Towing at the Pan Am Gliding Championships

You’ve completed your final checks. You look in the side-view mirror and the red flag is waving. You slowly move the Pawnee’s throttle forward and start towing the fully watered-up 18-meter competition glider down runway 36. It’s a hot, humid day and the density altitude is high. But you’re thinking, “hey, the grass has just had a crew-cut and the mud has dried out—so how hard can this be?”

You’ve got the stick over and the Pawnee is on the left main wheel in order to deal with the crosswind coming from the west and the rutted runway. The one-wheel-on-the-ground method is a way to keep your teeth from rattling out. You hit that big bump in the runway mid-field and you’ve now got air under the wheels. The glider is already airborne and tracking nicely.

Ahead and at the end of the runway? Tall trees and wires. At this point, ground-effect is your friend—your only friend—and you ignore the building pucker effect. The trees are getting closer and you’re staring them down… you watch the airspeed climb to 80 MPH… and start to ease back on the stick. You think to yourself: “ f*&% me, I’m happy to be flying the Pawnee and not the under-powered Citabria,” as the trees and wires slip under your wings.

Pan Am gliding
That’s a lot of gliders to launch.

It’s the middle of the Pan Am Gliding Championships and we’re doing a competition launch with some 40 plus gliders on the grid. We’ve got three Pawnees from the SOSA Gliding Club, a borrowed Pawnee from York Soaring, and our own Citabria for a few days of the contest. The rest of the time the Citabria is up at York to replace the borrowed Pawnee. SOSA’s latest Pawnee (Whiskey India) was purchased specifically with the contest in mind.

The tow pilots are mostly experienced guys who are commercially rated. Some old dogs and young pups building hours for that coveted first job. The rest of us are just private pilots but with lots of towing hours and experience. Still, it’s a challenge with strong crosswinds and wind shear on numerous contest days.

My fellow tow-pilot, Kyle Nordman, is flying in the Citabria but only towing the club class gliders with no water. It’s not easy because there’s now a slight tailwind. With these conditions, I’m happy to be in the 50-year-old Pawnee. The Citabria was iced by the contest director on one or two days because the safety margin was getting close. Nothing dangerous, but why tow with a Citabria when we have four Pawnees with all of the extra power?

The launch grid team is key to a successful contest launch. This group of highly motivated, highly organized, young people made it look easy. Efficiency was their mandate and they delivered. This small swarm of hornets tackled the launch operation like a well-oiled machine. There is always the potential for injury with so many moving parts, but the launch team was always on top of every situation, large or small.

Gliders at the front of the grid needed to be ready because the last thing pilots want to do is piss off the launch boss, Catherine Eaglin, or the waiting tow pilot. On this day, we’re landing on runway 03 and as short as possible. We taxi off the intersection with 36 ASAP and head back to the grid for the next glider. It’s a very smooth operation.

We’re towing the competitors in a racetrack pattern, dropping the gliders to the northwest of the field at 2000 feet. FAI rules mean that the tow pilot is required to wave off the glider at release altitude. There were one or two glider pilots who whined about a “low” wave-off but the tow plane’s altimeter rules. Once the glider is gone, it’s full flaps, throttle back to 2000 RPM and head back towards the field.

Situational awareness is the key to safety. Where are the other tow planes and where are the gliders gaggling? Are there any gliders below 2000 feet? You need to keep your head on a swivel. The FLARM is giving you alerts and your brain has to quickly decide if it’s an issue or not. The radio communication is sparse but effective: “Delta Kilo is extending… number two to Whiskey Yankee.” Tow pilots are constantly adjusting the flow of landings and takeoffs to keep things running smoothly and not bunching up, like my old Fruit of the Looms (which need replacing).

A good tow pilot is always thinking…I’m flying a Pawnee, so my blind spot is under my wing. In the Citabria, it’s the reverse. What’s above my blind spot? What’s below my blind spot? Glider pilots: try putting yourself in the tow pilot’s seat. Where are you positioned? Are you in or near the tow circuit? Can the tow pilot see you? Food for thought the next time you’re in a crowded sky.

Tow pilot
The focus is on gliders, but tow pilots work hard too.

