Soaring Comes Close To Being ‘One With the Sky’

Glider training can sharpen your stick and rudder skills and give you Zen-like experiences, according to this pilot.

A glider pilot soars the skies over eastern Tennessee.

In search of lift, the author soars the skies over eastern Tennessee. [Photo: Leigh Hubner]

I am sitting in a semi-reclined position, ensconced in a small cockpit with a bubble canopy a few inches from my head. It offers an expansive view of Chilhowee Gliderport’s bucolic surroundings, but the peaceful scene does little to calm the butterflies in my stomach. I focus on the towplane idling a hundred feet away and subconsciously wipe my sweat from the stick as Jason Arnold, who co-owns and operates the gliderport with his wife, Sarah, attaches the towline. I am intensely aware of the empty seat behind me. Sarah Arnold, my instructor, now stands to the side of the staging area, the very picture of serene calm.

I flash back to the morning of my 16th birthday, staring bug-eyed at the empty right seat of the flight school Cessna 150. “Just do what you’ve learned the last three years, and you’ll be fine,” Jerry Graham said as he climbed out. Mind you, on this first solo I’ve only had a half-day of preparation, but the principle still applies: concentrate on procedures, and the butterflies dissipate.

I look around the PW-6’s tiny cockpit and make a final before-takeoff check: seat belt, canopy, controls, tow-rope release, rope taut and free of knots. I give Jason a thumbs up, and he picks up my left wingtip. I take a deep breath, say a silent prayer, and waggle my rudder, signaling the tow pilot that I’m ready to go.

The roar of the towplane’s engine is distant and somehow unreal, but the surge of acceleration is instantaneous. Jason runs along for a few paces; once he falls back, it takes nearly full aileron to keep the wing off the ground until airflow increases. I have a sense of being on a funhouse ride as I jolt across the turf, feeling every divot. The relentless pull of the towplane makes me feel at the mercy of the beast. That’s not quite the case: I still have directional control, and I have a yellow tow release handle if I really want to stop.

The most likely abort scenario would involve a problem with the towplane’s engine, and if it so much as hiccups at low altitude, the tow pilot will pull his own rope release and leave me to fend for myself. I am quite dependent on him for the first minute or two of the tow—and yet, oddly, he is even more dependent on me. As I reach flying speed and break ground, I am careful to level a few feet above the grass runway, until the towplane begins its climb. Letting the glider wander too high at this point would forcibly lift the towplane’s tail and cause a disastrous dive into the ground.

Sarah told me that there have been several such accidents in the last few years, two of them fatal. Now, this tow pilot knows I’m on my first glider solo and must be spring-loaded to pull the release if I show the slightest homicidal tendency—but if I were particularly careless, he might not have time to react. It’s a strange sort of intimacy I’m sharing with the person on the other side of this rope, a gruff man I only briefly met. I stay laser focused on the towplane and slide into proper position as he begins his climb, feeling for the trim knob with my left hand and easing it forward to relieve the forward force on the stick.

We climb through 200 feet agl. From here, I could make it back to the runway in case of a rope break or release, a feat that always surprises power pilots for whom such a low-altitude turnback must spell disaster. I know it’s possible because I did it myself a few minutes ago when Sarah pulled the release handle without warning, right at 200 feet.

My sense of shock was appropriately realistic—I wasn’t expecting a simulated rope break then. I recovered my wits and smartly rolled into a 45-degree bank to the left, like I’d briefed before takeoff. As the airspeed decayed to 56 knots, I eased the back pressure to maintain max L/D, our best glide speed in still air. The runway came into view, and I made a quick S-turn to maneuver onto final. Surprisingly, we had plenty of altitude to spare, and I actually used the spoilers to get down. I touched down and rolled to the staging zone, where Sarah asked me if I was ready to do it by myself. I gulped and said yes.

This time, 10 minutes later, the rope holds and the towplane makes a left turnout to the south. I concentrate on staying perfectly behind and just above him, and once we’re above 1,000 feet I practice “boxing the wake.” Flying a glider on tow is a bit like formation flying—if your every move also affected the lead ship and they were aware of every control input you made—and if getting out of position could result in a nasty jerk or rope break. You learn to keep the rope taut, and you also practice slack-line recovery maneuvers.

