A Day at CAP MIWG Arctic Glider Ops

FOD TG-9A 2017-03-11a


I spent yesterday at the Owosso airport (KRNP) in the fashion that is becoming ever more frequent: As a an instructor pilot for Civil Air Patrol’s glider program.

Michigan Wing has one of the most active glider programs in the country.  This despite the fact that Michigan’s weather is not always hospitable to glider operations. We fly year-round, sometimes in single-digit temperatures that require bundling up like the Michelin Man and changing chemical heaters in our boots and gloves at least once in the middle of flight operations. The result is that we often rank at or near the top nationally in terms of cadet orientation flights, as well as cadet flight training.

We operate two gliders: A Schleicher ASK 21 (TG-9A) and a Schweizer SGS 2-32 (TG-5). Both types operated at the U.S. Air Force Academy and we know that the N975AF airframe itself was there. We have two regularly active instructor pilots, a third IP who participates when he can, and a fourth pilot who flies orientation rides and doubles as a tow pilot.  We have two frequent tow pilots and several others who tow as they’re able.

I frequently get strange looks from those who hear about MIWG glider ops. And those strange looks are deserved. But days like yesterday make it all worthwhile.

Temps started out at -9C and stayed below 0C all day. Cloud cover ranged from few to broken at around 4,000 AGL and winds were pretty consistently down Runway 29 at 12G18. But, to everyone’s surprise, we found lift.  Lots of lift, in fact. We hit four to six knots up pretty consistently and, although there was some corresponding sink, we had enough to keep us up for much longer than the usual 0.3 from launch to landing.

To be sure, we can do everything that we need to do for a cadet orientation flight within that timeframe. But a little additional time allows us to let the cadets fly longer and spend more time demonstrating altitude-eating maneuvers like steep turns.  Even an additional 0.1 or an extra few hundred feet make a big difference.

I flew 13 sorties: Two C16 flights with FOD (and would have re-soloed him if the winds weren’t above CAP cadet solo limitations), two C12 flights with senior members, and nine A15 cadet orientation flights.

Nicholas “FOD” Tupper is flying very well. Other than talking briefly on the radio to ask an incoming CAP airplane to give him room to get in and land, I was baggage there in the back seat. When I get bored, it’s time to get out of the glider and let the C/2Lt ply the skies without all that weight and noise in the back seat. I’m unspeakably proud of what he’s done since his first flight with me in 2012, and especially as certificated student pilot since last year.

The C12 flights with senior members are fun. First, during winter operations, you only get the senior members who really want to fly. They’ll come out and stand in the cold all day launching and retrieving gliders and supervising cadets just to get a flight.

Most senior members like that are in it for the stick time. I don’t disappoint them.  For one of them, I fly the takeoff and tow and he takes the controls from release until downwind. For the other, today was the first time I let him fly from takeoff to landing. I learn things when I fly with guys like the second one. He’s nervous and uptight. From the back seat, I can see his shoulders up in his ears from the time he straps in.

We got the bird in the air on the takeoff roll and immediately shot laterally to the left. “Um, help me on this?” No problem. Boot a little rudder, get us back behind the tow, and hand it back to him. Off we go to the left again. Lather, rinse, repeat.  Then we’re up above 200 AGL (the safe return altitude after which it would be really hard to get hurt in a glider) and he’s finding his way on tow.  Pretty consistently high, low, left, and right. Shoulders in his ears. But it’s best to let him figure stuff out.

As an IP, I’m finally developing a decent sense of how far I can let a student get away from where he or she is supposed to be before intervening. This is important. Correcting from error is a valuable process in which the student teaches himself or herself about flying. If I’m on the controls more than I need to be, I’m depriving the student of that valuable experience.  My job is to sit there and protect everybody (the student, the tow pilot, and me) from Bad Things while providing a sandbox in which the student can play.

Neither of the senior members has yet found his feet. As a budding aerobatic, then glider, pilot, I did my share of uncoordinated flying. This is the universe’s way of revisiting my early training on me. It’s not uncommon to be sitting in the back seat, forced into one side or other other of the glider as the student has a wing down and no corresponding rudder. (Or pull to make the turn happen. You just kind of sit there uncoordinated and see the puzzlement exuding from the back of the student’s head.)

But that’s okay. Here’s my view: We tell students that these controls have such-and-such effects. But the students initially have no kinesthetic sense of how much of what input does what or how inputs combine to give the desired effect. It’s only right to let them get up in the sky and try out those controls. I’m absolutely fine with a student thrashing all over the sky. When they get it, they’re really going to get it. And I expect that it’ll happen suddenly and neither of them will actually know why. It’ll suddenly just feel right and they’ll be doing what they’re supposed to do.

