East Coast Flying

East Coast Flying


How Towing Gliders Taught Me to be a Better Pilot

Posted by Aaron Harrington on September 25, 2014 at 8:30 PM

More than a year ago, I started towing gliders for Atlantic Soaring Club at Harford County Airport (0W3). It was quite on accident that this happened. I own a 1975 Cessna 177B Cardinal and for a year, it was tied down outside. My tiedown spot was directly across from the glider club's clubhouse and base of operations. Over the course of that year, I became pretty good friends with a few of the club members and they would routinely invite me over for hamburgers and hotdogs when i'd return from flying the Cardinal or just go out to work on it. One day, they were talking to me about how busy they'd been. The club was doing Civil Air Patrol Cadet orientation flights, the two days prior and they were commending their tow pilot John, on how much hard work he put in with no relief either day. Casually I asked, “what? Do you guys not have enough tow pilots or something?” to which they said “yeah, we only have three total and one of them is our chief glider instructor so on the days he tows, no instruction takes place.” That seemed a little odd to me and I just said “Well, I dont know what the requirements are or anything, but I'm at least tailwheel endorsed.” Well, about 2 weeks later, I get a phone call from one of the members and was asked the question “hey, are you're still interested in helping out at the glider club? we'll be flying this coming Saturday, come and hang out and we might get you up in the Scout to start learning how to tow”.


That was how it all started. Since then, I've logged over 130 glider tows and I've become a much better pilot. The first thing you learn about glider towing (besides about the rope, and tow rings, etc.) is speed control. For most of the gliders I tow, 60mph is the target speed. You'd think this would be easy, but I have to admit that my first dozen tows probably had the glider pilots second guessing their choice of tow pilot. On a busy day, I'm looking out the window for planes in the pattern, sky divers coming in to land, NORDO aircraft (and our airport has a few), student pilots, other gliders, the glider i'm towing (in the mirror), ground references, and, oh yeah, my altitude and airspeed. Like any instrument rated pilot will tell you, if you look away too long, your airplane isnt going to be doing what you thought it was doing when you look back at the instruments again. But what I found has happened to me over the past year, is that airspeed starts to become intuitive. You can feel the plane speeding up and slowing down. You can hear the airplane speeding up and slowing down. Thats not to say I dont look at the airspeed, I surely do, but my attention no longer needs to be micro-focused on the airspeed indicator. What this has also done for me, is made me an attitude reference pilot. In the Scout, as well as the other airplanes I fly, mainly my Cardinal and a rented Piper Arrow II, I can set a power setting, choose an attitude, and fly my desired airspeed, whether climbing, or descending, and especially in the pattern when coming in to land. This brings me to number two. The second thing I learned from towing gliders, was how to land. Yes, I knew how to land before, but flying a tailwheel airplane, in often gusty wind conditions, with a 200ft long rope behind you, and coming in to a 2000ft strip with obstacles on the approach WILL get your heart beating a little faster. Now, I know all too well about setting up a stabilized approach to a short field landing and having that airspeed control I just talked about, helps immensely. I can now consistently aim for a spot on the runway and land within plus or minus 50 ft of it nearly every time. In fact, when I took my ASEL commercial checkride recently, my 180 degree accuracy landing was absolutely textbook, and all I can say is “Thank you Atlantic Soaring!” The third thing towing gliders has taught me is to look for traffic. Our airport can become somewhat of a zoo on the weekends. We have a very active skydiving operation at the field, as well as an active flight school and a sightseeing operation. It is not uncommon to have one or two skydive airplanes taking off, another landing, two or three student pilots in the pattern, parachutes landing in the middle of the airport, one or two no radio (NORDO) planes taking off or landing, transients, and upwards of two gliders nearby while I'm towing up a third. Somehow, we don't all kill each other and its thanks to pilots who know how to look out the window. Often times, i'll pass two or three other airplanes on my tow up to 3,000 AGL, and its important for me to position myself, and the glider behind me, in such a way as to ensure there is no conflict. There are many other things towing gliders has taught me, but I felt that those were the three big ones. So now, as I prepare for the CFI initial checkride in just a few short weeks. I look forward to another year of towing gliders, and hanging out with my awesome engineless buddies at ASC.

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1 Comment

Reply Daviddok
4:06 PM on September 16, 2017 

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