Commercial Glider Pilot-A Dream Come True

Commercial Glider Pilot
A Dream Come True

by H. Dean Chamberlain

Gliders. For some, the word conjures images of sleek, long-winged, hi-tech, fiberglass flying machines silently soaring on a hot summer day. For others, it brings back thoughts of hours of training in hot, chunky two-place gliders made in Elmira, NY, America's soaring Mecca. For yet others, gliders are only a dream. But, dreams can come true. Although it took 18 years, I fulfilled one such dream last fall. It didn't seem like 18 years had elapsed between my first three glider lessons in 1977 and when I was finally able to soar solo in a small thermal over central Florida last September. What made the flight memorable was the fact that I actually gained 2,000 feet of altitude, and I was sharing the thermal with a very large, black bird.

To be able to look across a wing tip and watch a bird soaring close enough to you that you can see its breast muscles ripple beneath its feathers as it banks to stay within the thermal is an experience not soon forgotten. Then to watch the bird seemingly become bored, tuck its wings against its body, then dive down and away from the glider was worth the time, effort, and cost of the flight. Soaring with that bird gave true meaning to the magic of flight, but then I was not that far from Orlando. Maybe, there really is a magic kingdom in Florida where make believe and soaring birds and aircraft can exist side by side. I found one such place near Clermont, FL. It was a place where pilots can learn to soar with birds.

My long journey to an added glider rating started at a small county airport in eastern Ohio in 1977 and ended at a central Florida gliderport in 1995. But looking back over those years, it wasn't really that long. It just took me a bit longer than most people to take my fourth glider lesson. Your soaring dream doesn't have to take 18 years to finish, nor do you have to travel to Florida to learn how to fly gliders. You just need someone to convince you to take that first, or in my case that belated fourth lesson, that leads to your learning how to fly gliders. In my case, it was talking to several FAA employees who fly gliders. Their stories about flying gliders brought back memories of a rating never completed.

Their conversations also gave us, the magazine staff, the idea for our next article on ways pilots can regain their flight currency and proficiency after a winter of limited or no flying. Adding another rating such as a glider rating or taking some other type of recurrent flight training such as participating in the FAA "Wings" program with a certificated flight instructor (CFI) is an excellent way to "get back up to speed" in your flying.

Why our interest in some form of refresher training? As part of the FAA's Aviation Safety Program, we know, based upon accident statistics and trends, that pilots who continually train and who are current and proficient are statistically safer pilots. Simply stated, safety in flying is a never-ending learning experience. The fun thing about learning to fly gliders is it is basic stick and rudder flying with an increased emphasis on judgement. Gliders can definitely make your spirits "soar" while challenging your flying skills.

This year, we hope some of you will find the idea of learning to fly gliders exciting enough to take the training. Not only will you increase your proficiency and interest in flying, you will also gain some new friends because, like ballooning, flying gliders is a team effort.

Some people say, "Timing is everything." They're right. Good timing was responsible for my completing my glider rating. I had been thinking and talking about gliders since early last summer as part of my background research in preparing to draft an article on glider training. Then one day, Obie Young, the FAA Safety Program Manager for the Orlando (FL) Flight Standards District Office, proudly mentioned in a telephone call that his son was taking glider lessons at a gliderport in Clermont, FL. He was even more proud when his son, Obie II, soloed.

As Obie tells the story, it is hard for me to imagine a more stressful situation for a first solo. As anyone who has ever soloed or taken a checkride knows, each event can be stressful with no one watching, but imagine the following situation. There they were: Obie, the proud father, FAA aviation safety inspector, and career aviator; Mrs. Ramona Young, the typical concerned mother; Knut Kjenslie, the owner of Seminole-Lake Gliderport and designated pilot examiner; and the tow pilot waiting to tow. All watching the preparations for Obie II's first solo. As one who hates check rides with a passion, I think with such a crowd watching I would have just stopped and gone for coffee.

But since he had been flying in aircraft since birth, I like to think Obie II was probably the most relaxed person on the field that day as he prepared for his first solo glider flight. Like any proud father witnessing a milestone in his child's life, Obie (Obie One, as some call him when his son, who they then call Obie Two, is present) made sure that his son's first solo glider flight was well documented. Like any proud parent, if asked, Obie will gladly show you his photographs of that day.

