Gliding seems to be the sort of hobby where you need mates, I decided as I watched several people walk a strange looking, long-winged machine into position behind the towplane. Fortunately we were there with a mob of them for the UKGA summer ‘bash’.
The plan was glide-camp-BBQ-drink (more or less in that order) and we though the weather in June would be a moderately safe bet — More fool us!
Menacing CBs and frontal systems had thwarted almost all of the fly-ins attendees. I’d given in to weather-nerves and come as a passenger in Ash’s beautifully equipped Trinidad, but even then we’d come around the mountains, put off IMC flying by the sound of the airliners overhead requesting vectors around the bigger lumps.
The weather at Shobdon itself was better. Broken cloud but good visibility and the calm winds. Perfectly fine for gliding.
We were a large group but the organising of the glider flights was very informal and relaxed and everyone not currently flying stood around watching and chatting or drifted back and forth to the cafe. The gliding club staff were relaxed and enthusiastic and seemed pleased rather than put out to have such a mob on their hands!
As my turn approached I found myself equipped with parachute, and a brief on how to get rid of the canopy, get out of the aircraft, deploy the thing and land without (hopefully) breaking too many limbs.
Between the size and weight of the ‘chute and the straps around my legs my progress towards the glider was something of a waddle and I clambered in with very little grace. I gazed at the panel while the instructor climbed aboard. It was simply equipped, an ASI, Altimeter, VSI, and a variometer I didn’t really know how to read. There was also a slip ball, but general opinion seemed to be that the piece of string taped to the canopy was a better bet since you didn’t have to look inside to use it.
In the centre of the panel there was also a large yellow T shaped handle for releasing the tow rope.
On the right side of the small cockpit were three knobs in various colours. Flaps, Airbrakes, and Trimmer. My first thought was that the flaps and airbrakes were asking to be mistaken for each other and indeed one member of the group did exactly that at one point!
The instructor, Les, talked through the flight, which would start off with him demonstrating the takeoff and how to fly while being towed. How to hold position, what happened if you didn’t and what to do about it. I’d then have a go. He did assure me, as he did everyone, that he wasn’t expecting great things, as it basically amounted to a sort of formation flying — and that in a very unfamiliar aircraft.
Once we were up at about 2000′ feet he’d release the tow rope and we’d be on our own. We’d do some general handling and local flying. If we could find any lift we would, otherwise the glide back down would take about 20 minutes.
When it came to landing, we wanted to be landing on both wheels together. Les would instruct me and only take control if I looked like stuffing it up particularly badly! When landing the airbrakes would be used more or less as you would the throttle in a powered aircraft. Lever forward means less airbrake means slower rate of descent. Lever back, more airbrake, faster rate of descent. Pitch for airspeed as normal.
This sounded relatively simple until one remembered that the analogy of using the airbrakes as a throttle did not extend to changing one’s mind about the approach and going around!
The aim is apparently to get set up for the landing thus that you have half airbrake as you start the approach. This way you can add some or take some away to control your descent. To achieve this our ‘circuit’ would not be exactly rectangular but would widen or cut in as needed to make the field, rather as in a PFL in a powered aircraft.
All ready for the off, the towplane lined up ahead of us and willing hands guided our glider onto the threshold while another member of the gliding staff waved a baton at the tow pilot as the rope grew taut. Then off we went. My first impression was that it was terribly rattly and bump and how I didn’t remember this runway being this rough when I’d flown here before. Then it occurred that when I flew here of course, I couldn’t normally hear the sound of wheels on tarmac. Nor was my backside generally so close to the ground!
We lifted off a fair distance before the towplane got airborne and skimmed low above the runway before following him into a gentle climb. Once we were established behind him Les began his explanation of the aerotow. The main point was the rope didn’t do as much to keep you in the correct trailing position as you would expect. He demonstrated with a gentle, almost imperceptible bank which soon had us way off to the left of the tug.
“And if you bank back the other way to try and line up again — this happens.”
I watched in bemusement as we shot out to the other side.
The knack apparently was to keep the wings of the glider at the same angle as the tug’s. Somehow I was certain this was likely to be trickier than it sounded.
Before I got to try to though Les demonstrated how we could sink down into the propwash of the tug (most uncomfortable), and then below it to a lower towing position. Sometimes they would tow two glider together, one higher up on a shorter rope and one down here on a longer one.
I wondered what all our wandering about felt like from the tug, but before I phrased the thought aloud we were back up in the normal tow position and it was my turn. At Les’s prompting I put my hands and feet on the controls and followed through what he was doing. Small movements but but noticeable amounts of rudder even for the small bank angles we we using. Then it was “You have control.”
I can’t say it was a sterling effort — I wandered this way and that, never getting quite as far out of whack as the demonstration but far from being in a nice neat line either! Picking two points on the tug to stay aligned to was easy, as was telling when they were off, but managing small enough corrections to keep them lined up was not at all easy!
Well before I had the hang of it we were at the top of the climb. Les released the tow rope which fell away with a clunk and we turned up and away from the tug. We slowed, the airspeed dwindling to a sedate 40 knots and the air quieted around us.
All I really knew about gliders was that you needed more rudder. Les demonstrated a few turns and indeed there was a bootfull! I flew for a while, getting the feel of it, and concentrating hard on keeping it in balance. We were drifting downwards at around 100’/minute too slowly to really impinge on my awareness unless I looked at the VSI. After I’d tried a few turns with varying degrees of awkwardness Les pointed out a likely looking cloud.
“Fly towards the darkest bit.”
I eyed the cloud rather doubtfully. It’s more my natural inclination to go around the gloomy bits! But sure enough the 100/min trailed off to nothing as we crept below the cloud. There wasn’t enough lift there to climb in though so we moved on, seeking out another lumpy cumulus. We managed to proceed like this a little way from the airfield before we had to turn back to make sure of reaching it, should our “just about” clouds fail us. We were also on the active powered circuit side of the field here and needed to be safely north of the field before descending.
Since we still had height in hand Les asked when I’d last stalled an aircraft. I scratched my head for a moment. I do tend to practise stalls, especially if I haven’t flown for a while so it was a few weeks ago. He talked though how the glider behaves in the stall then we gave it ago. No audible warner, but the buffet was decisive and although it did drop a wing catching me by surprise (in spite of the tommy-hawk’s normal behaviour!), the recovery was quick.
Handily this had put us in a reasonable position to start setting up for the approach. We ended up a bit high and went to full airbrakes for a while to get it down a bit. It was most strange approaching at a speed (50 knots) which was faster than our cruise speed had been!
I let it get a little slow, struggling to get my head around the different ‘picture’ from what was for me a normal approach, and Les took it to get us back to something more reasonable. We touched down on the grass and rolled to a gentle stop, turning off the runway as we did so. We climbed out to wait for the car to come and tow us back.
I walked thoughtfully beside the glider with a big grin slowly spreading across my face. That was fun! Pity I was only just starting to get the hang of it by the very end, but the trial flight included three months membership and it’s only a 40 minute hop in TOMS to Shobdon. Maybe I’ll have to give it another go…
Thanks to the UKGAers whose photos I’ve used. It was fun wasn’t it!