Reflections of a Novice Glider Pilot

by Michael Masterov

Last fall I bought a glider. An HP-11. It was something that had reasonable performance, I could afford it, and I knew how to maintain and fix it (it was metal). And for months all I got out of it were brief flights. Weather sucked, and even when there was a little lift, I never seemed to be able to stay in it. Every time I'd turn in a thermal, the damn needle would fall through the floor. The audio would just flatline.

Now it's summer and the weather got good. A couple weeks ago, I finally got out to the gliderport. My battery was dead.

My glider has the usual complement of junk in the panel - one audio electric vario with TE and audio, one mechanical. I figured I'd just fly a little with what I had.

I dropped off tow at 2000, and half an hour later was in the pattern. I just couldn't seem to stay in the lift. I only had the slow mechanical vario, but I knew that wasn't the problem - I did no better with the electric and audio. I landed short and relaunched - I was damn well going to figure out the glider.

I took a tow to 3000 and started looking for lift. Pretty soon I was in some really strong stuff. I could really feel it shaking me. "Feel the wind in your wings." One of my instructors, a grizzled old veteran, told me that. "Feel the wind in your wings. Listen to it. You can learn a lot more listening to the wind that you can listening to an old guy like me." I started turning. All of a sudden in was weak. Why was it weak? Why couldn't I feel it anymore? And I could have sworn it wasn't as loud a moment ago. With the vario off, the sound of the wind seemed awfully loud. But the vario wasn't on a moment ago either. Did I just gain 20 kts? No, I don't think so, the airspeed... The airspeed is climbing. No, the airspeed is steady - the airspeed indicator is climbing. It lags. I pulled back, rolling into the turn.

A few more circles and my problem was obvious - roll the glider on its side and it accelerates. Sure, every glider does this a little and we learn to add some backpressure - this one just needed a lot more than I was used to. No wonder I couldn't seem to stay in lift - every time I tried to thermal, I would dive. Of course - obvious. If only the battery had died before...

Only a few minutes later, I was at cloudbase. I worked some thermals in the local area and an hour later I was still at cloudbase, in a different thermal, and bored. Time to explore the area? Working carefully and conserving my altitude, I made my way to Hempstead. I kept thinking there ought to be an airport there but I couldn't find it - I had no map with me.

I made my way back, and then headed southeast. I remembered a private strip about five miles away. That one I found. I couldn't believe how easy it was to thermal and stay in the lift. I could have kicked myself for not realizing my mistake sooner. Almost three hours later, I landed.

Somehow I never got around to getting a new battery for my next flight. I'm an engineer by trade and training, and at work I have my fill of flashing, beeping, chittering annoyatrons. My glider came with one, and in the interest of practicality I succumbed and left it in place, tried to learn to use it.

I did look at a map - sure enough, I had flown within a mile of the Hempstead Airport - and I never saw it. Belleville was another 15 miles past that - about 23 miles from the airport (just over 36 km for the European contingent) and would make a reasonable goal for my first XC, having an airport at almost the halfway point.

Still nervous, I hung on tow to 3000 and quickly made my way up to 5500 after release. I worked a couple of thermals in the local area, then headed to Hempstead. It was slow going - there was some strong sink as well as lift in the area, and I was trying to stay high. I passed Hempstead on my way to Belleville, and was about halfway there when I realized that I had left the map and GPS on the ground, and had no real idea where it was. I tried to look for it, but eventually turned tail and went home. An inauspicious beginning.

For my next attempt, I got a new battery, a map, and a GPS. The latter was to provide coordinates to my retrieve crew, should I land out. I popped off tow the moment I hit lift (at about 1800) and lived to regret it. The lift was too narrow to work, and coming out of it I flew through some really severe (8 kt) sink. Soon I was at 900 ft and about to enter the pattern when I felt some lift. Unlike most low lift, this was not very strong but quite wide. I flew through it for half a minute, gaining about 100 ft, before I decided to try a turn. As I started working it, I realized I was sloppy. I couldn't really hear the wind properly with the audio vario beeping, and looking at the needle jumping up and down was a distraction. The staid mechanical vario was showing an average 1.5 kt climb, and at that altitude that was plenty good enough for me. I turned the electric vario down, then off. Without the distraction of the electronic noise, I quickly centered the thermal and was soon at 6000.

It was a blue day - no cu's. There was some strong lift out there, and some strong sink, too. Not exactly an ideal day for a novice to try XC. On the other hand, I had saved it and was staying up.

On the radio I heard other pilots talking. One (in a DG-505) was complaining about having to work to stay up. It was distracting so I shut the radio off too. From where I was, I could easily make Hempstead if the sink wasn't too bad. I seemed to have nearly topped out the thermal, and there were now two club gliders in it with me. The Libelle that launched after me was long gone. Time to leave.

