“Virtual” Soaring

Let’s go along for a sailplane ride thanks to Irvin “Mack” McKain!

The sun is out and you can feel it heating your skin. The air seems dry. Two conditions most often leading to good soaring potential. You drag the single seat sailplane out of the hangar and to the runway. The tow plane is in place having done its test flight a while ago. A quick pre-flight look over tells you the bird is safe to fly.

You step into the little cockpit and the bird settles down on its steel nose skid and single tire. Sitting down you strap in. Shoulder harness and seat belt. Close the canopy and check that it is secure. Next you signal your co-owner to connect the tow rope. Fore finger and thumb together and linking both hands like a chain. He gets it and hooks up. He steps back giving a pull on the rope and you pull the release. The rope snaps free with a bang and he hooks it back up again then moves out to your left wing tip. A thumbs up tells him to lift your wing tip and he makes sure the sailplane is lined up with the runway center line. You fan the rudder left and right a few times and sometimes the tow pilot will see that you are ready to take off. In case he does not your helper will swing his free arm around over his head and down past his thigh in a big circle telling the tow pilot to hit the gas.

The 235 horsepower Pawnee comes to life and you start to roll and skid along. Your wing runner is soon not able to keep up and let’s go. That is fine as you now have enough air over the wing for your ailerons to become effective and you can keep your wings level. Soon a little back pressure on the stick and the nose skid is off the pavement, we are rolling along. Just a few more seconds and another touch of back pressure and we are flying. Now there is only one job. Lock in on that tow plane. No going off to the left or right. No up or down positions. LOCKED ON. You climb out together to around 1,500 feet or so and the tow pilot makes a turn back towards the airport. He’d like to be close should his engine quit. Can’t blame him for that.

You have selected a 3,000 foot tow. If I remember right that was like $25.00. As you pass over the airport you see the tow plane kind of jump up a little then you hit it and get a bump. Ah ha. Thermals are starting to work. You go on with your tow but somewhere before the 3,000 foot mark the tow pilot flies into a good strong thermal. Being good at his job he banks up and starts a turn. As he carries around the turn even if you both flew out of the thermal you will fly back into it. Now when he re-enters it he will level out for a second or two then return to the bank angle. He has moved his circle over a few feet. Perhaps there is now lift all the way around and you decide to get off tow. Pull the release and bank hard right while pulling up. Might as well use up that extra airspeed the tow plane flies at. The good tow pilot banks and dives down to the left. You are on your own. Free as a bird. Maybe more so, you don’t have to flap your wings.

There is a little town off to the East with a big school complex, large paved parking lot and close cut grass all around. That should be a thermal producer and it is. Woosh! You hear the thermal as you enter it and of course feel the upward pressure on your rear end. Great! 2,000 feet per min. climb and you are not even working hard. You and your old girl will work this for a while. You know sailplanes are girls right? That’s why we love them. We circle and climb to 5,000 feet where the thermal is giving out. Later in the day it may well go even higher. For now this will do just fine. We can head out and explore a little.

We climb flying through areas of lift and speed up when in the sink. For all the air going up there has to be an equal amount going down someplace.

Let’s have some fun. Speed up to 80 knots, pull back firmly on that control stick and we are going straight up. Get a boot full of right rudder in before the airspeed bleeds off and the left wing arcs up and over the top, a wing-over. Now we are going straight down. Start the pull out before the airspeed gets too high and pull right up again. This time let’s boot the left rudder and watch as the right wing flies up and over. Pull out again. You have become Johnathan Livingston Seagull of the Plains. Cavorting over an ocean of corn and soy bean. Perhaps never have you felt so free. It’s a good feeling.

Well, you told your partner you’d be back in a hour and the time is just about up. Speed run back to the airport. Using up the altitude to make speed. Nose down and circle to get down fast. You enter the landing pattern, slow down and test your speed brake/spoilers. Working fine so let’s leave them out a little. Pulling out lined up with the “downwind leg” we are coming down nicely. A little less spoiler and we turn base leg. Back out with the spoilers we turn on final. We have made the required radio calls throughout the pattern now we land. Put the single tire right smack on the runway center line. Who’s the boss? Hope you enjoyed the flight. I know I did.

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