“The glider already knows how to fly. The sooner you get out of the glider’s way and let it do what it wants to do, the better your results.” Yes, some jerk said those words to me. And I now regularly say them to the senior-member students.  They’re true, even if a little frustrating at first.

Cadet orientation flights were the mixed bag that they usually are.  All good, but a mixed bag.  Cadets show up feeling everything from unbounded enthusiasm to abject terror. As an orientation pilot, you have about five minutes to size up each cadet. You see him or her step to the glider, you get his or her name, CAP ID, and weight, and then you see the backs of their heads from the time they strap in until the time they unstrap.

You owe each cadet an orientation flight that teaches what the syllabus says to teach while reaching out to the cadet where he or she is. A cadet who’s terrified, but doesn’t want to show fear in front of his or her fellows, needs a ride that’s going to get him or her back to the airport for the next ride. No shucking or jiving. Talk in soothing tones. Explain everything. On the other hand, a cadet who’s on his or her fourth flight and wants to see big turning stalls again is going to get another kind of flight entirely.

I had a cadet today who among those that make brutal cold, withering heat, and lots of Saturdays more than worthwhile. We have a policy soft spot for 17-year-old cadets who are about to age out of eligibility for orientation flights. If they show up, we make every effort to get all of their O-flights in under the wire.  That sometimes means that we’re flying that cadet as much as five times that day. Today’s was one such cadet who had four flights to go.

On the first flight with her, I ran into nothing but sink. 4-6 knots of it wherever I turned. We eked out Syllabus 2, but after we came to a stop on the runway, I apologized to her. Then, on the next tow, we hit lift.

Like I said, lift is time and options. Even an additional six minutes or a few hundred feet means additional opportunities to teach and let the cadet explore the envelope. We rapidly found ourselves at 4,100 and about 500 feet below the clouds. Syllabus 3 is where you introduce stalls, so this seemed to be a good point at which to lay off the thermals and let the relative wind see the bottoms of the wings.

I demonstrated a basic stall, then let her fly one of her own, which she accomplished perfectly. She had done well on the first flight of the day, so I thought it appropriate to go a little further than I otherwise might. I showed her a stall with a much higher deck angle at the break (maybe 20 degrees), which tends to result in a pronounced break and a good 30 degrees of pitch down at the conclusion. And she yelled and laughed  Well, a yell and a laugh in my ship is going to get you the opportunity to fly your own stall like that. So she took the controls and pitched for the stall. And pitched. And pitched. Hmmmm . . .

When the break came, the nose pitched precipitously and I noticed that there was considerably less than 1G on the seat. Quite considerably. And considerably more planet in the windshield than I was accustomed to seeing. As we pulled out (to the sound of laughter and other positive noises from both seats), it occurred to me that the overall effect was much more like a pull-push-pull Humpty Bump than a stall and recovery. All safe and well within the capabilities of aircraft and aircrew, but nevertheless an experience to throw into the flight bag for future reference.

On the third flight of the day, we really got into the lift. It was everywhere. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. We’d pick a direction to fly with zero sink for a minute at a time, then get a kick in the pants and be hard-over into four to six knots of lift. We got right up to the cloud bases again, this time with me giving spoken suggestions, but her doing all of the flying. It was the fastest I’d ever seen someone develop an intuitive sense of how to thermal.

After nearly a half hour, I decided that we needed to get back on the ground. There was a reasonably deep stack of cadets who still needed to fly and I wanted her to have a chance to fly the other glider as well. When faced with extra altitude, I take it as license to practice those maneuvers that eat altitude, here meaning steep turns.

I talked her over to an area where it was clear below and clear laterally of the other glider, then demonstrated a 45-degree steep turn. She took the controls in the turn and, with the nose bobbing a little and some airspeed excursions, she got it going around pretty well.  We leveled out and then I put us in a 60-degree commercial steep turn going the other way. Once established, I pulled to +2G, as befits that bank angle. The noise from the front seat was what every IP hopes for.  I gave her the controls and she kept the commercial-grade steeps coming as we came out of the sky like a hot set of car keys. Recovering a little before 1,500 AGL, I took the controls and got us on the ground.

Like I said, yesterday was one of those days that make all of the cold, the heat, and the work worthwhile. 13 total sorties for 4.3 hours. And lift that the other IP (a 10,000+ flight glider guy) said that he’d never seen before in those kinds of conditions.

Aviation frequently brings on the feeling of disbelief that they let us do things like this. We feel like we’re getting away with something every time we show up at the airport, raise the hangar door, and see the birds sitting there in the pre-dawn light as the tow plane taxis onto the ramp behind us.

