once everything is set you make your radio call, identify as normal and add “Ready to Tow” and the tow plane starts to roll. This is where it gets real tricky because the rope tightens and the nose wants to come up. You react by pushing the stick forward and several moments after you expect some form of response from the flight control the nose goes down, then the instructor yells at you “No, no, no, keep the nose up.” You pull back and the nose goes to high again followed by a response from the instructor “Keep the nose level!” All this while using the rudder to keep the glider in line with the tow plane.
After doing a few take offs you come to realize that when the tow plane starts to go the nose is going to come up, then dip down and pretty much self-correct in a matter of about 1.5 seconds. Just don’t let the nose drag or make the situation worse by pitching up when it bobs down a little.
The Glider lifts off the ground before the tow plane and your job is to keep that tow plane right in your window, nice and level with your glider. Pretty easy to do now that you have some air moving over the control surfaces. As the tow plane rises and climbs you keep that plane right there level with you, you turn as much as he turns, and you climb or descend as much as he climbs or descends. You never want the tow rope to go slack or it could snap taught and break or worse.
Now that all seems pretty easy until you think about doing this in turbulence, which is what we did, and what you will do a lot when gliding. The turbulence effects the glider in a way that is VERY different than, say, my C182. The PA-25 was no exception and it bounced around differently than the glider. None of that matters to you because you have to keep that glider right there with the tow plane. *Later we would do “low-tow,” where you put the glider below the level of the tow plane, and we would fly a box around the wake of the tow plane, but the principal is the same: keep the slack out of the tow rope.
I don’t know about all Schweizer SGS 2-33 gliders but this one (and perhaps all of them) has very squishy controls. You add right bank input and a half second goes by before the glider responds. It reminded me of slow-flight in a C172 with full flaps in and barely enough power to keep her from stalling. The responsiveness of the flight controls is.. well, squishy, sloppy, slow, not as good. That’s what this aircraft is like even at normal speeds, even when being towed.
I’ve done some formation flying with Jim and he taught me to find a spec or smudge or scratch on the windshield and put that spec on the aircraft you are trying to follow in formation with. “Keep it there.” Jim would say. “Keep it right there and never let it leave.” I found a black spec and put that speck right in between the 7 and the Z painted on the back of the PA-25.
This exercise in good old stick and rudder skills was exhilarating! Now, like I said earlier the two aircraft react differently in the same turbulence and so it became a game of anticipating what the glider needed (as far as control inputs) to put it in the right place in relation to the tow plane at times. The tow plane would get a gust to the left and using the rudder you keep your spec right where it needs to be and muscle the glider gracefully into position using the ailerons. This experience is very engaging and very satisfying but it isn’t the best part.
Once we were at 9000 feet (runway is 5901 MSL) and in position, you call release and pull that ball unhooking the tow rope and for the first time, gliding. It’s a marvelous sensation. The aggressive and almost violent experience all at once stops and you are left with a gentle, calm, quiet environment in the glider. It’s still squishy on the controls but now you aren’t wrestling an alligator with lackluster response from your aircraft. No, you feel like you have time, you have room and it doesn’t bother you much at all.
Again the Glider isn’t punching through the air with a motor and so the updrafts, downdrafts, gusts of wind, from this direction or that, is a different sensation. It’s informative rather than forceful. It’s hard to describe, just know it’s not as uncomfortable at it can be in a small single engine airplane. At least that’s what it’s been like for me.
Timing is a big deal in a glider and entering the pattern at a prescribed spot on an exact elevation is critical to success. You can enter the pattern further along the downwind to compensate for a lack of altitude or vice-versa but keep in mind there are no “go-arounds” in a Glider. You land or you crashland, no second chances.
This is part of what drew me to gliders also. I wanted to gain that level of precision in an approach. What I experienced though did not match my expectation.
Spoilers are a cool apparatus on a glider. They make you descend and there isn’t a real equivalent on a powered aircraft. The closest thing is to think of them like you do the power setting. Reduce power and descend, control speed with pitch. No spoiler input and your glide ratio is insane! So where you execute your turn onto downwind, from downwind to base and final is CRITICAL, and whatever your other situation is with airspeed and altitude you use the spoilers to compensate for. Land on a point and grind to a halt on that ski.
Landing in that Schweizer SGS 2-33 was as violent a thing as I have experienced in aviation. You keep it straight with the rudder (nothing new) and keep the wings level with aileron… however you can push that stick full right and it just doesn’t do crap to keep the wing up. Add to that the idea that you steer the Schweizer SGS 2-33 onto a sort of off-ramp within moments of the grinding on that ski rocking your world, which causes the wing to dip and I don’t know what to tell ya, it seemed like chaos to me. I reportedly did just “fine”, whatever that means, but I gotta say it was a cold bucket of water in the face of the smooth patient experience of gliding that precedes it.
I inquired what I was doing wrong and “Nothing, you’ll get a feeling for all that” was the unsatisfying response. Okay.
We did this four times. Push the glider to the runway and tow up to 9000 feet then practice maneuvers until 7000 where we enter the downwind at this same tree. We turn to base (sharply) over a dam then turn final and lawn dart down to a spot on the runway where we grind to a halt like we crashed in the field. Success! Do it again.
I tried to get any info I could about how to “read the winds” but was met with, “That’s for later, you aren’t ready to soar yet.” As I left, some of the glider pilots stopped me and inquired with grins, “What did you think?” I didn’t know how to answer. I felt disappointed and elated at the same time. I was good at some things bad at others and none of it was what I was there for, which is neither bad nor completely surprising save the $400/hour price tag.
So at the end of lesson one what DID I learn? To be humble as a student, to be excited and expect much, but be open to the unexpected delights so common in aviation. I learned that becoming a super pilot is a journey one is on all their aviation life and that your “super pilot” skills are the sum of all the time you were willing to spend doing the uncomfortable learning, the tedious and often tough training. It’s also expensive. I learned that (again) too.
This article was intended to describe my first foray into Gliding and attempts to describe it as I experienced it and not intended to be a training document. Often our experience as a beginner at anything is full of inaccurate perceptions and conclusions and I try to keep all those intact as I try to explain what it was like on lesson 1.