Saturday, July 21, 2012

"The People Up in the Tower"

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
21 Jul 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) - 5G0 4.7 1063.4

"Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo.  I do believe it, I do believe it's true."
-- Simon and Garfunkel


At the conclusion of a recent instrument flying lesson, I told my instructor, Tom, about flying over Ontario to reach my hometown via the Oakland County International Airport (i.e., "Pontiac").  As a VFR-only pilot, making this flight for the first time was my introduction to the world of ARTCCs (air-route traffic control centers), colloquially known as "centers".  It is the job of centers to keep track of aircraft flying between terminal areas, the controlled airspaces around larger airports.

"Toronto Center is always quiet between Hamilton, ON and Michigan, there's never anything happening on frequency," I asserted.  I gave him an example of being the sole aircraft worked by a particular Toronto Center controller who became bored to the point of regaling us with $100 hamburger recommendations for airports in lower Ontario.

Naturally, the day after this conversation, a contradictory scenario presented itself.

Brilliant sunlight illuminated our Warrior as we burrowed through Ontario skies on a western heading at 6500'.  Below, popcorn cumulus floated over an agrarian landscape.  The Bear was flying right-seat, engaged in a game on her MobiGo.  I had her isolated on the audio panel to separate the antics of the Toy Story 3 characters from the unusually steady stream of chatter on Toronto Center's frequency.

Every few minutes, a new aircraft would pop up on frequency to request flight following and the controller would provide a terse "unable".  He was busy, inexplicably so.  While the controller was working at the ragged edge of his capacity, we overheard this (paraphrased) exchange:

Toronto Center:  "Cessna 123, you have an active restricted area at your twelve o' clock.  Recommend you turn twenty degrees left or ten degrees right to avoid."

Cessna 123: *silence*

Toronto Center: "Cessna 123, Toronto Center."

Cessna 123: "Was that call for Cessna 123?"

Toronto Center: "Cessna 123, you have a restricted area ahead of you.  Recommend you turn twenty degrees left to avoid."

Cessna 123: "Restricted area?  Oh...yeah...we see that on our chart."

Toronto Center:  "Well...then...don't hit it."  The poor man was clearly at a loss for words.

An explanation for the frequency congestion emerged as we were about to cross the St Clair River into Michigan.  We switched to the Selfridge Air National Guard controller, busily trying to sort out where everyone was going.  It immediately became apparent that we were caught in a great westward pilgrimage to AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI.

Return to Pontiac

Conspicuously absent from my flight bag was my passport and The Bear's birth certificate, which I always carry as back-up during Canadian overflights.  This time, my first thought about them did not occur until after I activated our flight plan with Buffalo Radio.  Ooops.  If I were superstitious, I might have worried that today would be the day for an unplanned landing on Canadian soil.  Fortunately, it wasn't.

An unusually clear atmosphere revealed ground objects with incredible crispness, but I was unable to find a single charged camera available for use in the house that morning.  Niagara Falls, a regional jet circling the falls just below us, the St Clair River, and many other wonderful sights went unphotographed as a result.  But The Bear enjoyed them all, calling out airports, race tracks, and cities as they passed below our wings.

We arrived at Pontiac as another aircraft in the vicinity developed a potential mechanical emergency.  Pontiac tower shifted all five airplanes currently in the pattern, including us, to runway Two Seven Right for landing.  This reserved the larger Two Seven Left for the aircraft in distress.  Other inbound aircraft were asked to stay away temporarily.

After landing, we were directed to taxi south and cross runway Two Seven Left, still open and waiting for the emergency aircraft.  We sat for a moment at the intersection of taxiways Charlie and Juliet, near the base of the tower, as the controllers coordinated the remaining traffic away from the emergency aircraft inbound to Two Seven Left.  The whole scene appeared to be very well managed by the tower, though I confess that I have no idea how everything worked out in the end.

GPS tracks for on and over the field at Pontiac

The Bear was oblivious to all of this tension.  "I can see the people up in the tower, Daddy!" she exclaimed over the intercom.  It seemed like no matter where we went that morning, air traffic controllers were getting a work-out.  Kudos to all of them for rising to the challenge so well, so often.

