Glider ride
6 min read

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.

Glider ride

What should you do on a first flight? Depends what the passenger is expecting.

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.

Glider steep turn

That steep turn might be exciting for a thrill-seeker, but terrifying for a reluctant passenger.

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.

Charles Umphlette, Jr.
3 replies
  1. Toodie
    Toodie says:

    Good article Charles, I’m an old soaring pilot from long ago! Gave rides in my ASK-13 for 17 years, friends, wives of glider pilots, and occasionally other glider pilots. Two particular flights stand out for very different reasons. The first was to introduce the local air traffic controller for the new tower in Livermore, CA what soaring is and where we can fly depending on the conditions. The controller wasn’t the most enthusiastic flyer so I kept it as smooth as possible, however that particular day was filled with Cu’s, most were building and I was able to soar up the front of one near our private field. I was so thrilled as I’d never tried that before, the lift was very smooth on our way to the top of the cloud. I did maintain the correct distances while soaring near the cu. For the passenger, he couldn’t wait to get on the ground… Disappointing for me as it was the flight of a lifetime.

    The other soaring flight was actually funny, well not for the young lady going for her very first flight in any type of aircraft. We were attending a fly-in at a airport in the foothills of the Sierra’s and there was a newspaper journalist who wanted to take a flight….right after lunch~ The take off was smooth releasing is gentle lift, she was extremely quiet…that’s always a bad sign. I asked her if she needed a barf bag… answer but the sound of throwing up!….I landed immediately, and when the other pilots standing around asked why we came down so fast took a look at the lady and my parachute, everyone walked away as fast as they could. Needless to say I had a job to do!

    By and large the rides I gave people were appreciated. I taught Aviation to 4-H kids and gave them each a ride in my glider after the years end. They had a blast.
    Thanks for the article.


  2. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    Similar approach for me in my aerobatic ex-mil primary trainer. I check status of passenger before each event is initiated (start, taxi, takeoff, before leaving pattern area, etc to allow for early abort/return if too nervous…mirrors help that assessment). Progression I fly is to agreed sightseeing area, then turn generally back towards airport, walk them thru controls (rudder first or they’ll never remember to use them) and then give them stick if they want for basic maneuvering. Any aerobatics I demo occur at the very end as near to airport as safe/legal so that it’s only a couple minutes to land if not well tolerated.

    Key point is to brief the plan, gauge whether it’s an “airliner” profile, full aero or something in between based on their ask, feedback and body language. If I am going to do aero, I determine on ground with their agreement, I NEVER reintroduce that option in air to those who didn’t agree on ground; even those who did agree are given a graceful out to make sure they still feel up to it and again after each previously agreed maneuver (progressing from lazy eight to barrel roll to loop to Cuban to airleron rolls to hammerheads or spins)…the worst outcomes are usually the ones that want to “experience” the full ride. Fortunately, mirrors have helped me get us on the ground before lunch returned…so far, knock on wood.

  3. T Boyle
    T Boyle says:

    I laughed when I read your comment about sailing being “gentle and calming”. I tell people that flying a sailplane is a lot like sailing: from a distance it always looks peaceful, calm, and quiet – but on a day that the active flier/sailor considers “good” the actual experience on board is surprisingly active, even violent at times, and although not actually loud it is not quiet. The right day for a first experience is not the same day the expert looks forward to.

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