Since then Obie II has made about 70 flights and has logged about 24 hours in gliders. He has completed the private glider pilot flight requirements. Now he only has to take the written and check ride. His only problem is he has to wait until he is 16 to take the check ride.

Obie II is an important part of this story because his experience is not unique. His glider training is an example of how other teenagers can start learning how to fly. Since his first solo, Obie II has earned his Soaring Society of America's A, B, and C badges for his flight accomplishments. He is also learning to fly another type of glider. According to his father, the training cost has been about $2,400 or about $100 per hour or about $35 per flight. Regardless of how you calculate the cost, Obie I says, "The cost is well worth it."

Gliders and teenagers are made for each other because 14 year olds can become certificated student glider pilots. Because of that fact, gliders can be an important first step in developing any teen's interest in aviation. Teens can become certificated private glider pilots at 16. They also don't need an FAA medical certificate to fly gliders. Like free balloonists, glider pilots only have to sign a statement that they have no known medical problem that would prohibit them from safely exercising the privileges of their glider certificate.

Student glider training requirements are outlined in the various sections of Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 61. FAR Part 61 also outlines the glider solo training requirements as well as the knowledge and practical test requirements for taking the private pilot glider tests. The practical test includes both an oral and flight test.

Part 61, Subpart C (Student and Recreational Pilots) outlines the student training requirements. Subpart D (Private Pilots) outlines the certification requirements for becoming a private pilot, glider. Subpart E (Commercial Pilots) outlines the commercial requirements for glider pilots. There is no ATP glider rating.

The private pilot glider requirements listed in FAR ¤ 61.115 require, in part, that an applicant wanting to take the practical test must have logged at least one of the following to qualify to take the test: (1) At least 70 solo glider flights including 20 solo flights during which 360 degree turns were made; (2) Seven hours of solo flight in gliders, including 35 glider flights launched by ground tows, or 20 glider flights launched by aero tows; or (3) 40 hours of flight time in gliders and single-engine airplanes, including 10 solo glider flights during which 360 degree turns were made.

The reference about ground tows or aero tows is important. For those not familiar with launching gliders, there are three primary means used to get gliders airborne. In the United States, one of the most popular ways is to tow the glider behind a powered airplane to altitude. This method also allows the tow plane to tow the glider to a good soaring area. Another method is ground launches in which a winch and cable or even an automobile with an attached tow rope is used to provide the glider with enough speed to get airborne. This method involves the least amount of outside equipment and resources. The third method is self-launching. Some glides have small, built-in engines that in some cases are truly works of art. The engines give the gliders enough power to get airborne. They also allow the gliders to fly in zero lift conditions. Motorized gliders not only reduce the chance of the glider having to make an off-gliderport or airport landing in zero lift conditions, they also reduces the need for a launch or retrieval crew.

The type of launch technique the glider pilot applicant demonstrates during certification testing determines what type of operating limitation is placed on his or her glider certificate. The glider pilot is then restricted to using only the method or methods listed on the certificate. To be able to use all three types of launch methods, a glider pilot must be trained and tested in all three methods. A designated glider pilot examiner or FAA inspector can do the respective testing either at the time of initial certification or any time thereafter.

As you can see, the need for help to launch a glider and the possibility of it having to make an off-gliderport landing on a cross-country flight are why we say flying gliders is a team effort. With proper preflight planning and good pilot judgement, the chance of an off-airport or off-gliderport landing is minimal. As with any aircraft, there is a chance, so proficiency in off-airport or off-gliderport landing procedures is an important part of training.

Because of the need for help in launching or recovering a glider, a glider pilot needs friends to help him or her enjoy his or her sport. Soaring is truly a team effort among glider pilots, friends, or families. In many cases, it is a club activity. This point was brought home to me as I did my homework in preparing to write an article on the requirements for adding a glider rating to a power aircraft certificate. The FAA glider certification regulations were easy to understand. The problem in writing the article was I lacked recent, first hand experience flying gliders.

Then late one afternoon in September as I prepared for a trip the next day to the FAA Safety Center in Lakeland, FL, to attend a seaplane safety seminar, I happened to start paging through the September issue of SOARING, the magazine published by The Soaring Society of America (SSA). (For those not familiar with the organization, SSA is the U.S. membership organization based in Hobbs, NM, that coordinates U.S. soaring competition and record keeping within the United States and represents U.S. soaring interests both within the U.S. and internationally. Founded as a non-profit association in 1932, it works very closely with the FAA in promoting soaring safety as well as developing training and safety guidelines for soaring in the United States. As a Division of the National Aeronautics Association, the SSA oversees state and national records and awards soaring proficiency badges.)

