Gliding in North Carolina

-- Half an hour in a Blanik --

   In December 1998 I went on an unexpected business trip to Raleigh, NC. I have a number of friends up in Raleigh, one of whom is a glider pilot. The opportunity therefore presented itself to find out what soaring was about - and I got to do it from the front seat of a Blanik two-seat glider.

   On Saturday 12th December, I went with my friend Dave Laitinen to Ball field (a small private but paved strip in rural North Carolina) to fly the glider. I was only in North Carolina for a few days, so Saturday was the only chance we had. As you can see from the photographs, it wasn't a good lift day. A thin layer of stratus clouds loitered around at about 9,000 feet meaning we'd just get towed up there...and float back down! We flew for half an hour in total, which isn't bad considering the lack of lift.

Gliders at the tiedowns   There are a number of gliders based at Ball (as well as many other interesting aircraft, of which we'll see more of later). The orange one in the foreground is one of Dave's gliders (he has a half-share in two single seaters, one of them being a composite high performance machine). The Blanik we flew is in the background of this picture. Dave spent some time showing me the various different aircraft on the field. There's quite a variety of gliders and construction methods: some are wooden, some are all metal, others fabric, and of course there's the composite. Most were certificated by the FAA, but some were in the Experimental category.
Composite glider with the wings off   The Cirrus here is an experimental. This is Dave's other glider. He wheeled it off the trailer so I could take a quick look at it. As is common with most gliders...the panel is pretty sparse. It contains' the basic VFR instrumentation only with the addition of a vario - basically a more advanced VSI that shows your energy state by compensating for 'zoom climbs' initiated by just yanking back on the stick. The airfoil shape on this glider is quite noticable - notice the under camber on the underside of the wing-root attachment. The wings also have aileron gap seals, and the finish of the entire aircraft is very smooth. As you can see, I got to sit in it and try it for size. The pilot's position is actually pretty comfortable (and it needs to be; glider pilots can spend hours at a time soaring)

-- Lined up for Takeoff --

Waiting for the tow-plane

   First we let John the tow-pilot know we were about to go, then dragged the Blanik up to the runway, being careful not to scrape the wingtips on the runway (the Blanik has a 15 meter wingspan and wheels only on the centerline of the fuselage, so you need to ensure you support the wingtip!) You can see that the spoilers on the wing are extended a little. The towplane duly arrives, and we get the cable hooked up. The towplane is a straight tailed Cessna 150 with a 150 h.p. engine conversion. (I got to fly it later as well). Dave's checked out to fly the Blanik from the back, so I got to sit in the front!

Hooked up to the towplane waiting to go

  It's interesting being towed by another aircraft. We got dragged along the runway for a while, and after a short time, the ailerons became effective and Dave could hold the wingtips up (they actually have skids on the tips so they can slide along for a while). We were soon airborne, flying in close formation with the Cessna 150 on the end of a tow line.

-- In Flight --

Taking off on the tow-line

  We were towed up to 4,000 feet or thereabouts. I got to take the stick for a short amount of time on the tow, and for a first-timer, I didn't do too badly, but I did feel kind of anxious! (I have been both the towing vehicle and the towee on the road, and I remember what happened if the line got slack and the slack was suddenly removed!) Turning with the tow plane Once released from the towline, the towplane quickly broke left and headed back to Ball. We now had just the sound of the wind rushing past the airframe to keep us company. The nice thing about gliding is that you don't need a headset - you can carry out a conversation without a problem. You can also almost gauge your airspeed from the sound of the wind rushing past the airframe. The cold, still (and totally liftless) air gave us a smooth ride. Dave turned the controls over to me, and I got a feel for how it handled. The yaw string was a little confusing at first (airplanes have a turn coordinator to measure the quality of your turns... but a glider has a piece of string taped to the canopy!) The yaw string is extremely sensitive, and it also gives reverse sensing. In an airplane, you step on the ball. However, if you rudder the same direction as the yawstring goes, you'll set up a superb slip! Now you haven't seen adverse yaw until you've tried a glider. I tried moving the stick briskly left and right without using the rudder. You get quite a lot of adverse yaw if you do this in a Cessna 150, but in a glider the adverse yaw is stupendous. On the other hand, the rudder pedals are actually reasonably sensitive, so the amount of rudder pressure I needed to use on the Blanik seemed about the same as a Cessna 150. This is the sort of thing that'd give Piper Cherokee pilots kittens! One thing that was quite interesting was that the altimeter tends to hang up a little as you descend. In a piston airplane, there's enough vibration to stop this from happening. You periodically need to gently tap the altimeter to get it to indicate the correct altitude. Every so often I'd hear 'taptaptaptaptap' as Dave tapped his altimeter, so I'd give mine a quick tap, and it'd indicate the correct altitude.
Base leg to Ball   Due to the dismal lack of lift, it wasn't too long before we had to get back to the airfield. Glider pilots fly a pattern just like power ones do - here we are on base leg for Ball. (Ball is on an incline, so you almost always take off downhill and land uphill unless the wind is really strong.)
The next three pictures show how effective the flaps and spoilers are on the Blanik! It looks like we are really high turning final, but we easily make the landing pretty much on the numbers (if Ball actually had numbers, that is!)

Base to final turn Short final
Turning final and on short final...

About to touchdown
About to touch down at Ball

  There's no doubt about it. Flying the glider was fun - it's just a shame that there was no lift! There is a glider club in Houston, and I'm certain that I will pursue my glider rating before 1999 is out (and that'll be another flight journal!)

-- Other interesting things at Ball --

   Ball had a collection of interesting aircraft. In the hangar, someone was working on recovering a fabric covered wing, and there was a collection of unusual aircraft (a green Piper Cub for example!) I also got to fly the towplane, a Cessna 150 with a 150 hp engine. This is how all Cessna 150's should have been made! It climbs pretty well with this engine, and John the tow pilot demonstrated how you can practically hang it off the prop (he slowly pulled the yoke back at full power, and instead of stalling, the plane sort of mushes along in a gradual climb). The straight-tailed 150's slip pretty well too, as I discovered. John was very trusting, since he let me fly from the left seat, takeoff and land the thing without ever knowing how good of a pilot I was! Landing it was a little different from a conventional 150 on account of the towhook - he told me to just flare it nose up, but don't keep pulling back otherwise the hook will drag on the runway. (You also must never land it flat, since the prop is a bit longer than on the standard 150 and doesn't have much ground clearance). Below are some pictures of some of what was at Ball.

Yellow cub
A standard yellow Piper Cub
Green cub
...and how odd, a green Cub!

...and a Stearman too.

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