Sunday, October 21, 2007

New England Soaring

Tow Plane Pre-Cable Release
Today was a perfect New England fall day - cloud-free blue sky, countless maple trees turning to brilliant oranges and reds, and pleasantly warm to boot. Noticing this as I walked the dog this morning, I went into one of my periodic "why do I have a pilot's license yet I never fly except for economy seats on United" self-critical rants. Then I remembered an email I had seen about a special gliding day at Sterling (3B3) for Worcester area pilots - hey, isn't that today?

It was! So I drove over to Sterling (about 12 minutes from home), paid my $75, and joined the GBSC (Greater Boston Soaring Club) waiting list for an introductory flight. There were about 10 pilots from the Worcester pilots' association, but with the great weather, private glider owners were also out in force, and with only two tow planes, there was quite a line of gliders waiting for launch. But there were plenty of other pilots hanging around talking about flying and stuff, so it was actually fun to spend the afternoon outdoors at this classic little airport. Other planes were coming and going as well, including a beautiful Boeing Stearman biplane in vintage Army PT-17 colors (blue and yellow - see Flickr) and a helicopter (Robinson R22 I think).

I finally got my turn around 4:00 pm, and by a complicated but lucky fluke, I got to fly in a sleek, high performance, retractable-gear Schempp-Hirth Duo Discus glider rather than in one of the club planes (which certainly would have been fine). My pilot was one of the owners, and we got a tow up to about 3500 feet (about 3000 feet above ground level). He first had me try my hand at staying in proper position with the tow plane, which is harder than it looks. I over-corrected, he repositioned, and I did a little better, but soon it was time to pull the cable release handle.

I've flown gliders 2 or 3 other times, so I was expecting it to be very quiet and peaceful - just the wind noise. You don't even need a headset, you can just talk in the cockpit. The scenery was great as expected, though still mostly greens - the foliage won't peak for a couple of weeks I suppose. But Mount Wachusett, the Wachusett Reservoir, and the nearby towns looked great anyway (I took a few quick pictures but mostly wanted to focus on flying and enjoying the experience). I made a few turns to try to get a feel for the handling. As is typical with power-trained pilots, I didn't use enough rudder at first, and I was shy with the bank angle, which is typically 30-45 degrees for gliders. This is considered a steep turn in a powered airplane where you usually tend to stay around 20-30 degrees. Steep turns are really more fun.

My pilot felt and heard (audio variometer) signs of some rising air , but it was too localized and we didn't gain appreciable altitude. We tried a couple of areas where there had been rising air earlier, but they were pretty dead. We stayed within easy gliding range of the airport, and after about 20 minutes, we were overflying the airport in preparation for landing. Total flight time was about 23 minutes. It was really fun.

I really like soaring and I'm thinking of joining GBSC in the spring and taking the lessons needed to solo and get a glider rating (I could join and maybe start sooner, but they basically pack up the gliders at the end of November, hopefully before the snow flies). Powered-flight pilots usually only need a couple of hours of lessons, but I'm pretty rusty, so who knows? It's not a race, and I enjoy the learning process as much as anything.

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