Indoc in the Schweizer SGM 2-37

I love Twitter.  Not necessarily for the hours of timesuck that it has represented over the course of the three an a half years and 10,000+ tweets.  I love it because every once in awhile, you tweet that you’re getting a haircut and you end up getting to fly a really cool aircraft.

Yesterday, I tweeted that I was heading downtown Saturday morning to get a haircut from Vic, a commercial pilot who’s also my barber of some 15 years.  John Harte responded, suggesting that he might be able to get me up in a motorglider if I could make it over to Detroit City Airport while I was downtown.

The motorglider in question is a Schweizer SGM 2-37, registered under tail number N26AF.  Only 12 were made, nine (including this one) of which went to the US Air Force Academy under the designation T-G 7A and flew at the academy until 2003.

Schweizer designed the aircraft at the request of the USAF to allow flight training in both powered and glider roles.  For that reason, it’s a bit of a mutt. The nose, cowling, and engine installation are adapted from the Piper PA-38 Tomahawk.  The wings are adapted from the Schweizer SGS 1-36 Sprite, including extensions that stretch the wings to 59.5 feet and leading edge cuffs to make it spin-resistant.  Those who know and love the Schweizer SGS 2-32 will recognize the tail section.

6AF, like all nine of the USAFA models, has aLycoming O-235-L2C four-cylinder engine that puts out 112 hp and gets the 1,850 MTOW aircraft up into the air with reasonable aplomb and allows the aircraft to cruise somewhere around 110 KIAS.

The cockpit is set up side-by side.  Each pilot has a center stick and a speed brake control on the left.  There’s only one set of engine controls so, if you fly in the left seat as I did, you’ll find yourself flying with your left hand on the stick and right hand on the throttle in climb and cruise.  When it’s time to play glider pilot (which you can do in this aircraft with the prop turning or not), you move your right hand to the stick and your left hand to the speed brake all the way through landing.  The weirdness of flying with the stick in your left hand wears off after just once or twice around the patch.

Among the weird things about the aircraft is that I can’t legally get into the airplane and act as PIC by myself.  It looks like an ASEL aircraft, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  It’s a glider.  And I don’t have a glider category rating.  And, even if I did, I’d also need an endorsement for self-launch.  And it gets weirder.  John is a glider instructor with many, many hours and flights.  But he doesn’t have an ASEL category rating on his certificate.  He’s an ASEL student who’s through just about all of his training, but no ASEL category rating.  Thus, although he’s an instructor and although he can give dual in this airplane-shaped thing with a propeller on the front, he can’t act as PIC with passengers in a C-152.

None of the above is by way of complaint.  I just find it a little weird.

It was cold and windy at KDET.  ATIS said -1C and the winds were 13, gusting 24, and coming down Runway 33 from about 40 degrees to the left.  We bundled up.  I look like the Michelin Man in this shot because I’m layered up in a polo shirt, a cotton sweater, a sweatshirt, and my USAF flight jacket.  The aircraft has heat, but it’s always best to help the aircraft out by dressing warmly.

I got the taxi and John made the initial calls.  Then we took off on 33 with John on the controls for the first one.  Climb and descent is done at around 85 KIAS.  Vx is substantially lower than that, but it was gusty as heck and we elected to add five knots for my wife and five knots for the kids to give a safety margin against sudden wind changes down low.  With really long wings close to the runway, the aircraft gets off the ground very early in the roll.  You power up.  Maybe five seconds later, you push to get the tailwheel up.  Then a cool thing happens.  You’re flying, but you’re well below 85 KIAS.  so you push it over and fly like a helicopter at maybe 5-10 feet AGL until you get your 85 KIAS before letting it climb out.  Maybe it’s the sudden improved visibility over the nose when you push or the fact that we had so much headwind, but the very slow acceleration down the runway at low level before climbing seemed very helicopter-y to me.

John gave me the controls at that point and, much to his credit (and not so much to mine), he never really took them back after that.  Sure, he was close to the controls, and sure, he assisted, but I got to fly the thing pretty much the entire time.

I like to fly tight patterns and dive for the runway from downwind abeam.  Especially in a glider.  If I ever lost the engine above 400 AGL in the pattern, I’d be pretty embarrassed if I ended up landing anywhere other than on the runway.  That apparently made John happy.  Apparently, power pilots like to drag the airplane in on the prop.  I’d rather dive in and slip my lips off to bleed energy before putting it down just past the numbers.

I think I began to understand gliders on this flight, too.  I love speed brakes.  Love, love, love speed brakes.  Learning to fly ASEL and being well short on more than my fair share of engine-out drills, I was terrified of the fact that a real glider has no black knob that you can push to go around.  But gliders are simply an elegant embodiment of what I’ve know for a long time.  Carry more energy than you need to the numbers and then shovel the energy off when you’re absolutely sure that you don’t need it any more.  I’ve done that in power for years by slipping.  Speed brakes make the whole energy-depletion thing so much easier.  Replace the slip with a nice, symmetric drag mechanism.  It’s just like a throttle, only with the benefit of affirmatively slowing you down.

Landing is much like landing in any other taildragger except that you’re seated side-by-side and you’re not looking directly over the nose.  The speed brakes make the sink rate very comparable to a Citabria or similar taildragger.  Get it stabilized over the centerline at maybe 10 AGL and match pull rate to sink rate until you’re not flying anymore.  You have to be careful not to pull the stick to plant the tailwheel like you do in a Super-D or a Pitts.  Any abrupt aft stick movement in this phase of flight will likely make you airborne again.  The aircraft is after all, a glider.  It wants to fly.

The wingtips are a long way away from you.  About 196 sq. ft. of wing spread over a 57-foot wingspan.  I wondered how much slip you could actually carry into the flare before you dragged a wingtip.  But it’s really not an issue.  We had smart crosswinds the whole time and some pretty aggressive forward slippage over the numbers on a couple of them and we were never in danger of dragging anything.

I was only genuinely behind the aircraft on the first two trips around the patch.  The whole thing about switching hands back and forth on the stick got to me a little.  The third time around, moving the right hand to the stick and the left hand to the speed brakes felt really good.  High on base with the nose fairly far down and working the left hand to manage the descent.  Kind of fighter-pilot-y.  In fact, we shot down two C-172s from another school on the field while we were up.

And the aircraft is very slow in roll.  It was a well-and-truly blustery day and the aircraft dropped a wing several times.  I tend to recover with my feet and coordinate with aileron, which turned out to be helpful in the glider.  Aileron input requires patience, especially if the shear that caused the drop is still acting on the wings asymmetrically.  The smoother you are, the more effective you’re going to be at flying this aircraft.

We got around the patch 12 times and had the airport pretty much to ourselves.  On downwind once, another aircraft was on a four-mile final.  The tower offered to let us make a short approach inside of the traffic but, truth be told, every landing was already a short approach and there was no way that we were going to get down and back up before he was over the numbers.  So we got a clearance out of the airspace and did a few laps around Belle Isle for giggles.  The broken layer was too low to get adequate clearance from the Renaissance Center to fly down the river to Grosse Ille or we might have done that.  I’ve never flown downtown before and that might have been cool to see.

Long story short, I ended up with 0.9 tach and 1.1 dual received in the aircraft.  It’s an amazing amount of fun.  I’ll probably head out to Sandhill Soaring Club‘s field this summer for some more glider training in aircraft with no motor at all.  That’ll probably be just for fun.  But, if I actually end up going for the glider rating, it’ll be at least in part because a glider rating and a self-launch endorsement will put me in a position to join up and fly this aircraft a lot more.



About Steve Tupper

Stephen Force is the superhero alter ego of mild-mannered tech and aviation lawyer, commercial pilot (glider, with private privileges in ASEL, ASES, AMEL, IA, and DC-3 (SIC) type-rated), and Civil Air Patrol lieutenant colonel Steve Tupper. Steve writes, records, and brings you the inside story about everything that really matters in aviation. He's flown with the USAF Thunderbirds, he's and airshow performer and air boss, and he's one of only five pilots ever to earn a FAST card in the glider category. Follow Steve's ongoing quest to do all that is cool in aviation at or on Twitter as @StephenForce.


  1. Be careful Steve, after a couple of trips in a conventional glider you will probably fall in love with the challenge of finding lift, staying aloft, and seeing how much you can climb sans tow plane.

    You’ve been fairly warned!

Speak Your Mind