We parked at the Pontiac Air Center at 11:40 am, where my Mom was already waiting.  Our goal for the day was to make-up for an aborted (weather-related) Mother's Day visit.  Our day trip to Michigan included some $100 nachos at Qdoba (not available in New York), a trip to the Detroit Zoo, and quality time with Grandma for The Bear.

"Without You, There's No Zoo"

My last visit to the Detroit Zoo occurred when I was nine years old.  I cannot remember much about the zoo other than that it was huge and the day uncomfortably hot.  I do remember my Dad locking the keys inside his Pinto and a police officer using a "slim jim" to unlock the recalcitrant door with the aplomb of a master car thief.  I guess it was a good thing for my Dad that no one in their right mind would ever actually want to steal a Pinto, because it appeared to be really easy.

At the Detroit Zoo.  Photo by Mom

Our Seneca Park Zoo membership gained us entry to the zoo at a fraction of the standard price.  Other than the fact that the zoo is still really big and the day also uncomfortably hot, nothing seemed familiar to me.  Everything was in excellent condition and the zoo volunteers with whom we interacted were all friendly and knowledgeable.  It is a nice zoo - we spent hours there and The Bear had an absolute blast.

On the way out of the zoo.  Photo by Mom.

At the end of the day, we were all tired, dehydrated (despite the water I brought with us), and completely walked-out.  After dinner, we returned to the Pontiac airport and were airborne by 7:20 pm, The Bear choosing once again to ride up front with me.

"Daddy, can we go back to Michigan sometime and visit that zoo again?" she asked as we flew over the Chrysler Technology Center.

"Absolutely."  With her many past adventures flying to Michigan, she seems to have developed a sense that Michigan is where one goes to do fun things.

After making a flight following request to the controller at Selfridge ANG, an unusually long time passed without comment or the critical transponder code we needed to cross the border.  Eventually, he came back on frequency to verify that our destination was "five golf quebec".  Clearly, he had some trouble deciphering his own handwritten notes from my initial contact.

"Warrior 481 is going to five golf zero," I corrected.

"Ah," he responded in an "oh!  that explains it" tone of voice.  A few minutes later, he responded that he could not find 5G0 in the database and asked for a nearby major airport as alternative destination to put in the system.  I provided the identifier for Rochester.  This evidently worked because he quickly responded with a transponder code.  It was just in time, moments before we reached the international border.  I do not fully understand what issues he faced entering us into the system, but it was another example of the "people up in the tower" working tenaciously to help.

First Flying Lesson?

On the way home, The Bear became very interested in the airplane instruments.  I showed her the depictions of Lake St Clair and the St Clair river on the GPS as we crossed them.  She peered out the window and back to the Garmin 430W, making the connection between the digital image on the panel and the real world spread below.

"Cool," she commented with wonder.

Next she asked about the directional gyro.  "That tells us what direction we're going," I explained.

"You mean like a compass?"

"Yes, exactly like a compass."

She pondered this for a moment, studied the directional gyro (currently indicating an east-ish heading) then pointed out her window to where Lake Erie was visible to the south.  "So, if we turned that way, the compass would show south?"

"Yup," I answered, fascinated by the way her five year old mind quickly analyzed the situation, combined it with new information, and produced an accurate interpretation of the instrument's use.

We also discussed the purpose of the #1 CDI (course deviation indicator) that was slaved to the GPS at the time.  Periodically, she would study it to satisfy herself that we were still on course.

Near London, Ontario, I pointed out that the sun was beginning to set.  The Bear turned her head to look out one of the rear windows and immediately winced when the brilliant rays struck her eyes.

"Daddy.  Do not look over there," she declared with all the authority that her little voice could muster.

I kept her supplied with a steady stream of books as we flew over Canada.  Over time, the ambient lighting shifted to crimson from the burgeoning sunset.  I occasionally invited her to pull her head out of a book to see some of the lovely cotton-candy pink cloud formations that passed above our windscreen.

