Its a Living
Glider Guider - towing gliders
August 1, 2019
This is #27 in a series of "non- traditional" pilot occupations I've done over the years. All too often, we think of an aviation career as "you could be a Charter pilot, Corporate pilot, Airline pilot, Ag pilot, etc. There is SO MUCH MORE to aviation beyond these traditional pilot positions, and I've tried to highlight the more "unusual" over the years.
Many glider tow pilots are also sailplane pilots. There is no requirement to be a glider pilot to tow gliders, but you do need to know something about them if you are going to do the work efficiently and safely. Most tow pilots started out in airplanes and added a glider rating. Some pilots tow gliders for the money, and some tow pilots tow for their local soaring club. Either way, most tow pilots do it because they like being around gliders and glider people.
Like any aviation endeavor, it helps to study the Federal Aviation Regulations. The applicable FARs and endorsements can be found at https://www.faa.gov/licenses certificates/airmen certification/sport pilot/media/towing req.pdf
There are actually two requirements-a ground portion on glider tow operations and procedures-conducted by a CFI-Glider. This discusses glider operations on the ground, in flight, and procedures, equipment, best practices, and emergencies during tows. The second endorsement "need not be from a CFI-Glider." As shown in the link above, it can be "from a pilot that already meets the requirements of Part 61.69 (c) and (d), who has accompanied the pilot on three flights in an aircraft while towing a glider or while simulating towing flight procedures, AND-in the preceding 12 months, has performed three actual or simulated tows accompanied by a qualified pilot or has been towed for three flights in a glider or unpowered ultralight vehicle."
Technically, you COULD become a tow pilot without ever flying a glider to see what life is like "on the other end of the rope"-but no good glider club or commercial operator is going to let you do that. It's much easier to show up at the glider port and introduce yourself as a power pilot interested in becoming a tow pilot. Since most glider flights in the U.S. are launched with aero-tows (unlike Europe, where many are winch-launched), you will likely be welcomed. Take a few glider flights (you'll LIKE it!) Ask to accompany a working tow pilot. You'll find that Glider People are some of the most welcoming pilots in the aviation community!
Note a BIG change for Private Pilots looking to build time-Private Pilots CAN act as PIC towing gliders, provided they don't accept money for it. This is most applicable to glider clubs as opposed to commercial operations. With a Commercial operation, SOMEBODY is being paid for the tow. Note that Private Pilots must have a minimum of 100 hours TT. Of course, they must also have a High Performance Endorsement if applicable to the tow plane. They must also meet the insurance requirements to fly the tow plane. Since most (but not ALL) glider tugs are taildraggers, you'll have to be tailwheel proficient and endorsed.
Tow pilots are held in high regard by glider pilots-many of the tow pilots for club operation are unpaid volunteers-they are doing a service for the club. They are an indispensable requirement for glider pilots-their smooth and predictable flying makes it easier for glider pilots to fly behind them-Bob Wander of Faribault, the leading glider author in the world, says "What we are doing here is almost an airshow act-flying formation tethered by a 200' rope!" Uncoordinated or non-smooth flying requires the glider pilot to work hard to stay in position. Tow pilots must adjust to maintain the desired tow speed for individual gliders-and if an inept glider pilot is on the other end of the rope-or if the glider student and instructor is practicing "boxing the wake" (maneuvering the glider to the side of the wake-below the wake-the other side of the wake-and back to normal tow) the tow pilot gets a workout as well-working to maintain heading and airspeed. These excursions become more difficult for the tow pilot in low-performance tow-planes.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TOW PILOT
Like everything else in aviation, the day starts with a good preflight-the aircraft AND the tow ropes and hardware. They check the tow release on the tow-plane-if a glider gets too far out of control, the tow pilot can release as a last resort. The tow pilot is responsible for the tow rope-usually, the ropes are laid out next to the launch area, so they can be inspected for frays, knots, or tow link wear. Since Tow Pilots are responsible for the safety of the tow, most tow pilots like to make one quick turn "around the patch" without a tow to make sure everything is running OK.
MAKING THE TOW
The glider is moved to the takeoff position, and the tow pilot taxis in front with the rope in tow so it can be hooked to the glider. (NOTE: sometimes in training, gliders are launched from the point on the field where they landed. It's up to the tow pilot to assure that there is not only adequate runway for the takeoff, but to clear obstructions for both aircraft on takeoff). The ground crew hooks up the tow rope to the glider, then gives the signal to "take up slack." The ground crew scans for any conflicting traffic-raises the wing of the glider, and gives the "go" signal for launch. The tow pilot accelerates as fast as he can-the glider will need airflow over the wings to keep the long wings from touching the ground. The glider usually is off the ground first-allowing the tow plane to accelerate. The tow pilot accelerates to the agreed-upon tow speed, and conducts a climb-out. Like any formation flight, during the tow, the tow pilot is responsible for traffic avoidance-there is little the glider pilot on the other end of the rope can do to avoid traffic-short of releasing. The tow pilot works to keep the tow within landing distance of a suitable landing spot in the event of a break in the tow rope. There are procedures to be followed by both the tow aircraft and the glider in the event of a rope break-or the rare inability to release from either end of the tow. That may mean a turn around the departure airfield and a continued tow upwind. The tow pilot will be looking for possible sources of lift-cumulus clouds, black fields on the ground, pavement in cities-all the more reason to have some experience flying a glider.
Upon reaching the desired tow altitude (or if the glider finds a booming thermal on the way) the glider will release, and UPON CONFIRMATION THAT THE GLIDER HAS RELEASED, the tow pilot will dive left and down, while the glider pulls up and to the right. The tow pilot must balance the descent to not over-cool the engine, (I make it a point to keep enough power on at ANY airspeed to NOT have the prop driving the engine), and to enter the traffic pattern smoothly and at an appropriate airspeed. Upon landing, (don't forget that the tow pilot is trailing a rope)! The tow pilot clears the runway to clear it for any other gliders in the area.
