I have been a sailplane/glider rated pilot for almost 30 years now. I joined a local soaring club called the Tidewater Soaring Society in the Hampton Roads area of Southeast Virginia. The club offered free instruction to members so the only costs were the aero-tows and very modest rental fees for the club’s aircraft. Most of the instruction was in the Schweizer 2-22 and 2-33 two-seaters, and we were towed by a 150hp Citabria, usually to a 3,000 ft. above ground release. I have been an active member of the club since the pre-solo days and now also own a SGS 1-26 and a SGS 1-35C.
Soaring flight is always a bit challenging as the pilot is not completely in charge of their own fate when the flight’s duration and destination is concerned. Some days are little better than jumping off a log for durations of 15 or 20 minutes and barely leaving the gliderport traffic area. On good days, we can utilize thermal lift and actually fly cross country tasks as loops, out and returns, triangle courses, or straight out flights to other airports and destinations.
My soaring avocation has for the most part been event-free and no more exciting than I choose to make any particular flight. There have been a handful of outfield landings and retrieves but that is a usual part of the sport. I have probably become a little complacent about the flying over the years, but have had an event or two that were more interesting that I would willingly subject myself to again.
The incident that I still recall most clearly to keep myself humble occurred near the end of an otherwise fun flight in the club 1-26. I had a normal aero-tow launch, a normal release, a usual flight in the local area with some lift and altitude gains and some sink and the loss of altitude. Soaring pilots like altitude as much as bankers like money in their vaults. So long as we are high we have energy, options, speed and range, and a happy attitude, both with the horizon and mentally.
My routine flight only became noteworthy as I approached the field for a landing. The club strip is grass, oriented roughly north/south and about 2500 ft. in length. As I entered the pattern at 1,000 ft. and began a downwind leg for a left hand pattern to the south, I began to note the windsocks sticking straight out to the East and realized the landing was going to be fun with the crosswind at or above the club’s operation limits.
Well, I was going to land because there were not any other good options, so downwind had a pretty amazing crab angle as I flew towards the base turn. The turn to base was almost normal as the nose was halfway pointed west already, and I liked my positioning and airspeed thus far. I was now flying straight into the crosswind on base and, although the airspeed was good, there was an obvious decrease in the groundspeed track. Almost done, I started a turn to final and the formerly nice 1-26 didn’t want to follow the pilot anymore!
My left base-to-final suddenly wanted to steepen while I was telling the glider to roll out level. The dive brakes were partly open for the final approach, I was now using full right stick trying to roll level, closing brakes, adding forward stick, and was still not rolling level – all at about 300 ft. on what was supposed to be a final. The left bank was approaching 70+ degrees despite full right stick, so I needed another plan.
I decided that since the glider wanted to turn left so badly, I might as well let it. I moved the controls for a coordinated steep left turn, the nose turned east and downwind, the bank angle was what I wanted, I was in control again but not landing on our runway.
Fortunately, the north approach of our field is a fallow farm field, so I flew a 270-degree left turn, missed the silo, missed the barn, rolled out into the now headwind and landed to the west across the street from our airport. I was fine, the glider was fine, the witnessing club members who just ran a half mile from the far end of the field were breathless, but fine, and we recovered the glider back to the field across a small ditch by hand. I was shaken a bit by the experience and talked to the club members and instructors about the incident.
I don’t believe that I was in a spin entry; instead, the wind gradient affecting the long glider wings just overtook the roll control authority of the glider. Of course, more pattern airspeed would have given me more roll control too, so that lesson has been well learned. I have been somewhat haunted by this incident, but it has never dampened my enthusiasm for the sport of soaring.
Some years ago I finally came across a story from the British gliding pilot Derrek Piggott, who recounted a very similar event on a landing with a student and having the same close call, and the same escape. Since then, I have felt much better about my skills as I had at least one thing in common with the great Mr. Piggott. Still, I always strive to remain a little bit humble, keep flying, keep learning, and remember than nature is bigger than us but usually kind as well.