Rope
6 min read

This story is about my checkride for a Private Glider license, which almost resulted in landing short of the runway in the middle of the cornfield.

A glider checkride consists of three individual flights, one of which includes a simulated tow rope break on takeoff. A rope break is an emergency maneuver that, depending on the glider’s altitude, would result in a 180-degree return to the field.

Rope

That rope is the only thing keeping the glider climbing after takeoff.

Based on past checkrides, it had become the expectation that the rope break would occur on the second flight. But, by my third flight the examiner still hadn’t pulled the rope release. So, I was primed for the rope break on my last flight.

But as we turned crosswind on the last flight, he still hadn’t released the rope. I started thinking he must be going easy on me and maybe I started to relax a little—when WHAM he released the tow rope!

I lowered the nose and made a right-hand turn…

Most pilots are familiar with how the ground appears below them and with experience can begin to judge their height above it as they get closer to it. From altitude the crops, trees, hills, etc. below them all appear somewhat flat, with a nice blend of matted colors. As you get lower more of the ground features begin to stick out.

So, as I was making my turn back to the airport, the corn, like many other fields, from altitude looked like a nice green textured mat.

But, as I got lower, the features of the mat started to become a little more distinct, and I could begin to see the rows of corn.

As I got lower still, I could not only see the rows of corn. I could begin to pick out the tassels on top of each corn stalk!

So, by now you are probably beginning to surmise—things were not exactly going well for the ending of my checkride.

At this point the examiner hadn’t been saying much. The runway was more or less staying in the same spot on the canopy, which indicated we might still make it to the runway—as the corn tassels became even clearer and more defined.

At some point the only comment I heard from the examiner was something to the affect of, “Keep your nose down!” Or maybe, “Keep your speed up!”

Shortly after, we safely made it to the runway. If the truth were known, we were probably saved by ground effect. After coming to a stop and getting out of the glider, we realized that everyone on the field had been highly entertained and had been wondering if they would have to come get us out of the cornfield.

So, you are probably wondering, what led me to almost land short of the runway in the middle of a cornfield? The short answer: my right turn after the examiner pulled the rope release on crosswind. Obviously, it was a turn away from the airport.

The next question someone might ask is, what made you turn right after the rope break instead of left toward the airport?

To look for answers, the club’s safety officer (who by the way was also the examiner) and I had a lot of discussions concerning our episode and the possible causes that led up to it.

First, we focused on the club’s normal procedures.

1. How we were conducting the takeoff checklist. Though a rope break is an emergency, the response to one was taught and practiced like it was a normal procedure. So, the response to a rope break was briefed prior to (each and every) takeoff as part of the takeoff checklist:

  • Below 200 ft., straight ahead
  • Above 200 ft., do a 180 and make a downwind landing
  • If higher, then enter the pattern and make a normal landing

2. What the accepted procedure was for a normal tow release. The “normal” procedure for a glider releasing off tow is for the glider to turn right and the tow plane to turn left—each and every time. This ensures there is always separation from the two aircraft.

We then reviewed how the rope break was being trained and practiced in the club.

1. Each takeoff required a callout at 200 ft. to note that if the rope broke at that point it was now safe to return to the runway.

2. When practicing a rope break, the instructor would pull the release while still flying straight out from the airport, after the 200 ft. callout. The pilot would then be expected to make a “normal release” turn to the right and the tow plane would turn left—each and every time.

Finally, we discussed my expectations during the checkride.

1. That the rope break would occur on the second flight.

2. That the rope break would occur going straight out from the runway

Can you begin to see where all this is going?

The results of our review were eye opening. Not only for me, but also for the examiner and the club.

We found that our procedures and training:

1. Had us “programmed” to expect a rope break to occur going straight out from the airport.

2. A release from tow was always a turn to the right.

3. Didn’t include practicing a rope break after turning crosswind.

4. Didn’t include a discussion of the importance of turning toward the airport, if the rope broke someplace other than straight out, or the affect wind direction could have on the return to the airport.

Glider tow

Not all emergencies happen at the same place the simulated ones do.

You have probably heard the phrase: “Train how you fly and fly how you train.” Well, I and the other club members were flying how we trained!

Repetition and doing a task the same—each and every time—builds standardization and helps ensure a pilot can perform the task or maneuver properly. Which is a good thing, when the task has no variables and requires that it be accomplished by rote.

Repetition is not such a good thing because it creates expectations which then affect your decision making. Also, doing tasks by rote is detrimental to being able to make split second decisions when you must take into account several variables that affect the outcome of the decision. Such as: where is the airport, where is the wind coming from, and if I need to get back to the runway what is the closest direction to turn back to the airport?

