When pursuing a career in aviation many pilots build up their experience by towing gliders. I was attracted to it since seeing my first « towing » in September 2014 while attending the annual corn roast fly-in at Kars. I had flown in with my instructor-mentor-friend Joe in his beautiful Cessna 170. We were sitting in camping chairs at the far end of runway 26 while gliding activities were in progress. They would be zooming magnificently right over our heads, and obviously I would stare up.
At that point, I had not yet obtained my so desired pilot license but I earned my (PPL) wings the following month.
A couple of years later, after buying my first airplane, completing my commercial license, and acquiring different experiences including my taildragger endorsement, I flew in one day in my airplane while there was gliding activities. A few people were sitting at the picnic table and I started chatting with one of the Club’s members. He said that they were always looking for tow plane pilots but that a taildragger endorsement was a pre-requisite. The very next day I emailed their chief pilot and a couple weeks later (due to my busy schedule), I was checked out on their Citabria with a 150HP (modified for gliding activities). Love at first sight!
There is no ambiguity in my mind that I love taildraggers, and I thrive on challenges. Towing gliders permits a happy mix of both. Whether it becomes monotonous and repetitive depends entirely on you, on how you challenge yourself to always do better. For example, towing gliders gives you lots of practice landing a taildragger in different and variable wind conditions each day you are out.
The checkout to be a tow pilot in the Citabria consisted of about half an hour doing some maneuvers, and 6 tows with the chief pilot. As a finale for the day, I towed one glider solo.
How is it different?
Towing gliders was my first experience in flying operations. Although it is not paid work, you have to fit your flying to what is needed, while keeping every flight safe (as you are always expected to as PIC).
Because you have lots of weight tied to your tail, you have to go easy with the fuel you take aboard. Anyway, you land pretty much every 15 minutes or so, no need to carry too much extra weight. As a general rule, we go with about half tanks.
Then the flying: Glider Pilots under tow have the challenge of keeping the tow plane centered in their field of vision. Depending on wind conditions, and when I turn, it can be more difficult, especially for students learning the ropes. It’s all good. This means for the tow pilot that forces are pulling the airplane left and right pretty much all the time. Usually the up and down is going reasonably well. But it is more vital as it will influence the tow plane speed. (Speed being one factor to keep an eye on not to stall. When turning, the stall speed goes up as the angle of bank increases.) It is fun and challenging to maintain this balance, practicing your footwork on the rudder, while keeping a vigilant eye out for traffic.
Unless there is a problem, it is the glider pilot that pulls the release mechanism, separating the glider from the tow rope. Once the glider releases, the tow plane pilot must follow the engine cool down procedures to avoid shock cooling of the engine cylinders, and get back down for the next glider waiting for tow. Being good to the engine is important, as it is expensive work to overhaul or change it.
A great community
Through my brief time with the glider community, I found them very friendly and leaned towards team work. When at the field, everyone is expected to lend a hand either wing walking, driving the tracter to pull a glider, filling out the log sheet for the day, or anything that might require an extra pair of hands. Cooperation is key, and emphasis is on learning. We all make mistakes — small or not-so-small, but although a talking-to may ensue, it is respectful and intended to teach to learn and be safer, rather then assign blame.
The community is vibrant with a passion for flying. On a good day, each glider pilot might go up 2 or 3 times, yet, some will stay all day, from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 in the evening. In the spirit of enabling others to soar.
I was intrigued by how the difference is made between glider pilots and « powered pilots ». I only see pilots, but somehow there seems to exist a strong differentiation between both. One comment got me thinking:
« It must get boring to fly cross countries in a powered airplane. »
There are differences between flying a glider and a powered-airplane, there is no denying it. One has no engine! Each type of flying has a particular appeal. For example, when flying a cross country in a powered-airplane, the pilot might be focusing on perfecting her/his precision in keeping a specific altitude all the time, while on a same kind of cross country, the glider pilot will be aiming at always gaining the most altitude by unearthing the best thermal.
Many have tried to « convert » me to gliding. I found it was in good humour. I really enjoyed the two flights I was graciously provided with. But then, I would answer, « but who would fly the tow plane! » I will remain with the fun taildragger a while longer, and provide a means for other to soar higher. Already looking forward to the 2018 season!
Request for tow plane pilots
During my half-season with the glider club, I found the need for tow plane pilots was constant. I’ve flown almost every week with them, sometimes up to 3 days a week. Even though some days could leave me totally exhausted, it was truly rewarding. I was satisfied with the time building opportunity, 50+ hours in 3 months. But even more grateful for the learning experience, 170 glide tows. Each of them where everyone safely landed. A few minor nicks, but nothing serious. A great education for all in a safe and professional environment.
On a last note… we operate from a grass field which means we co-habit with wild life. Sometimes my parking spot was taken by wild turkeys! Fortunately, they are compliant, and easily give way where the engine sound comes closer or become stronger. Smart sense of survival.