Saturday, November 8th Julie took to the air in the CCSA Schweitzer 2-33 for her very first solo flight. With a perfect launch and tow to 1000ft she released and flew the pattern to a landing and a rollout right back to her starting point. Probably her best landing yet. Only to be topped by the next two as she took two additional pattern tows to complete the first phase of her training and her solo flight requirements.
It was a great thing to be a part of. A little more than 2 months ago she took her very first flight in a glider on August 30th with our soon to be instructor Harold Gallagher. That trip was as a passenger in 105 degree heat out at Avenal. I took a demo flight that day as well. While I had been lucky enough to find some good thermals and climb to cooler air, Julie's ride had been one of not too much altitude and plenty of work for the 40 minute flight. We drove home and she wasn't too sure about the whole thing, while I was intrigued by the challenge of learning to fly something different. The lack of confidence and the steep learning curve was exciting to me, but I wasn't sure if it was something Julie had an interest in. Thankfully we had shared the air and the experience with a young kid by the name of Jack from the Fresno area. He solo'd at age 14. Julie's concerns about her ability to learn to fly were quickly drowned out in her desire not to be beaten by some young kid. If he could fly at 14, she aught to be able to learn, not that she's competetive or anything.
Game on! The next weekend we went back out. This time she actually took the controls and flew the glider. I think her quote was "Hey, it's a lot more fun when you're the one flying..." Um, yeah, that's the point. We committed to going out every weekend possible in order to keep the momentum going. And keep the momentum we did. Each week Harold threw new skills and challenges at us. My hang gliding background helped me emmensely. Julie was challenged by all of the new information. By our fourth weekend of training, Julie was still apprehensive about the coming flights. The enjoyment was somewhat outweighed by the anxiety of the tow and not fully comprehending how it all works and fits together. More ground school, some practice on the flight simulator at home and a few more training flights and it really started to sink in.
After one particularly bad tow as she zoomed all over the sky trying to keep in line with the tow plane, something clicked with what Harold was saying and what she was feeling. Her very next tow was perfect. So good, that the tow pilot thought Harold was at the stick. That was the turning point where her muscle memory started to catch up to the thought process of what needed to be done. Not that she didn't face continued challenges, but with the confidence of that tow each of the successive flights was better and better and let her relax and focus on the other aspects of critical importance. Looking around, monitoring for traffic, the approach...
Every weekend Harold would tell her she was getting close. Every weekend she'd say "I'm in no rush" and they'd go about their training. Slowly it began to sink in that she really was getting ready and that the day would come. We had some interesting weather days. Strong winds, rough air, finally some good thermals and her opportunity to fly the glider in lift instead of just practicing sled rides. More smiles came with that, who doesn't like a free ride up.
The first of November came, she was likely ready to solo. Wore a shirt that she was willing to have the back cut out of and everything. It wasn't meant to be. An incoming storm had set up strong winds aloft and rough conditions over the field. Many of us flew, nobody stayed up for long. It turned into a work day at the airport after everyone got a taste of the winds and turbulence.
Saturday November 8th looked good. Very light winds out of the south. An approaching storm was spinning high altitude clouds out in front of it shutting down the bulk of the thermal activity. Julie and Harold took three warm-up flights for her to get comfortable and to work on a few last minute training items. After a break, some fluid and another flight with Harold, he got out of the glider and closed the back door. Some added ballast, a signed Student License and it was her turn to earn her wings.
Tow rope attached, canopy closed and checklist complete, she waggled the rudder for the first time as Pilot in Command. Loyal throttled up the 150 and I ran her wing until she had sufficient airspeed to get some aileron control. Determined not to balloon into the air she kept the 2-33 glued to the runway. Longest rollout I think I've seen, but when she did climb into the air it was in perfect position and she maintained that as Loyal left the ground.
They took a slow climbing left turn to bring her back to the drop off point where she released about 1000ft over the field. A nice left hand turn to enter the pattern. Cross the Initial Point at 1700 or so, Speed 55mph, dive brakes 1/2, looking out for traffic and down to the field at your intended landing point. Downwind a little further than usual since she hit lift and then a gentle right turn onto her Base leg.
A little more dive brake and then she rolled onto final, dive brakes out focused on her landing. Everything looked great. About 50ft she closed the brakes to manage her energy down the field and settled into ground effect, floating for several hundred yards before a soft touchdown on the main wheel. A few hundred yards of rolling and she eased the nose into the dirt and brought the glider to a stop right where she'd started from.
Many of the active club members were present and cheering for her as she completed this milestone. All smiles and congratulations from everyone as she was spun around for her next flight. Two more pattern tows followed. Her second launch was a little rocky at first as the glider pitched up from the initial surge of the tow. She corrected that and got things under control quick enough before settling in behind Loyal and following him to the release point. Each landing was better than the one before.
Her three flights complete, she is now clear to go and enjoy herself. Fly the plane, relax, look around and just get comfortable in this new three dimensional activity. With her solo experience complete, Harold cut out her shirt tail signifying that she was now a pilot. Hopefully the winter weather doesn't set in too fast and we'll have some soarable conditions in the weeks to come so that she can get some additional airtime and practice in.
Overall Avenal seems to be a pretty great place to learn to soar. Every single weekend since the end of August has had soarable conditions at some point in the day. Some thermals, sometimes wave, sometimes convergence, but always something even when it has been raining over on the coast.
I couldn't be more proud of Julie and her accomplishment. In 14 weeks (she only got to fly on 12 of them) she went from her only experience in flying being a passenger on airliners, to a glider pilot in command of the aircraft and making her own decisions. We both owe many thanks to our instructor Harold for pushing us and keeping us safe. He's given us both a gift in teaching us to fly gliders. From here, the sky is quite literally the limit.
I also owe thanks to our good friends Craig and Todd. Todd has been a glider pilot for many years and we go way back in our hang gliding, he even picked me up from my first Cross Country flight. He's wanted me to fly sailplanes ever since he got started and now Julie and I have finally joined him. Craig took the plunge this summer and started glider lessons in Colorado. Always someone I enjoyed hang gliding with and pushing each other, he was truly the catalyst in my pursuing sailplanes. Thanks to both of their encouragement Julie and I have something else to enjoy learning together and I'm looking forward to the Spring thermals already.
Come on out and fly with us.