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Flying a Plane with No Engine?

Flying an Airplane with No Engine

In 1975 a group of us who wanted to take to the air in the most cost effective manner decided to buy a glider, also known as a sailplane, we kept her at a small airstrip in S.W. Virginia. There were about ten of us, including a pilot who also happened to be a certified glider instructor. On his advice we bought a Schweitzer 222, a trainer at the bottom of the price scale and one that was very forgiving of the little mistakes that student pilots are prone to make.

Flying in a Canvas Craft

The 222 is an airplane with aluminum tubing covered by a canvas fabric that is hardened with epoxy paint. There’s two seats one in front of the other with dual controls, one in back for the instructor, and in front the student. The plane has full access control meaning horizontal and vertical stabilizers to control the pitch (up/down) and direction with rudder pedals controlling the direction along with flaps on the wings to make coordinated turns. The cockpit has full instrumentation and a plexiglass canopy that latches in place. Instruments include airspeed as planes only fly when they move forward in the air, pushed by jet engines or pulled by propellers. Gliders, having no engines, rely on gravity pulling the craft down and forward.

How do you Get up and Stay up with No Engine?

So how does one get up in the first place? Most are pulled up by a tow place with a 200 foot rope. The more economical way is to have a vehicle on the ground pulling it along. We had a Chevy van with a 2000 foot braided rope. The van would run along the 6000 foot runway giving them 4000 feet before they reached the end. The glider flies at 15 mph, so once the go signal is given (leveling the wings), the van hits the gas and the rope tightens and up you go. By pulling the joy stick controlling the horizontal stabilizer into ones lap, the plane heads skyward often reaching 1500 feet or more. With a ratio of 1 to 17, if the glider is up 1500 feet, doing the math that’s five (5) miles before you are back on earth. What experienced pilots do, is search out thermals, hot air rising up and surfing them skyward to 5000 or more feet. I was on a flight once that made it to 4800.

Keep your Eye on the Instruments

Instruments include Airspeed (planes have a minimum forward speed to stay in the air, so this is crucial. Fly too slow and you stall and drop like a rock. Altitude is measured by an Altimeter since distance from the ground is key. A Variometer tells more experienced pilots how fast they are going up or down. But enough technical stuff…here is my story.

Are You Ready to Fly? I’M NOT READY!

I had maybe 25 or 30 flights with my instructor with his hand on the controls until he taught me what to do, then turned command over to me. On this day in particular he didn’t climb in the back seat, instead he stood next to the ship reminding me to keep my nose down and my airspeed up around 40, make sure I kept my eye on the airstrip and make my turns smoothly and coordinating the rudders with the stick. He recommended I just stay in the pattern, the line that paralleled the runway in the opposite direction of takeoff by making a left turn when I had cut loose from the tow rope. You could feel the pull relax when the van got to the end of the runway, and you would just pull the red golfball sized release know and bank left, then left again to enter the pattern. About 300 feet past the beginning of the runway one made another left turn, then another on final approach I was watching altitude. Entering the pattern at 800 feet and descending to 500 on final and losing altitude with spoilers, flaps on the wings that slow the craft and allow it to descend. Gliders did not have engines, so once you were headed in for a landing there was no “going around”, no, you had to be ready to land when your plane was ready to land. For this reason gliders had right of way over every other aircraft; jets, prop planes, helicopters. Only balloons had right of way over gliders.

Coming Down to Earth…but Wait!

I did everything I was trained to do and was on final approach; 500 feet…400…300…200 when I noticed a small single engine plane moving off the taxi way onto the main runway right where I was heading. He never looked left to see if anyone was approaching, and with no control tower, it was his responsibility to check and yield to an approaching glider. He was not. What to do?

If I tried to land on the asphalt, I would have come down right on top of him, so instead I banked to the left toward the grass strip bordering the runway. I pulled full spoilers and came down gently on the single wheel under the cockpit, pulled the lever all the way back to apply the brakes and slowed the craft until it came to a stop on the front nose skid. It was all good.

Free As a Bird

I had many flights on the 222, even found a little lift in a thermal over a local school with a black roof, heat rising , lifting me to about 2500 feet before I lost the lift and turned back towards the airstrip. The feeling in the pit of your stomach as you rise up is incredible. It’s been almost fifty years, but I can still feel the rush of air as the glider takes flight and the feeling of freedom and joy. I remember all the commands and controls and can still hear the voice of my instructor, Dangerous Dan McNeely. Those were good times.

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