There's a fine balance that must be maintained while under tow. 'It's a strange sense of intimacy' that's shared with the person on the other end of the rope. [Photo: Leigh Hubner]

I linger on tow up to nearly 3,000 feet; Sarah told me to go play a bit and enjoy my first solo, but it’s still early afternoon and the “lift” (glider-speak for thermals and other rising air) is looking fairly indifferent with only a few wispy fair-weather cumulus dotting the sky. Finally, I pull the release, the rope leaps away with a sprang, and the towplane dives away to the left while I maintain altitude and bank right. The dull roar of the towplane’s engine is replaced by the whisper of the wind and I set off to the west in search of lift.

Everything Zen

I can’t pinpoint a single factor that made me decide to get my glider rating. My wife, Dawn, has lately accused me of being a rating-chaser because I got my seaplane rating and haven’t used it much, and I want to do the multiengine sea, though I have no realistic hope of using it, ever. Similarly, I originally started skydiving with the intention of going no further than the student course. And the truth is, given where we are in our lives, there’s little chance that I will put a glider rating to good use in the near future. One could suppose there’s a certain amount of machismo involved (OK, you can waterski, but can you drop a ski? You can fly, but can you fly with no engine?). I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, though; this is more of a Zen thing.

Almost everything I’ve done in general aviation over the last 10 years has been along two parallel veins: honing my stick and rudder skills to become more perfectly one with the airplane, and simplifying my flying to more perfectly resemble the ideal of natural, unaided bird flight—to become as one with the sky.

Some of this is clearly a rebellion against the stultifying rigidity of my airline pilot profession, and some is an attempt to knock off the calcification of middle age and claw back the proficiency of my freight-dogging youth. By their very nature, sailplanes demand and reward smoothness and precision—and seat-of-the-pants judgment—in a way that modern airliners do not. As for childhood dreams of bird flight, I’ve tried a lot of things, including wind-in-your-hair sky sports like hang gliding and skydiving. Nothing comes quite as close as soaring.

The author gets back to the basics of flight in the tiny cockpit of a PW-6 glider. [Photo: Dawn Weigel]

On an aesthetic level, I think gliding produces a purer relationship between the pilot and the machine, and between the pilot and the sky. Staying airborne becomes about skill, about being in tune with your aircraft and your environment. Flying is incredibly sensual in a glider. You feel the jostle of lift as you enter it, sense where it’s strongest by which wing it lifts. You visualize the movement of air in smoke and dust, in telltale clouds, and in the other creatures (avian and human) sharing your airspace. Soaring flight is not exactly silent, but the primary sound is that of your craft slicing through the air. Most gliders are now equipped with electronic varios that add a wonderfully whimsical, musical sound to lift: a happy, lilting song when entering, and a sad-trombone dirge when lift dies.

It Takes a Village

In thinking about gliding, there’s one word I keep coming back to: relationship. It is apropos in many ways: not only in the relationships between the pilot and their machine and environment, but also in the bonds of friendship formed between kindred spirits of the same feather.

Soaring is a communal sport. It must be, for it takes a village to rig, move, launch, tow, and retrieve a glider. Seldom will you get a crew together to launch just one or two gliders. Either the fleet flies together, or nobody flies at all. Soaring clubs are the rule. Good-
natured competition is the norm, and a great deal of socializing takes place before, during, and after weekend gaggles. Commercial operators like Chilhowee are surprisingly rare, and even Chilhowee feels very much like a club.

It’s appropriate, then, that Chilhowee Gliderport is owned and operated by a young married couple—Sarah and Jason—and that I was introduced to them by two dear friends I’ve written of in these pages before, Sylvia and Hugh Grandstaff. Sarah is the primary instructor and designated examiner at Chilhowee, but Jason also instructs, and they tag-team ground crew, tow pilot, and maintenance duties.

Besides the sleek, high-performance PW-6 I flew, Chilhowee trains students in a beautifully restored Schweizer 2-33 and also has several single-place ships for rent, as well as two converted crop-dusters for aerotow. It’s a neat little operation in a beautiful location in the shadow of Chilhowee Ridge in the southeastern corner of Tennessee, which attracts pilots from around the world.

Quite apart from running Chilhowee, Sarah Arnold is best known in the soaring community as one of the top competitive glider racing pilots in the world. In fact, shortly before my visit, she won the standard class gold medal at the Women’s World Gliding Championship in Lake Keepit, Australia. Sylvia Grandstaff has been good friends with Sarah for years and was one of her Team USA teammates at Lake Keepit; she suggested that if I wanted to get my glider rating, I should learn from the best.

