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Learning to Ride on the Wind Without an Engine

September 20, 2003|Richard O'Reilly | Times Staff Writer

"Can you feel that? We've got a little lift here." Jim Kennard banked left over a gulch near the summit of the Tehachapi Mountains and the glider climbed slowly in a circle on a weak, invisible bubble of air rising from beneath. It was my first in a series of lessons flying a glider.

Kennard, seated behind me in the narrow cockpit, was my instructor. We each had the controls needed to fly -- a control stick between our legs, rudder pedals, a handle on the left side to open "spoilers" in the wings for landing and a knob to release the tow cable latched under the glider's nose.

With no engine to spin a propeller, gliders rely on vertical air currents to stay aloft. When no "lift" is found, they slowly descend, gliding forward 20, 30, even 40 feet for every foot down.

We had been towed off the ground at nearby Mountain Valley Airport southeast of Tehachapi about eight minutes earlier.

Tow pilot Ken Patton of Lancaster carried us 4,000 feet up at the end of a thin, 200-foot-long yellow plastic rope. By design, the rope was weak enough to break if either aircraft got into trouble, yet strong enough to hold through the turbulence of a blustery day. At 8,400 feet above sea level, about the same height as a wooded peak not so very far away from our right wing, Kennard, of Granada Hills, told me to release the tow line.

I pulled the red knob in front of me, and banked the glider in a climb to the right. The tow plane, a former crop duster, peeled off to the left. If the glider initially climbs to the right and the tow plane dives to the left, they won't collide. The air bubble that had buoyed us disappeared and Kennard coached me through a right turn, trying to find it again. But it had evaporated, and we descended gently. "You've got the controls," he said, touching me on each shoulder as a signal. "Get your speed up to 60."

As is the case with an engine-powered airplane, speed in a glider is controlled by the stick. Push forward, go down, gain speed. Pull back, climb, lose speed. But without an engine, the glider can't climb much without an updraft. We had been flying 42 mph, the most efficient speed for gaining altitude. But when sinking air replaced lift, 60 mph was the proper speed to hurry through a downward glide in search of more lift. Part of learning to fly a glider is learning to read clues on the ground and in the sky that signal where air is rising and where it is falling.

Our dual controls moved in unison and either of us could fly the glider. Whenever Kennard demonstrated a maneuver, I kept my feet lightly on the rudder pedals and my right hand lightly on the vertical control stick so I could follow his movements. He was a dancer. His feet were in constant motion and his hand was frequently nudging the stick one way, then the other. "Anticipate what is going to happen," he told me, "then compensate for it before it happens."

Kennard's hand and his feet were always in the right place. My performance was clumsy and wooden, and the glider shuddered and rattled in complaint when I got the controls too far off kilter. We flew into another bubble, turned and tried to find its heart. But it too evaporated and we were down to 8,000 feet.

"We have to leave this area now," Kennard said, reciting places and minimum altitudes while I tried to remember what he was saying and make the glider go where I wanted.

We stayed near the mountain slopes because that was where we found lift, but it was too weak to take us up. If the day had been warmer, we probably could have soared several thousand feet above the peaks. Down low, we were careful to turn away from ridges instead of toward them.

We descended from the mountains in a series of stairsteps, punctuated by minor altitude gains here and there, until we found ourselves over a white X on the ground. It marked the entrance to the landing pattern.

Kennard admonished me not to set up for a landing -- except in an emergency -- lower than 800 feet above the ground. Before you are allowed to fly solo, you have to demonstrate skill performing many in-flight maneuvers designed to assure a safe flight and safe landing. Instructors surprise students with simulated emergencies when they least expect it.

Bang! Suddenly just after takeoff on my 13th flight, I watched dumbfounded as the tow plane flew away from me, an unlatched tow line snaking behind it. I was only 200 feet up, the bare minimum for getting back to the airport if the tow rope broke and only if I did everything right.

"Talk to me," Kennard said firmly. "What are you going to do"?

"I'm going to make a right turn back to the airport," I said as my hand moved the stick to the right and my foot pressed the right rudder pedal. "And I'm going to land downwind on the tow plane runway."

"What speed?" he said with a little more urgency.

I glanced down at the airspeed indicator, where the needle was slowing below 55 mph. "60," I said and pushed forward on the stick. In seconds, I had us rolling along the ground, but just like baseball, a landing ain't over 'til it's over.

Gliders, and airplanes, normally take off and land into the wind. But in this simulated emergency, I was landing with the wind behind me. I steered off the runway with the rudder so the tow plane could land. Then, while still rolling out in the dirt at about 25 mph, the controls went limp. The nose fell onto its skid, the right wing fell to the ground -- protected by a small wheel near the tip -- and the glider lurched to a stop. We were safely restrained with wide lap belts and straps down over each shoulder. The glider was just fine. I was even better. I had passed one of the last tests before getting to fly solo.

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