Occasionally, a tow pilot will be called upon to do a long-distance tow to move a glider from one field to another, or to "retrieve" a glider that has landed at another airport while attempting cross-country flying. The tow plane is dispatched to tow the glider back. During cross country, the glider is much more affected by thermals than the tow plane due to low wing loading. This can be mitigated by the glider assuming the "low tow" position-below the tow plane prop wash. It allows the glider pilot to see the tow plane, and mitigates the chance of over-running the tow plane because the glider pilot would have to pull up if slack develops in the rope-slowing the glider.
WHAT ARE THE DANGERS?
Glider towing is like any other formation flight-each pilot is dependent on the skill of others, and the flight should not be made without extensive briefing and training. Some things that CAN happen:
• The glider loses control on takeoff-causing it to swerve and potentially causing the tow plane to ground loop. The good tow pilot is spring-loaded to hit the release from his end-though he will only do it as a last resort to save his ship.
• The glider gets too high on takeoff, lifting the tail of the tow ship and driving it into the ground. Again-be prepared to release.
• A rope break on the ground. Good pilots, and Field Operations Officers brief this scenario-usually, the tow pilot turns left, and the glider turns right as both brake to a stop.
• Glider speed brakes open. Sometimes, a glider pilot will fail to lock the speed brakes (spoilers) closed, and they pop open on takeoff and climb with the changing air loads. These brakes are powerful-it may be hard to climb, even with the most powerful tow planes. Be prepared to release as a last resort.
• Slack rope. The glider is much "cleaner" aerodynamically than the tow-plane. Put the nose down a couple of degrees on the tow-plane, and nothing much happens. Put the nose down a couple of degrees on a glider, and the sleek airframe picks up speed FAST! It's considered "bad form" for the glider to pass the tow-plane, with a large loop of rope still holding them together! The remedy for the glider is to yaw the aircraft-not only does is slow the glider down, but when the rope tightens up again, the yaw will reduce the amount of shock on the rope.
• Similarly, having the glider get above the tow-plane. In extreme cases, if the glider pilot loses sight of the tow-plane the glider should release IMMEDIATELY. Putting the glider nose down to regain position will result in over-running the tow-plane. IF the tow-plane is still in sight from the glider, it is acceptable for the glider to deploy spoilers to kill lift-but NEVER flaps, as it may result in the glider zooming even higher in respect to the tow plane.
• Collisions-in the air or on the ground. After release, the tow plane breaks left and dives for the ground. The tow pilot must be vigilant for other traffic-gliders and airplanes-beneath him. Gliders in the pattern may be much slower than the descending tow plane. Gliders may be on final approach to the runway, where the busy tow-plane is flying a normal pattern. Be aware that gliders have the right of way.
TOW PILOTS ARE THE POINT OF CONTACT FOR ALMOST EVERY GLIDER FLIGHT
• The good news for tow pilots is that gliders rarely start early or fly late-there is no lift.
• They talk with the glider pilots about the tow, and work with the Field Operations Officer about any special needs for the tow (devious Glider Flight Instructors may simulate a rope break by releasing at altitudes as low as 200'-enough for most gliders to make a turn and land on the runway just departed)!
• PAY! In some club operations, the tow pilot receives no pay-sometimes, they receive free flight time in the glider instead. Some Commercial operators pay by the tow-some pay by the hour-some pay by the day. This is NOT a way to make a lot of money-but every professional tow pilot I've ever encountered says they do it because they love being around gliders and glider people.
• A side benefit-gliding is a very social sport (there's a lesson here for the rest of General Aviation-because it IS a social sport, most glider pilots are "in it for life!" This social aspect manifests itself nearly every day-since gliders rarely fly if there is no lift, the equipment is put away before sundown, and the Barbecue grilles come out. Families join together, and a good time is had by all.
A good tow pilot is indispensable for every successful glider club in commercial operation. Since the tow pilot is the "point of contact" with customers, they should have good "people skills." I leased an Aerospatiale Rallye tow-plane to a successful commercial operation. We had 9 tow pilots over as many years-making a living, building hours, and having fun. I am proud to say that EVERY ONE OF OUR TOW PILOTS WENT ON TO FLY FOR A MAJOR AIRLINE-we called the tow-plane "THE AIRLINE PILOT'S FINISHING SCHOOL." The very things that the airlines are looking for are taught to tow pilots-no wonder that the airlines snapped up every one!
• Be on time.
• Have your equipment ready.
• Communicate with your customers and ground crew.
• YOU are responsible for the safety of the tow.
• Enjoy your job!
As you can see, a good tow pilot is the CENTER of every club or commercial operation. It reminds me of something my old Dad told me, when I asked why he chose to be the Catcher on his semi-pro softball team-a position that is usually very low-profile. He replied "From this position, I'm in on EVERY PITCH and EVERY PLAY in the game-what could be BETTER?"
Being a tow pilot is like that!
Jim Hanson is the long-term FBO at Albert Lea, Mn. Jim says about tow pilots “TOW PILOTS ARE NATURAL-BORN LEADERS—IF YOU FLY A GLIDER, IT’S LIKELY YOU’RE FOLLOWING ONE!” If YOU are interested in soaring or becoming a tow pilot, contact Cross Country Soaring in Faribault—Minnesota Soaring Club in Stanton, MN.—Red Wing Soaring Association in Osceola, Wisconsin—or Stanton Sport Aviation. All have websites.
Jim can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 507 373 0608.