Thursday, November 26, 2009

Winch-launched gliding

Gliding mostly requires a tow plane to tow your glider to altitude. Following a tow plane one can be towed to a large height to begin the glide; as long as the climb remains safe and stable one can be towed up in theory as high as the climb performance of the tow allows.

But there is another way. Winch-launched gliding is highly popular in Europe, where I understand General Aviation is a lot less accessible to the general public than it is here, which I imagine makes it more challenging to obtain a tow. Tow planes also cost money; the pilots don't work for free after all, and the tow planes don't fly without pricey avgas. While I am sure winching still costs money, it does somehow add a layer of independence to the concept of gliding.

And winching isn't low-powered, either. These winches can fling a glider into the air at a whopping 1,900 feet a minute, which for someone who has flown in 400 to 500-foot-per-minute Cessnas is astonishing.

And if one winches in the right places, one can soar for hours. Pilot Mag had a feature about winch-launched gliding in Switzerland and told tales of one glider pilot who soared, from a winch launch, for nine hours, covering almost 1000 km in the process. Granted the thermals and wind activity in Switzerland are extremely good for gliding (epic vacation, anyone?) but still, nine hours aloft in an unpowered airplane subject to the whims of the sky is a pretty astonishing thing.

Anyway, enjoy these videos of winched gliders. I did!

Back in the saddle!

Soon, I will be flying again. I made an appointment with a local CFI that I have spoken with before, and on December 4 I will be going back for my first formal flying lesson in almost a decade.

I've done a lot of preparing. I've read a lot of the ground school, read some of the references, tried to understand the workings of the engine and the magic of the aerodynamics. I have read accident reports and safety briefings, because it is far better to learn from the mistakes of others if at all possible. I have learned the basics of weather and I have learned that it is not to be trifled with.

And very soon it will pay off. A few short days and I'll be back in the left seat of a small airplane. It may only be an hour, but it's actual instruction, hands-on-the-yoke, apply the knowledge instruction. It will likely be a review flight focusing on basic maneuvers such as turns to a heading, climbs and descents, maybe a stall or two. If I'm really lucky we may do a few touch-and-goes, but the CFI may want to wait until I have proven I'm not a total doofus to trust me to landing and takeoff.

I'm excited. Just a few short days!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Apart from flying around, what can one do with general aviation aircraft?

How about fishing?

Awesome. It takes a special kind of person to jump from a helicopter and grab a Marlin by the beak...very Australian!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Midair Collisions: Never a good thing

Midair collisions are bad. Avoiding them was one of the first things I was taught in flying, and all of the textbooks, advisories, and supplemental books I have read of late have placed massive emphasis on collision avoidance. The cockpit of an airplane can be full of distractions, but the number one rule of flying is to fly the plane first. Don't play with the GPS first, or stare intently at your map first, but fly the plane first.

Under the umbrella of fly the plane first is collision avoidance, be it with terrain, obstacles, or another aircraft. It is critical to pay attention to where you are going; especially in VFR flight at or near an airport, it is vital to keep your head on a swivel to see and avoid other air traffic.

Simply moving your head rapidly around your field of vision is not good enough. Turn from your computer monitor 90 degrees to your right. You can focus on either point but you're likely to miss a lot of the details in between. In an airplane, that could mean missing air traffic in your vicinity. Current recommendations are to change your viewpoint slowly, scanning the sky around you in small sections and stopping to really look for a few seconds.

Helping other traffic to see and avoid you is beneficial as well. I was taught long ago that navigation lights and strobe lights should always be on when the airplane is moving. If you are in congested airspace, turn on a landing or taxi light to increase your visibility. If you are operating at an untowered field with a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) or a Unicom, monitor it and pay attention to where people are relative to your position. Even in 2009 some people fly without radios; unless you're really out in the bush, don't do that.

AOPA has a few scary stories about in-flight collisions involving small aircraft archived on their website. I have never experienced one of these events, but I have experienced a close call with another airplane. Back when I was first learning to fly in Maine, I was just outside the traffic pattern area of KLEW, Auburn/Lewiston Municipal Airport. We were roughly over the Auburn/Poland border and we were heading inbound towards the airport. I was looking forward and to the left when out of nowhere a flash of yellow screamed across my field of vision, maybe 500 feet beneath us but close enough that it startled me. I caught a glimpse of two wings and then I lost sight of the other plane. It scared the heck out of me, but it was a valuable lesson that even in the relatively un-congested airspace of central Maine there is other air traffic and complacency is bad.

