Glider tow
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5 min read

An airborne challenge that arose whilst towing gliders for the Australian, Southern Cross Gliding Club in Camden, New South Wales.  Gliders were confined to the grass cross strip at Camden Airport and, as there was an Air Traffic Controller in the control tower at all times, separation from normal traffic was rarely an issue.

Cessna 182

It’s a Cessna 182 – what could possibly go wrong?

In this particular incident I had been flying a Piper Super Cub most of the day when the Tug Master asked if I could give him a break and use the C182.   This was not a problem as it gave me time on something other than a tail dragger.   He told me that several flights ago the C182 had been over to the fuelling area, been refuelled, and topped off with oil.

I did a “quick” flight check and, as nothing was “falling off,” I got ready to get in and start towing.   A glider pilot came up to me before I got in and asked if her young son could go up with me in the front seat as he was a keen pilot-to-be and not just on gliders.  I saw no problem taking him along as back then we could take someone up especially if it was a “checkride” or a budding “tug pilot”.  The guardian had to give permission as did the ground marshall.

All was good and we lined up to hitch on the glider, an all metal two seat Blanik trainer.  The  instructor was one I knew personally and respected.   We got the signal to take up slack followed by the takeoff wave.   I powered up and we started the roll.  The C182 with its large engine moved boldly down the grass strip until we reached takeoff speed.  The glider normally got airborne before the tug and kept low.

We lifted off without issue and commenced the climb.  At about 100 feet I noticed some dark spots appearing on the windscreen – must be an insect swarm.  At around 200 feet the spots started to get bigger and more frequent.  At about 300 feet there was a blackish veil creeping up the windscreen.  There was no insect swarm would do that.  I thought that surely this was not an oil leak as the C182 had several flights before I got in.  A glance at the oil pressure, oil temp and engine temp gauges did not immediately raise an alarm.

I couldn’t dump the glider at that point as they may have had serious difficulty getting down safely.  It would be just as challenging for me because straight ahead was not really an option due to trees.  I continued climbing straight ahead to about 500 feet while closely monitoring the gauges before I waggled the wings in a sign to the glider that I was in trouble.  As we were now high enough, (and still within the precincts of the airfield) both of us could get back.   The instructor got off the tow promptly, turned right and headed back towards the glider landing check point.  I radioed a Pan Pan call, advising the Controller of the situation and that I was executing a 180 degree tirm to land back on the grass, albeit, downwind.


I couldn’t dump the glider at that point as they may have had serious difficulty getting down safely.

Given the all clear I powered back to reduce oil pressure and engine temp to protect the engine, executed the 180 turned and lined up for final.  Meanwhile the young passenger was looking rather confused as this did not seem normal.  To allay any fears, I kept him busy looking out for any other aircraft (as my “number two”).  He even bragged about it later to his peer group, like a hero.  With the windscreen now covered in oil, I had to side slip the C182 to the left so I could see what was ahead.

My judgement was obviously good as I had given myself enough height to execute a safe turn for a downwind landing, albeit in a side slip.   We touched down on the left side of the strip with plenty of room between me and the glider coming the other way. We rolled to the flight line where I was joined by a rather shaken tug master.  He saw the oil and before I got out, he had opened the oil flap on the cowl and pulled out the dip stick.

Oil dipstick

During the prior oil check, the dip stick had been replaced after oil had been added and was in the process of being screwed in place when someone came up inadvertently distracting the person doing the job.

Apparently, during the prior oil check, the dip stick had been replaced after oil had been added and was in the process of being screwed in place when someone came up inadvertently distracting the person doing the job.  The oil cowl flap was then secured in place and the C182 returned to the flight line.  Obviously, the vibration during the previous flights before I got in had shaken the dip stick loose enough to allow oil to be sucked out into the engine bay and the airflow did the rest.

The tug master thanked me profusely for saving his aircraft, whilst I was thankful this had not occurred just prior to lift-off as any reaction time may not have left enough room to pull up safely for me or the glider.  Lady Luck?

Lesson Learned

What you least expect will usually crop up at the most inopportune time and not provide much reaction time. What you do determines the outcome.  Experience can also help. The classic advice is to stay alert, calm, think logically, and avoid panic because panic tends to cloud one’s judgement and reactions and the outcome usually does not end well.  It is also critical to maintain close attention to the task at hand and avoid any distraction for anyone when working on an aircraft.  That may be an obvious statement but it can be unwittingly overlooked.

Wes Madycki
Latest posts by Wes Madycki (see all)
4 replies
  1. Terry spath
    Terry spath says:

    Glad no metal got bent. Congratulations. Older C182’s as shown in the photo had Continental O-470’s that didn’t have a screw-in dip stick. Leaving the oil filler cap loose, however, would result in an oil mess as you described. The 2nd photo shows a Lycoming screw-in dipstick. When these are left loose zero to a very marginal amount of oil is lost. Ask me how I know!

  2. macL
    macL says:

    Glider towing Issaquah WA in 1980. My day job was a B737 check and training Captain for Brtish Airways. You may wonder what I was doing in Seattle, we certainly did back then. Simple, BA had no simulator at first, so all conversion was done in Vancouver where Pacific Western did have one we could use. Some way from Seattle, but that is where Boeing built the then 737-200Advanced and BA bought lots, so my job amongst others was to collect, and pay $13M for new models, then ferry them to Vancouver were I would train our new crews around British Columbia. I had an old friend Linn Emrich who ran Skyport a grass field at Issaquah WA, as nothing ever ran to time in those days I stayed with Linn and Marian on days off, cut the grass from a Jeep and flew tows for the flourishing glider school. I recall ferrying a Cub, Stearman, Stinson Voyager & Helio Courier amongst other types. Towing was done in a modified Cessna 150 fitted with a finer blade prop and more powerful motor. Probably all not approved by the FAA. I did have a US license to match my UK ATPL for B737/747/757/767 so was happy to fly the splendid variety at Skyport, sadly long gone now covered by buildings. What I did not know, and was not told, that the fuel gage was less than accurate. Thus launching towards Lake Samamish on the 5th town of the day, towing a Blanik passing 5oo’ the engine stopped. Check switches on, change tank, then release the glider who turned downwind and landed back close to the take off point. After 15000 flying hours in everything from light aircraft to fast jets and big iron this was quite ridiculous. to be faced with , a possible ditching in the lake in a fixed gear airplane. However easing the nose down to maintain speed the dear old engine came to life for a short burst enough to turn back and land as it gave up once more as we trundled to a stop on the grass. The line was lost in the woods along the shore, but all else was well. Linn apologised for failing to tell me that the gage was suspect, and next day a non standard individual gage fitted prominently on the glare shield. Probably not FAA approved, but who cares if it works. I returned to Boeing a sadder but wiser pilot. It is never too late to learn, unless one doesn’t learn in which case it is certainly too late.. Mac

  3. Steve Kuemmerle
    Steve Kuemmerle says:

    I wonder whether an additional Lesson Learned would be to do a thorough pre-flight, rather than a “quick” one. Glad all turned out OK.

    • John N
      John N says:

      I agree with you 100%. A more thorough pre-flight would have been the lesson learned for me. Even my “quick” pre-flights include checking oil, fuel, landing gear. If Wes had checked the oil, he would have secured the dipstick better than the previous person.


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