Glider wing walker
5 min read

At Meadowlake Airport (FLY) 13 miles east and a little south of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, a small group of glider enthusiasts from the flying club at Fort Carson, over the course of several weekends, filled in a shallow gulley perpendicular to the hard surface runway 15/33. This enabled parallel glider launch and recovery without interfering with normal traffic.

I was one of the charter shovel operators and also fortunate enough to be the tow pilot for our happy clan of gravel excavators/aviators.

Our glider was a Schweizer 2-33 trainer; not a high performance ship by any means but in the fantastic flying conditions of the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies was capable enough to fly over Pikes Peak on a good afternoon.

Our towplane (N2671P) was a Super Cub, loaned to our operation by a wonderful friend and mentor Dave Johnson, who owned the tow concession at the Air Force Academy. After four decades, it remains one of my favorite airplanes.

Most of our flying was confined to weekends, but once in a while a crew could be assembled for glider ides or instruction during the week. I say “crew” because glider flying is a team effort requiring glider pilot, tow pilot and wing walker at a bare minimum and extra help is always appreciated as tow rope hooker-upper, and glider pusher-arounder since there is no such thing as taxiing back to the tiedown. A lookout is helpful as well, to yell, “Look out!” when a trainee lands a bit hot and long.

My brother David and his friend George came to visit during a break in their college schedule and a time was agreed upon to assemble all the usual suspects at FLY for some demo rides.

I was the tow pilot and First Sergeant Westmooreland was the demo pilot. We came up a bit short on extra help, but between the two of us, we had it covered. First Sergeant Westmooreland was the enlisted boss of the Military Police Company at Fort Carson. He heralded from Yazoo, Mississippi, and was a physically imposing figure of a man. When not seriously commanding troops or going about equally serious Military Police business, he was hilariously funny and famous for his colorful descriptions of the truth. Imagine Jerry Clower in uniform.

Glider wing walker

Don’t forget to let go…

As we were a bit short-handed but undaunted, George would have to fill in as wing runner and I gave him the briefing. “OK, George, all ya gotta do is lift the wing up off the ground when the big guy in front of David gives you the thumbs up signal, take a couple steps with it to make sure it doesn’t drag on the ground and let go. Got it?” He nodded in the affirmative and we mounted up.

Tow plane in position, tow rope hooked up on both ends, preflight checks complete in both aircraft and a quick scan of the pattern showed no other traffic. I saw the glider give me the ready signal tail wag in my rearview mirror and I wagged mine back at him.

“Meadowlake traffic, Super Cub 71P with glider in tow on the go runway 15 in the grass, Meadowlake.”

I advanced the throttle to full power; confirmed that both aircraft and all the associated equipment were going in the same direction at the same time and stole a glance in my rearview mirror. I noticed what looked like a big cloud of smoke off to the right side of the glider (George’s position). Curious.

The tow went fine and the First Sergeant released the hook at 3000 ft. AGL in light lift. I tipped 71P up on the left wing and enjoyed a quick trip back to the runway. When I taxied back to George and deplaned, I noticed he looked like he had just been dragged for a mile behind a team of run-away horses. Both knees of his jeans were torn and the seam of his shirtsleeve at the shoulder had an inch long gap.

I looked at him like I had swallowed a bug.

“I’m sorry man, I just couldn’t keep up till they took off,” he said.

I felt terrible. The poor bugger had reached his personal terminal velocity and tumbled hard enough to tear his clothing. The cloud of smoke I noticed on takeoff was the debris field of a human, skipping down the runway like a flat rock on a pond.

I loaded him up in the towplane like an ambulance patient and gave him a really nice “I’m sorry you misunderstood me but are you crazy,” make-it-all-better ride. We returned just prior to my brother and the First Sergeant.

When they coasted to a stop next to us, the glider door flew open and it sounded for all the world like a braying donkey had gotten in there with them the laughter was so loud.

I digress to a direct quote as I remember it. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “He was like a fly on the windshield. He kept looking at me with his eyes all big and I kept hollerin’, ‘let er go, let er go!’ Then he just kinda blew off! Just like a fly on the windshield.”

After becoming airborne without George attached to the right wingtip anymore, David said the flight was quite pleasant, until the First Sergeant, in an attempt to salvage what he thought was a poor launch sequence, decided to throw in a loop just to make things right. Well, brother David gets carsick backing out of the driveway and arrived at the end of his ride with weak knees and a rather pallid complexion.

Man, those were the good old days!

Tim Cantrell
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1 reply
  1. Steve Carkeek
    Steve Carkeek says:

    Reading your story reminds me of my experience in assisting with the launch of a U2. I had been a B-47 crew chief but after the 303rd bomb wings B-47s were retired to the bone yard I was transferred to the 92nd bomb wing at Fairchild AFB and transitioned to KC-135s. Fairchild supported a tanker mission based at Eielson AFB and I found myself there the spring of 1965. The primary task was to pass gas to Chrome Dome B-52s, the secondary task being the occasional recovery and launch of EC-135s or a broken B-52.

    I have no idea of why the U2 landed that day but because it was a SAC bird and we were the SAC troops we were assigned the recovery and launch duty. The first priority was to get it off the ramp and into a hangar as quickly as possible. We had none of the ground handling equipment associated with servicing U2s. Getting it into the hangar was complicated by the size of the tracks supporting the hangar doors and the size of the U2’s small aft main landing gear wheels. I remember moving it into the hangar nose first and then looking for a rows of rivets indicating the location of a structural bulkhead near the aft main gear, crawling under the plane at that location and arching my back up to lift it across the tracks.

    The next day when it was time to go we pumped JP-4 into it as directed by the AC and were briefed regarding launch procedures. I was told to hold a wing up and at brake release to run until I could no longer hang on. Unlike George, at brake release things happened so fast that I could not get a foot off the ground before the wing was jerked out of my hand. It rolled a very short distance and then climbed at such an angle it practically disappeared before it had traveled the length of the runway. What a sight that was…

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