"Cool..." she would say with sincere awe upon seeing each one.  It became something of a refrain.

The Planet Sleeps

GPS tracks for inbound to Pontiac (red) and en route to Le Roy (green).  Something tells me that I have been a bit more precise in my flying lately.

Over Buffalo, the sun had set and I turned on the instrument panel lighting.  Back over her native soil, the now heavily-lidded Bear requested her "sleeping music".  Her sleeping music is from a CD called "The Planet Sleeps", a compilation of lullabies from around the world that was given to Kristy in graduate school.  It waited, unopened, for years until The Bear was born.  When The Bear was an infant, I rocked her to sleep every night while listening to that CD and it remains popular at bedtime to this day.

As shadows crawled across the landscape, the cabin was filled by the lovely "Chi Mi Na Morbheanna", a Gaelic tune about the mountains.  The Bear, now awake well past her bedtime, turned partially sideways in her seat and made an attempt to doze.  But the lullaby was periodically interrupted by another aircraft en route to Niagara Falls International Airport that was unable to visually locate the field.

"I'll call the tower over there and ask them to turn up the lighting," offered the controller sitting fourteen miles away in Buffalo.

"Those guys are loud," commented The Bear.  Unable to doze, she peered out of her window at the lights of Buffalo passing below.  The amber glow of sodium vapor lights reached pointillistic tendrils toward the 'burbs from city center. 

"Wow, are those the lights from the city?" she asked.  When I answered in the affirmative, I received another, quiet, "cool...".

On descent to Le Roy, I noticed that someone had turned the lights on full at the Genesee County Airport.  I dipped the left wing and entered a side slip so that The Bear could see the lights from her seat.

"Oh!  I see!  There are two rows of lights because they are on both sides of the runway!"

Clever girl.

"But, Daddy, who turns on the lights?"

Before I could answer, we were handed-off to Rochester Approach, who asked me to verify that we were landing in Le Roy.  Evidently, the controller in Selfridge found a way to get 5G0 into his system after all.

I launched into a brief explanation of pilot controlled lighting, which particularly enthused The Bear.  "I want to see you turn the lights on at OUR airport!".  And so, as "Hace Tuto Guagua" hummed (literally) through the intercom, I waited until we were on downwind at Le Roy before switching on the runway lighting so that The Bear was guaranteed to see them blossom in the night.

Stopped in front of our hangar, The Bear stared out of the open Warrior door at the colorful lights leading away to runway's end.  "I like those lights," she said.

"Me too," I responded.  We sat for a quiet moment contemplating the colorful lights that had just guided us to a safe night landing.

Tired though she may have been, she nonetheless insisted on helping me clean bugs off of the airplane and signing my logbook.  By the time we finished, it was 10:00 at night.

"I sure hope you sleep-in tomorrow, Little Bear," I said.
"Oh, I will," she answered.  "If Mama comes in to wake me up, I won't even listen to her."

On the way out of the airport, I stumbled upon two Oshkosh pilgrims overnighting in the terminal building.  I apologized for disturbing them, but they were quite pleased to chat for a moment and extoll Ray's virtues for letting them camp in comfort after flying in from Maine that afternoon.  They planned to continue their journey on Sunday.  I welcomed them to Le Roy and wished them good night, softly closing the door behind me.

We continued our listening of "The Planet Sleeps" in the car.  This finally did the trick and The Bear fell asleep shortly into our commute home.  At the house, I carried a virtually comatose five year old to bed after a very big day.

It was a great Daddy-Daughter-Grandma day.  Thanks again to the "people up in the tower" for helping to make it all happen safely.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Greatest Show on Turf, 2012

In mid-July, it was once again time for the Greatest Show on Turf in Geneseo, NY. This year's show was a little rough: blistering heat, an unusual arrangement of things on the ground, and some high profile no-shows (I was really looking forward to seeing the FW-190). Despite the disappointments, it's always a pleasure to visit Geneseo.

Of course, there were some gorgeous warbirds to see:

A truly beautiful Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair privately owned by Jim Tobul from South Carolina.

North American P-51D, Never Miss.

