Can a glider-only rated pilot contribute useful insight to readers of mostly power-only backgrounds? I’ll try.
Having been born with the flying gene and astigmatically-myopic eyes when 20-20 was still a military and airline prerequisite, the need to fly remained and I was lucky enough to bumble into soaring soon after school. It’s met my need since 1972. I came close to acquiring a power rating nine years later… until I couldn’t find an examiner willing to flight test me in my co-owned C-150 sans functioning VOR. (Back then an applicant had merely to provide the examiner the opportunity to test radio navigation skills; actual testing was examiner-optional.) By then I’d ridden with friends as safety pilot, including in hard IFR, but with no interest in anything beyond “pure VFR,” I sold my 150 share.
Decades of being a small airport bum and EAA member (Oshkosh – woo hoo!), hundreds of glider launches towing behind all manner of towpilots ranging from newly-minted on all fronts to fellow glider pilots to heavy-iron drivers enjoying busmen’s holidays, uncounted bummed rides with buddies and pilot acquaintances, and sometimes simply being in the right place at the right time… and before a person knows it, he can make a few considered observations about various groups of pilots: similarities, differences, how they think, how they view their cloud-dappled domain, and such.
Another gene in my makeup was the self-preservation one. Consider: I preferred to walk and hitchhike the seven miles home from parochial high school rather than avail myself of a college-age sister’s chauffeuring – her driving scared me. Years later, the airline industry started calling the missing element so concerning to callow, not-quite-immortal, me, “situational awareness.” I’ve politely declined offers of lightplane rides due to the same concern. Point being, I’ve never been able to look at flying, myself, and my fellow pilots through entirely rose-colored lenses. I’m predisposed to like and admire all my fellow aviators whatever their backgrounds, preferred flight arenas, and hours, of course, but differences are real, skills vary, and all generalizations are false, including those I’m about to share with readers. Take ’em for what they’re worth.
At the risk of (inaccurately) coming across as aviationally elitist, I’m most comfortable sharing a cockpit with pilots also having at least a few cross-country sailplane flights and off-airport landings under their belts. Why? Fundamental piloting skills, general weather awareness, mental outlook and approach to routine in-flight considerations. I don’t mean to suggest the absence of a few self-inflicted off-airport sailplane landings precludes a person from being a fundamentally skilled, aware, and eminently safe power pilot, of course. Far from it. It’s just that even the relatively simple act of “collecting a glider rating” can easily have beneficial blow-back; learning how to soar without ever leaving the vicinity of your training airport even more; planting a foot in both the power and soaring worlds still more.
Does the potential for loss of power in the pattern concern you? (It could happen.) Every sailplane landing comes at the end of an eye-ball-judged gliding approach. No sweat normal. You get your approach and landing right the first time or ugly things can happen; no throttle for a go-around.
How about engine failure en route? I think I surprised my power instructor when he chopped the power in my 150 and said, “You just lost your engine. What are you going to do?” What I was thinking was, Sheesh, I guess the syllabus requires this, but what I said was something along the lines of, “Well, I guess we’ll be going into that field over there… no crop, it’s been disc-ed, into the wind, good approach, plenty long.” That earned me a sharp glance and a slightly challenging, “OK, so do it.”
I knew enough to talk him through what I was going to do before I did it, set up a mid-flap glide (as the situation warranted) for an overhead entry into a rectangular pattern, pattered about checking fuel, carb heat, and whatever else one might wish to do in a 150 given sufficient time, and – just about the time I thought he was actually going to permit things to go so far as touch down (Darned bold! I remember thinking) at the slowest possible speed I could get from the plane – he shoved the throttle in. Fortunately, it didn’t hiccup as it sometimes did, or “Some disassembly required” may have been in the plane’s future.
He knew I had glider time, though he never asked to see my glider logbook, but I suspect my matter-of-fact response surprised him. He chopped the power on two or three other flights, the last time when no decent field was within reach. I raised my eyebrows and went through the routine drill, during which I informed him we were going to seriously bend the airplane; I no longer remember whether it was going to be “just the landing gear” or “into the trees.” I may have added words to the effect, “That’s why I don’t like to fly over terrain like this,” because I let him choose when and where we flew.
Recently a pilot deployed a Cirrus airframe ‘chute on a calm, CAVU, Colorado day. The worst injury seemed to be to the airframe… as Cirrus intends. I don’t know the circumstances, but the still photographs I saw showed the plane had come down on Colorado short-grass prairie east of Colorado Springs…no trees, ravines, slopes, or drainages worth mentioning in sight. Assuming no airframe or control issues, truly a puzzlement to glider pilots why one would prefer the ‘chute to a controlled, held-off, landing.
Under many circumstances, loss of engine power in many mass-market two- and four-seat airplanes, need not – should not – be thought of as a life-threatening emergency… unless the pilot perceives it as such, in which case he or she likely will fly tense and scared and probably not at their best. Soaring experience can help reduce the stress.
Similarly, I think my instructor was surprised by my efforts during – and how much I liked – low-speed, high angle of attack exercises. (Finally! Some flying with a direct correlation to soaring… thermalling and aero-towing.)
All my Oshkosh trips have been by lightplane from Colorado’s Front Range. All have been with IFR-rated friends, one a glider buddy, and one power-only, both initially with roughly the same amount of power time (500-700 hours). Along the way, both have had opportunity to use their hard-IFR skills. Perceived differences in PIC mindset have been interesting. Though the planes differed – Cessna 182 vs. Mooney – my glider-also friend seamlessly brought to the flight table some of his sailplane-derived thinking and actions. Prior to entering clouds that may or may not have been scud, or possibly deepening stratus, he was prepared simply to “hold in the air” by circling as a means of increasing assessment time. Gliders necessarily circle during most “refueling,” savvier glider pilots continuing to assess weather ahead on-course while so-doing. My power-only friend thought only in terms of changing course, boring straight ahead, or making a precautionary landing. Perhaps not earth-shatteringly different, but possibly usefully so. Options are good.
It’s my sense “reasonably experienced cross-country” glider pilots tend to be more skilled at assessing weather, both visually in cockpit and from FSS-like (remember them?) inputs. I suppose one can argue today that self-reading weather as a skill is losing importance in the face of in-cockpit electronic links to radar and satellite information… but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.
As a group, in my experience ag-aviation pilots may well have “pilotage attitudes” most similar to “glider types,” though I’ll guess bush pilots do as well. While GPS and lots of button-pushing are definitely part of modern spray-plane cockpits and skills, the technology is in addition to the genre’s unchanging pilotage and situational awareness demands. So far, I’ve encountered only one ag pilot whose basic judgment was – in my view – seriously dodgy. I think the FAA eventually pulled his ticket, so it was a judgment thing, not a piloting-skills thing. (There’s probably a lesson in there!)
Mechanical piloting skill is good. Combined with good judgment, it’s seriously good. Throw in improved situational awareness and we might need vaccination against overconfidence. (Warning: dry humor nearby!) But it’s a fact that soaring a sailplane cross-country without a healthy complement of situational awareness is impossible.