Glider Pilot

200 feet of yellow plastic rope seems so improbable a focus for everyone’s attention. A ball cap ballet ensues with hand signals all fixated on some aspect of the rope. Our aircraft is quickly attached to a roaring, quivering tow plane. Silent flight they call it. Hardly. My senses are bombarded with the harsh vibrating growl of the tow plane. Everything is shuddering to the unforgiving cacophony. My pal Jon is at the controls up front and I’m perched on a small uncomfortable plastic excuse for a seat. We start the forward roll. I consider getting out. The seatbelts are too tight, the fastenings too complicated. I’m onboard for the duration.

I recently celebrated my 40th birthday and reluctantly agreed to a glider ride with one of my coworkers. With a few hours of power plane instruction under my belt I had a passing interest in how this whole glider thing worked. Our glider is tube and fabric construction with a metal wing perched on top of the fuselage. The tandem seating arrangement positions the pilot upfront and his reluctant passenger in the rear. Two sets of controls make sense as this ship, this Schweizer 2–33 is the ubiquitous trainer of the US glider fleet. Most glider pilots get their start in the 2–33.

Faster and faster, balanced on the wheelbarrow size front tire we hurtled forward on the unpaved, grass strip. Off the ground, wondrously hauled forward directly behind the tow plane. Little did I know Jon was doing all the magic, staying behind the tow plane by essentially flying in formation? Really scary, maybe 25 feet off the ground, I look. A line of small planes tied down on the left, the paved power runway on the right, a village of hangers aside the power runway. Suddenly nosediving into the ground seemed possible. What if the tow plane lost power, what if Jon had a heart attack? Despite my misgivings the tow went without a hitch. Jon offered me the tow line release. Grabbing the tow hook control I gave it a hard yank. Bang, we were free and turning to the right. The tow plane turned to the left and dived toward the field intent on another aerial duet. Our release from the tow plane was about 2500 feet above the ground or AGL as pilots like to say. Looking for lift was now a matter of to be or not to be. Those puffy cumulous clouds you see in the sky have a secret life as they grow and generate updrafts. We were climbing in one of those lift bands at about 500 feet per minute. The altimeter slowly wound up. “Yes” Jon exalts, “good lift”. Jon tapped the Variometer, also called a Vario, an instrument that displays upward or downward trends. Our Vario has an audio function. Sink, loss of altitude provokes a low pitched Dum dum, dum. We had blundered into lift. The result was a tantalizing high pitched beep, beep, beep. Jon increased his bank angle which made us describe a tight circle in the sky. One wing tip seemed to point straight up and the other straight down. It really wasn’t quite that extreme. I looked down past our wingtip and watched things on the ground shrink in size and detail. Suddenly we felt like we’d been kicked in our seats. A strong whooshing sound combined with the frenzy of the vario. Dwidel, dwidel, dwidel, an almost constant tone, music to our ears. Over the whooshing and dwideling din Jon shouted, “The Varios’s pinned we’re going up faster than 1000 feet per minute”. Soon we topped out at 6,000 feet and the countryside around Blairstown, NJ looked like a storybook beneath us. We were over a mile above the ground with New York City to our east quite visible. The Kittatinny ridge spread out below us like the spine of some sleeping dragon. Off to the right, further west the Delaware Water Gap guiding the Delaware River on its long trip into the Bay and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.

“The plane’s yours” Jon announced and held up his hands in an exaggerated surrender. Push the stick forward you go down, gaining speed, pulling up exchanges speed for altitude. Simple control but deceptively dangerous, too much back pressure and your glider stops flying, losing lift, and your glider’s wings become irrelevant appendages. The stall is a noisy and abrupt condition that needs to be avoided. Glider training focuses a lot of attention on avoiding, practicing, and thankfully recovering from stalls. A glider isn’t steered like a car, it’s more like guiding a horse or reluctant teenager. Moving the stick right or left raises one wing and lowers the other. The glider begins to pivot in the direction of the dropped wing. Leveling the wings stops the pivot and you’re off in a new direction. The rudder petals are employed to keep the rear of the glider cooperating with the front. The Air Force once did a study that found a high level moron could be taught to fly. Very reassuring, very inspiring. By the time we landed I knew that a Private Pilot License with Glider endorsement was in my future.

Over 25 years and more than 500 flights later I continue to learn and grow as a glider pilot. Some of my flights continued for over 6 hours. 6 hours without an engine, 6 hours exploiting the awesome forces of nature. You cannot immerse yourself so completely in the natural world and not have it affect and influence every aspect of your life. Driving is more cautious, more envisioned. Anything that might compromise safety is never taken for granted. Oh yes and the weather becomes an obsession. What are the winds doing today? Is there a front passage forecast? I never calculated how my pilot life would begin to define me. But it has and my life is richer for it.