The North American P-51C, Tuskegee Airmen was accompanied by a mobile movie theater (air conditioned!) that brought together the stories of the Tuskegee Airmen and this airplane in particular, inspiring all to "rise above".

Curtiss P-40 Jacky C from the American Air Power Museum in Farmingdale, NY.

Geneseo's own Douglas C-47 Skytrain, "W7" tossed some "meat missiles" out over the field in authentic WWII paratrooper gear (that must have been hot).

Exploring the Historic Aircraft Group's hangar, we found this cool Douglas A-26 Invader.

There were several Stearman biplanes present, most of them painted in WWII era military training schemes.

Kent Pietsch returned in the Jelly Belly Interstate Cadet.  Sure, he pulled-off the same three routines he performed last year, but I really needed to see them all again with my own eyes.  This guy is an artist with stick and rudder.

Oh no!  Where's his aileron?!  *grin*  This was taken during the first Jelly Belly appearance in the middle of Rob Holland and Rick Volker's aerobatic routine, when the Cadet appeared to clip one of the aerobatic performers.

The feat of landing the Interstate Cadet on an RV was repeated, but required at least four tries this year.

Of course, without a crane to remove the airplane from the top of the RV, what comes down must go back up.  Here, the Jelly Belly Interstate launches from the makeshift carrier deck

The third and final appearance of Kent Pietsch and the Jelly Belly Interstate Cadet was a beautiful dead stick aerobatic routine that ended, as it did last year, with Pietsch completing the routine by planting the airplane spinner into the palm of someone's hand.  Cool.

For all of that amazing flying, this is a pretty unassuming little airplane.  And the pilot?  He blended right in with the rest of the crowd and disappeared.

Rob Holland, aerobatic pilot extraordinaire, put on an incredible performance - as always.

This MX2 is a cool airplane with a 400+ degree per second roll rate.  Just thinking about that roll rate makes my head spin.  Rob is also a heck of a nice guy, as I learned when I met him at the fuel pump in Le Roy last year.

One of Rob's signature moves: the airplane pitched to a vertical climb attitude and is literally sliding sideways through the air.  As I watch him perform some of these routines, all I can do is shake my head in disbelief.  Simply amazing.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pedal-Rama 2012

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
8 Jul 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - FZY (Fulton, NY) - DSV (Dansville, NY) - 5G0 2.6 1056.1

Kristy, The Bear, and I set out for the EAA pancake breakfast at Oswego County Airport in Fulton, NY.  Because the direct course takes us through Rochester airspace, I always contact Rochester as soon as possible after departure from Le Roy for flight following.

Rochester was unusually busy this morning and we climbed to our cruise altitude of 5500' before successfully establishing two way communication with them.  At this point, we were actually above their controlled airspace, but I think it is rude to fly low over controlled airspace without a proper introduction.  As we crossed over downtown at 5500', we had an unusual perspective (for us) of the city in which we were high enough to actually see the entire Inner Loop.

Key landmarks like Frontier Field and the Kodak Tower passed off the port side of the Warrior.

Crossing over the Genesee River, we could see Bausch & Lomb Place along with the Xerox and Chase Towers.

As usual for a fly-in morning, Oswego County was busy.  We fit into the flow of traffic, number three to land behind a Bonanza and a Cessna Centurion.  When a lightweight experimental taxied onto the runway in front of the Bonanza on short final, the Bonanza aborted its approach and broke out of the pattern.  I expected it to circle around and rejoin the traffic pattern, but we never heard it on the radio again.  Obviously, the Bonanza pilot decided that pancakes were not worth messing around near aircraft that pull into traffic without looking.

We landed softly, but kind of flat.  My last landing was in a Schweizer 2-33 and I obviously internalized "do not flare" better than previously thought.  I provided a wind advisory to an inbound WACO biplane.  I am not sure where the airplane is based, but it is gorgeous and really classed-up the airport while it was there.

Breakfast was excellent as always, particularly the french toast (did I detect a hint of cinnamon there?).  But there was no denying that the famous pedal planes were the real drivers for our visit.