The other aircraft may never have even seen us, and he was not making any advisories on the Auburn radio frequency. It blows me away that some people still fly without radios when a handheld can be bought for a measly $400.00...but that's a whole different post.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Balloons, Gliders, many airplanes, so little time

Learning to fly is an exhilarating experience and one that is recent in human history. Hundreds of years ago, people like me could look at the birds and think of Icarus and that was more or less all you could do. If you liked the idea of flying, climbing onto a tall object and leaping off was really the only was to experience it. A few madmen tried it, and while I am sure it was thrilling, it was usually also terminal. Not the best way to enjoy a flight.

Then, in the late 1700s, came the Montgolfiers in Paris. Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier launched a sheep, a duck, and a rooster into the sky in the basket of the first hot-air balloon. My history text notes that the animals were, in the words of a witness, "to say the least, highly astonished." Around the same time Jacques Charles, another French inventor, demonstrated his hydrogen-filled balloon, a good idea that would be shown to have a fatal flaw when Hindenburg violently exploded several decades later.

Mere weeks after the exhibitions of these rival balloons, on November 21 1783, the first successful manned flight in history would take place when Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes would balloon over Paris and drift several miles in the wind.

Aviation has come a long, long way since then. The Montgolfiers and Messieurs de Rozier and d'Arlandes would probably be astonished at the marvels of modern flight: the SR-71 capable of flying from California to the East Coast in just over an hour, the supersonic Concorde flying between Paris and New York, the unlikely behemoths such as the 747 drifting along at 450 knots over the Atlantic. Not only can we putt along in a Piper Cub at 60 miles an hour, we can also fly far and we can fly fast.

SR-71 image stolen from

But even today as NASA launches rockets into orbit, Ballooning is still going on. People routinely take to the sky in hot-air balloons. A woman I work with flies with her husband in a Boeing Stearman, a classic Biplane used to train many military pilots long ago. Gliders are still used extensively in many parts of the country, and new developments in powered gliders have added a new dimension to soaring. Hang gliding remains a popular thrill activity. Thousands of people fly around in Cessna 150's and old Piper Cherokees even as the latest and greatest Airbuses zip through the atmosphere 30,000 feet above us.

The upshot of all this: there is a lot of flying to be done. There are so many unique and fascinating ways to fly, and there are thousands and thousands of different airplanes out there to be flown in. What little airtime I have so far comes mostly from classic trainers, the Cessna 152's and 172's I flew in years ago. But though I have few hours, I have a lot of time before me, and I hope to experience as many different methods of flying as I can, from going up in a hot-air balloon to pushing forward the throttles in a jet to cutting the tow rope on a glider and soaring around the clouds.

I don't know yet when my next flying lesson will be. There are details to sort out and people to talk to, but with any luck, I can be flying again in a few short weeks. I'll be sure to let you know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Hello and welcome to Airways to Airways: learning to fly.

You may be wondering about the title of this blog. Allow me to explain. I am a registered respiratory therapist with six years of experience who is currently practicing in the sunny state of Florida. As a respiratory therapist, I deal with all aspects of breathing and its associated functions. We like to joke in our profession that breathing is important because if one is not breathing, one is not doing anything else either. Of course, to breathe one needs an airway, and hence our priorities are Airway, then Breathing, then Anything Else.

But respiratory therapy isn't what I want to do forever. Many years ago, I took to the air and began to learn to fly. For reasons I've never been able to determine I stopped after about 16 hours of airtime--just shy of the point where I'd be beginning to learn to navigate and go solo. Nine years after I stopped flying, I have thought about it and decided that it is time to do what I love. Life is short, and it is high time to get airborne again. I won't let another nine years go by between flights.

This is the story of my transition from the Airways of modern medicine to the Airways of modern aviation. Follow along as I learn to fly, and we'll see what else I can learn along the way.