"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." - Herman Melville; Moby Dick
I'm not especially "grim about the mouth" (although I love that expression). And I'm not yet to the point of knocking off people's hats. But any time I begin to figure that I know a lot about aviation, I account it high time to get into a strange and different aircraft as soon as I can. So what started as an evil plot by glider instructor John Harte to lure me into training for a new rating has turned into a regular source of joy in my life.
Many of us are familiar with gliders and think of them as aircraft that don't have engines. You either get towed aloft by a motorized aircraft or you're flung into the air by one of a number of ground-launch contraptions. Both of those are, in fact, available endorsements for a glider rating (student or actual) and you need at least one if you're going to get up in the air. But there's a third.
"Self-launch" gliders (or "motorgliders") have engines and propellers (or, sometimes, little jet engines) and they take off and climb just like powered aircraft. You can then pull the power back to idle (or even shut down the motor altogether) and soar just like your un-engined comrades in the glider community. I have several ratings on my certificate and they cover airplanes with one engine, more than one engine, airplanes that operate on water, and others. But, as much as the average motorglider looks, acts, walks, and quacks like a single-engine airplane, it's in the glider category and I can't legally fly it as PIC unless and until I get at least a solo endorsement (and, ultimately, a glider category rating).
That said, the path for me ought to be fairly quick. Very few people get their initial glider ratings in self-launched gliders. There aren't many motorgliders around, for one thing. For another, if gliders will be your introduction to aviation and your first rated category, it's a lot easier to go get your certificate in engine-less gliders. I was right when I said that a motorglider is a lot like a single-engine airplane. If you were coming to the glider rating without prior experience, you'd need to learn about 80% of what an airplane pilot needs to know, as well as your glider stuff. But a motorglider is exactly the transitional platform that would appeal so someone who already has a fair amount of experience in powered aircraft.
I don't have the regs in front of me, but the training for glider add-on for a pilot who already has a private pilot certificate is pretty abbreviated. 10 solo flights, at least three hours of dual preparing for the checkride, and off you go to see the examiner. Probably a little more than that, but not much. And the nice thing is that you can knock out all of your solo flights in an hour. Every trip around the pattern is a "flight." I've amassed something like 35 flights over the last couple of months or so. It's not that I'm avoiding the social element of glider flying that involved tow pilots, wing runners, and other stuff, but the idea that I can get the solo flights done fairly quickly is appealing.
Gliders are at once very similar to powered aircraft and very different. I haven't done much actual soaring (it's pretty darned cold here in Michigan still and there's not a lot of convection), but I've been learning a lot about the unique elements of glider flight. Coasting along with the prop stopped above the City of Detroit and getting a feel for the different airspeeds and the sink rates that they yield. Using speed brakes instead of a throttle to adjust glide path on final.
And, probably the biggest difference: The inclusion of the emergency return to the runway. Glider pilots need to know what to do if there's a tow-rope break or other problem while flying but still low to the ground. My equivalent is an engine failure just after takeoff. I am, after all, in a glider. You give me 500 feet and I've got all kinds of options. But what about lower? And what about being just off the end of the runway when Bad Things Happen?
My training in the TG-7A (also known at the Schweizer SGM 2-37) has involved a standardized and well-briefed procedure for returning to the runway. As long as I have 300 feet above ground level (AGL) and I know which way any crosswind is coming from, I'm going back to the piece of pavement that I just left. For my training, I push (hard!) to get and keep 80 mph of airspeed. Then I bury the upwind wing to a 45-degree bank angle and pull something like 2G to get it around and pointed back at the runway. After that, it's a pretty normal procedure.
Never, ever, ever do this in an aircraft that's not designed for it. I'm a big proponent of the putatively "Impossible Turn," but only within well-specified and well-practiced procedures that you've done with an instructor at altitude dozens of times and done so recently. And, in most single-engine airplanes, you need a lot more altitude and you need a lot more training than any other private pilot I've ever met has had. If you don't know the altitudes, bank angles, and airspeeds; if you don't brief it before you firewall the throttle; and if you haven't practiced the procedure recently, you're an idiot if you try it. Just land ahead and aim for the softest, least expensive thing within 30 degrees of your glide path. It sure beats trying something heroic and being rewarded with a stall, a spin, and much worse results. (By the way, not everybody agrees with me about turning back to the airport in a single-engine airplane. Go talk to a skilled instructor that you know and trust and get his or her thoughts on the matter. Better yet, go fly with your instructor and get a look (at a high altitude in the practice area) at what the procedure really looks like. Then decide for yourself what your skill, currency, recency, proficiency, and aircraft dictate that you do. And add 100 feet and 10 knots.)
All of the foregoing said, in this aircraft with these operating parameters and this training, I get the thrill of doing something that I wouldn't dream of doing in another kind of aircraft. I get to bury a wing and pull and watch as the aircraft pivots beautifully around the wingtip - all right there within 100 yards of the ground. Above is a four-camera video sequence of a training sortie that I flew on April 27. It begins with an initial landing on Runway 27L at Oakland County International Airport (KPTK) and then a takeoff with a practice emergency turn back to Runway 9R.
I'm really enjoying my glider training and I'll plan to write more about it soon. For those interested, I'm flying one of three TG-7As operated by the Tuskegee Airmen Glider Club, headquartered at Detroit City Airport (KDET).
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth - or just want a new challenge - aviation is always right there with more challenges than anyone could ever want.