I have been a sailplane private pilot at our local glider club (Tidewater Soaring Society) in the coastal flatlands of Southeast Virginia for about half my life now. Our club has always had an interesting mix of members: we have active duty and retired military pilots and service members, commercial pilots, engineers, a few doctors and dentists, other professional classes, white and blue collar folks, housewives, and college and high school students. We have a strong teaching tradition in our club, too, and our instructors have soloed many students and current club members over the years. Gliderports are still a friendly grassroots type of aviation. We welcome the public to our field and there are no fences or trespassing signs that would discourage the casual visitors.
Over the years, we have introduced a lot of people to their first sailplane/glider flights, and often their first flight in any type of general service aircraft. In simpler times, anyone who had visited the field and expressed an interest in a flight would be invited to occupy an otherwise empty seat in the training gliders. A member with a private, commercial, or instructor rating waiting a turn for an aero tow launch would welcome the passenger to the glider for a ride. Now, we have a process a little more formal for the new guest intro rides. The Soaring Society of America has a program called a FAST certificate. FAST means Fly A Sailplane Today. The guest becomes a temporary member of the SSA and our club and receives an introductory flight with an instructor. Our regular club members are still allowed to have friends and family members share flights with the pilot in the club two-seaters.
So now, think about the excited guest or family member about to have that first airplane and/or glider flight. Most of the people who visit our glider field can fall into a few different categories, and each category has different backgrounds and expectations.
There are the parents or spouses of newly-rated pilots who are proud of the son’s or daughter’s, husband’s or wife’s accomplishment but maybe not be so sure about the flying thing. They want to appear supportive but may not really be happy about riding in a motorless plane. Heck, most of my family doesn’t even like to ride in a car with me driving. Anyway, these family members and the club guests mostly all fall into the “bucket list” category. They can tell everyone they flew in a glider once and the first flight is often also the last flight they will have.
Next, we have the experience junkie guests. They like new experiences and are sort of window shopping for something they might like. They have tried motorcycles, skiing, white water rafting, maybe skydiving, and maybe flying will be the thing. Some of these people will actually get the bug and become members, but most won’t invest the required time to become pilots.
And lastly, we have the guests who have always wanted to become pilots, have done some research, and are finally at a place in life where they have the time and resources to become pilots themselves.
None of the above makes much of a difference if I am going to be giving a guest a glider ride. I will ask the guest a few questions to gauge their interest in the sport and will answer their questions. I will do a walk around pre-flight inspection with the guest and explain what they will be seeing, hearing, and feeling during a flight. Weight and balance limits will be checked. Ballast weights adjusted as needed. There will be a brief about how the controls and instruments work, what they can touch and what they need to stay clear from, how to get in and out of the cockpit and how to fasten the safety belts, un-fasten the belts, and how to open and close the canopy. I will turn the radio and audio variometer on and explain what the sound is and why we like the climb tone. I will explain the use of checklists and why we use them.
In all, the guest will receive a legal and helpful passenger brief as the glider is staged and waiting for the aerotow. The passenger guest may be seated in either the front or rear seat of the tandem glider; it just depends on weights and which view the guest wants.
OK, let’s start having fun. This is why gliders are a little different from general aviation. As the towplane taxies towards the glider and a lineman attaches the tow rope, I explain to the passenger that we will be formation flying behind the tow plane to two to three thousand feet above ground, and I will release the towline at my chosen altitude and make a right turn away from the towplane. The line may make a “bang” when released so expect the sound.
Now, we come to passenger differences. “Bucket List” folks will have about a 20-30 minute flight with gentle maneuvers, shallow turns and some sight-seeing and landmarks pointed out. I will stay local to the airfield and end with a nice standard pattern to a gentle landing.
Passengers who like more action will have a different flight. Hopefully, if lift is present, the guest will have a flight similar to my solo flights. We will fly for 30-60 minutes, I will make steep banked turns while thermalling, I will have altitude gains to near cloud base, I will fly close to other gliders at times while sharing thermals, and speeds will vary from best L/D to maneuvering speed, and the guest will feel 1.5 to 2.0 Gs at times. At the end of the flight, there may be a high speed final glide to the airport pattern and then a standard landing pattern and roll-out.
(JOKE: Why do soaring pilots always wear bucket hats? In case they run out of air-sick bags)
Not really funny if the passenger guest gets green and then sick. Sponging out a cockpit isn’t fun. So I ask the guest what they expect from a glider flight and try to meet that expectation. Some people expect a glider flight to be synonymous with sailing a boat, gentle and calming. They will become upset in turning flight and feeling G, and a stomach upset may soon follow. Let the guest follow the controls, watch the horizon, and fly gently and land before lunch is re-visited. The action junkies may be looking for a more dynamic flight so I might do some positive and negative G climbs and dives and make thermal turns as needed to climb. Turning flight may be 20- to 60-percent of the total flight time, again depending on the weather conditions, guest wishes and expectations.
Hopefully, everyone will enjoy his or her flight. A short duration flight that ends with a smiling passenger wanting to go again is much better than a scared passenger kissing the ground and vowing to never fly in a small plane again. A happy guest may wish to join the club and take lessons to become a pilot. In a few months they may be the glider PIC and give a new guest their first sailplane flight.