Perhaps you may know that I have an interest in aviation and have had getting a pilot’s license on my “to do” list for a while. However, I never seem to get this far enough up the list to really do anything about it other than talk to friends who are already pilots.
In a break playing racquetball last week with one of my regular partners, Justin, we got chatting. I knew he designed flight simulators and we got talking about where he had gone to college. When he told me that he had done his undergrad at the Air Force Academy, I asked him if he had been a pilot. Justin said yes – he used to fly F4 Phantom jets. When I asked if he still flew, he said that flying powered aircraft like a Cessna really didn’t hold any interest (kind of like driving a Yugo after you’re used to driving a Lamborghini), but that he continued to fly gliders, also known as soaring. Since there is no engine involved (once you’ve been towed up), it is man vs. nature and a kind of pure flying.
Justin told me the club is in Briggs, Texas, about an hour northwest of Austin and that the first weekend of each month they have a demo day where you can take a relatively inexpensive flight with a flight instructor. So this weekend I made the trek out 183 to find the Fault Line Fliers airfield, which was a little trickier than I expected as Google maps took me the wrong way, but eventually I spotted a windsock and some trailers for hauling gliders and figured I was in the right place.
The club owns two kinds of two seater gliders, the Schweizer 2-33, seen below, and a Grob Twin Astir seen above landing at the airfield. The Grob is a higher performance aircraft and is more expensive to use. For our test flight, the performance difference was immaterial, but the advantage of the Schweizer is that Justin (who is also an instructor) allows the passenger to sit in the front seat with all the instruments and the best view.
Once the glider has been pre-flgihted, it is hooked up to the tow plane, in our case a Cessna 152. Since Justin has a masters degree in Aeronautics, flew for the Airforce, and designs flight simulators for a living in addition to being a flight instructor, I felt in safe hands.
As the tow plane trundled down the runway, the glider rose up first, then the tow plane took off and pulled us up to about 3,000 feet above the terrain, looking for thermals along the way. When we got to our release height, I got to pull the big red knob which disconnected the tow cable and we were on our own.
It was a hot, clear day, with essentially no clouds in the sky. While this makes for good visibility, it provides no direct clues as to where the thermals are like clouds would. Instrumentation in the glider is pretty simple – an altimeter, a compass, an airspeed indicator, and a dial that shows the vertical rise/fall rate. Since this lags by several seconds and the thermals can be kind of small, we literally flew by the “seat of our pants” – when we hit a thermal, it felt like a kick in the seat and the glider would rise rapidly. Considering the weight of the two of us and the aircraft, and that at times we were rising at as much as 80 feet per second and you have an idea of how powerful the forces at play are.
Justin had me shadow his movements by lightly holding the stick (the glider is dual control) to get a feel for the control, then after a while he turned it over to me.
It is certainly fun to fly. Even with a relatively simply craft, there is quite a bit to keep in mind simultaneously. On one hand, you need to control the airspeed within a fixed range (45 to about 65 knots in our case). Since there is no engine, you do this by pointing the nose of the craft down or up. At the same time, you are searching for thermals and once you find one, trying to turn tightly within it in order to keep rising. Also at the same time, you need to be aware of any other aircraft that might be out there, and where you are in relationship to the airport. Probably other things too that were beyond my immediate comprehension!
Justin spotted a hawk or buzzard circling below and told me that this is one of the things that soarers look for – the birds were making use of the same thermals we were seeking. Also, apparently it is a lot of fun to sneak up on them from below and scare the living daylights out of them, but the only ones we saw were below us.
All was going pretty well until the tight turns and rapidly changing horizon set off my motion sickness. They keep a few barf bags in the glider, but they obviously hadn’t been checked for a while. One was completely gummed shut and the other had holes in it. So, in addition to filling the holy bag (!) I managed to redecorate my pants and much of my shirt. Thankfully Justin was a good sport and didn’t mind. He even offered me his hat if I needed another “bag”. Thankfully that wasn’t necessary.
One significant difference from powered flight is in landing. There are no “go arounds” in a glider, so you better get it right the first time. Otherwise, landing is similar to a powered aircraft – we paralleled the runway, turned left, then left again and landed at around 60 knots and rapidly rolled to a stop.
Given the fact that it is extremely warm in central Texas right now, it doesn’t take long for any kind of liquid to dry. Which made for an interesting fashion statement once I was out of the glider. My pants went from a solid blue to an abstract design reminiscent of a Rorschach test.
Unfortunately, despite taking water up with me and drinking copious amounts once down on the ground, I really didn’t feel well after the flight and assume I must have been suffering from some heat exhaustion. The temperature in the shade was 104 Fahrenheit, and even about twelve hours after the flight, when I had been in the air conditioning for a long time, I was still feeling a bit off. Hopefully, I’ll give this another go when it cools off a little.
If you like flying, then this is definitely worth giving a try. Soaring also has to be one of the least expensive ways to learn to fly (and continue flying). If you’d like to check with out, go to their website at http://faultlineflyers.org