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Gliders: a Day in the Life
If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a glider pilot, read on. This is the story of a typical, or perhaps not-sot-typical, flying day at the airport. It's true to the limits of my memory, and should give you a taste of how it is to push an unpowered aircraft through the skies.
I arrive at the airport just after 9:30 in the morning. It's less than a week after April Fool's Day, but the weather is cold and unseasonable for this time of year in Virginia. The temperature is in the mid 30s and the snow on the roof of the airport building suggests that the night was colder still. It's also windy and getting stronger. Already, the wind socks stand out almost straight, and swing constantly in the shifting air.

There's a safety meeting scheduled for 10:00 this morning but the duty crew already has both of our two-seat gliders parked on the ramp and is clearly looking at an early start. I say my hellos to our Duty Officer and his assistant for the day. I want to attend the meeting but I intend to fly afterwards, so I inquire as to the possibility of getting out the Sprite.

The Sprite, an SGS 1-36 built by the Schweizer Aircraft Corporation in 1981, is a single-seat glider weighing just under 500 pounds empty. It's all metal except for a bit of fabric covering on the rudder and elevators. I've been using it almost exclusively for my solo flight since I got checked out in it in November. It doesn't perform quite as well as the other two club gliders, but it's just as fun and most importantly, it's far easier to get a slot in it. We have a lot of students in the club and the two-seat gliders are often occupied for much of the day by training flights.

Given the weather, the Duty Officer suggests that I get my instructor's approval first, so I head inside to find Bob. Bob is a retired naval aviator and test pilot and carries more aviation wisdom and experience in his thumb than I'm likely ever to accumulate. He wants to know what the winds are, so I check the weather station behind the counter in the main room of the airport. It's reading between 10 and 12 knots (12-14 mph), but Steve, who's manning the counter, informs me that he's seen gusts up to 15. This is pretty strong but nothing dangerous, so Bob gives me the okay.

Three of us drive to the hangars halfway across the airport to get the Sprite out. Getting the gliders out of the hangars is a tricky business. The hangars were built for more normally proportioned aircraft, and our two-seat gliders have a wingspan that exceeds the width of the doors. The Sprite's wings are just barely narrower than the doors, but to save on hangar space we squeeze it into the same hangar as one of our other gliders, so it's still a bit of work to extract. We manage it pretty quickly and tow it down to the end of the runway using our ancient, beaten up Chevy Caprice. It is falling apart in almost every imaginable way, but it gets the job done.

Once we have the Sprite parked, I place a bag of weights on its wingtip to keep it from blowing away and tie the spoilers open. The spoilers destroy some of the lift created by the wing. They're normally used during landing to control the steepness of the glider's descent, but they also help keep the wings from pulling the glider off the ground in an unexpected gust. Having secured the glider, I head inside for the meeting.

The meeting is pretty standard fare, talking about how gliders and powered aircraft can peacefully and profitably coexist at the same airport. It runs over time as expected, but at 11:30 it's finished and I go back outside, eager to get in the air. Both of our two-seaters are already airborne and reporting turbulent conditions with good lift. Lift normally refers to the upward force produced by a wing in flight, but to a glider pilot it has a different meaning: rising air that can be used to sustain flight or gain altitude.

Another club member is already out at the glider, showing a friend around the club. Sobek used to be a fellow student of mine, but he passed his checkride a few months ago and is now a rated pilot. We chat about glider training and the friend asks me how many flights I needed to solo (25) and how many I had up to this point (65), trying to judge how much effort it really takes.

I start in on my preflight inspection of the glider. Every day before we fly a glider, we do a preflight on it. The general principle is simple: see if everything is where it's supposed to be, and make sure nothing weird is lurking about. If it's supposed to move then make sure it really does, and if it's not supposed to move then make sure it doesn't. I walk around the plane, peering into the inspection hatch, checking pins, feeling control surfaces, and poking at the tire. Once I'm done I hop in the glider and have Sobek help me with a positive control check. He holds on to each control surface while I move the appropriate control to make sure the linkages are solidly attached.

After we're done, I adjust the straps and hop out. He asks me if I'm ready to fly, and I tell him that I just need to grab some gloves. It's already cold on the ground and the temperature decreases by about 3.5 degrees per thousand feet of altitude. The glider has no power source aside from a small battery used to run some electronics, so it's completely unheated. Dressing warm on a day like this is important.