So there I was, skimming through the pages looking at the different types of gliders shown, checking the safety information, and generally thinking how I was going to do a spring glider safety article. But if the truth be known, I was also starting to think about my trip to Florida and possibly doing some seaplane refresher training after the safety seminar when I saw a color advertisement showing a nice looking glider flying over a Florida gliderport with an address that seemed familiar. As soon as I saw the address, I wondered if that was the place where Obie had said his son was flying. I gave the ad a second look. I checked and it was. So I thought since I am going to be relatively close to the gliderport, its about 30 some miles north of Lakeland and about an equal distance west of Orlando, I might stop and possibly take some photographs for our proposed glider article.

I stopped, and, as the expression goes, the rest is history. Yes, I attended the seaplane seminar, but the bad news was after the seminar, I did not get to do any seaplane recurrency training because, after 18 years, I went off to complete my glider rating.

I had stopped at the gliderport near Clermont on my way to Lakeland to check out the place, and I decided to come back and learn how to fly gliders. The fact that Obie trusted his son's training to the gliderport was an important factor in my decision. Although there are many great glider training sites throughout the U.S., and SSA can provide anyone with a list of training facilities across the nation, this one was ideal for me. It's in Florida. It's near Lakeland, which is the home of the EAA Sun 'N Fun Fly-In and one of the two FAA Safety Centers. It's about an hour from my favorite seaplane training site in Winter Haven. And it's located between areas where I have friends.

More importantly, the timing was right. I was mentally ready to learn how to fly gliders. At that moment, I had both a professional and personal curiosity that could only be satisfied by learning how to soar. So I broke out the old credit card and scheduled a demonstration lesson.

Designed and built as a gliderport, Seminole-Lake Gliderport is located near the western edge of Orlando's Class B airspace and within its 30-mile Mode C Veil. It is also out of the way of most aircraft traffic. Since few gliders have electrical systems, most gliders are exempt from the FAA's transponder rule so being out of the way of other aircraft is ideal. (Incidentally, gliders have the right of way over most powered aircraft. If you don't remember the aircraft right of way rules, now might be a good time to review them (FAR  91.113).)

There are only a few homes in the area, so noise from the tow aircraft is not a problem. Those who do live on the gliderport are themselves glider pilots with their gliders hangared in their "garages." So the location gives the gliderport the best of many worlds. It is a good neighbor, it's somewhat isolated, and Florida's summer heat provides good thermal soaring. Although it lacks the mountain wave flying that some western glider pilots can take advantage of, it is a good training site.

Its proximity to Lakeland and Winter Haven gives the truly adventurous pilots the chance to learn how to fly both gliders and seaplanes during a single trip to Sun 'N Fun. A private pilot single-engine seaplane add-on rating or pilot glider add-on rating can be done in less than a week. In many cases, the training can be done in two or three days depending upon the weather and how much time and effort you are willing to put into the effort. Each activity requires specific knowledge that must be learned to become a safe seaplane or glider pilot. Like any type of training, if you can call in advance and order the course material and study it before you arrive at the training site, your training will go faster. It also allows you to gain more knowledge from the instructors because, since they don't have to teach you the very basics, they can spend more time on advanced information or answering your questions. Plus, it might even save you money. I digress, but I digress with a purpose.

The fact is a single-engine seaplane or a glider add-on rating is very easy for any certificated power airplane pilot to obtain. Both are relatively inexpensive. A typical seaplane or glider private pilot add-on rating will cost about $600 to $800 dollars. Commercial add-on ratings will cost more because of the additional required training.

Like everything else in flying, total cost depends both upon what you are flying as well as where you are flying. Training books, travel, lodging, or personal costs will add to the bill. The representative cost is for the average, current, and proficient pilot. Your costs and training time may vary depending upon your flight skills, proficiency, and willingness to work. Your check ride may cost extra.

As a certificated airplane pilot, I didn't have to take a computerized knowledge test (the old written test). I did have to take a pre-solo written test on the glider I was training in. Like countless other glider trainees, I did most of my training in the venerable old Schweizer 2-33. Slow, chunky, and made of metal and fabric, the 2-33 is an American classic. Probably more Americans have learned how to fly gliders in 2-33's than any other. It not only is very rugged, it is one of the most forgiving aircraft anyone would want to fly. For all of these reasons, it is a natural for teens to learn to fly in.

