So here I am 1300 miles from Bloomington for a week of sailplane flying in New Mexico. I’m training for my Private Glider Pilot Certification to add to my Single-Engine, Multi-Engine, Instrument, and Commercial Power Pilot ratings. “What the hell do you want to do that for?” my incredulous friends ask.
Well, it’s challenging, thrilling, a lot of fun, and as an 80-years-old, who no longer rides motorcycles, maybe I’m trying to prove to myself I ain’t done yet. Flying is a multi-tasking skill. Airspeed, altitude, bank, yaw, orientation, location, communication, weather, engine functions, etc. A young mind can process all those inputs simultaneously. An aged mind takes longer to respond, especially when you throw in unexpected inputs. Recent flights, however, both powered and glider have been positively reinforcing.
Curious about my progress, I asked my Indiana flight instructor how he thought I was doing. His reply, “I brag about you.” That made my day.
So, this week I am at Sundance Aviation in Moriarty, New Mexico, a short distance from Albuquerque. In March, I joined a soaring club in Indiana and have been flying gliders once a week, but that only involves two of three flights each weekend with two or three practice landings. My week in New Mexico will include a six to eight flights each day, well on my way toward certification.
The gliders or sailplanes I’m flying are not to be confused with hang gliders. Hang gliders are merely kites which suspend pilots in straps beneath them. Pilots control hang gliders by swinging their weight side-to-side or forward and back. I once spent a week in a hang glider school at Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where we either launched ourselves by running off hill tops or were towed to altitude by an ultra-light aircraft. That was fun also. The sailplanes I’m now flying have 40 to 60- foot wingspans, cockpits you strap yourself into and are controlled by ailerons, elevators and rudder. The gliders are towed to altitude—usually 3,000 feet—then seek thermals, uprising warm air currents, or here in the west, mountain waves. Amazingly, it’s not unusual for a glider pilot to be able to soar aloft for hours reaching phenomenal heights. Flights in New Mexico frequently reach 18,000 feet. All of Sundance’s gliders have oxygen on board.
The drive out to New Mexico was long, 1300 miles, 11-hours the first day, and 7-hours the second. Much easier than trying to cover those miles on a motorcycle, however. My accommodations in Moriarty are bare bones, Motel 6, with none of the amenities of higher quality accommodations, but half price compared to others.
I rode out to the airfield the afternoon I arrived to confirm my arrival and meet my instructor, Andrew. I think we will work well together.
What a day. Wow! I was exhausted. The flying started at 9:30 that morning in ideal calm conditions. Andrew and I got in five short flights that focused mainly on pattern work and landings. He seemed pleased with my landings and wrote in my logbook that all landings were unassisted. As a former power pilot, I am used to a shallower glide slope on final. Gliders use a much steeper final approach owing to their lack of compensating power. Three hundred feet over the end of the runway is not a problem when using speed brakes to bring you down. Two hundred feet of altitude and 200 yards short of the threshold could be embarrassing if you encounter turbulence or high sink rates.
Moriarty is a popular destination for soaring clubs from all over the U.S. This week Sundance has groups from Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Arizona. They said there are over 100 gliders on the Moriarty airfield. Why Moriarty? Because of its afternoon summer thermals, good “landing off” alternatives, and an efficient commercial operation with several tow planes available.
Thermal flying is challenging. A glider in still air will descend at about 200 feet per minute. A thermal, however, can easily lift a glider a thousand feet per minute. An instrument in the glider called a Variometer—or simply referred to as a Vario—Indicates the glider’s climb or descent in knots or feet per minute. Many varios has an audio signal that when in rising air has an increased beeping sound—beep, beep, beep!–and when descending has a lower beeping tone. The strategy when entering a thermal is to immediately roll into a 30 or 45 degree bank to circle in the uplifting column of air. If encountering sink, you want to fly out of it fast. So, airspeed and stick and rudder controls vary greatly as the glider goes from 45 to 90 knots depending on the vario’s indications.
Eighteen thousand feet is the top of uncontrolled airspace. Above that, all airplanes need an instrument flight plan and a transponder that gives air traffic controllers and airliners your location in that airspace. That afternoon we were bumping up against the 18,000-foot limit which also happened to be the cloud bases. The gliders are not equipped to fly on instruments in the clouds.
After two hours of climbing and descending between 15,000 and 18,000 feet, I was chilled in the much cooler air; it was ninety degrees on the ground but about fifty degrees at 18,000 feet. Using our airbrakes (spoilers) to descend, we made our final landing of the day. I was exhausted and could hardly lift myself out of the cockpit after such concentration and physical maneuvering. As my skills improve, I assume it will become more effortless in days to come.
Today was a significant learning experience. I had eight flights, seven of which were pattern flights of short duration just to practice landings. Flying powered aircraft uses fixed landmarks, altitudes, and airspeeds as constants in the landing pattern. If a little low on the base leg you just add power. If high on final, reduce power. A glider doesn’t have power to make those compensations. Patterns are determined by air movement and spoilers. My first two landings this day were fine. I lined up my downwind leg on a fence line, turned the base leg halfway to a road and hit my touchdown point right on the money. The next approach found me in 1,000 foot-per-minute sink. Turning at previous landmarks had me dangerously low and running out of airspeed and altitude. I made it but only by the skin of my teeth. I needed to adjust all those benchmarks depending on air movement indicated by the vario; 200 feet per minute descent (minor sink) might mean to extend the downwind, 600 feet per minute descent would mean turn early on the base leg abeam the runway numbers. It’s a different manner of flying, very challenging, but rewarding when you get it right.
My last flight of the day involved thermal soaring. Again, the focus was on air mass movement. Lifts of 1,000 feet per minute were found and soon I was rising through 14,000 feet and needed to use our on-board oxygen. In the thermals you soar at minimum sink speeds of 45 knots. Once losing the thermal you accelerate to 60 to 80 knot airspeeds to quickly get out of the sinking air. Searching for the next thermal requires staying aware of the airport location because you don’t want to get too far downwind of the airport if you can’t find uplifting air. Concentration, focus, and rudder and aileron moments demand a lot of attention and awareness.
As mentioned earlier, Moriarty has numerous gliders operating in the area. One must be constantly on the lookout for other air traffic. Some of the gliders are motor-gliders and have small motors with propellers to get them in the air. On this flight, I found myself circling in a thermal accompanied by a jet powered glider. Even at 15,000 feet I could smell the jet fuel exhaust in the air around us. I wondered why he was using the jet if he was climbing in a thermal, but maybe it had just throttled back in those instances. Our flight lasted an hour and a half. We could have stayed up longer but making tight circles for 90 minutes is wearing. I popped the speed brakes, descended to pattern altitude, but then landed in the first 1000 foot of the runway requiring a long push to get the glider back to the hangar.
Again, by day’s end, I was ready for a toddy for the body and an early bed. So far, including my Indiana flights, I’ve made 20 glider flights and logged 10 hours of flight time.