As I search for my gloves, I'm handed the adapter. Gliders are connected to the tow rope using a tow ring, but there are two different ring systems in use. The Tost ring is small and fat while the Schweizer ring, which the Sprite uses, is larger and thinner. Our tow rope has a Tost ring on it, and the adapter will hook on to that and give me a Schweizer ring to connect to. It's a simple affair, just a length of rope attached to a Schweizer ring with a loop on the other end. The loop is passed through the tow rope's ring and over the adapter to keep everything secure. Putting a Tost ring in a Schweizer ring will jam the release mechanism and generally ruin everyone's day, so it's important to have the adapter before takeoff.

I get my gear and we push the glider out to the runway. The tow plane starts up as I get in and get ready. I start going through my pre-takeoff checklist to make sure I've done everything that I need to do.

Controls: I move the stick and rudder to make sure they still move freely. Discovering a problem with the controls in the air can be fatal.

Ballast: if the pilot is under the minimum weight needed to keep the glider balanced, he needs to add weights to keep the center of gravity sufficiently forward. I'm a big guy and near the maximum limit for this glider, so my job here is to make sure nobody else left some unexpected ballast for me.

Straps: I make sure all my straps are buckled and pulled tight. Today is going to be a rough day so I pull extra hard to make sure I don't move around when I hit a bump.

Instruments: the only instrument that needs calibration is the altimeter. I turn the calibration knob until it reads field elevation, 709 feet.

Trim: this sets the center point for the elevator on the stick. I set it a bit forward, knowing I'll need to adjust it in flight anyway.

Canopy: the canopy obviously needs to be closed and locked before takeoff. It's particularly important in the Sprite since the design of its canopy makes it easy to leave it unlocked by mistake and ready to pop open in flight.

Brakes: I pull the spoiler handle all the way out to activate the glider's wheel brake, so I don't get jerked forward when the tow plane hits the end of the rope.

Emergency plan: if the tow rope were to break between about 200 and 400 feet, I need to make an instant 180 degree turn to come back and land downwind on the runway. The direction of the turn is important, because if I turn downwind then I'll get blown away from the runway and I'll have a hard time making it back and lining up for landing. With so little altitude, there isn't much time to think, so the direction of the turn has to be decided on the ground before takeoff. I see that the wind is blowing somewhat from the right, so I know that if the rope should break, I'd make my 180 to the right. Real rope breaks are very rare, but it's always good to be prepared.

Sobek hooks up the rope and we test the release mechanism to make sure it works. The rope pops out like it should, and he hooks it up for real and moves out to the end of the wing. He starts waving his arm in a low arc across his body to signal the tow plane to take up the slack in the tow rope.

I call the tow plane for a radio check. A lot of gliders don't have radios, but the club believes that they're essential at a mixed-use airport such as ours, and all of our gliders have them and we make sure they're working before takeoff. The response comes back, "five squared," and I give him my request. "I'll go to three thousand, and wherever there's lift."

The rope goes taut and the tow plane stops. I slowly release the brake to ease the glider forward a couple of feet, then push the handle in and lock it so the spoilers don't accidentally release in flight. As I'm doing this, my helper is turning around and scanning the whole sky. Knowing where any nearby airplanes are will be good to know in case the rope breaks and I have to make a quick decision about where I can land.

He finishes looking and calls out, "The pattern is clear!" I give him a thumbs up and he picks up my wing and holds it level, although the winds are so strong today that I can probably hold it level using the controls, even though I'm not moving yet. I waggle my rudder pedals to signal that I'm ready for takeoff. I'm focused on the tow plane, but I know that my helper at the wingtip is rotating his arm in a big circle to indicate the same. The tow plane waggles his rudder as well, and then starts putting on the power. I grind forward a little while on the glider's nose skid, but I rapidly pull the nose off the ground and not long after, I'm airborne.

At this point, my task becomes difficult. Most importantly, I must not rise too high. The glider takes off long before the tow plane and if I get too far above him, I'll pull his tail up and drive his nose into the ground. Getting too high on takeoff or on tow is how tow pilots are killed. I also have to fight the turbulence that's already shaking me around and the wind that's trying to blow me into the trees on the side of the runway, and all of this while making sure I don't strike a wingtip on the runway.