The Bear had all three of them to herself; paradise for a little aviatrix.

Though The Bear took a spin in the Ford...

...the Mustang was what really held her attention this time.

Look at that steely gaze.  Obviously, she had "Jerry" in her sights.

The Bear zoomed around the ramp, drawing smiles from those milling about.  I thought back to her first pedal plane flight, when she was too small to reach the pedals.  Now, she was almost too big to fit in the cramped wooden cockpits.  Next year, she might not fit at all.

She was having so much fun that neither Kristy nor I pointed this out to her.

Sorry about that bright sunshine, Little Bear.  My primary instructor used to say that the trick to managing the sun while flying was to not look at it.

After pedaling her legs off in the pedal planes, she announced that she was hungry again.  Breakfast was over and the EAA folks were already packing up the hangar.  Taking a page out of Darrell's playbook, I suggested a roundabout route home via Dansville so that we could stop for ice cream.

It probably comes as no surprise that my family embraced this suggestion enthusiastically.  As for me, well, I got to do a little more flying!  I even remembered to flare when landing at Dansville and Le Roy.

It was a full morning of flying for The Bear and I both.  Life is good.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum

While in Denver, I visited the Wings Over the Rockies museum housed in one of the hangars of the former Lowry Air Force Base. As first impressions go, there is something about a pristine B-52 Stratofortress sitting on pylons outside the front door that portends an excellent museum experience.

Near the entrance, visitors can enter the "Harrison Ford Theater", that runs a brief film narrated by Indy himself.  The film introduces general aviation (in general) and the museum in particular. There is some high quality aerial photography of Ford flying his Beaver out of Denver and into a quiet mountain strip along with additional air-to-air video of Stearmans and other aircraft. It is a terrific, well-made, introduction to the museum.  Too bad it was actually the last thing I did on my visit.

The first artifact that greets visitors is this 3/4 scale X-Wing Starfighter.  The replica is one of seven created in 1996 to celebrate the release of the Star Wars Special Editions.  The X-Wing periodically travels around the country to Lucasfilm-supported events.

That is just an odd juxtaposition.  I don't suppose anyone ever used a Christen Eagle to bulls-eye wamp rats back home?

This 1926 Eaglerock Biplane was manufactured by Alexander in Englewood, CO (a suburb of Denver).  I was particularly struck by the wooden, scimitar prop.  A true work of art.

Given the origins of the museum, it is not surprising that there is a strong emphasis on Air Force fighters like this 1963 Convair F-102 Delta Dagger.

Other "Century Series" jets on display included this immaculate Republic F-105 Thunderchief...

...Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (something about the intake really caught my eye), as well as the North American F-100 Super Sabre (not pictured) and McDonnell F-101 Voodoo (also not pictured).

Yup, I'm still a fan of the F-4 Phantom!

Ah!  Now we're getting somewhere - round engines!  This odd-looking ship is a 1938 Douglas B-18 Bolo, a bomber developed from the DC-2

This one of a kind research craft is the Ball-Bartoe Jetwing.  It could blow air from the engine compressor over the wing beneath a secondary airfoil ("augmentor").  This endowed the Jetwing with the ability to remain in controllable flight at exceptionally low speeds (40 mph).

This is the first General Dynamics FB-111 Aardvark I have ever seen.  It was the first production swing wing fighter and, though the Navy abandoned the design, the F-111 program significantly informed the development of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.

Speaking of which...  I wonder if this Tomcat felt out of place among so many of its Air Force cousins?

Despite being cavernous, the space is dominated by this hulking 1970 Rockwell B1-A Lancer.  The legs on this airplane are so long that other large airplanes (note the F-111 Aardvark) are displayed beneath it.  This aircraft is the third of four prototype B1-As built and one of two B1-As on display in museums.

My favorite photo of the day: a Beech UC-45 Expeditor (a militarized Beech-18) silhouetted against the hangar door.

As usual, this is just a sampling of what the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum has to offer.  I really enjoyed visiting this thriving museum.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Mile High Gliding: A Not-So-Eerie Silence

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
02 Jul 2012 SGS 2-33
BDU (Boulder, CO) - Local 1.0 1053.5

On the Nature of Silence

I have heard it said that, for a pilot accustomed to powered aircraft, the silence experienced during glider flight is eerie.