The competition from a towing perspective went off smoothly. We had a few technical issues, but the tow planes were quickly sorted out and put back into service. A short ferry flight to Burlington and the plane was usually ready for pick-up the next morning before launch time.

Our chief contest pilot, the young budding commercial pilot Logan Orosz, was flying the borrowed Pawnee from York. The tip tanks didn’t always drain equally, resulting in the need to fly with a bit of correction, but Logan got it figured out quickly. He now has one leg that’s just a bit stronger than the other one.

There was one aborted tow at a low altitude. I was flying Pawnee Delta Kilo with a visiting contest pilot behind me. We were somewhere around 600 AGL when I felt the twang of a glider releasing. Tow pilots will know immediately what I mean—it’s that “twang” that you feel when the glider lets go.

I banked left and started looking for the glider and couldn’t figure out why the pilot had released. I got on the radio and let everyone know there was a low release and it looked like the pilot was trying to make a downwind landing back at the club. It was going to be close and I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened. Did the rope break? Was there a cockpit emergency? The pilot didn’t make the runway but landed in a bean field just east of the club. Another tow pilot got eyes on the pilot and glider. The pilot was out of the cockpit and appeared to be OK, much to everyone’s relief.

It turned out that the glider pilot had one spoiler pop out during the tow. A little bit disconcerting to say the least. The pilot held on for altitude and radioed the tow-plane to take him back towards the field. Unfortunately, the radio was either broken or on the wrong frequency, because nobody heard the call.

The in-flight emergency was well handled because in the end, both the pilot and glider were unscathed. Well, there was probably some clothing that needed to be thrown out but that’s a small price to pay.

The root of the problem was a combination of faulty rigging and a positive control check carried out by an inexperienced crew that were going through the motions but not truly understanding what was required. Lesson learned.

During the duration of the contest, we completed some 452 launches, including re-lights and retrieves. And on most days, we managed to launch the grid within an hour. A pretty good job by any standard.

Towing a contest requires a heightened sense of awareness and you need to work as a team with your fellow tow pilots to keep the launch process running smoothly.

From my perspective, contest towing at the Pan Am Gliding Championships was a lot of fun and a good challenge. And let’s face it, it’s better than any office cubicle. Take up slack and all out.

6 Comments

  • That sounds intense, but fun. As a 900+ hour commercial pilot with 300+ Stearman hours (inc a PA to CA x-country!), last year I began towing in a Pawnee at Santa Ynez, in the valley the other side of the mountain ridge behind Santa Barbara in beautiful, sunny SoCal. The most fun flying I’ve ever had (well, maybe not quite as good as the Stearman, but almost!). Over the winter I relocated to rural PA and really miss towing. Need to find a local operator with a Pawnee that needs a tow pilot :-0

  • That sounds intense, but fun. As a 900+ hour commercial pilot with 300+ Stearman hours (inc a PA to CA x-country!), last year I began towing in a Pawnee at Santa Ynez, in the valley the other side of the mountain ridge behind Santa Barbara in beautiful, sunny SoCal. The most fun flying I’ve ever had (well, maybe not quite as good as the Stearman, but almost!). Over the winter I relocated to rural PA and really miss towing. Need to find a local operator with a Pawnee that needs a tow pilot 🙂

  • The glider’s spoiler problem underscores a very important point that is vital not only to aviation but life in general: Don’t settle for knowing HOW to do something. Know WHY it’s done that way.

  • Enjoyed learning about an aviation world foreign to this low time private pilot. A glider group and field is not far from me here in Indiana. Hopefully someday I’ll venture over there and check it out. Thanks for taking us along.

  • As a glider pilot it’s great to hear the tuggies perspective – I haven’t flown power for many years, but probably will in the future.

  • You’ve given us an excellent picture of a challenging flying job. And well written.

    My former roommate paid his college tuition and bills instructing in gliders, ferrying Ag Cats from Beth Page and towing our school’s club gliders in an L-19. We’d go late into the night as he reeled off those adventures.

    It’s been forty years since his death. Your story made me feel like I talked to him yesterday.

    Thanks

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