Gliding course – 6 days to solo

In October 2021 I took part in a 7 day ab initio gliding course at the Darling Downs Soaring Club. They have a grass strip and clubhouse at Maccaffrey Field near Jondaryan, about 10km from Oakey. This is just over 2 hours’ drive from Brisbane. The course was designed for beginners with no flying experience and aimed to allow participants to go solo within the 7 day program. I drove up to Jondaryan on a Tuesday afternoon and met our two instructors, Bob and Zac. Bob has been flying gliders for decades while Zac started flying in about 2015. All the gliding instructors are volunteers who aren’t paid for helping newbies to learn to fly. That’s the way it works in Australia it seems. The whole gliding fraternity operates on a volunteer basis.

A tug tows a glider above the runway and clubhouse

They introduced us to two other students, one who is planning to join the Qantas academy at Wellcamp Airport in January 2022, and the other who is in the first year of a double degree of engineering and aviation at Griffith Uni in Brisbane. Oscar had already had a few glider flights in the past while Monique had never flown one before. In fact the first time she’d every flown on any aircraft at all was a few weeks before on a flight from Cairns to Brisbane.

We cooked dinner in the very well equipped clubhouse kitchen and retired early to bed. I had a room to myself and suddenly realised I’d left my pillow at home. Using the old camping trick of stuffing some clothes into the sleeping bag stuffbag I remembered how uncomfortable that used to be and still is. I had a restless night tossing and turning while dreaming of finding thermals. 

Wednesday started with a couple of Powerpoint lectures covering ground handling, signals between pilots, ground crew and tug pilots, cleaning of gliders and other preflight preparation, and primary and secondary effects of controls. The fourth student turned up half way through the morning and joined in. Jonathan was an engineer who had worked in the petroleum industry around the world for many years and during the quiet time brought on by COVID decided to have a go at gliding. He’d learned to fly a few years ago and had done some taildragger and aerobatic training along with his PPL. 

Jonathan and Bob in the Glider while Oscar and Zac look on

We were in tandem gliders and Oscar and I were allocated to Zac while Monique and Jonathan were with Bob. Each pair would take turns at flying and ground crewing. The tug plane was a Piper Pawnee. According to Wikipedia: “The PA-25 Pawnee is an agricultural aircraft produced by Piper Aircraft between 1959 and 1981. It remains a widely used aircraft in agricultural spraying and is also used as a tow plane, or tug, for launching gliders or for towing banners.” The DDSC has two of them. They are “tail draggers” as opposed to the tricycle undercarriage aircraft that I’m used to flying. They are notoriously more difficult to control when taxiing and during take-off and landing, as their centre of gravity is behind the main wheels and so have a tendency to want to spin around the CofG if not controlled carefully. These were previously used for crop spraying or “dusting” with fertiliser so have a massive nose in which the products were stored.

Trying out the cockpit of the Pawnee

The glider is connected to the tug by a 150 metre long cable. The job of the ground person was to hook up the glider when the pilot had completed their checks and then signal the tug pilot while holding the wing of the glider.

Hooked up ready to fly

A low swinging arm told the tug that there was slack in the cable to take up so he would slowly move forward.

Jonathan signalling the tug pilot to “take up the slack”

Once the cable was taut the arm went overhead signalling to the tug pilot that he could accelerate to full speed.

Signalling the tug pilot to accelerate

The ground person then ran alongside holding the wing off the ground until the glider accelerated away. 

Having just let go of the glider wing Jonathan watches the take-off

We each did four flights in the afternoon. We’d tend to do a couple of consecutive starts and then hand over to the other student. This seemed a good way to build up experience without becoming too overloaded with information. Each flight would typically last 15-30 minutes depending on whether Zac found any significant thermals to climb in. And that’s was gliding is all about – finding thermals and using them to gain height so you can continue to fly. Zac demonstrated takeoffs and how to correctly position the glider behind the tug in the climb out. On take off we were positioned about level with the top of the tug plane’s tail. That’s called “high tow”. Once the plane was off the ground and we higher than about 100ft we transitioned from “high tow” to “low tow”. This meant descending though the wake of the plane’s propeller, with its associated turbulence until we were below it and in smooth air again. The best place to be towed was just beneath the turbulence. We’d climb to about 2000ft above ground level, release the cable, then practise straight and level flight, how to trim, how to do balanced turns, circuit entry and execution and of course landings.

At the end of the day we were instructed in how to clean the gliders (remove all the bugs) and to vacuum them to remove any prickles that had crept into the cockpit. The runway is covered in prickles that can easily be brought into the glider when you climb in and it’s not pleasant if you sit on one of them.

Cleaning the glider

They were stored away safely in the hangar for the night and we retired to the clubhouse for a couple of beers and to cook dinner.