A glider's long, high-aspect-ratio wings create a large amount of adverse yaw in turns, so you lead with the rudder. [Photo: Leigh Hubner]

Soaring With Hawks

On a bright September morning, Dawn and I pulled into Chilhowee after a long drive from New York City. When I first met Sarah, she came across as quiet and unassuming, almost shy. But I caught a hawklike intensity in her eyes and noted the economic purposefulness of her movements. When I asked her a question, she’d think intently for a moment and reply with a short, succinct answer that conveyed exactly the information I wanted to know. In nearly three decades in aviation, I’ve come to recognize Sarah’s type, and when they speak, I listen. She’s a pro, and I quickly came to feel a certain kinship with her, though our particular corners of the piloting profession are rather far apart.

In the glider on our first lesson, I got to watch Sarah fly for a minute or two. She had me take off and box the wake, and fly the release; but a few minutes later, a little turbulence jostled the glider and Sarah suddenly said, “My controls, I think there might be a bit of lift there.” As I relinquished the stick, she threw the glider into a 60 degree bank to the left, got another jostle, entered a steep right turn, and circled for 90 seconds, varying the bank and turn radius slightly. Finally, she shrugged and said, “not much there,” turning the controls back over to me. But even those two minutes gave me something to use.

A few flights later, when Sarah pulled the tow release on me at 200 feet, my turn back to the runway was her turn: smooth, coordinated but aggressive. My natural tendency, given the glider’s seemingly dainty airframe and long-winged grace, was to fly it like a 737 with 179 sinners’ souls and one saintly grandma in the back. Sarah showed me with one deft movement how to fly this sleek bird, whether in an emergency response to a rope break or in a champion glider racer’s pursuit of transitory lift.

“Soaring is a communal sport. It must be, for it takes a village to rig, move, launch, tow, and retrieve a glider.”

Sam Weigel

Now, on my first solo in a glider, off the tow and free to roam, I try to put myself in Sarah’s place. Where would she look for lift? That cool river valley I’m about to cross clearly isn’t it; the vario confirms the area of sink and I (rather counter-intuitively) push the stick forward to get through it quickly. That half-grown bean field? The vario shrugs noncommittally.

I continue on to a scraggly-looking corn field and am rewarded with a distinct jostle that forces the left wing upward. I sling into a steep left turn and the vario begins to sing a happy song of lift before falling silent. I bank hard to get back to the thermal, but fly out of it even more quickly. Then I see a red-tailed hawk circling below me, and I realize that the lift is a little more downwind. I ease the bank, approach at an oblique angle, and as the vario breaks into steady song, I throw the glider into a tight circle, “centering” the thermal. The hawk appears at my altitude and circles opposite me, completely nonplussed by his white-winged companion.

After a few minutes and 1,500 feet of climbing, the lift dies abruptly; nothing I do seems to bring it back, and the hawk disappears. But it was a beautiful moment while it lasted.

In the Weeds

After soaring majestically with the hawk, it’s time to get in the weeds with the turkeys. I’ve elected to go for a commercial add-on rating, and that means I need 20 solo takeoffs and landings. This is to get comfortable with what are the most demanding parts of glider operations: launch procedures and traffic patterns.

The most common glider fatality is the stall/spin accident. It tends to occur when pilots try to stretch their glide range to the gliderport rather than accepting “landing out,” which seldom results in injury or damage to the glider but always involves a fair amount of crew work and a certain measure of bruised ego.

Ideally, one enters the pattern with enough energy that the base and final is flown with a partially deployed spoiler. The spoiler is analogous to the throttle in powered aircraft; it is used to adjust the glidepath as needed, and it makes the glider surprisingly
airplane-like in the pattern. The really important thing is to stay coordinated. The glider’s long wings result in an enormous amount of adverse yaw, and you have to lead turns with the rudder.

Surprisingly, I get in half of my solo flights on the first day of training. Apart from the first solo with the hawk, all are tows to slightly above pattern altitude, a quick release, and a normal traffic pattern with landing a few minutes after takeoff. You could make nine stop-and-gos in an hour with a powered airplane, but in the glider I have to get turned around and hooked back up to the towplane. Over the afternoon, it becomes more routine, and every ground turn goes quicker and smoother. By the end of the day, I have made 15 flights, 10 of them solo, and I am well on my way to a glider rating.

