Flying an airplane is like bulldozing our way through the sky. For the most part, we don’t really care what nature is doing, as long as it’s not trying to kill us. We have an engine that takes us places, and as long as nature stays out of the way, we’ll get to where we want to go. A windless and calm sky is the dream of an airplane pilot, and nature is the enemy that we must always keep an eye on, lest it decides to backstab us when an opportunity arises. We look to the nature for aesthetics, and not much else.
Flying a glider is like getting a ride on a falling leaf in strong wind. We have some influence in where the glider is going, but we are also in a constant bargain with mother nature, and ultimately, we have to rely on the forces of nature to get to places.
“Hey Gaia! If we get over the ridge, can you take us up another thousand feet? How about under that cumulus cloud over that dry-looking field? Or that cool lenticular cloud over the mountain?”
Flying a glider requires a much better understanding of how our planet’s atmosphere works, and we always have to be mindful of what air is doing by piecing together clues like the shape, movement, and arrangement of clouds, terrain features, sun positions, and shadows.
It’s almost like playing Sherlock Holmes. There’s something wickedly satisfying about that.
This Christmas, I went on a gliding trip with the Imperial College Gliding Club. We visited the famous Midland Gliding Club at Long Mynd, on top of a hill only a few kilometres from the border between England and Wales, and spent an entire week in their clubhouse.
It’s a three and half hour drive from London.
And snow, on our first 2 days. Snow makes great scenery, but also makes landings much more difficult. Human eyes require features for depth perception, and not having enough features in terrain complicates things.
This is the view from the clubhouse at daybreak.
There’s also the yellow winch at the launch point.
Another problem of low temperature (technically the temperature-dewpoint spread) is high humidity. Humidity is dangerous because it causes condensation on the windshield, and without an engine, it’s very hard to defog.
Then there’s airframe icing. We were not flying in visible moisture, so we weren’t accumulating ice in flight, but condensation on the wings + low temperature means we can get thin layers of ice on the wings before flight. It was good exercise.
In this picture of our amazing glider, you can see the film of ice on the wing. As well as totally fogged up canopy.
Every night, we would pack both the gliding club’s gliders and our gliders into the hanger. I did not know it’s possible to cram that many gliders into one hanger. There are even gliders hanging off the ceiling!
It may not be apparent from the picture, but none of the gliders are touching. Most of them are about 5mm from touching at a few places.
I also noticed this in the hanger. Front tyre split. Serviceable? Of course! Since when has that stopped us?!
I’m not sure if there’s a time when this place doesn’t look amazing.
On the last day, wind was very strong (30-35 kt), and in a favourable direction, so we did some bungee launching!
Bungee launch is a historical launch method that is very rarely done nowadays since it requires many helpers and very strong wind. Long Mynd, near the Welsh border, is the only place in UK (and possibly the world?) that still does it.
Essentially, the glider gets catapulted down a hill in strong wind by 6 people pulling a bungee cord.
This is my first bungee launch flight –
I hadn’t even SEEN a bungee launch from the cockpit before this flight, and the instructor had so much faith in me that he put me in control. I’m happy that I didn’t end up getting both of us killed.
We counted to 12 because we couldn’t see people pulling the bungee cords, and hence had no way of knowing when they had reached maximum tension. 12 seconds seemed like a reasonable guess.
I had no idea what to expect, but the launch turned out to be much easier and gentler than I had imagined. The glider practically flew itself. It felt like we just casually slid down the hill, fell, and missed the ground.
We then flew along the ridge to get some altitude – very easy thanks to the 30 kt wind directly against the ridge.
Once we reached the end of the ridge (gaining about 500 ft), the instructor took controls, dived close to the ridge, and made a low pass over the launch site at high speed through some pretty extreme turbulence due to the strong wind and our proximity to rough terrain. Just for shiggles.
After the video, we did some more ridge running and thermaling, and did some spinning to lose height, and landed after an hour. In those conditions we could have easily flew for as long as we wanted. Pretty amazing considering the fact that we were actually below airfield height at the end of the launch.
It was my first experience with spinning, since it’s no longer part of the standard US private pilot curriculum. It was pretty fun, and I recovered correctly on first try.
It was also my first experience with thermaling, and wave riding. It’s pure magic. The first time I’ve actually seen a glider gaining altitude (and we were going at about 300 feet per minute!)
There are 2 other gliders in the same thermal (column of rising air).
I’m not sure when will the next epic gliding trip be, but I can’t wait!