I disagree.

After 1000+ hours flying powered aircraft, I finally seized an opportunity to fly a glider.  Naturally, there was no engine sound.  But the glider was anything but silent.  Rather, the glider sang to me, much in the same way that the flying wires of a vintage biplane hum with joyful power while caressed by the slipstream.  As I pitched from 45 mph to 55 mph, the gentle hiss of atmosphere sliding over the canopy changed, the song becoming more assertive.  From there, gentle forward deflection of the stick brought the airspeed to 65 mph, inciting the glider's crooning to reach an even greater intensity, the airframe beginning to resonate in a throaty wail.  Then, with a return to 55 mph, the song would fade again.

No, I would say that gliders are anything but silent.

Mile High Gliding

"So, why do you want to fly gliders?"  Elliot peered at me expectantly.  We sat in an aged Airstream Trailer docked to a small shack.  Combined, the two oddly matched structures served as a base of operations for Mile High Gliding at Boulder Municipal AirportBoulder sweltered in 90+ °F temperatures and a small air conditioner in the trailer struggled mightily to overcome the day's oppressive heat.

I thought about his question for a moment, pleased that he cared enough to ask.  There are many reasons I have long wanted to fly gliders.  I told him of my mentor, Dave, who flew gliders before tackling powered flight and often spoke of the joys of soaring.  I told him that I believed flying gliders would make me a better stick and rudder pilot, that I expected soaring experience to foster greater insight into energy management.  I told him of my mountain flying experience in the Rockies and how much I enjoyed leveraging soaring skills to make an underpowered Archer climb beyond its abilities.  

"Mostly," I told him, "I want to dip my toe in the water to see how I like it."

The path that led me to Mile High Gliding was, admittedly, a bit convoluted.

In 2007, I had a terrific adventure flying in the Rocky Mountains with a CFI named Reuben.  Fame found Reuben in 2010 when his quick thinking saved a mother and her son from a fiery midair collision.  Reuben was giving the pair a glider ride.  They were still on tow behind a Piper Pawnee when Reuben noticed a Cirrus SR20 approaching on a broadside collision course with their tow plane.  Realizing that the Cirrus and Pawnee were about to collide, he released the tow rope and pitched away.  Soaring through a fireball created by the collision, Reuben delivered mother and son safely to the ground and was hailed as a hero.  By all accounts, he did not even break a sweat.

I sent Reuben an email, expressing my relief that he was safe and sound.  In his response, he suggested that if I ever returned to Colorado and had a desire to take up soaring, he would be happy to fly with me again.  At the time, he was instructing with Mile High Gliding out of Boulder Municipal.

Reuben has since joined the airlines.  But, in preparation for a family vacation to the Denver area, I called Mile High Gliding anyway.  I decided that if the outfit was good enough for Reuben, it was more than good enough for me.

 Unnatural Haze

Driving along the Front Range into Boulder, my heart leaped when I saw the Flatirons again.  I was reminded of riding a Flatiron-generated thermal in the Archer to 13,000' in order to clear Corona Pass.  At the memory, a flutter of excitement coursed through me.

Inside the Mile High Soaring office, I stared across the airfield to where the Flatirons loomed in the distance.  A combination of heat and particulate matter in the air from numerous wildfires conspired to shroud the mountains in haze.  I looked at a Denver sectional on the tabletop and noted that the nearest terrain was only five miles away.  Though the haze was consistent with what I often see at home, it was unnaturally murky for the Rockies.  As though reading my thoughts, some of the guys in the office began to gripe about the visibility.

Across the table from me sat a younger guy, bearded with his hair tied back in a ponytail.  He was studying to be a tow pilot.  As we chatted, we learned that we were both originally from the suburbs of Detroit.  It seems as though I meet people from home nearly everywhere I go.

The chief instructor, Elliot, finished his previous lesson and invited me into his office (the aforementioned Airstream Trailer).  After vetting my reasons for flying gliders, he glanced down at my logbook.

"May I take a look?" he asked.  He quickly thumbed through, rapidly gaining a sense of my past experience.

"What aspect of transitioning to gliders gives pilots like me the most difficulty?" I asked as he closed the logbook.  From my reading, I expected him to say "inadequate use of the rudder".

"Over control," he offered immediately.  "The glider will only require gentle movements on the controls."  It was a refrain I would hear from him often in our short time together.

A Bit of Elmira, NY in Boulder, CO

My ride

It was time to meet the next aircraft to be featured in my logbook.  N2793H is a 1978 Schweizer 2-33A glider manufactured in Elmira, NY (oh, the irony).  With a glide ratio of 22:1, SGS 2-33s are not known as high performance gliders.  But they are rugged, simple, and, according to Elliot, excellent at thermalling.  The 2-33 is as much a classic training glider as the Cessna 150 is a classic training airplane. 

Elliot walked me through the preflight.  Among other things, we inspected the condition of the metal skinned wing and its attachment to the tube and rag fuselage.  The cockpit was rather tight and it appeared that the placement of the spoiler handle relative to my left knee would be particularly problematic.  I would be able to give the glider full left stick or deploy the spoilers, but I would not be able to do both simultaneously.

We walked the glider onto runway 8L, a narrow asphalt strip (20' wide) parallel to Boulder's primary runway.  A Piper Pawnee tow plane lined up ahead of us.  Kevin, the line guy, presented the end of the tow rope to me for inspection.  I was briefly reminded of being offered the wine cork at a fancy restaurant.

"Looks ok to me," deadpanned Elliot when I hesitated.  I nodded to Kevin, who crouched down at the nose of the glider.  He raised his hand, fingers splayed.

"He wants you to open the tow rope release," Elliot explained.  I pulled on the large knob dominating the simple instrument panel.  A moment later, Kevin closed his fist and I responded by easing the release closed again, attaching the Schweizer to the burly Piper idling before us.

Kevin walked to the wingtip, scanned the sky, and gave us a thumbs up.  I waggled the rudder pedals to indicate that I was ready.  The Pawnee responded in kind, then smoothly applied power.


Elliot's guidelines were simple.  On the take-off roll, I needed to steer with my feet (rudder), keep the wings level with aileron, and use gentle movements.

Once aloft, I was to mimic the tow plane's bank attitude, steer with my feet, and avoid climbing too high or dropping too low.  If too low, we would rumble through the tow plane's wake.  Elliot did not mince words about what happened if I climbed too high: "you'll really piss-off the guy flying the tow plane".  When turning, I was to keep the Schweizer's nose pointed toward the tow plane wingtip on the outside of the turn to keep us flying the same path through the air.

Simple, right?

Piper Pawnee tow plane

I only needed to follow Elliot on the controls for the first tow.  It was a strange feeling, being attached to another aircraft by a rope.  The Schweizer's pitot tube extends up and forward from the nose of the glider.  Elliot placed it directly on the Pawnee's tail as though it was a gun sight.

The Pawnee turned north of the airport and we began to climb along a series of virtual switchbacks in the sky.  As we climbed, Elliot gave control over to me.  I suspect that the Pawnee pilot could discern the change in flying duties; I was all over the place.

"Gentle movements," Elliot reminded me again.  "That was about six times more force than you needed to use."  The glider simply did not seem very responsive to me.  At such low airspeeds, the controls were mushy, like an airplane near the stall.  I spent much of the first tow over correcting, just as Elliot predicted I would.

At 9,000' feet, Elliot told me to release the tow rope.  I pulled the release handle and watched the tow rope recoil toward the tail of the Piper.  The Pawnee turned and dove earthward, undoubtedly glad to be unshackled from my ham-fisted flying.

Instrument panel for N2793H

At altitude, I began to acclimate to the glider by making some turns over the Boulder Reservoir.  The bubble canopy afforded a magnificent panorama.  To the east and north stretched barren plains.  To the south was Boulder and, beyond it, Denver.  To the west was the imposing wall of the Front Range.

As is typical for gliders, coordination in turns is monitored by a "yaw string" attached to the pitot mast.  Step on the knot, not the string," Elliot reminded me.  Accustomed to the turn and slip indicator in a powered aircraft where you "step on the ball", my instinct was to step on the string (i.e., apply rudder on the side where the string was deflected).  Step on the knot, I reminded myself every time I looked at the yaw string.

Although the instrument panel possessed an airspeed indicator, it was just as easy to calibrate airspeed based on where the pitot mast crossed the horizon.  Like the yaw string, this served as a simple but functional surrogate for the more complex instruments in my airplane.  Changes in airspeed were easily detected by ear as differences in tone and volume of the slipstream's song.

Stalls were trivial.  The Schweizer is incredibly docile, expressing zero interest in dropping a wing in the stall.  I found that if I did not pull back on the stick assertively, the glider would simply mush along rather than reach a clean break.

To me, the most intriguing aspect of the glider's controls was the trim lever.  Rather than turning a wheel or crank connected to a movable tab on the elevator, trimming the Schweizer simply involved pulling on the trim lever located just forward of the stick.  A ratcheting mechanism below the floorboard actuated with a mighty CLUNK and the tailplane would automatically trim to the current pitch attitude and airspeed.  Neat!

While all of this discovery was grand, we utterly failed to locate any meaningful lift and, after a while, it was time to return to Boulder Municipal.  Challenges in landing included an extremely steep approach profile, a spoiler handle effectively blocked by my own knee, landing on a strip of pavement not much wider than a sidewalk, and, most challenging of all, not flaring.  Most airplanes are flared in the landing - pitched nose high before reaching the ground in order to slow down and plant the main gear.  The Schweizer, on the other hand, is designed to stop on its nose skid.  Sometimes, this generates enough heat to actually fuse the steel skid to the asphalt.  I found the grinding sound of the skid on pavement to be utterly unnerving.  The landing was most definitely not silent.

Landing attitude of the Schweizer 2-33A

Before we departed on the second tow, Elliot suggested I do the flying.  "Remember, gentle movements."  Then he chuckled, "in case you hadn't guessed, we have a rubber stamp here that we place on everyone's foreheads."

"I can't see anything on my forehead," I responded.  "Perhaps an instrument panel placard instead?"

"Ah, but with a rubber stamp, you always carry it with you."

I offered a compromise: "how about a mirror on the instrument panel?"  Elliot chuckled.

My second tow was far more successful and Elliot largely stayed off the controls.  At 8,000', just as I was getting comfortable, we were jostled into an unusual attitude as we ran through a thermal.

"Release the rope.  My airplane," Elliot commanded.

I released the rope and acknowledged that he had control.  Elliot rolled the Schweizer into a tight spiral trying to work the thermal and gain altitude.  It worked for a time.  We gained a few hundred feet before the thermal petered out.  Unfortunately, for the first time in years, the motion of the spiraling glider actually made me nauseous (I think the last time was when my primary instructor first demonstrated turns around a point).

Elliot returned control to me, which helped.  We did some more turns, but my hour of flight time was nearly over.  We made an even steeper approach to the airport than last time, slipping the glider to generate an even greater sink rate than was possible with spoilers alone.

I lined up on the "sidewalk", worked on keeping the wings level, and concentrated on not flaring.

The successful landing was marked with the sound of the skid grinding on the runway.


I asked Elliot how long it takes a typical power pilot to earn an add-on glider rating.  "In your case, not very long.  You flew most of the second tow and I think you would solo quickly, maybe within twenty tows or so."  I have no idea if twenty is a good number or not, but I took this for the encouragement it was undoubtedly meant to be.

At the end of my lesson, The Bear wanted to see the glider.  I led her back to the flight line and Elliot suggested I let her sit inside.  Bright sunshine in her eyes quickly diminished her delight at sitting in the sailplane.

Photo by Kristy.

Overall, gliding was a novel experience for me and more challenging than I expected.  In the end, I think I can say that I dipped my toe in the water and it felt pretty good.