As a result of my checkride experience, the club changed its procedures for training and practicing rope breaks. The takeoff checklist was expanded to include briefing the wind direction and direction of the turn off tow. Instructors also began conducting simulated rope breaks from all different altitudes and locations around the airport. A discussion of human factors, expectations, etc. and their affect on a pilot’s decision making was added to the ground schooling.

Oh and by the way, I did end up earning my Private Glider license that day for not trying to stretch the glide and putting us into the corn field!

Craig Bixby
Latest posts by Craig Bixby (see all)
6 replies
  1. George Haeh
    George Haeh says:

    Wind has long been part of our pre-takeoff briefing on launch failures. Do you really want to land downwind when it’s 15+ kt? What’s the crop status in adjacent fields?

    One of my clubs normally did rope “breaks” after turning crosswind which makes it obvious which way to turn.

    I did mention before a spring checkride that the crosswind to 36 would position us for 03 on a rope break. Shortly after the instructor gave me an opportunity to demonstrate.

    Winch is easier because you are directly above the field. Cross runways help. Take a crop if you have to.

    Reply
  2. William Hunt
    William Hunt says:

    Some really great observations here, especially with respect to a “normal” rope break. I once did a Flight Review with a particularly creative IP. The rope break he did was from about 400-500 agl, but it was in a position where the “automatic turn back” would have caused me to overfly the runway, but there wasn’t enough altitude to do a low pattern. My first move was the automatic turn, which set me up in a poor position, and I had to do some ugly turns, slips and vile language to get it down. What I didn’t appreciate in the moment was that from where we were at 500 ft, I had time to think out a good plan, then execute from that plan.

    That ended up being one of the better lessons in my flying. It doesn’t take much altitude to give you time, and time is our friend.

    Reply
  3. Mike Shakman
    Mike Shakman says:

    I’m a glider instructor and teach and test for low altitude rope breaks. Three points seem relevant from this valuable report.

    One is that the pilot needs a plan in mind before every take off for possible locations for a rope break and the pre-loaded responses at several altitudes and positions up to normal pattern altitude. The plan won’t be the same plan every day. It will depend on the wind conditions and where the tow plane takes the glider during the initial climb. From this report it appears that 200 was marginal for returning to the airport from the point of release. (This applies equally to power pilots who should think about what they will do if the engine quits on takeoff at various altitudes and locations. The options will obviously be very different than for a glider and require much more altitude if a return to the airport is even possible.)

    Point two is that in case of a low release (or premature termination of two in glider talk) on the cross wind leg a turn to the right is often the better move because it sets the pilot up for a relatively normal base leg and turn to final. The option is the left turn, but it is not always best. It requires an immediate 180 durn turn followed very quickly by a right 90 degree turn at low altitude. And the left turn may put the glider too close to the runway threshold for a normal landing. This combination of a low altitude 180 turn to the left followed very soon by an even lower altitude 90 degree turn right is a maneuver no one trains for and is much riskier than the right turn on to a normal base leg. Pre-planning and knowing which way to turn at each altitude up to about 800 should be part of the pre-flight thinking.

    Point three is that in a modern sailplane with 30 to 1 or better glide ratio there is likely to be sufficient altitude for the safe return to the airport from 200 feet, absent strong winds or unless the tow pilot goes far out, or the instructor or examiner makes a mistake in initiating the maneuver too low for safety. In the case described in the article it appears that the examiner made a mistake. If the difference between landing in the corn field (not a dangerous or serious result, by the way) and barely making it to the runway was as small as described, the examiner should not have pulled the release when he did. He could just as effectively have tested the pilot’s skill level and understanding of how to respond to a rope break from 300 or 400 feet as from 200, and much more safely. Nothing in the regs or the PTS requires 200′. Mike Shakman, Chicago Glider Club

    Reply
  4. Peter N. Steinmetz
    Peter N. Steinmetz says:

    Nice to see an article about glider and glider training. And a great reminder to brief winds and the direction to turn for emergencies before every launch.

    Reply
  5. Richard
    Richard says:

    I’ve been a gliding instructor for 20 years or so and I would say that nominating the same decision altitude in all conditions is asking for trouble .. pre-brief likely scenarios for the conditions prevailing, but then just fly the aircraft and be flexible. First priority is airspeed, then start actioning your plan – turn back towards the runway and decide if you’re going to keep the turn going for a 180 (not always the best idea landing with a tailwind and losing directional control on the ground run!) land on a cross-strip (if you have that option) or do a low but safe modified circuit. Until you eyeball it the pre-nominated heights mean little – 200 feet with a 20 knot headwind looks very different to 200 feet in nil wind (and/or a weak tug?). Don’t rely on arbitrary numbers!

    Reply

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