Letting go: my first cross-country flight without an engine

At 6500 feet without any engine power, I calculated my glide slope back to the airfield and knew straight away I could not make it, not even with this freshening tailwind. I had to prepare to land in a farmer’s field or find a nearby airstrip.

I didn’t panic. I acted as I had done in training so many times. I searched the ground below for a large enough paddock to land in. At that height, I could not make out the features of the land within gliding distance other than to recognize what I already knew. It was late in the summer and the fields were yellow and bare; all crops had been harvested. So there were reasonable prospects I could land in any one of them.

Phil in glider
Flying a glider means preparing to land out.

On the contrary, I felt a sense of achievement. I had rehearsed this moment so many times over my 150 hours total flying time. I was ready, willing and hopefully able.

Earlier that day, I had risen just after dawn as the sun appeared over the horizon and instantly warmed the tin roof of the ex-Air Force huts we were staying in. The hard beds and heat got everyone up early and 30 or so eager faces had gathered in the mess hall for the 9:00 am briefing for what was predicted to be an epic day of gliding.

The forecast was for raging thermals to 10,000 feet and beyond. Cumulus cloud would dot the sky and, if you joined the dots, you could fly hundreds of miles linking up the thermals feeding each cloud.

My stated mission was my next gliding certificate for which I had to fly more than 30 miles from the airfield and return. I had never been that far from the field without a spinning propeller. In the early days of learning to fly a glider, one basic rule is to stay within gliding distance of the airfield, which means you can still see it, and to turn towards it as soon as the angle to the field starts to look flat. The purpose of today’s task was to let go of that rule: commit to a journey into the great blue yonder and pick a spot and land if you can’t make it back.

My patient, voluntary and knowledgeable gliding instructors had described to me the sensation of the first time you leave the airfield behind you. They said it is like severing the umbilical cord. Passing the point of no return where, if you look back, you cannot see the airfield.

One of my favorite parts of learning to fly in a Piper Warrior was cutting fuel to the engine and practicing forced landings. I liked them because everything goes quiet without the engine noise and you can focus on the task at hand, a bit like going to a quiet library to study. I took up gliding to master emergency landings and soon discovered a new passion, being the peace and quiet inside a glider with only the sound of air passing over the cockpit (not to mention other attractions including their aerobatic capabilities).

On this day, I set off early in the afternoon when the thermals had fully developed. I released the tow rope at 2500 feet and quickly located a thermal off a factory roof to the northeast. I climbed in that thermal to 6500 feet, the highest I had been in a glider, and then set off to the north into a light headwind.

Glider panel
Pretty high for a newish glider pilot.

After 42 minutes, I was 15 miles from the airfield and still flying at 6500 feet. Based on a glide ratio of 30:1, I calculated that if I returned to the airfield now I should arrive at about 4000 feet. Plenty of height to spare above the airfield elevation of 569 feet. I then flew into another thermal that took me even higher, to 7500 feet. Things were looking good. I pressed on.

After 108 minutes, I had reached the 25 mile mark, but I had slipped below 7000 feet and I hadn’t encountered a solid thermal for some time. It was decision time.

I realized then that this was a defining moment. If I turned back to the safety of the airfield, I should make it in time for dinner and stories late into the evening. Alternatively, if I pressed on in this sinking air to the 30 mile goal, there was no guarantee I could return. If I didn’t find any rising air, then I would be committed to landing in a farmer’s paddock with the risk that carried of choosing the wrong field, one too small, full of rocks or containing invisible power lines, or other obstacles any of which could be curtains. There was no one watching. No one judging except myself. And I was doing this for fun, so it didn’t matter if I chose the easy way home.

But I decided to press on, to complete the mission.

As I flew further north, I was getting lower and lower and not finding any lift. Partial success arrived as I reached the 30-mile mark, but the headwind had increased as well, which made for slow going. I had lost a lot of height along the way and was down to 6500 feet. Based on my calculations of the glideslope, I was 500 feet too low to glide to the airfield. There was some wind assistance but I calculated not enough. I started looking at the ground to identify generally suitable landing areas visible from this height. I knew that, as I got lower, I would start to identify more precise details of landing fields with a final field selection to be made at around 2000 feet above ground.

I didn’t panic as I sank even lower. I just kept processing landing options and searching for thermals.

I was 94 minutes into the flight, 31.6 nautical miles from the airfield and at 6247 feet, the right wing of my glider shot violently upwards. I instinctively pressed the control stick to the right and back and felt in the seat of my pants the glider pushing strongly upwards. The variometer started a rapid beep, indicating the glider was climbing at 1000 feet per minute, better than the Warrior at sea level on a cold winter’s day.

Phil with glider
The umbilical cord has been severed.

I circled within the thermal for eight minutes, during which the glider climbed like a homesick angel, through my mission floor of 7000 feet, then 8000, 9000 and topping out at 10,000 feet.

I knew that from this height I was assured a 30-mile final glide all the way back to the airfield and so I aimed the glider straight at the airfield. I smiled then laughed and even sang with joy.

On the return leg, I hopped from one cumulus cloud to the next. At 191 minutes after departure, I was back within a few miles of the airfield and still at 10,000 feet.

On the way, I noticed the bases of the clouds had become more and more enticing to fly right up to them and I wondered if this new-found confidence was actually the effect of less oxygen at that altitude for an hour and a half. With this thought, I descended a little.

It was 245 minutes after departure, having flown out past the 30-mile mark and for a total of 85 miles and ascended to a maximum altitude of 10,631 feet, I landed back at the departure airfield, umbilical cord severed and mission accomplished. I sat in the shade beneath the glider wing for a bit and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment. My first cross country flight without an engine.

9 Comments

  • I felt like I was right there with you! Great story, and really well written. My first five flights were in a 2-33, then life got in the way. I have all my powered ratings now, but I still want to get back to sailplanes; that’s the closest we’ll ever get to true flying!

  • Are you saying your instructor deliberately cut the mixture while flying a powered aircraft (Piper Warrior)? That certainly isn’t a standard teaching technique, and might be considered downright reckless. I’ve heard of it before, but I think it’s an unnecessary risk.

    • If your instructor never cut off the engine completely at least once, you had a poor instructor.

      I learned to fly in the late 70’s, taught by a retired ag pilot then in his 70’s, who did more than a few times over the field shut it down to teach me true no engine landings.

  • Great story and brought back fond memories of soaring at Elmira, NY at the Schweitzer Soaring School to get my Comm Glider Rating and, later, at a major soaring venue in Colorado! Such a great experience, just one of many in 65-yrs of flying!

  • Good for you! Having grown up in a family of aviators, flown both gliders and power planes, I can tell you gliding, or soaring as we call it when we go places, is an amazing sport. It leaves me feeling at peace with the world and eager to explore. On that note, sailplane pilots all over the world routinely fly 200-300 km tasks when we set off to soar for the day, and while we’re always prepared to make an off-field landing, if need be, we rely on experience and training to navigate the skies and make good use of the terrain below. For those who’ve never soared cross-country in a sailplane, I invite you to find a local club and inquire about a soaring ride. Express your desire to experience soaring, and pay for a ride that lasts at least an hour, preferably in a high performance sailplane like a Duo Discus or DG-1000. I promise, you will never forget the experience. In the U.S. pilots can locate their nearest glider club by visiting http://www.ssa.org/WhereToFlyMap.asp

  • Your story is so well written I identified with it even though I haven’t been soaring for 45 years. I guess it is time to get back into it. I never had to land out, but preparing for it also made me a careful power pilot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *