I’m Max, this story is about my first time flying a glider. You can click through all the photos here. Enjoy!
Our journey starts on the runway. Gliders have no engines or propellers, so they rely on traditional prop planes to gain their initial elevation. Our tow plane, “pickle” struggled mightily to start its engines, which eventually roared to life. We wheeled the glider onto the runway just behind our tow pilot. His assistant, no older than 16, grabbed the tow rope from the tail of the tow plane and attached it to the tip of the glider. We straightened out and prepared for takeoff.
On the runway, glider pilots play it so cool, keeping their canopy open until the very last moment. Here, @karlmendes held it open until we were fully under way and accelerating down the runway. He did this under the guise of “It gets so hot in here on the tarmac,” but I saw right though that. My hunch is that glider pilots want everyone to see precisely which lunatic is about to fly a plane with no engine.
Ascending behind the tow plane is one of the scariest parts. As the two planes go through turbulence they bob and weave together and, by watching the other plane, you really get a sense of how much you’re bouncing around. Once you reach altitude it’s incredibly satisfying to cut free from the tow plane. Everything slows down, quiets down, and the gliding begins. We ascended 3,000 feet and, at the opportune moment, we cut free.
This is the moment that inspired this whole series. Here we are in a glider, a plane that you would think can only descend, yet we are rising! @karlmendes found a draft of rising warm air, banked the plane hard right, and together we spiraled upwards for thousands of feet. We rode this warm air as high we could and then pulled out. We glided down and around and then caught the same draft upward again, and again, and again. This is one of those moments where your closed mindset about something suddenly expands, and you’re immediately humbled and once again curious. I learned that with the right conditions you can fly a glider plane indefinitely, which is why Karl doesn’t call it gliding — he calls it soaring.
The basic controls in a glider are the joystick (front and center), and two pedals(one under each of my feet). The joystick controls large flaps on the wings and the pedals control the rudder. To make a right turn, I’d push the joystick right and depress my right foot pedal simultaneously. The joystick banks the plane to the side, and the pedals turn the rudder which turns the plane. Do one without the other, and you could end up in a nasty spin, or worse.
The most important gauge for glider pilots to monitor is their airspeed. Since speed(think about the fast moving air flowing over and under your wings) is the only thing keeping a glider from falling out of the sky, pilots are constantly making adjustments and maneuvers to keep their airspeed high. Pilots maintain airspeed by keeping the nose of plane pointed down, pushing the joystick down to go faster and pulling up to slow down. Here, @karlmendes has us cruising at 60 knots(about 70 mph), a good compromise between going too fast and loosing precious elevation, and going too slow and stalling out.
When landing a glider, you only have one shot. You can’t pull up and go around like in propeller planes and jets. As such, when a glider pilot radios an airport and requests to land, the control tower will “clear the pattern.” Everyone else will have to go around, and the glider will get first priority. When you’re up high without an engine, it feels good to know that you can come in and land at any time. Here, @karlmendes and I are pointed at the far corner of the runway, and are about to bank around and land.
Landing was wild. @karlmendes came into the runway high(so we wouldn’t come up short)and we had to lose a bunch of altitude quickly before landing. To do this, Karl turned the joystick left, and the rudder right, causing the plane to “slip.” While slipping, you get into this angled orientation, yet you fly straight forward. It’s the craziest thing. The plane stops gliding and starts falling, fast. We shed the last 100 feet of elevation and at the last moment Karl straightened the plane and landed with a textbook “skootch” of the wheels on the tarmac.
And this is the look on your face after you fly in a plane with no engine and don’t die. Surprisingly, this experience wasn’t scary at all. Gliding is a relatively safe way to fly and is certainly the cheapest way to get into aviation.