Well, it was bound to happen. On Monday, I had my first real engine out landing. Luckily, I did it intentionally in a Schleicher ASK 21 glider. Up until Monday, all of my logged pilot time had be in single engine airplanes – no multi-engine, no helicopter, no glider. I decided to change that. I arranged for a glider lesson at the Southern California Soaring Academy. They operate out of the private Crystalaire airport in Llano, CA. From El Monte, it’s a quick 26nm flight up and over the San Gabriel Mountains (you must have permission to land there, which requires proof of insurance and some orientation on procedures to follow). Having never flown in a glider before, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, so I thought I would share my experience. I’ll preface this by saying, I may get some things wrong since I’m a newbie on this topic. I’m glad to fix any errors you find.
Orientation and Preflight
When I arrived, I met up with my instructor for the day, Dale Masters. We talked about how gliders differ from airplanes, while we waited for soaring conditions to improve. We then headed out to preflight the glider. Since the glider is a simpler machine, there’s less to the preflight – no fuel, no oil, no alternator belts. However, most gliders are designed to be disassembled for transport, so there are a few checks to help ensure the glider is properly assembled. We also went over the basic controls of the glider – a stick for aileron (roll) and elevator (pitch) control, a small green lever near the stick for elevator trim, a yellow knob for releasing the tow rope, and a blue handle that controls both the speedbrakes (spoilers) and wheel brake. The glider I was flying had two batteries which power a small radio and transponder. The glider has fairly normal rudder pedals (though it can be configured for hand control of the rudders). The control layout is meant for right hand control of the stick and left hand for the other controls. The seating position is low, flat, and fairly tight for a guy of my size. I was able to get comfortable with a couple of carefully placed pillows. Once these preliminaries were out of the way, it was time to pull the glider out in preparation for tow. The glider was moved from it’s tiedown to the runway with a rope attached to a golf cart. As the empty glider only ways about 800lbs, it doesn’t take a lot of force. The glider rolls on wheels that are all in line on the fuselage and thus will tend to flop to one side or the other. You walk alongside one wing (the uphill or upwind one) to keep the wings from dragging and to keep the nose pointed in the right direction.
Once we reached the runway, we aligned the glider with the runway, as the tow plane, a Pawnee, originally designed as a crop-duster, back taxied and swung around into position. The tow pilot brought the tow rope to the glider as we settled into the cockpit. We went through a test attachment and release of the tow rope and then attachment for real. We went through the takeoff checklist, the tow plane inched forward to take up the slack in the rope, we signaled our readiness (wag the rudder), made a quick communication on the CTAF and we accelerated down the runway behind the Pawnee. The rope means that you follow about 200 feet behind the towplane. If the glider is not kept in proper orientation to the tow plane, bad things can happen (think of the glider as a rogue elevator and rudder over which the tow plane pilot has no control). For this first tow, Dale handled the controls as I followed along. The goal is to keep the proper sight picture behind the tow plane through small inputs on the stick and rudder. Once we were established mostly straight towards the mountains, Dale let me take over. It took a couple of minutes to get the hang of it, but eventually I did feel I was able to keep the glider in the approximate right place during the tow. Dale then demonstrated a transition of the tow plane’s wake and a required maneuver known as “box the wake”. As airplane pilots we learn about wake turbulence, but hardly ever experience it (sometimes as you feel it at the end of a steep turn), but being towed only 200 feet behind a plane, you have a real chance to feel it. Box the wake is a maneuver where you learn to stay just outside of the wake of the tow plane. We towed first to a a mountain known locally as “Morning Mountain”, but didn’t find sufficient lift there. We continued on to Mt Lewis (just north of Dawson Saddle) and released, leaving the tow plane to hurry back to the airport for his next tow. If you ever watch glider towing or parachute ops pilots, you’ll realize time is money for them.
Once you’ve released from the tow plane, the real fun begins. You either need to find lift or plan for landing. We almost immediately found some lift on the east side of Mt Lewis. We circled, trying to stay in the lift, and in fairly short order had gained over 1000 ft. We were climbing easily better than what my airplane could have done at that altitude in still air. The first thing an airplane pilot notices is how quiet it is. I’m not sure if all gliders are as quiet, but even with instructor behind me, we were able to carry on a conversation (no headset required). In terms of habits and control, I had to stop trying to add right rudder every time we started to climb. Overall, I found the glider responsive to the controls. While it needed more rudder, it wasn’t that big a difference. I had the most trouble with using the sight picture to set pitch and I never got the seat of the pants feel for needed rudder – my theory is that I’m used to moving around more in the airplane to help clue me in to uncoordinated flight. I found the yaw string (instead of the ball) to be counter-intuitive, so it took me a while to fly coordinated turns.
Dale showed me some of the good locations typically for lift and we went as far east as Mt Baden-Powell while trying out different airspeeds, turns, stalls, and how effective the speed brakes are (WOW!) for descent. After a while, a second glider joined us. Glider find it normal to fly fairly close to other gliders, while everyone tries to take advantage of the same lift.
Eventually, we turned back towards the airport, aiming for a point on the other side of the airport at 5000MSL. We had to work to get down. It’s amazing how far you can glide, compared to what is normal in an airplane like a 172. In most of our small airplanes, we get a glide ratio of 7-10 to 1. The glider I flew had a 34 to 1 glide ratio. Think about that. From pattern altitude, in still air, you could fly nearly 6nm, where I’d normally expect 1-2nm in an airplane
Flying the pattern was very similar to flying it in an airplane, except there’s no flaps and power. Turning to final, Dale helped modulate our descent rate with the speed brakes. The glider requires very little flare and tends to float for a long way in absence of speed brakes. Directional control after landing is a little strange and I can tell would take me a while to adapt to; Dale handled the rollout after landing. He pulled us off to the side, clear of the runway and our flight was over.
Why a glider?
I love flying in the mountains. If I just take my plane out to fly, more often than not, you’ll find me over the San Gabriel or San Bernardino mountains. I’m pretty familiar with the San Gabriel mountains through biking, hiking, and flying. I know from flying over these mountains, as well as the Sierra Nevada and Rockies that our small airplanes have to be handled like gliders when there’s wind or warm temperatures. We just don’t have the power to climb.
If you think it will be cheaper to fly a glider since it doesn’t have an engine, you might be surprised. In total, my glider lesson cost about $300, between glider rental, instructor fees, and the tow. The tow is charged as a flat rate, plus a charge for the altitude gain in the tow. If you want to try yourself, rides start at $100 there and the “normal” intro lesson is $200. I did fly for twice as long as is typical for a first lesson, so my experience isn’t typical.
It was a great experience and I’m sure I will do it again, though I’m not yet sure if I will go for a rating.