I think teens will find a glider easier to fly than certificated pilots, and that is because of what we have all been taught as power pilots. For example, we are taught that when the engine suddenly goes quiet, we have a problem. We are even taught "emergency" procedures to try and restart the engine as we look for a suitable off-airport landing area. The fact that airplanes tend to go downhill when the engine stops is why we are taught to continually look for a suitable landing site as we fly along our intended route. Because of our training, for most of us, noise is great. It means we have power and that we are flying. Silence is bad. It means we have no engine and must land.

Not so in gliders. Gliders are normally quiet. They can also gain altitude. Yet old habits are hard to break. On my most recent "first" glider instructional flight, I had the same thoughts as I did 18 years earlier about flying something without an engine. It took me a moment to decide if I really wanted to reach out and pull the red tow rope release knob in the glider. After all, it is red for a reason. My thoughts went something like this, "Hey, dummy, do you really want to reach out and pull the knob that will release your connection to the tow plane? If you do, how are you going to get home? The tow plane has an engine. You don't."

Yes? No? Maybe? I really thought about it.

But pull it I did. What else could I do? I had an instructor in the back seat, and I didn't want him to wonder what kind of dummy he had in the front seat that couldn't pull a simple knob. If kids can do it, I can too. Besides, I am an FAA certificated "avi-a-tor and in-struc-tor pilot." Working for the FAA didn't help. So I took a breath and pulled.

As the tow plane quickly pulled away, I watched the tow rope snaking its way behind the tow plane as the Piper Pawnee made a diving left turn away from us for separation. We made a right turn for more separation.

As we turned, the glider's deceleration from its towing speed to its cruising speed took a moment to get used to. There was also a noticeable reduction in wind noise around the side-hinged canopy. It is amazing how loud silence can be. Then, since the 2-33's cruising speed is close to the stalling speed of the aircraft I normally fly, my first thought as we slowed was, I am going to stall this puppy before I even learn how to fly it. But we didn't stall, and I rapidly discovered that an aircraft can really fly this slowly. Once I adjusted to the slower pace and how to correct for the adverse yaw caused by its long wings, flying the glider became fun. In fact, it became a lot of fun.

Then in the midst of all this fun, I had another thought: "How am I going to land this thing? What am I going to do, if I blow the approach? Obviously, I can't go around. I don't have an engine. I don't even have a carb heat knob to worry about pulling on downwind." I did have a dive brake control that I got to check on downwind. Dive brakes are sort of like throttles, in for more speed, out for less. But dive brakes are only designed to slow you down and control your descent angle.

They can't help you go around.

And when you don't have an engine, it is amazing how tall Florida pine trees can look to a rookie glider student flying inbound thinking about his one-shot glider landing. The trees, however, made me pay even more attention to my instructor explaining proper gliderport traffic pattern procedures that included being over the gliderport's initial point (IP) at 1,000 feet AGL.

From the IP, we descended for a standard 800-foot downwind traffic pattern entry. The need for a proper and safe gliderport IP arrival altitude followed by a proper traffic pattern downwind entry and a good approach and landing give new meaning to pilot judgement.

These are the types of thoughts I don't think a non-pilot teenager or any other non-pilot would have if their first flight training experience is in a glider. To them, everything they see or do during their first glider flights is normal. Not having to worry about an engine allows new glider students to concentrate on flying their approach without inside the cockpit distractions.

Nor would glider-only students be bothered by the apparent lack of instruments, radios, navigation equipment, and all of the other things that are normally installed in a powered aircraft cockpit. Although the more sophisticated, high performance gliders, many with European names, may have flaps, landing gear, an engine, water ballast, and com-nav gear on board, many basic gliders such as the 2-33 may have only a basic airspeed, altimeter, variometer, and compass installed along with a 10 cent piece of yarn attached to the forward fuselage for turn coordination.

If you are wondering why a short piece of yarn or string might be attached to the canopy or fuselage, it provides basic slip and skid information for coordinated flight. It took me a while to decide on which end of the yarn I had to "step on." It is not as simple as the admonition we use in airplane training of telling students to "step on the ball" to keep it between the lines to make coordinated turns.