I feed in some rudder to counter the wind and concentrate on staying in position. Soon enough the tow plane lifts off, and we start to climb. As we reach 900 feet indicated on the altimeter I mentally call off "200", for 200 feet above the runway. Before this point I would have to land ahead somewhere in the event of a rope break, but now I can turn around. Soon after that I reach 400 feet, where I can actually make a relatively normal landing in the proper direction.

The turbulence gets worse as we ascend, to the point where a strong downward gust causes me to hit my head on the canopy. I'm grateful for the small amount of protection provided by my stocking cap, and I have to really fight the controls to stay in position.

In a student's first few flights he'll start learning how to fly the tow. For most people, it starts out with the instructor giving them control of the glider. They'll have control for just a few seconds before they get too far out of position and the instructor has to save it. The instructor recovers and the whole process repeats again and again. The time they have it under control gets longer each time, until at some point they actually manage to fly the whole thing.

The main problem most students have with the tow is that they're moving the controls too rapidly and too far. On a smooth day, it's possible to stay in position with near-microscopic movements of the stick and rudder, but most people start out moving them much more than this, so they overcorrect, start a cycle, and get rapidly out of position. Today was not a calm day: I was moving the controls nearly to the stops in some cases as I was battered from all sides. The variometer beeped at me to indicate our climb. I could barely hear it, but I couldn't devote any attention to turning up the volume.

As we neared 3000 feet I started to prepare for the release. When I release the rope, I'll turn to the right and the tow plane will turn to the left and dive, to ensure maximum distance between us. I look down and left to be sure there's no traffic there, then I look out to the right. I'm taking very quick glances because I don't want to take my eyes off the tow plane for even a full second. Nobody else was crazy enough to be flying today, it seems, and I pull the knob.

There's a bang as the tow rope is released and I immediately start my turn. "Thank you, 866," I call out over the radio. "How's that?" he replies. "Quite a ride, 866," I tell him, thinking he was referring to the tow. Then I realize he's referring to my request to be taken to lift. My variometer is still beeping at me, so I decided he's done well. It's indicating a climb of 2-3 knots, which is 200-300 feet per minute, and it's pretty consistent. The variometer will beep in a climb, with low-pitched slow beeps for slow climbs and fast, high-pitched beeps for faster climbs. Descents are similar, but with no beeping. This lets a glider pilot know what the air is doing around him while keeping his eyes looking outside.

I continue my right turn to stay in the lift as I start to gain altitude over the West end of the airport. The day is dark, with towering clouds all over the sky, and it's still extremely turbulent even at over three thousand feet above the ground. 1KS (pronounced "one kilo sierra"), another club glider, calls in over the radio and tells me that he's in good lift just East of the airport. I decide to stay in what I know for now, but note his suggestion for future reference. I start looking for him, but I never managed to lay eyes on him. A couple of days later, I will realize that this is because I had been looking at the wrong end of the airport. The flying is so hard that I can't quite keep my directions straight.

A couple of minutes and several circles later, I've gained a few hundred feet and I decide to make a break for stronger lift. Others on the ground told me that there was a lot of strong sink, the opposite of lift, and with a strong headwind I'd be sure to lose a lot of altitude getting over there. I push the nose over to gain speed to penetrate the sink and headwind better, but I can't go too fast. The maximum allowed speed in rough air is only 108mph, and this air is definitely rough.

The glider shakes around me as I push through the air. It sounds like a bunch of sheet metal wobbling in the wind. I push through the sink and the mountains begin to rise in front of me as I descend. I'm not going to be able to keep this up too much longer.

Suddenly the bumps get worse and I'm hit from below. My variometer changes from its mournful constant tone to a frantic beeping. I'm climbing, and fast. The variometer is pegged, the rate of climb beyond its range, over 1000 feet per minute. I wait a few seconds and then begin a turn, trying to stay in the strong part.

Staying in the strong part doesn't work out too well. All the turbulence means that the lift is patchy, but I manage to do more up than down. After some exploring, I settle on a long path running diagonal to the airport. Flying back and forth along this, I stay in strong lift most of the time.

With the situation under control, I decide to take some pictures. The zipper on my pocket gets stuck, and I have a hard time freeing it. By the time I get it loose, I'm over four thousand feet above the ground and my canopy has almost completely frozen over.