Ready to be put away for the night

Peter Hastings, my old friend from uni days (who is also Chief Flying Instructor at the club) turned up and brought me a pillow and a towel that made sleeping that night much easier. 

On Thursday I did five flights. We covered quite a few topics including flying accurate circuits, thermalling, stalls, incipient spins, steep turns, landing/flares, transitioning from high tow position to low tow position, and flying in low tow. Our tug pilot was Alain, a lovely 75-year-old French guy who has lived in Australia for decades and has thousands of hours of glider flying, instruction and tug piloting behind him.

Alain waits in the tug

He explained the problems a low flying glider can make for the tug and how I should fly just under the turbulent air from the propeller to ensure we weren’t too low. We also practised emergency situations. The first was the “rudder waggle”. This means that the tug pilot is having difficulty towing and suspects that the glider may not be configured correctly. The usual response it to check the air brakes haven’t deployed accidentally during take-off. The air brakes are the spoilers that lift out the top of the wings and increase drag. They’re useful to increase the rate of descent on landing and should therefore be safely lock away during climb out.

Inspecting the air brakes

The other emergency signal from the tug is the wing waggle. If the tug pilot waggles the wings of the plane it means they’re having trouble with the plane and the glider pilot must release immediately. We practised releasing before Alain had completed one left/right waggle. 

We talked through some of the differences between gliding and powered aircraft. One of the key concepts is the transition from “soaring pilot” to “landing pilot”. While you’re up in the air hunting for thermals you fly with one mindset. You then need to recognise when the thermals are such that they are unlikely to keep you airborne so that you can reach your destination landing field and at that point you must make the switch to “landing pilot” and carefully plan your descent to circuit level and how you will enter and complete the circuit. We’d enter the circuit much like in a powered plane at about 1000ft above the ground level and typically fly a left-hand circuit, even though with a glider you have equal visibility left and right (no right hand seat beside you). On occasions you may choose to fly a right-hand circuit if you find that you haven’t judged your height correctly and realise you are too low to join the standard circuit. There is more judgement involved in positioning yourself to ensure a safe landing on the runway than in a powered plane. It involves a lot of looking out and assessing your position both horizontally and vertically compared with the landing area. One primary check is your vertical angle in relation to the landing area. It should be about 30 degrees down to the strip as you fly downwind and if it is more you need to move out away from the strip or if it is less you need to move closer. You use the altimeter as a check but the idea is to be able to judge your height above the ground visually, as you may be landing out some day and have no idea what the field elevation is. So the visual check is more important than the altimeter, much like in forced landing practice in a powered plane.  Zac emphasised the need for 30 degree turns on base and final. These are more aggressive than in a powered plane. 

On short final

Later in the day there were signs of storms approaching. The weather forecast was for rain the next day so we made the most of the good weather we had to make as many flights as possible but had to finish a bit earlier than planned as the storm clouds were getting a bit too close for comfort.

Storm clouds approaching as the tug tows a glider above

Peter and I went for dinner at the Bowenville Hotel, about 10 minutes’ drive down the road. The pub is one of those old fashioned country pubs that probably hasn’t changed much since the 1970s. The chicken parmy was pretty good and went well with the Great Northern Zero. 

On Friday it rained nearly the whole day so we used the opportunity to catch up on theory and practise our daily inspections. These are much like the daily inspections on powered aircraft and, as with powered aircraft, there is a maintenance release that requires signing off prior to the first flight of the day. It’s quite a thorough procedure and the maintenance release includes a detailed description of all the areas that need checking. 

During the theory lessons Zac covered lookout and scan procedures while Bob talked about the art of thermalling. He stressed how you need to “feel” the thermals through the motion of the winds and the fuselage. There is an instrument called a “vario” that measures the rate of climb or descent of the glider through a device called a “total energy meter” but the vario lags reality by a couple of seconds so if you rely on the vario alone you will always be chasing the tail end of the thermals. Hence the need to “feel” the thermals as they buffet the glider.  

Instrument panel with vario in the centre

Saturday dawned and the sky was clear but the strip was still wet. Alain was not too sure we’d be able to fly as the ground can be very sticky if it’s too wet. Being the weekend there were more club members around. We helped with the dismantling of the wings off one of the gliders that had to be taken away for a service, and saw how it was loaded into the trailer for transporting. 

Luckily a strong wind was blowing and it had dried the strip out enough by lunch time that we could go flying after all.  Alain had the day off and Ken was our tug pilot. We preflighted the gliders and filled out the maintenance releases.

It was again more flights with Zac as we learned to spot thermals and then climb in them, banking over steeply to remain in the relatively tight pockets of rising air. It was a matter of trying different methods of locating where the strongest lift was. There were numerous cumulus clouds around and, because they form as a result of rising air, the best way to find a thermal is to fly directly under a cumulus, or a bit to one side if there is a strong wind blowing. 

