When's the last time you were scared in an aircraft? I got a dose the other day, but I'll have to put my pride on the shelf for a few minutes to tell about it. After all, we never lose our cool, right?
The usual two place glider the local gliderport uses for rides was out of service. If I was going to take the other one two place, they might have to call me back if a ride shows up. My glider ride passenger couldn't make it, so I thought that I'd try out one of the single place gliders that day. I had already flown several single place ones in the past, including a fairly high performance Grob 102 (sleek white fiberglass model.) at this place. I decided to try the Schweizer 1-26. An all-metal glider built in the USA between 1954 and 79, this model, being built sometime in the 70's. It is not a high performance glider by any means, but it's pretty sturdy, and roomy by glider standards. It's glide ratio is 23:1 which is just a little better than an A-330's 19:1, (the Grob's is 36:1). Although at less than 40 miles per hour it's a lot easier to stay in a thermal than in an A330! The stall speed is an amazing 32 mph. While its glide ratio is not fantastic, it has a very low sink rate (about 180 fpm) which allows it to stay up in weak thermals and make very tight circles (also great for weak thermals).
The funny thing about a single-seat aircraft is that there's no chance for any dual in it before you're on your own. The checkout consisted of a review of the manual, making note of a few key performance speeds (stall, minimum sink, maximum glide, recommended approach speed), and a chat with the local instructor, who would also be the tow pilot. "Here's how to work the trim setting, and adjust the rudder pedals, be careful it's pitch sensitive on takeoff - rest your arm on your leg and just light pressure on the stick. On landing, touchdown just slightly tailwheel first."
This thing was light! It only weights about 450 pounds and is easy to pull around with one hand. Taxiing a glider means dragging it to where you want to go, so you pull it in position along side the runway for takeoff. A golf cart comes in handy for the heavier ships, but not really needed on this one.
It was a somewhat blustery day. A few cumulus clouds were overhead and the wind was blowing at about 15 knots with only a slight crosswind. This meant that once the tow plane was going about 20 mph, I'd be in the air!
Buckled in, takeoff checklist complete, I wagged the rudders to signal the tow pilot to start the tow.
Takeoff was smooth, I was in the air almost instantly. Following the instructor's tips, overcontrolling wasn't a problem. It was pretty evident that this was a very light glider. Around 1000 feet up, I caught a bit of the towplanes wingtip vortex and it took near full left stick to counteract the rolling motion. I pulled up to get above the wake and flew in the high-tow position, slightly higher than the tow plane ahead. There it seemed a little safer away from that wake that tried to bite me! I found my foot shaking. Gee, I guess I was a little scared! - or shall we say "apprehensive." Thoughts of "Do I really know how to do this?" competed with "Hey, no problem, I'm an ace pilot with thousands of hours; I have a commercial glider ticket! I know what I'm doing." I wasn't going to remind myself that only 20 of those hours were in gliders in the last 15 years. Of course, I was there alone, so there was no other choice but to fly.
We passed through some nice thermals on the tow, the variometer (a sensitive vertical speed indicator) peggd out at over 1000 feet per minute climb. I released from the tow plane at 3000 feet above ground (6000 MSL), and pealed back to looked for one of the thermals we had recently flown through. I had a few minutes to get to know this new ship, find the attitude for best glide speed, slow down and see how it felt in slow flight, and a stall. I eased back the stick, the wind noise died down, the controls got mushy, and I felt the telltale buffet. Yup, 32 mph all right, and the airspeed indicator seemed to be working fine.
"Ok, let's find a thermal." I could see the general area where a series of cumulus clouds had formed, each one triggered by a thermal from below usually at some angle, then blown downwind. I had lost about 750 feet since I had released. My portable GPS, velcroed to the panel, showed my current glide ratio, and the one I would need to make it back abeam the field at pattern altitude. I needed to find that thermal or it would be a short flight.
I found some lift and climbed about 250 feet then lost over 300 before I was able to center in the thermal to take me 1500 feet up to 6600 feet MSL. I was at the east end of the Mt. Palomar ridge, home of the famous observatory.
|The clouds formed around me as I thermaled|
To keep from becoming engulfed in cloud, I'd have to move upwind each time it formed.
Flying at the edge of the updraft would tip a wing up, which resulted in an instant even automatic stick move to maintain my previous bank angle. A change in the current could steal airspeed, and I found myself reacting instinctively to push forward to maintain a flying angle of attack and airspeed.
GPS track of the flight. The airport is just to
the right of the Hwy 79 symbol
At several points in the flight, the adrenaline flowed, and I felt a heightened sense of awareness. But I don't think that it helped me perform better. As mammals, our hard wired reactions are to freeze, run away, or fight back. Thinking of a brilliant solution to the problem at hand is usually not in that mix. When I was on tow, I had retreated to the safety of the high-tow position, even though it was not the optimum position. Thermalling, I stayed on the fast side. The adrenaline didn't help me perform better, it made me want to retreat to a safe distance.
I think of the crew of Air France 447, knowing they were losing control of the airplane (by their own actions) but not knowing why or how to correct it. Plagued with fatigue, wondering out loud, what was happening to them, trying different solutions in desperation to find something that worked. But for whatever reason, their reaction to a repeated and at times-continuous stall warning was not to push forward. I've been asked if the adrenaline of the situation shouldn't have overcome the fatigue. Maybe it did to a degree, to make them awake, to give more strength to pull back on the sidestick, perhaps without even knowing it. This is the source of strength that allows mothers to inexplicably lift cars off of their children. But I don't think it is the source for better mental performance. If it was, then "check-itis" wouldn't be a reason to fail a checkride, it would be an explanation how someone pulled off an unexpected stellar performance!
The instructor/tow pilot came over to help me pull it off the runway. "Nice touchdown" he said.