Because Glider – Audio Episode Show Notes

2-33 on Runway 02

This is a two-part presentation, but I wanted to keep everything in one place.  Accordingly, I’ll put links to both audio parts here as they’re released.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Because Glider: Being an Account of One Man’s Path to the CFI Certificate by Way of Uncle Ernie’s Holiday Camp, a Couch at a Radio Station, &c.

If you follow me anywhere on social media, you’ll know that I recently completed the Herculean effort of becoming a certified flight instructor (or “CFI”) in the glider category.

I first started flying gliders in 2012 when my friend, and later instructor, John Harte, invited me to go fly a motorglider after a haircut that I had scheduled in Detroit one Saturday. By the second time we flew, I was training for the rating. Four months later, I was a commercial glider pilot and, six months later, I flew my first airshows as a performer in the same aircraft. Since then I’ve logged more than 200 hours in motorgliders, more than half of that in formation.


Winter in the ASK 21

Through the kind efforts of Mark Grant, Chris Felton, and others in the Civil Air Patrol, I even added an aerotow endorsement so that I could fly gliders that had no onboard powerplants. I earned that one after about 20 tows, most of them conducted in Owosso, Michigan in single-digit Fahrenheit temperatures where you had to close the canopy and hold your breath until you had airflow through the window on takeoff so you wouldn’t completely frost the inside of the canopy. If you earn an aerotow endorsement in Michigan in the winter, you have well and truly worked for that endorsement.

And then, like the urge of Ishmael to get to sea, I began to feel the urge to do the next big thing. Certainly, there are plenty of challenges that could have been that next big thing. I really ought to add both single- and multi-engine airplanes to my commercial certificate.

But a number of things pushed me to go for the CFI. I’m very broad in aviation, but not very deep. Until I started flying gliders, I could fly a lot of stuff, but only with private privileges. I did my glider checkride at the commercial level simply because the practical test standards are about the same for private vs. commercial and the only other requirements are the knowledge test and a more comprehensive oral during the checkride. (Written test and comprehensive oral? Oh, please don’t throw me in that briar patch!) So the idea of taking a single category of flying all the way to CFI appealed to me.

I have a son who was getting close to turning 14 at the time. His name is Nicholas, but most of you know him by his callsign, “FOD.” He has about 30 hours bumming around in the TG-7A with me, most of it sitting there in the instructor seat while I fly. 14 is an important age for someone who flies gliders because that’s the age at which you can solo. And it doesn’t matter that the aircraft has an engine and a propeller. If it’s certified in the glider category, you can solo it at 14. I decided that it was not enough to just fly around with him or teach him without having the CFI in my pocket. I wanted to take him to a real CFI for the solo and the checkride.

Lastly, I had always thought that instructing would be fun and that I’d become a much better pilot if I did it. During the DC-3 rating, I had the chance to sit in the back and watch somebody else fly under circumstance where I could just watch and think about flying. That was one of the most productive experiences I’ve ever had in flight training. I couldn’t help but think that being able to really observe and critique would make me a much better pilot.

So, last spring, I decided to go for the instructor certificate. This is the story of that journey.
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CFI Episode Progress and a Return to the Scene of Some of the Crimes

WION Production Studio

I’m here at WION Radio in Ionia for a couple of days while FOD is going through encampment staff selection in Grand Rapids.  I’m taking some of the time to write and edit for Acro Camp and Airspeed.  Being that I’m here at the radio station, I thought I’ve give you a taste of the CFI episode, large parts of which happened here in Ionia.

The episode itself is currently about 12,000 words and growing.  It’ll probably be a two-parter just to make it manageable.  For now, here’s a look at the place and the characters that surrounded the experience.


Long-time listeners to Airspeed will know that my friend Jim Angus runs WION radio in Ionia. He’s taken the station from a closed-down operation that was close to losing its license (what radio guys call a “stick”) and, over the last 10 years, turned it into that rarest of things: A full-service local AM radio station. During that time, I’ve been the lawyer that has helped the company through several acquisitions so that it now includes five signals broadcasting from two different cities. I get called the general counsel and I suppose it’s as appropriate a title as any.

I’ve recorded several Airspeed episodes in the production studio there and I even did a turn as Scrooge in the Ionia community’s rendition of the 1939 CBS Campbell Playhouse script of A Christmas Carol. Each actor records his or her lines along in the studio with Jim engineering and an editor puts it all together.  I highly recommend the gag reel from those sessions. Yelling “Cratchit!” too often. And I noticed that you can add a “so to speak” after about half of Tiny Tim’s lines to reasonably good effect.  I’ve ruined Dickens for you now, haven’t I?

The station is a few miles north of Ionia on Haynor road and about 15 minute from the airport. It’s a really eclectic little radio station. Not quite KBHR, the radio station from CBS’s Northern Exposure in the early 1990s, but close. It is its own little Lake Wobegon in the cornfields.

A constant stream of local personalities makes its way into and out of the building during the broadcast day. Most gather around the microphones at the circular table in the studio. Phil Cloud, Left-Lane Layne, Popeye John, and others who are as colorful and different as you think they might be.

Strange things happen at WION. Like solving the need to light the towers by taking the lights off of them. You have to light a radio tower if it’s 200 or more feet tall. The towers were 202 feet tall, but the top three feet of each tower was the lighting device and each of them was three feet tall. After the lights on two of the three towers burned out and needed replacing, it only cost a little more to have the contractor go pull down the light fixtures from all three towers, taking them all down to 199 feet and removing the need to light them. I’m not kidding.

Jim lived in an Airstream trailer in the parking lot for the first eight or nine years he operated the place. Probably not entirely cricket under the local zoning laws, but he was right there if there was a storm front and, even when every farmhouse for miles went dark during thunderstorm season, Jim was right there with the generator operating and giving up-to-the minute information to all who tuned in. As long as Jim was willing to brave the constant danger of carbon monoxide poisoning from the trailer’s ancient heater and give the farmers their updates on squall lines and ice storms and school closings, the township figured that it was a fair trade and it left him alone.

He’s since made himself an apartment in the station’s building.  For that matter, he pulled the cubicles out of the front office and put couches, a TV, and a fake fireplace in there so it can serve as a home for wayward lawyers and pilots.

Thus I called him up and told him that the station’s general counsel would be in residence for a couple of days each week until I finished my training and the checkride.  One of the benefits of hanging out with a guy who can keep a radio station on the air with nothing more than clarinet reeds and Scotch tape is that he can figure out how to get a freakishly fat Internet pipe out there in the middle of nowhere. I rarely see any of my clients face-to-face anyway so, whenever I wasn’t flying, I could sit in the main room at a desk and, for all practical purposes, be in the office.

The routine was this.  I’d drive over on a Monday night with my flight bag, Magic Box, a sleeping bag, a pillow, and a shaving kit.  Oh, and a towel.  It’s vital to always know where your towel is.

I’d crash until 0700L, by which time Jim had been on the air for an hour.  I’d do a time-to-make-the-donuts walk to the shower with my hair sticking out on all directions, often shuffling right by the studio door.  To their credit, none of the denizens of WION thought this the least bit weird.  Even when I could hear Jim behind me saying, “That’s the general counsel.”

Have you ever been half asleep standing in the shower with the radio on in the bathroom and had the strange sensation that the radio was talking to you? You very specifically? I have had that sensation. It is particularly disturbing when the radio is actually talking to you. It’s something in between having Jack Hodgson in your car talking to you and forgetting that he’s actually there and not on an episode of UCAP – and having Jack Hodgson in your shower.  I confess that I know nothing of the latter. And I am aware, now more than ever, of the important of not mixing up “former” and “latter.”

I digress.

After showering, I’d dress in my glider gear of cargo shorts, a golf shirt, cushy socks, and cross-trainers.  Then I’d go to the studio and sit in on the mic for a half hour or so. Usually bantering with the locals and particularly with the guy who runs the new drive-in theater.  I also plugged Benz Aviation and the glider program I the hopes that the station might be able to leverage my blathering into an ad campaign.

By 0930L, I’d head to the airport, fly from 1000L to noon or so, then head back to the studio and work until dinner.  Then off to the Lamplight Grill for dinner with Jim and more of the locals before crashing on the couch again.  The next morning, I’d lather, rinse, and repeat before heading back to the airport for another couple of hours of training, then leave for home.


CFI Endorsement Day

CFI 2015-05-28 02

I spent a couple of hours on Thursday in the skies over Ionia in the mighty SGS 2-33A with Lee Larder. Seven flights. I think that I’m becoming comfortable in the back seat. It’s a constant struggle to keep the tow plane above the cowl on the climb (especially when the tow plane hits sink and tries to disappear), but I’m not going to add a cushion to the seat now because I’d have to get used to a new sight picture and new muscle and inertial memory. And, as much easier as the whole thing is in the front seat, I don’t think I’d fly the ride from the front even if I had the option.

Still, I’m constantly put in mind of the Mike Meyers bit from So I Married an Axe Murderer:

We started with a tow to 2,500 to demonstrate all of the high airwork. Naturally, the dive brakes became jammed with a mixture of ice and extraterrestrial fauna, so I flew it sideways to that landing, happy with my slip and the control on the roll-out.

CFI 2015-05-28 01

Next came what I had in mind for most of the flights of the day. I’ve long been a little worried about my ability to land the glider precisely. It’s always reasonably safe, but it doesn’t always come to rest on the runway where I want it to. So we did five pattern tows to try to dial in the precision of my landings. We set up a pair of cones along the runway edge about 400 feet apart, with the idea of touching down after the first one, but coming to a stop before the second one.

The first touchdown was a little short and the second one rolled out a little long, but I was generally happy with things. I had been avoiding slamming on wheel brake out of some aesthetic sense, but Lee suggested that I throw elegance to the wind if it looked like I had too much energy in the rollout. After all, it’s an emergency maneuver and you should expect a little brute force. And, as long as the wingtips are well off the ground and you don’t have a substantial side load, there’s little chance of a ground loop. So, if the second cone appears to be advancing too quickly, I’m going to be full-on the wheel brake and I can also let the stick come forward to dump a little more weight on the skid to get it stopped.

Otherwise, I’m doing things like a real CFI candidate. Get stabilized at 60 mph in the middle of the approach cone with half to three-quarters dive brakes. Get that aim point 200 feet short of the first cone (and on the other side of Lee’s head) to hold still in the windshield. Then flare and use the rest of the dive brakes once I have the first cone made. Then throw out the anchor and hope really hard.

The last flight was a 180 abort from 200 AGL. Lee pulled the clown nose at or above 200 AGL (and after my callout) and I know that the altimeter was correct, but we sure looked low at the 135-degree point in the turn back. As a TG-7A driver, I push pretty hard and pretty long for airspeed on a 180 abort because the TG-7A is a draggy beast that loses energy prodigiously when the thrust quits. The 2033A soesn’t slow down as quickly, so waited too long to bank for the turn. I need to get the turn going sooner next time. But we made it back with no problem and I even managed to retain the right amount of energy to get it back to the start point and even taxied off to the side using rudder so there wasn’t as far to push back.

CFI 2015-05-28 03At the conclusion of flying, Lee and I went through the items I missed on the FOI and FIG knowledge tests, then he signed me off. My IACRA application had already been in for a day, so I gave him the application number and FRN so that he could approve it. And I left with all of the required endorsements in my logboog.

So it’s on the the ride!  With CAP NLOC in Atlanta coming up June 10-14 and the River Days airshow June 19-21, I’m probably going to have to do the ride this coming week or push it until after the airshow. And, if I push it, I’ll probably fly one more time with Lee before the ride. I called Carol Dehnbostl (an FIE in the West Michigan FSDO and one of the main reasons that I went to Ionia to train) and I expect to hear back from her on Monday.


More CFI Training – Focusing on the Fine Points

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Another session in the mighty Schweizer SGS 2-33A Absteigend Reibungmaschine. Two flights this time.  The first was a basic flight with wake-boxing, slack line, some thermaling, and an interesting landing abeam lots of other waiting gliders.  The second flight was a lot longer and involved a lot more thermaling and then the PTS airwork on the way back down.  The track from the first flight is reproduced below.  I apparently ham-handed the iPad on the second flight and didn’t capture the track log.  Bummer, because we maneuvered a lot and that would have been cool to see.

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It was a really good day for soaring.  Lots of bumps on tow, but lots of thermals as well.  A generally cool day through the whole relevant range of the atmosphere, but clear skies allowed the sun to heat the surrounding area unevenly and it was sporty.  Lots of non-school gliders lined up to get towed. The nice thing about training at Benz Aviation is that the tow operation belongs to the school and tows for other gliders are on an as-available basis while I go to the head of the line each time I’m ready.  Yeah, it costs money, but I get the training in and that’s what matters at this point.

This was my third time in the back seat and my fourth week of flying at least once each week.  I’ve nearly doubled the 30 tows that I had in the logbook when I first showed up.  I’m reasonably good in the maneuvers.  I need some work on the precision of my landings and dialing in the SA that I need in order to make the peanut butter and jelly of altitude and distance come out roughly evenly.

I’m scheduled to fly next Wednesday and Thursday.  We’ll go through the other maneuvers to make sure that I still have the inertial and muscle memory, but it will likely be mostly pattern tows to dial in the landings.  If I fly well on Wednesday, Lee says that he’ll sign me off and I’ll call the DPE/FIE to schedule the checkride.  That could be as soon as the first week in June, depending on schedules (and on whether I suck next week).  If it doesn’t happen the first week in June, I’ll probably have to put it off until after the Tuskegee Airshow 20-21 June. But I have a clear path forward one way or the other.

A lot of work stuff to do this weekend, but I’ll also spend a fair amount of it studying for the oral.  And David Allen and I will likely record another Airspeed episode about the impending airshow.

CFI Training Continues and the Checkride Nears – For Real This Time

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I trained again for parts of the last two days at Benz Aviation at Ionia County Airport in Ionia, Michigan. Those just joining this saga will know that last week, after three days of flying in the front seat to get the hang of the Schweizer SGS 2-33A, Lee Larder promoted me to the back seat.  We didn’t fly on Wednesday because of the low overcast and we did the knowledge review instead. Thursday was devoted to more flying from the back seat to get the maneuvers nailed down and to build muscle and inertial memory.

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The back seat requires some gymnastics for ingress and egress.  But, once you’re strapped in, it’s a comfortable place to be.  I was slightly worried about the pedals.  I have short legs for a guy of my height (28-inch inseam), so I had to adjust the pedals in the front to the full-aft position to get enough purchase on them to be able to box the wake and do slips with authority.  The pedals in the back don’t adjust, so I was concerned that I’d have to add some padding behind me.  It turns out that the pedals in back are a perfect distance for me.  This is a good thing because adding a cushion behind me would likely have made it so that I could not get full-aft stick travel.  As it is, I have to sit up straight and get my back flat against the back of the seat in order get enough aft stick to have my stalls break in a concise way.

There’s a little shoving-around over there on the left side if I need to move the stick much to the left while the dive brakes are engaged.  Between the stick, the dive brake handle, and my trusty iPad, there’s a jumble of activity when that happens.  Conveniently, the iPad simply moves around there on the elastic strap and things tend to work out.

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The biggest thing about the back seat is dealing with the lack of visibility.  Mostly because of that head and shoulders directly in front of you. You get all of the visibility you need, but not a lot of visibility that isn’t essential.  I don’t know that I’d be able to give dual instruction to Bob Ross or Pam Grier. You can fly along with your head centered just fine in most cases.  You can listen for your airspeed and, at least in the early parts of the flight, have a pretty good idea that you have enough altitude.  If you need airspeed information, you lean right and look (at least when Lee hasn’t covered the airspeed indicator). The picture above gives you that sight picture. If you need altitude information, you lean left.  Landing doesn’t seem to be a problem, especially after you quit looking at the airspeed and get into the flare.  You just use a lot of peripheral vision.  And the Force.

The biggest issue is on tow in the normal high-center tow position.  It’s pretty easy to lose the tow plane under the nose.  I fly a little lower relative to the tow plane while flying from the back seat to keep it visible.  But, in turbulence. the tow plane can drop out of sight very quickly, which means that I’m being more abrupt than I’d like with a push to keep him in the windshield.  More than a second or two and I’d need to tug on the clown nose and release, but it hasn’t come close to that.

The only other visibility thing comes with slack-line operations.  We go out to the left to climb and then descend to put in the slack. Visibility is fine that way.  But it’s sometimes hard to see the amount of slack that you’ve developed because some of it us under the nose.  And the slack usually isn’t much.  The 2-33A is really draggy and, even with a big push, you don’t get going fast enough relative to the tow plane to put much of a smile into the tow line.

2-33A Back Seat

My biggest remaining issue is situational awareness (“SA”) and other larger-picture things.  On almost every training day, I make some blunder of thought.  Today, I somehow reversed the windstock and briefed a left turn in the case of a rope break.  In fact, the wind was from the right.  I also let us get low two miles upwind of the airport while preoccupied with maneuvering.  We made it back just fine, even if a little low on pattern entry, but I have discovered that finding yourself at 1,400 AGL two miles out and flying in sink is one of my least favorite things in aviation.

Lee commented that I’m doing very well, but he noted that each session has some element of SA fail.  I had sure noted  this and confessed it each time, and he’s a good IP and noted it, too.  But that’s why I’m out here training.  I’m gradually becoming a high-time pilot (for recreational GA anyway).  I’m pretty darned good at a number of things and I pick up on new things fairly quickly if they’re complementary with skills that I already have.  But that can also hide deficiencies that I don’t know that I have.  I would imagine that lots of higher-time pilots have this issue.  And the mission for which I plan to use my IP skills will skew toward experienced students who will do well enough at some things that there’s a risk of complacency about the needs that are masked by great performance in other respects.

You may recall that I failed my first attempt at the commercial ride because I blew through the stop point on the no-spoiler landing.   In training, I did very well on the no-spoilers, mainly because the winds were favorable and I got lucky.  Neither John nor I had any reason to think that I didn’t have the maneuver nailed.  Then, on the ride, the winds were different and I was not lucky.  No big deal.  I re-took the deficient parts a couple of weeks later and I’ve flown safely and effectively in gliders for 200 hours since then.  But it was a lesson that will color my own training and will affect the way I teach students, especially higher-time people who are transitioning.

It is critical not only that we train, but that we think about that training and make generalizations out of the series of experiences.  We spend a lot of time thinking about trees.  This is fine, but we need to think about forests, too.  Find patterns that tell you things about the way you fly and how to be better every single time.

Sometimes, the only way to find out about these deficiencies is experience.  You have to fly more than is strictly necessary.  If you’re doing it right, you learn something every time you go to the airport.

Lee asked me on the way back to the terminal whether I wanted him to sign me off for the ride.  (Holy crap!)  He allowed as how my flying is fine and that I just need to get the SA dialed in.  I’m probably under-confident and over-persnickety about the way in which I stand up for a checkride, so I told him that I’d like to fly a few more times before the ride.  He agreed.  We’re scheduled for next Friday and then Wednesday and Thursday the week after that.  Then, probably checkride the first week of June.

Lee’s a good guy.  He thinks I’m very nearly ready and he told me that he doesn’t want to take my money unnecessarily.  Not every IP would do that.  That’s a mark of a guy who really cares about general aviation and instruction.

So the plan is two or three more training days, then the ride.  Sounds like this weekend and next will find me in a series of Starbucks with a bin of manuals and ACs next to me.  Watch Twitter (@StephenForce) and my Facebook feed and join me if you like.  I can even give you loggable ground instruction.