That evening we all went out to the tavern in Oakey, about 20 minutes down the road, to celebrate our half way mark and progress through the course. Zac and Bob had been joking about their daily debriefs in Zac’s room where they’d discuss the students’ progress over a glass or two of 12-year-old Glenfiddich scotch so, given that they were volunteers spending their own time training us with no payment, I thought I’d buy them some. Nipping around to the bottle shop I located and bought a bottle. When I returned to the restaurant they wondered where I’d got to and then were pleasantly surprised at the reason. I think the debrief went especially well that night!

Sunday was another good day to practise our soaring and thermalling and I started to have some success in recognising the “kick in the pants” as we flew into a thermal and managed to throw the glider into a bank to climb in some.

We practised lots of turns and some side slipping and some more stalls and spins as a way of descending when we realised it was time to land and were still quite high.

The wind had a fair crosswind component so it was a good opportunity to learn how to take off and land under the somewhat more challenging conditions.

It was also an opportunity to learn how to turn back if the tug cable breaks shortly after take-off. Generally, you’d need to land straight ahead if you were less than 300ft AGL and the cable were to break. If you were higher than 300ft and less than 500ft you may either turn to land in a better landing place (maybe a ploughed field) in a more favourable direction (preferably into wind) or if you have enough height you may turn 180 degrees and land back on the strip. In that case you’d turn into the wind so that it will blow you back towards the strip once you’ve completed the turn. When the wind is straight down the runway this is not a good idea as the tail wind will increase your ground speed, possibly to an unacceptably high rate. With a cross wind on take-off however, it means that you will have less tailwind when you turn back so can land safely. This was the case on Sunday so Zac took the opportunity to demonstrate it. We managed the 180 degree turn and landed smoothly back where we had started but facing in the opposite direction. 

Monday was another ideal day and a chance to perfect our circuits through practice, practice, practice.  

I did 8 flights with Zac and after I’d demonstrated a few good landings in a row he said “well do exactly the same thing again but this time without the big fat bastard in the back seat”. It was time to go solo. My initial response of “oh, no!” caused some consternation for Zac but once he realised that I was half joking and that I did actually feel confident to be able to go solo he got out.

We installed some ballast to make the glider perform similarly to when a second person was in the back seat and I took off behind Alain on my first solo flight. It was a bit stressful. I was careful to stay in the low tow position just below the wake wash on climb out, and to bank to match the bank of the Pawnee. I prepared for the release by identifying the release handle, grasping it, deciding when it was time to release, checking the air both left and right was clear, then released, and banked sharply to the right to fly well clear of the Pawnee. And I was on my own, flying a couple of orbits as I searched for, and found, a couple of small thermals before deciding “it’s time to land”. I planned my entry on crosswind, turned left onto downwind and checked the angle down to the strip. It was a bit steep so I banked slightly to the right to move away from the stip. Turning onto base the angle seemed about right and I double checked everything and located the airbrakes before turning onto final. Established on final at 60 knots I waited until I’d started to overshoot the aim point then unlocked and pulled out the air brakes. Down we went at 60 knots, like riding on a rail, aiming straight for the aim point. As the ground approached, I thought “don’t flare too soon”, look to the end of the runway and hold it off, hold it off. After what seemed an age the glider settled to the ground gently in a quite reasonable landing and I turned off to the side of the strip. I didn’t want to be chastised as another of those power plane pilots who end up in the middle of the strip and get in the way of the next landing glider!

First solo track
After completing my first solo

And what happened next? I saw Oscar and Monique approaching with a couple buckets and discovered the “age old gliding tradition” of inducting a first solo pilot into the gliding fraternity by soaking them with a bucket full of water! Lucky we were in Queensland and it wasn’t winter is all I can say. After some candid snaps I went and changed into some dry clothes (and shoes) then headed out for one more solo flight to complete a perfect day of flying. 

Second solo flight

On Tuesday I had a chance to firm up my flying. First a daily check flight with Zac and then four solos before another extended flight with Zac to undertake a few exercises to complete my “A Certificate”. The A Certificate requires 5 solo flights, a demonstration of incipient spin recovery, a circuit with no altimeter, and demonstration of handling in a couple of emergencies. By the end of that flight both Jonathan and Oscar had completed their first solos and been ceremoniously soaked in water.

Bob congratulates Jonathan after his first solo
Buckets of water for Jonathan
Jonathan gets wet
Zac steadies the wing as Oscar prepares to take off on his first solo
Oscar’s drenching after his first solo

Monique was still fine tuning her landings but looked like she too was almost ready to solo. 

After cleaning the gliders and putting them away in the hangar and completion of some admin it was time to pack up and head for home. It’d been a great 7 days and I’d learned a lot. I look forward to continuing my gliding training sometime in the future. But first, I’d like to learn how to fly one of those “tail draggers”. Who knows, maybe I could fly the tug one day? 

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