Despite the impression that gliders give of slow and stately flight, I can tell you some things happen very quickly (at least for me) – especially in aerotows and when landing (but more on that later). I arrived in Taupo on the Saturday morning before my scheduled Monday start for my Solo in a Week course. After checking into a motel, I hired a car and drove over to the gliding club (15 minutes drive out of town, by the racetracks (motorsports and geegees) because it was such a glorious day for flying – sunny, with big bands of cloud (streets) signifying lots of lift. However, things were very quiet at the club – no tow plane. The club’s Pawnee had developed an engine fault and was being repaired at the airport. No flying this weekend, but it was pretty certain it would be back and working on Monday, when I was scheduled to start my tuition.
So I occupied myself in Taupo on the weekend, getting some work done and then at 9.00 am there I was at the (locked) gate of the club. A neighbour (also a club tug pilot) came and opened it for me and I did some reading and kicking my heels until 10.00 am, when Gordon, one of the instructors, arrived. Before that however, another student pilot arrived – Vic, someone I’d come across through flying the Condor simulator. He had soloed at Taupo after 5 days and was continuing his learning after a break of 3 weeks. We were also joined by Bill, a paramedic who had been a glider instructor, but hadn’t flown since 1993.
Gordon kicked us off with ground school. The program is generally ground school in the morning, followed by flying in the afternoon, after the ground has warmed up and some thermals might have started working. Ground school covered the basics – why a wing has lift, how lift changes with angle of attack, stalls and how to recognise their onset (by buffeting, wind noise and lack of control effectiveness) and the effects of controls and their secondary effects.
We then did a daily inspection (DI) on the aircraft I was to fly that day – a PW-6 dual, rego number ZK-PW. Rather, Vic did the DI and I watched closely. It’s a very thorough and methodical inspection of the aircraft done at the start of each day. I suspect I’m going to get used to a lot of these…
First thing is to check the plane’s logbook and check that it’s airworthy and check for major and minor issues (broken bits etc). On this aircraft the rear seat back has cracked but this is minor and not considered enough to ground it.
Then, open the cockpit and check everything is working (including looking for loose foreign objects in the cockpit), looking for frayed wires etc. Also, checking and/or changing the battery (which powers the avionics). Outside, then there is a thorough go-around of the outside of the aircraft, looking for cracks, missing pins and things like ripples on the wings showing evidence of a heavy landing. The elevator surfaces are the most critical perhaps – having this fall off will kill you.
Pressure tests of moving surfaces like brakes, ailerons, rudder, elevators look for evidence of play in the controls. One person holds the surface rigid while the other tries to operate the control in the cockpit.
We also learn about how to leave the aircraft after flying it:
- Brakes open and held in place by a strap or loop of rope
- Windward wing down and strapped and pegged to the ground
- Cockpit closed and locked.
Finally, it’s time for me to fly. I take my first two flights with Tom A. They are short because the thermals are not yet working – there’s lift about, but it’s scrappy. It’s hot now on the airfield and the metal parts of the straps are hot to touch (and it quickly gets hot under that canopy). We do cockpit checks (CBSIFTCBE mnemonic), the wingwalker shows us the rope so we can see no knots, hooks it on and then the tow plane takes up the slack and we are off. Tom talks me through the takeoff roll (keep wings level, as speed builds lift the nose so the PW-6, which has two front wheels, goes onto the rear wheel, then rotate and keep low until the tug takes off). Tom takes over for the tow and, as part of the tow pilot’s training, boxes the tow (low, then low and to left, low and to right, then normal to left and right, then high). In this process I learn the right position for the tow plane and feel the glider go through the slipstream, which is lower down than I thought.
I release (my non-bendy left arm is no problem and I can release fine) and we are free. This flight seems to go by so quickly in a bit of a daze. We search for lift without much success. There’s some around, but it’s hard to centre. We see 2 to 4 knots/sec on the vario, but when we turn onto it, it quickly turns to sink at 4 to 8 knots/sec. We search over some ploughed paddocks (usually good sources), we head over to Mount Tahaura and find nothing but sink there and soon it’s time to get in the circuit.
Tom shows me the landmarks in the circuit to runway 06 – the turn point onto base leg, and then we turn onto final, brakes out and then everything is happening very quickly. Glider’s have quite a steep approach – we are flying at 55-60 kts, with quite a nose-down attitude, we adjust gthe brakes and the next thing we are rounding out, on the deck quite smoothly (no bounce) and I fly it to a stop (much easier keeping the wings level on the runout than I expected it would be). We are on the ground. Flying time – 12 minutes.
Phew. After this I learn about what they call “waving off”. Checking the tow rope for knots, showing it to the pilot in command, hooking on (arm up, palm open for the pilot to open the release mechanism, then once the ring is in place, closing the palm to signal “close the release”. This club has a couple of special checks for the waver-offer after a couple of incidents – these are double-checks that the canopy is closed and locked, and for brakes closed and locked.
Then a look around to see if it’s clear for takeoff (no planes on approach), pick up the wing and signal to the tug pilot to take up slack (yellow lollypop paddle in hand, held down at arm’s length and moved across the body). Once slack is up, then the paddle held up over the head and moved across from side to side, briskly. On seeing this, the tuggy, opens her up, you run along with the wing and they are off.
Another flight with Tom – this time a circuit. Only 7 minutes in the air. Here is my first takeoff and tow attempt. It’s not too bad. Talked through by Tom I get the nosewheel off and get off the deck in good shape, but my aerotow is a mess. So hard to keep this thing in position behind the tow plane. I’m all over the place, over-correcting, too low, then too high, way off left and right. Baffling. I’m too tense Tom says, rigid and that is translating into a lack of control. Tom says he can feel the tension through the stick.
