Veteran airman Phil Rowe's fond recollection of learning to fly gliders in Tehachapi, California, and then years later having the opportunity to attend the Australian Gliding Federation instructor school.
January 16, 1996
|About the Author ...
Phil Rowe is a retired USAF navigator and R&D engineer, and now does
freelance writing, mostly about his own flying experience in 33 types and
models of military aircraft, from props to jets.
Phil served in a variety of
aircrew positions, as: celestial navigator, radar navigator and bombardier,
electronic warfare officer, flight engineer and photo reconnaissance systems
operator. He also served as flight test engineer on three projects. Favorite
airplanes include the RF-4C, B-58A, B-52D and a few light planes - including
If you enjoy Phil's writing on AVweb, check out his
more stories about aviation, travel, camping, and more.
You Gotta Be Dedicated ... or a Little Nuts
It's winter, late January. There's snow on the ground at
Tehachapi, California. The wind is blowing like crazy. And the
two of us were about to camp out in an unheated hangar. All of
this to save money so we could fly sailplanes. The operator of
the glider school allowed us to park our borrowed tent trailer
in the hangar, knowing that we'd be protected from the strong
winds and biting cold. We were appreciative.
My buddy, George, brought his own sweetheart of a sailplane, an
L-Spatz 55 high performance bird that he'd brought back from
Germany. He was looking forward to trying his craft out on the
famous standing wave that hovers over the Tehachapi Mountains
that time of year.The rounded lenticular clouds over the ridges
teasingly pointed to the wave.
For my part, I was going along to help crew for him, as
sailplane flying is not a solo sport. You need help just putting
the plane together after pulling the fuselage and wings out of
the trailer. And it helps to have somebody with you during
launch to keep wingtips from dragging before forward motion and
airflow-lift does the job. But I was also hoping to get some
instruction and earn my own glider rating as an addition to my
private pilot's ticket.
We had just a week to get in as much flying as we could and
hoped that the weather would cooperate. Indications that first
night after arrival were not auspicious. We huddled inside our
tent and wrapped up in sleeping bags while playing cards and
listening to a portable radio for some encouragement in the
weather reports. Improvement was forecast for late the next
The next morning we awoke to a stillness and hush that comes
after an evening snowfall. The winds abated during the night,
but four or five inches of the white stuff covered everything.
The row of tied-down sailplanes on the flightline, three
Schweizer 2-22's, two 2-32's and four or five 1-26's looked
errie under their blankets of snow. George was glad we'd left
his plane in the covered trailer for the night.
By mid-morning the sun was out and things looked better. In
fact, it was really very beautiful with the snow-covered
mountains ringing the valley. The air was cool and crisp. It was
a good day to fly. The lure of the wave excited George, as we
hastened to unload and assemble his L-Spatz.
By one o'clock he was airborne, towed aloft behind the super
cub. I then sought out the school operator to arrange for my own
instruction and flying. Fortunately, winter activity was slow
and there were no other novices seeking guidance. I was the only
student for the week.
It took me about four rides with an instructor in the dual-seat
2-22 trainer and I was ready to solo. Another four hours of
solo flying, plus a demonstration flight for my examiner, and I
was signed off as glider qualified. The only critical part of
the test was making the spot landing precisely at a place along
the runway marked by the examiner. No sweat.
Then I checked out in the single-seat 1-26, which I flew each of
the remaining three days of our camping and flying vacation at
Tehachapi. It was terrific, despite nippy morning cold weather
and the return of stiff breezes. The latter pleased George,
because it meant return of the wave and he could stay up for
hours riding back and forth along that ridge of rising air
bouncing off the hills.
For this neophyte it only made landings a little more difficult
to judge, for I was not yet qualified to attempt wave flying. I
had to settle for finding bubbles of rising warm air (thermals)
above the south-facing hillsides or over the town of Tehachapi.
My flights were considerably shorter than George's.
I was hooked on the wonderful sport of motorless flight.
Yank Soars Downunder: The Chance of a Lifetime
It was the chance of a lifetime for me, that invitation to attend
the instructor pilot school at Gawler, South Australia. It happened during my tour in Viet Nam, the result of conversations
with Aussie pilots assigned to our RF-4C outfit.
One evening, while just sitting around the operations center and
chewing the fat, the subject of sailplanes came up. I happened to
mention that I had flown sailplanes in Arizona and California a
few years back. An Aussie pilot began to tell me about the Australian Gliding Federation and their activities. Then he men
tioned the annual fortnight-long instructor school and suggested
that I ought to go there. In fact, he added, I should take my
upcoming rest and recreation (R&R) break to go down there. He'd
introduce me to his pals and set things up.
To make a long story short, I was soon at Gawler, some one
hundred miles north of Adelaide, and the little airfield devoted
to sailplane activities. Its operation is subsidized by the
government and makes flying available to citizens at a very
My schedule permitted attending only half of the instructor
school, but the pilots and ground crews welcomed me with open
arms for a marvelous experience. Academics last all morning each
day, followed by afternoon flying sessions.
Each night the guys
partied. I was not able to keep up with them on that score. In
fact, I jokingly told them I'd have to go back to combat in Viet
Nam to recover and rest up from the pace they set.
One part of the flying that really intrigued me was the chance to
practice landing while on tow. That's something not commonly
taught here in the states, so I was glad for the experience. It's
not all that difficult, but surely a skill that sailplane pilots
ought to know.
It was also a thrill for me to do that training in the all-metal,
high performance Blanik aircraft. Now that's a real Cadillac. My
instructor put me in the front seat and off we went behind a
terrific tow plane, a Grumman Ag-Cat. Most tow planes really
strain with sailplanes dragging behind them. Not that Ag-Cat. It
got us aloft in a hurry with no difficulty.
Landing on tow is simply a matter of keeping the tow rope taut,
without using excessive drag that would stall the towplane.
Behind a smaller craft, like a Piper SuperCub, the sailplane
could excessively hamper things.
I loved the handling qualities of that Blanik, especially the
hand-operated Fowler flaps for landing. Boy, that is smooth.
Sure wish I could have flown that bird more often than the
During my stay I managed to fly about four different planes, all
but the Blanik single-seaters. It was indeed an experience of a
lifetime. I loved every minute and will always be indebted to the
gracious hosts of the Gawler and Waikerie sailplane clubs.