Like we said, basic gliders are true stick and rudder aircraft. They also teach the need for coordinated flight because the lack of it increases your minimum sink rate, which means you lose altitude faster, or the lack of it reduces the amount of altitude you might gain in a thermal. In a weak thermal, uncoordinated flight might make the difference between gaining or losing altitude.

Terms like minimum sink rate, best gliding speed, initial point or IP, glide ratio, L/D (pronounced L over D), thermals, wind shear, mountain wave, and many more such soaring-related terms make you realize that like any other type of flying, soaring has its own vocabulary. It also makes you learn more about weather and how it produces different forms of lift, the importance of altitude planning, how to plan cross-country flights based upon altitude rather than fuel loading, and other such glider concepts. These are the types of things that many power pilots may take for granted because they have one or more engines attached to their aircraft.

Failure to do your flight planning in soaring may mean you walk home. The good thing is gliders are built stronger than most airplanes in case you do have to land off gliderport or airport, and most gliders are made to take apart so you can trailer them home if you land afield. This also means you will be trained and tested on how to safely take your glider apart and reassemble it. And if you think you can't fly gliders beyond the traffic pattern at your local airport or gliderport, it is amazing how many miles traveled (hundreds), hours aloft (many), and amount of altitude gained (tens of thousands of feet) good glider pilots have demonstrated in capturing various soaring records. On the east coast, many glider pilots have soared the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Tennessee and back again in a day, non-stop. The piloting challenge is there, the question becomes whether you are a good enough pilot to meet the challenge in an aircraft without an engine. Many are.

As a certificated airplane pilot, you already should have 40 hours of flight time in powered aircraft. You need only 10 solo glider flights during which 360 degree turns were made as outlined in FAR ¤ 61.115(c) to meet the aeronautical experience to take the glider private pilot practical test. (Commercial applicants must have a minimum of 20 solo flights.) The rule does not specify how long those solo flights have to be. Although longer is better, I can guarantee you some of your flights will be measured in single digit minutes. Simulated rope break training at 200 feet altitude above the ground does not take a lot of time for you to make a 180 degree turn and land downwind. From the beginning of your takeoff roll to coming to a stop after your landing flare may only take a couple of minutes. For example, one of my check ride flights--it took three flights to complete the checkride--was a simulated rope break at 200 feet altitude followed by a 180 degree turn and downwind landing. Total time logged for that flight was three minutes. My cockpit preflight check took longer.

In addition to meeting the FAR solo requirements for glider students, certificated airplane pilots seeking a private glider pilot add-on rating must also meet the flight proficiency requirements of FAR ¤ 61.107.

All glider pilot applicants must meet the aeronautical knowledge requirements of FAR ¤ 61.105. The good news is certificated airplane pilots don't have to take a glider knowledge test. Everyone has to take a pre-solo written test on the glider you will solo just like any pre-solo student pilot.

An important part of anyone's flight training regardless of type of aircraft flown is the appropriate FAA Practical Test Standard (PTS). The PTS outlines the knowledge and practical skills areas you will be tested on during your certification check ride. Every student pilot should get a copy of the appropriate PTS and use it for both study purposes and to make sure you are being trained to the standards outlined in the PTS. It also lists the degree of accuracy you must demonstrate to pass the appropriate check ride. For the glider check ride, you will be tested in flight and or orally on the safe operation and flying of the glider, its various speeds, its critical flight data, safety issues, emergency procedures, pilot signals, flight planning, how to assemble and disassemble the glider, and on such basic flying techniques as stalls, flight at slow airspeeds, and steep turns and spirals in both directions. Please note, these are only a few of the areas and maneuvers you will be tested on. For example, private glider pilot applicants must be able to make an accuracy approach and land within 200 feet of a line or mark. Commercial glider applicants must land within 100 feet of a line or mark as well as meeting additional solo and training requirements.

A knowledgeable and current private airplane pilot or higher certificate holder should have no problems if he or she does the required training work.

Yes, you will have to do your homework. Do you know or remember anything about the term "adiabatic rate" or how to compute a Thermal Index? Do you know how to tell if a cloud is developing lift beneath it? Do you know how to compute your out and return altitude requirements for a cross-country flight? If not, you will have to learn and understand the significance of these terms as well as many others as part of your glider training.

The challenge is there for those willing to learn something new, and the rewards are worth the effort. Soaring is not only for the birds. It's for you.
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