There was lift on the way to Hempstead, but strong sink too. I tried heading on to Belleville, but nothing was working - I was losing altitude. Soon I realized that unless I found some better lift, I wouldn't even make it home - I'd have to land out at Hempstead airport - and I needed to turn back soon or I'd be in a field. Belleville looked out of the question.

I turned back, and found some lift at Hempstead. I decided that if I wasn't going to make Belleville, I'd at least fly a small triangle. There was that little strip southeast, so I headed there. I was now finding mostly sink, and what lift I found was weak and seemed to top out at 5500-6000. Progress was slow. I turned over that strip and headed for home.

I was below 3000 by the time I made it home, but I wasn't really ready to land. I felt some decent lift but once again it topped out at 6000 or so. There was still some real narrow stuff, but I couldn't stay in it. The HP-11 is a flapped glider. I dropped 15 degrees, slowed to 48 mph, and turned into that little bit of lift. Surprise - there was still a good 4 kt at the core. Pretty soon at 7300 - a personal best.

I looked once again towards Hempstead. I still had hours of daylight, and in Texas sometimes the best lift is at 5-6 PM on a summer afternoon. It couldn't hurt to try...

Now that I knew how to slow down and work the stuff above 5-6000, I was less concerned about the sink. I had altitude. I made Hempstead easily, and kept going South. Conditions were NOT improving. I'd stop and thermal, top out, then lose more than I gained crossing sink. I told myself that if I wasn't at the halfway point to Belleville by the time I was down to 5000, I'd turn back to Hempstead. 5000 came, and Belleville was only about 5 miles away.

I'd never been to Belleville. It was only 15 minutes from the soaring club as my airplane flies, but I never really had a reason to go. Now I was trying to divide attention - some to working what lift I could find, some to looking at the map, some to trying to pick out the field. I read the coordinates of the field off the map and punched up the GPS. Sure enough, it told me bearing to the nearest degree and distance to the hundredth of a mile - which helped not at all. I already knew where it should be. I put away the GPS and looked at the map again. There's the road, there, and the town, there, and the airport should be... THERE.

How can I explain what I felt? Far out of gliding range of home, I saw that little runway resolve itself out of the haze - and I knew I could make it. Even if I have to land there, I thought to myself, it was worth it. This is what it's all about. This is what cross country soaring is. Not badges and barographs and ratings and awards, not beeping and chittering gadgets with flashing lights and jumping needles, not silver or gold or diamond goals, but this. A sleepy little strip next to a sleepy little town, a place where I have never been - and now I'm here.

I was below 4000 by the time I got there - in that sink, nowhere near enough to make it back to Hempstead. There wasn't much happening. I stayed close to the airport there, looking for lift. Eventually I got to about 4500. I decided that with the conditions being what they were, I could afford to be at 3000 5 miles from the field - that would give me a comfortable margin to get back and land at Belleville. I was almost down to that, but then the lift started getting better, and pretty soon I >was above 5000 again. The winds had, meanwhile, shifted - and the headwind I fought on the way out (and expected as tailwind on the way back) was now almost direct cross.

As I headed North, the lift got stronger - and so did the sink. I was at 5500 at Hempstead, which was only about 9 miles from home - normally that would be final glide altitude but I knew better. I stopped to work every scrap of lift along the way, anticipating the sink. Sure enough, several miles out, the sink got bad - sometimes exceeding 8 kt. I flew through about 4 miles of that, sometimes speeding up to 75 mph to punch through the worst of it. At first I watched the electric vario and tried to push the stick forward when the needle really dropped, but soon I realized that all I was doing was forcing oscillations. I settled on a steady 65 mph, slowing only when the sink abated. That seemed to work about as well, and gave me a more or less steady glide angle. I could see the home field. If the sink got no worse, I would make it. Otherwise, I wouldn't. I altered course to the right - Simarron was a private strip 3 miles South of the gliderport, and I knew I'd make that.

Expecting that the sink would let off any moment and wondering if I would make the home field or have to land at Simarron, I pressed on. Of course as soon as I reached Simarron, there was lift - way more than I needed to make it home.

A few turns, and I had more than enough altitude. I pushed the nose down, but now I was flying 70 mph and still climbing. Feast or famine. I had been up for over 3 hours, I was out of water, I could see that the tow planes had already been put away - it was time to land.

60 degrees of flaps, and even the strongest lift was powerless against me. I entered the pattern high, having it to myself, and dropped like a rock. Moments later I was on the ground.

I had made it. In retrospect it seems laughable - 23 miles each way as the crow flies, taking over three hours all told, just to see a little airport from the sky. In my power plane that would have been, at most, a thirty minute round trip.

On the ground, I told one person - the pilot who helped me put my glider away. By the time I closed up the hangar and went over to the clubhouse to drink a coke and relax, everyone seemed to know and want to congratulate me. All of a sudden, I was a cross country pilot.