We release at 3,000, then quickly into the circuit and I take the stick for most of the downwind, the turn to base, the turn to final and the landing (with Tom holding on for the landing it feels like). We are a bit low on downwind, so tighten the circuit, landing onto 06.
Later in the afternoon, I have a flight experience that goes way beyond what I was hoping for on this whole week. I had expected that the week would be circuit bashing. Short flights, up, into the circuit and landing, but on this flight (which lasts 1 hour 2 min s), I experience almost everything that is fantastic about gliding. Gordon is my instructor. I do a messy takeoff, unsticking, then overcorrecting and bouncing once, but my tow, which starts messy, gets a bit better when I relax and stop trying to overcontrol. Gordon takes control two or three times, gets us in position, then I try to keep us there. The trick is to use small movements (pressure) on the stick and rudder, to anticipate what the tow plane is doing and try to relax. Towards the end of the tow, I’m doing better and things seem to slow down. I have to will myself to relax in the cockpit and each time I do, things hang together a little better.
After release (at 5,100 feet qnh), we practice turns, straight and level flight (choosing a landmark and keeping it on the nose, at a steady 55 knots) and after telling myself to relax (and looking out at the horizon and listening to the wind noise), I’m enjying this and it’s going well. We find a good thermal under a big cloud to the north east of the club field around Rotokawa and I get used to sitting at 45-50 knots, in a 30 degree bank, as we climb to 6,300 feet. This is glorious flying. Above us, as we are approaching the thermal is another club aircraft – the Twin Astir ME (Mike Echo). It’s about 1,000 feet higher and we join it in the thermal, circling in the same direction, trying to keep it in sight. It’s an amazing feeling seeing another glider in the sky nearby. The Astir gets above 6,500 feet (the limit here before you need to call up Christchurch ATC for clearance) and they depart to the north.
Gordon and I keep thermalling until lift starts to run out and then we too head north, following a street of cloud with lift under most of it. I remind myself to relax several times and start to feel much more in-tune with the aircraft. It’s difficult to explain just how amazing this feels. The glider is bumping around a bit, and you can feel the air moving under you and around you, the stick is moving in your hand, transmitting the air movement around you, you are working the rudder pedals genelty to keep flying straight. There’s an incredible view – Lake Taupo, green hills, thermal power stations, a river, farmland, haze in the distance showing yet more thermal activity, there’s clouds around us and I am flying this light, graceful machine. It feels not like you are suspended in the air and that you might fall if something goes wrong, it just feels like you are part of the air and the sky and the clouds.
After plenty of practice with coordinated turns, flying straight and level (practising “accurate” flying Gordon says), Gordon thinks its time to try some stalls. After demonstrating the HASEL drill, He takes over the first one. Nose up, the speed comes down, the stick goes back, a small buffet (almost unnocticeable), then the nose comes over and we are flying again. I try the next few. This time, the buffeting is more noticeable, as the airflow departs the wing and starts banging on the fuselage, but recovery feels fine. Stick a bit forward, rudder to correct any yaw, and then pull out of the resulting dive.
We try a spin and stall together. First, Gordon demonstrates the recovery. Opposite rudder, stick central and a bit forward, then the pull out of the resulting dive.
I try a few stalls with rudder on to initiate the incipient spin, recovering before the spin develops. Finally, Gordon brings on a full spin to let me feel what it’s like. He kicks the rudder over quite hard and we are pointing at the ground (it feels steeper than it is) and spiralling down. A bit disconcerting at first, but after the first second when my eyes catch up with my body and I can work out what’s going on, it’s not scary – more intriguing. A few g’s pulled on pulling out, but it’s the same drill – opposite rudder, stick central and forward, then pull out. In between all these manoeuvres we find more lift and thermal back to get our height – swapping between left-hand and right-hand turns. Interestingly, the first time I try right hand it feels unnatural, but I make myself relax, I lean down into it and the uneasy feeling immediately goes away.
Gordon tries me on some negative gee to see if I can cope (I don’t spew), then we pull a loop. Great fun – this is my second. Nose down, speed up to 100 knots, then genetly pull back, stick into the belly at the top, and we are over. An astounding feeling.
Then it’s back to the airfield (which we have had in sight most of the time – it’s handy that it’s next to the very obvious Taupo racetrack). A bit of thinking about what runway to use (the wind has been a bit changeable) and we decide on 06 again. This time, Gordon spends a bit of time (we have lots of height) showing me the limits of the airfield (the gliding field is close to Taupo airport) and then we get set up on downwind.
The intention this time is to come in on full brakes, fairly steeply, then go to half brakes and aim for a landing on the “numbers”. Things don’t go as fast this time. I know Gordon will take over if things go wrong (and I’m pretty sure he’ll fly the landing with me feeling the movements), but he calls the movements (okay, roundout now). I pull up slightly too much for a moment on roundout and I feel Gordon’s pressure back on the stick to catch me from climbing and then we are on the ground, a bit of rudder to steer and stick to keep the wheels level and we come to a halt.
Phew. I feel elated and Gordon leans forward and thumps me on the shoulder to say “and that was your first landing too.” He says he only had his hand around the stick and that I controlled the glider through the landing (though I know I felt him stop me from pulling the stick back too far on roundout). After just a day and three flights, I can really feel some progress. I think I can “get” aerotowing eventually, I feel fairly confident about turns, speed and level flight, I have thermalled and I reckon I can work out the landing soonish.