As I go higher, the air gets colder and vapor from my breath starts to condense on the canopy, freezing there. With so much cloud cover there's no sun to warm the inside of the glider, and it quickly gets to the point where I have a hard time seeing out. I immediately open the vent as far as it will go and try to breathe less, which stops the problem from getting worse, but it doesn't seem to improve. I scrape at the frost a bit with my glove and clear a bit of it off, so I know that if it gets to the point where I can't see at all then I can start scraping at it.

The visual obstruction is starting to make me feel sick. Normally I have no problems with airsickness, but the strong turbulence and the ice on the canopy are conspiring to make my stomach unhappy. I decide to descend, which should get me to warmer air to help remove the frost, and let me land sooner in case my stomach gets too upset to handle. I fly out of the lift and crack the spoilers a bit to help lose altitude.

Over the radio, I hear a glider setting up for takeoff. They ask for a pattern tow; they'll tow to only 1500 feet and then come back in and land, just to practice taking off and landing and landing. As they take off I'm getting near the point to where I'll start entering my own pattern. I know that they'll be a little while on tow, so there should be no conflict.

Suddenly I hear over the radio, "866, was that a waveoff?" A waveoff is used by the tow plane in the event of an emergency, such as engine trouble, to tell the glider to release the tow rope immediately, and it's signaled by rocking the tow plane's wings. I start wondering what the heck is going on, but I already have my hands full; my canopy is still frosted over and I have to wrestle the glider down shortly.

It turns out that the waveoff was done for training and I'm landing on the grass next to the runway anyway, so 94E ("niner four echo") can take the runway and there's no conflict. I set up for landing and do my landing checklist.

Speed: in the Sprite, the landing approach is normally flown at 55mph. To reduce the risk of stalling due to turbulence or wind shear, the approach is flown faster the windier it is. By now the winds are at least 20mph, so I add half of that speed to my approach speed, and nose over to 65mph.

Trim: I hit the lever on the stick and center it for 65mph.

Airbrakes: another name for spoilers, I make sure these still work by pulling them out a bit and making sure they have the desired effect. Then I lock them again so they don't come out by accident.

Look: the frost is clearing a bit so I can actually do this. I check on the tow plane and the other glider, search for any other traffic, look over the airport for any activity, and check on the wind socks.

All this done, I turn in for my landing pattern. This pattern is done in four segments. First there is a line extending away from the midpoint of the runway at a 45-degree angle. Next is downwind, flown parallel to the runway but in the opposite direction from landing. Then comes base, perpendicular to the runway, and last is final, lined up with the runway. The purpose of the pattern is to give the pilot plenty of time to prepare for landing and correct any problems that might arise.

I turn downwind with the wind at my back. The wind combined with my airspeed is moving me along the ground at nearly 90mph. I'm really moving fast, and the turbulence is still just as bad as when I took off. I have my hands full flying the airplane and making the occasional radio call. Somewhere in here the frost clears off my canopy, but I'm not even sure when it happens.

I turn base, then final. No more radio calls left, everything is about getting down safely. I'm staring down a quarter mile of grass next to the runway that will be my landing spot. I'm busy with the controls keeping the glider lined up. I jockey with the spoilers, trying to compensate for the gusts that hit and stay at the height I want. As I cross over the taxiway I pull the spoilers all the way out and drop for the grass. I flare, holding the glider just above the grass to bleed off speed, and then I touch down. I pull back on the spoiler handle to activate the wheel brake and keep the nose off the ground with the stick. In just a few seconds I've stopped and the nose comes down. It's been just 29 minutes since takeoff.

I take a few moments just to sit and relax. It was a fun but very challenging flight. I'm not blocking anyone, so I just stop and decompress. Then I unlock the canopy and get out. I push the nose down and turn the glider around and I see the Assistant Duty Officer driving our beat up tow car out to get me. He hooks up the rope, I grab a wing, and we pull the glider back to the ramp to park it. Once again, I tie open the spoilers and put a weight on the wing to keep it from flying away.

The airport building is fairly crowded when I get back. Most of the people attending the safety meeting have stuck around and are hanging out inside talking. The big question is whether we are going to keep flying. The winds had been steadily increasing throughout the day, and the club rules don't allow flying club gliders when the winds are over 20 knots. It's decided to wait a while and see what happens, and after a while the Duty Officer decides to cancel operations for the day. Content with my one flight, I pack up and head home.

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