Defensive glider flying – remember the big picture

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

It’s not only incidents like the successful ditching of US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River which prove that pilots who have learnt from the beginning to handle and (especially) land an aircraft in the accurate way a glider requires are better off in emergency situations like these. I’m not even the only person going so far as to take bets in guessing correctly whether a pilot is a glider pilot or not, just after watching him land a single engine aircraft two or three times.

When I was taking motor flight lessons and my instructor switched off the fuel-to-noise converter of our Cessna 152 for my first engine-off landing in an actually motored airplane, I was suddenly feeling comfortably familiar with the supposedly unexpected situation and to the behavior of our ride. This was hardly surprising, considered that until then most of my landings had been without propulsion anyway, even though the glide ratio of the Cessna 152 is about three to five times worse than the gliders I had been flying. But the different rudder-aileron ratio (without a ventilator pulling the aircraft forward), and its flight characteristics suddenly were much closer to what I was used to. Accordingly, the approach and landing turned out to be one of my best landings in the Cessna until then.

Farrenberg airport
Farrenberg is not your average airport, so you’d better not come up short.

Gliders were how my career had begun six years before, at the age of 16. My flying club’s home base, the Farrenberg, is an extraordinary airstrip located on the top plateau of a mountain ridge elevated about 700 feet above the surrounding terrain. This not only has won it its nickname, aircraft carrier, but it also makes it a challenge (or let’s say different) from normal, low-land airstrips, to hit the field in a glider at certain wind conditions. On the other hand, missing it grants you another 600-700 feet for an off-field approach at the foot of the mountain.

At the end of the glider season of 1996, I soloed, and it was a few flight hours after, that, as usual, I was briefed for a solo training flight by one of the instructors of the flight club.

Thermal activities were average that day, so after a medium short flight in the club’s Schleicher ASK 21 trainer, I reported position to land (abeam the runway at a predefined altitude) shortly after a Grob Twin Astir, manned by another trainee on solo.

I was following him downwind, slightly lower than he was. Since the base and final legs naturally were situated leeward of the mountain, and considering my altitude, I didn’t care for a stretched pattern, but my comrade some hundred yards in front of me kept going straight. I had to make a decision within seconds, so I turned base. To my right I still saw him continuing before I focused on the airstrip. After a well-sectored pattern and a smooth touchdown, I suddenly heard the voice of my instructor over the radio: “35, retract your speed brakes!”

I instantly did as I was ordered, thus releasing the wheel brakes as well. After a longer rollout, I came to a halt quite far down the strip, but the retrieve crew was not the worst for me to fear now. When I opened the canopy, my involuntary wing man, sitting just twenty yards behind, turned at me: “Why do you want me to bump your plane?”

We both were awaiting rebukes now. Me for not staying number two in the pattern but passing him. He for messing up his pattern and continuing downwind too long, which forced him to turn to kind of a 135 degree base in order to reach the airstrip. Then me again for not checking to my right enough when turning final, and for cutting him in, and he even more for not noticing me right in his face at his eleven ‘o clock position when turning final, and finally, for staying right in line ten yards behind me dumbfoundedly all final long till touch down instead of sheering away for lateral separation.

The airstrip was wide enough, and insiders would know that the efficiency of the Schleicher ASK’s speed brakes is outstanding, as opposed to the Grob Twin Astir’s.

Gliders flying in formation
Formation flying can be fun in a glider – but not when it’s unplanned.

Four years later I was able to practice myself how at least the last of those “slices” could have been managed properly.

I was no. 2 in the pattern at Hornberg, just turning final when no. 1 was touching down. The lady pilot obviously had misjudged her velocity and hadn’t made it off the runway. She had not even managed at least to lay down her left wing, but was standing on the runway to the right of the (notional) centerline with her left wing pointing right into my landing zone. Already on final, I didn’t have many options in a glider, so I retracted my speed brakes and sheered to the left a bit when passing her, thus lifting my right wing over her left one, and touched down only a few yards behind.

Not that I had worn it on the lapel all the time, but the laurels I earned for this stunt somehow made up a bit for my disgraceful but instructive experience during flight training.

Besides all the obvious things, the most important fact to learn from this experience is the crucial importance of situational awareness. Both of us could have prevented the situation from becoming volatile by continuous awareness of each other’s positions. We had heard each other on the radio; we had seen each other at various points in the pattern, but neither of us had pursued continuous knowledge of each other’s positions and intentions. Both of us had just assumed each other to play by the rules instead of making sure.

5 Comments

  • My first landing in my newly purchased single seat competition HP sailplane (having not had a lot of glider landings one way or another under my belt, although I had an SEL and aerobatic training) got me a harsh beat down by my instructor that began with something like “Are you TRYING to kill yourself?” He repeated that three or four times.

    He didn’t like how much runway I had used, which was just a fraction of what I’d normally used in my 140A, and the fact I had cleared the fence behind me with way too much space, although it looked pretty darn close to me.

    However, he was most upset that I had initially pulled out of my required steep approach 20+ feet too high. The steep approach was needed due to the plane having about 45+ feet of full 90 degree flaps when landing. My Cessna approach wasn’t as steep with the motor off or in a full slip. Fortunately, I saw I was high, instantly dropped the nose down and pulled off a good landing.

    How we had practiced this type landing was by going up in a Blanik and, at altitude, deploy the wing air brakes/spoilers and bring the air speed up until we had the right angle of approach…which felt like we were going straight down. The approach speed was also high. And the plane had to land this way every time. And of course I had to prepare to land it in the smallest area possible, always.

    After reading me the riot act for several minutes out in the middle of the grass strip on a very cold day and me noticing I’d really had scared the hell out of the old man, he said, “Want to go up again?”

    “Sure,” I replied, although I could barely control my shaking…from the cold, I am sure.

    ,

  • That Farrenberg strip looks really neat. Definitely encourages precision landings.

    In a glider, I don’t know if turning inside another glider on downwind is that much of a travesty. What if the trailing glider is of much lower performance and cannot make the runway if it continues to follow a higher performance glider on the downwind? What if the pilot in the leading glider just makes a major error in judgment? Are you expected to follow the leader to a short, off-field landing (obviously a bad thing at Farrenberg)? With the lack of go-around capability, it would seem that proper etiquette might be slightly different than with power planes.

    • That’s totally right, and in fact my comrade had to bite more of the bullet than me after the whole show. As it turned out, he had realized his misjudgement and tried to correct it by turning from downwind into a lapsided final right away. My bad was mostly that I had not communicated my decision to switch positions with him, and then wasn’t aware of him sitting right in my neck, and aimed for a touchdown right abeam the “T”.
      Anyway, the last option for either one of us would always have been to “go down into the valley”. On the one hand, landing on top of a mountain like Farrenberg requires different procedures from normal ones, on the other hand, missing the field preserves You another several hundred feet for a proper off-field approach down there, as opposed to a flat land strip. The picture above of Farrenberg is awesome, but a rather rare sight, with ground fog in the valley at early fall mornings – those are not the usual conditions for glider operations there 😉

  • I had the opposite experience.

    Shortly after release at 1500 AGL, and joining the pattern, experienced pilot in #1 slot kept going downwind in front of me; me on 3rd solo. And kept going, and kept going. I stayed 500-1000 ft behind. Finally he turned. I followed. One of us landed long, and the other on the front half of the airfield.

    I don’t know why he didn’t fly a faster pattern, or pull out and back to signal to me to take the lead slot. My instructor said nothing, that I recall. Maybe the lead was worried that I would become fixated on him, and hit his plane. I’m not a kid, and that was unlikely despite my nervousness.

    One of many close calls in my training.

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