The Change Up

The next morning, I arrive to the gliderport and find that I’ll be flying with Jason today, since Sarah will be administering my check ride. Jason is an interesting guy; he’s an accomplished glider pilot in his own right but happily lives in the shadow of his wife’s virtuosity, crewing for her at glider racing contests.

Jason and Sarah have different and complementary personalities: where she is quiet and intense, he is gregarious and laid-back, the surfer dude to her gunny sergeant. In other circumstances, I think Jason and I would get along famously but on this morning, we fail to mesh. I’m too keyed up today, too conscious of the approaching check ride and possible weather delays, ready to master this machine.

Our first flight features several mutual misunderstandings and some rather sloppy wake-boxing on my part, which comes as little surprise: plateauing and even backsliding a bit just before check rides has always been my modus operandi.

But then as we practice stalls, I have trouble getting the glider to break cleanly to Jason’s satisfaction, and my frustration catches up to me. After two attempts, I give the stick a good yank; the nose comes up rapidly, the wing loads up, and sure enough, the glider gives up the ghost quite definitively, starting to drop a wing before I stop it with a stab of rudder. Jason is characteristically unflappable: “Well, that was more of an airshow maneuver; we try to go a little easier on 'em…”

Crimson rises in my cheeks. I didn’t break any limitations, but I showed the hamfistedness of an amateur. I think back to when I did something similar in the Cessna 150 at the tender age of 13. “Now Sam,” admonished Jerry, “you have to treat the airplane like a woman.” Of course, I had no clue about women at that age, but I understood Jerry’s gist, and with his gentle hints, I learned to keep the airplane in trim, fly with my fingertips, and make smooth control inputs that resulted in even changes of load factor. It’s technique that has served me well in airplanes from the Piper J-3 to the Boeing 767. Now I take a deep breath, clear my mind of the bad energy that’s built up over this flight, and make a much smoother approach to stall with a clean but less aggressive break.

After lunch, Jason and I have a much better flight, and then I set about pounding through all my remaining solo trips around the pattern. Toward the end of the day, I have enough time to take a high tow, get out of the pattern, and attempt to thermal with the hawks again. There’s not a lot of lift around, just enough to maintain altitude for a while, and I play a “what-if” game of what I would do if I were actually attempting to go somewhere in these fickle conditions.

A Pilot Reborn

The weather is quite marginal the next morning, and Jason and I spend it on a mock oral exam, during which I learn quite a bit about cross-country and contest-flying strategy.

The following day, we get skunked completely by low clouds and rain. Instead, Dawn and I load up our Nissan Xterra and go exploring the muddy logging roads and misty peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains. We enjoy a nice quiet night in our cabin tucked into a river valley on the east side of the Chilhowee Ridge, sipping wine and studying glider textbooks by the firelight.

Thankfully, the weather breaks and the next morning dawns clear and cold. I arrive at Chilhowee early, ready for the check ride and completely free of jitters. By my count, I’ve had 51 check rides thus far in my career, and while a few were less than perfect, so far I’ve managed to avoid a pink slip; I generally do my best flying under pressure.

Sure enough, both the oral and flight test go very well. Sarah pulls the tow release at 200 feet on the very first takeoff, but by now I expect such shenanigans, and at this point, 200 feet seems like tons of altitude in this sleek ship.

We make several more flights in quick succession, testing tow procedures and airwork, and various types of landings.

By lunchtime, the ink is drying on my new ATP certificate, with its amended line: “Commercial Privileges - Airplane Single Engine Land and Sea; Glider.” Handshakes are exchanged, photos are taken; I’m a new glider pilot. What now?

Time will tell. My new home in the Pacific Northwest is not prime soaring territory, and procuring a single-seat glider will likely take a backseat to buying a four-seat taildragger to share with my wife, dog, and friends. At least Chilhowee is within striking range of my airline’s major hub in Atlanta, and there are many other cool soaring destinations around the U.S. that have affordable gliders for rent.

But what you do with the rating is almost irrelevant. The real value of glider training lies in the sharpening of stick and rudder skills and the honing of airmanship that it provides. This carries over to all of your flying, regardless of number of engines or lack thereof. That alone is good reason to make getting your glider rating a top priority. The fact that it’s a beautiful experience and a hell of a lot of fun is just the cherry on top.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Q2 2022 issue of FLYING Magazine.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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