Solo flight: group errors

6017

By Graham Rees

‘If you see any lift, take it!’ exhorted my instructor. Or so I believed. This was not the first error of the day, but it was very nearly my last.

My parents had met on the gliding field, and my summers were spent on the side of Bacchus Marsh aerodrome gazing wistfully at the clouds, hoping there was a spare seat in the next two-seater.

When I was seven, my family moved to the mid-north coast of NSW. The nearest gliding club was now four hours away. For a while there was no gliding. Then in my early teens we started attending the Lake Keepit Soaring Club camps at Mount Kaputar.

As my 16th birthday approached my dad and I planned a couple of intensives; we would drive to Lake Keepit, bunk at the Sport and Rec club, and cram in a day of duals. The first weekend nearly did it, but not quite, and I headed back home with the frustration that only a fifteen-year old can truly understand.

The next weekend we headed back, arriving as the hangar doors opened. A cold front was coming in from the west, but we could see it, so we weren’t too worried. The Bergfalke was prepped and the day’s training began.

Somewhere around lunch we were downwind of the airfield when my instructor asked me to set up for an outfield landing. No problem … I’d practised this dozens of times. I found a nice paddock (there are plenty out around Keepit), identified the wind direction, nominated my downwind, and relayed my decisions to the back seat.

‘Fine. Land the glider.’

I was confused.

‘Um … no,’ I said. ‘I already told you the field and what I’d do. Isn’t that all you wanted?’

‘No. Land the glider.’

I was incredulous. Why practise an outfield landing? I’d done them before, and it wasn’t like we were low.

‘I actually want you to land the glider,’ repeated my instructor patiently.

I decided that—unbelievably—the instructor was serious.

I landed the glider. Then we called for a tow retrieve. While we waited, the instructor sheepishly confessed that—while he had been busy taking me through the syllabus—he had unknowingly allowed us to get so far downwind of the aerodrome that we couldn’t get back.

I was stunned that my instructor had made such a rookie mistake. And that—by extension—so had I (I just hadn’t realised it).

The tug arrived. We launched out of the paddock, and headed back to the aerodrome, one hour lost to folly.

After perhaps the fourth launch of the day the instructor pronounced me ready. By this stage the enormous, roiling storm front was extremely visible from the field. The CFI, the instructor and my dad conferred moodily beside the glider, while I ignored them, hoping that the fierce determination on my face would tell them all they needed to know.

Finally, the tuggie approached the cockpit. ‘I’m just going to put this in here,’ he said, as he picked up the microphone and jammed it in the side map pocket. ‘It will keep it out of your way.’

Sure, I thought. Good idea.

The instructor sauntered over, still slightly sheepish, but also with his game face on. ‘If you see any lift, take it.’ Now you’re talking, I thought!

Canopy closed. Hook on. Take up slack. All out. Eyes front. Grass and dust erupted from behind the Pawnee as the tuggie gave it the works. Walking, trotting, running … and the Berkfalke popped off the dirt. Whoa, I’m light!!

At altitude, I release. Instantly, my VSI is showing lift. Like, a lot of lift. And I’m thermalling. Up at five … ten feet per second.

Around 5000 feet and 30 minutes later I notice the sky is getting pretty dark, but who cares? Soaring has never been this easy.

To my astonishment, the tug appears at my wingtip.

In my years of flying, I have never, ever seen this. And why is he wagging his wings?

Eventually, I work out he wants me to descend. Oooooo-kay. So…nose down.

Thirty seconds later, the tug is still right off my wingtip. And a chilling awareness begins to creep over me.

He wants me to land. Right. Now.

I crack the airbrakes.

The tuggy dives for earth.

And finally, I get it.

I’m in trouble.

I find maximum rough air penetration speed, and I punch it. I’m going down, but the air all around me is going up like a rocket, so it’s taking me a lifetime. Meanwhile, the air is starting to boil, and I am being bounced around the cockpit like a bug in a cyclone.

I make it to downwind. I’m joining what I think is base when I take a quick look at the windsock and my guts fall out … the wind direction has changed 180 degrees since I took off, and it’s blowing down the strip the wrong way… hard.

I reverse the circuit. Ratchet the straps so hard I can hardly breathe. Even so, it’s all I can do to keep straight and level.

I clear the end fence … barely. I make the roughest landing of my short career—right into the teeth of the storm front.

The CFI, my dad, the instructor and the club president leap out of their waiting cars and throw themselves across the wings. ‘Don’t retract the air brakes!’ they scream in unison.

We tow the glider back to the hangar among the hail and shrieking rain. And on the long, long drive home, all my mistakes are paraded in front of me for four and a half excruciating hours.

Thirty years later, I am still learning from this event.

  1. Get-home-itis (or in my case get-solo-itis) has killed a lot of aviators.
  2. Safety should always be first. If the weather sucks, sit it out. By the time I was ready to solo the weather had deteriorated to the point that I should not have been launched. In hindsight, I needed someone with great communication skills to gently unpack that to my 15-year-old head. Several people tried…I out-talked them all. That’s not good.
  3. The tuggie should not have put the microphone in the side pocket. In doing so, he inadvertently depressed the transmit button, which remained depressed for the entirety of my flight. This meant the only way the team on the ground could connect with me was by sending up the tug.
  4. One a different training flight some months prior to my solo, a different instructor had told me to never descend with air brakes. I had to overturn this advice, alone, and without anyone ask to ask.
  5. The day should have begun with a briefing, which included a strong admonition that—no matter how keen I was to solo—if the weather was not suitable, we would abort. Everyone—especially me—should have been required to look the CFI in the eye and formally concur with this directive.
  6. My instructor should not have lost situational awareness in a clear blue sky.
  7. I should have been asked to repeat my instructor’s commands to me before soloing. Had I done so, I would have discovered that what he had actually said was ‘If you see any lift, DON’T take it. Go up, do one circuit, and land immediately.’

I am very fortunate that I lived to learn from so many mistakes. Three things ultimately saved my life: a glance at the windsock, desperate use of stick and rudder, and coolness in the face of terror. Not every fifteen-year-old has these skills, and that I did is—ironically—credit to my instructors. But none of these things would have been needed had better flight management systems been used.

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