Of course, we’ve paid for this many times over, we hold ourselves to brutally high standards, and we’re not “getting away with” jack. But it’s not hard on a day like yesterday to feel like we do.

The Labor of Decades Repaid in Moments


Yesterday, I smelled burning leaves. I heard a steam locomotive’s whistle. I saw the colors of the changing leaves. All of these things visited me while sitting in the back of a glider flown by my son, who left me little to do but receive these indica of the world around me.

There are those who view the calculated risks we take as irresponsible. Our studies as wasteful of valuable time. Our labors as tilting at windmills. They fail to understand labors of decades that are repaid by moments. But we know that moments are more than enough.

You and I will again meet those people – probably at the coffee machine tomorrow morning. Do your best to suffer them.



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.
[Read more...]

CAP Glider Ops – A New O-Ride Pilot Debuts

Tupper Feltun Full

Yesterday, I debuted as a cadet orientation pilot for CAP. Yeah, I’ve been a CFI and a rated CAP instructor pilot since last June, but I had only recently gotten around to getting qualified as a cadet orientation pilot.

I’m comfortable in the ASK 21, but less so in the SGS 2-32. Thus, I started out the day with three flights with Maj Chris Felton in the 2-32.  I flew in the back and had the controls for the first two, then we switched and Chris took the controls in the back for the third flight. (It’s a sign that you’re taking operations seriously when you go fly with a friend and the PIC wants the back seat. The front is too easy. There are instruments up there and it’s too easy to see the tow plane.)  I managed to bring the 2-32 to a stop in reusable condition twice, and then rode along on the third one mostly to get the sight pictures while an acknowledged master of the 2-32 flew the ship.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 5.18.58 PM

After a break, I hopped in and flew three cadets. (Studiously avoiding telling the first one that she was my first until after we landed.)

The Schweizer SGS 2-32 is a 1960s-era two-place glider built like a Buick with a large main wheel in the middle, a tiny tailwheel in the back, and a skid under the nose. Although it’s most fun to fly from and to the grass, CAP frequently flies it from and to paved runways. No worries. You just have to replace the metal on the skid more often. (And, if you’re as good as CAP expects you to be as a pilot, the airport has to re-paint the centerline stripes a little more often.)

MIWIG glider operations for cadet O-rides are usually split evenly between the more modern glass ASK 21 (equipped with all wheels and no skid) and the SGS 2-32, so it’s not uncommon for a cadet to show up for a 2-32 ride after having flown in nothing but the ASK 21 for up to four flights.

On my second O-ride, I had a pretty good landing, which usually consists of initial contact by the main wheel, followed by braking and the skid making contact with the runway and the noise attendant thereto for 50-100 feet until the aircraft comes to a halt.

The cadet, who was on Flight 3 after two flights in the ASK 21, was clearly concerned. He turned around and said, “Was that supposed to happen?” We explained that the skid makes that noise and that I had not snapped off a nosewheel on the landing. I’m not sure that we was convinced. We’ll see if he shows up for Flight 4.

The thing about which I’m most pleased is the progression that I’ve managed to get. I acknowledge that I’m a baby CFI. 100 aerotows total with 55.3 hours of dual given (including the TG-7A self-launch time, which is the majority of that dual). I hit the CAP glider ops weekend right after getting my CFI and got a Form 5 as a CAP instructor pilot. But then Capt Mark Grant helped me to use a very gradual slope to increase my role.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 5.23.12 PM

I started out by flying with rated pilots in the front seat. Pilots with airplane ratings but little or no glider time. Later, beginning this season, I flew in the back seat with my son, C/MSgt Nicholas “FOD” Tupper in the front as a student. A few weeks ago, I did a new Form 5 with Mark to add on the orientation pilot endorsement, as well as refreshing my pilot and instructor endorsements.

This progression allowed me to gently add responsibility and workload.  Airplane pilots flail around the sky and don’t know how to use their feet in a glider, but the IP’s role is pretty much to explain this while observing. Yes, you have to take off, fly (and/or save the front-seater’s bacon) on tow, and land the ship.  With FOD, I was a little more involved on tow and following the controls on landing.

On a cadet O-flight, it’s all about you as the orientation pilot.  You’re not going to get any help from the front seat. In fact, the front seat occupant is usually additional work and requires additional skill and bandwidth. You have to lean to one side or the other to see the instruments and/or the tow plane, explain things to the cadet, and be ready for things like the cadet hurling, getting in the way of the controls, or otherwise making your job harder.  In fact, cadets have an uncanny ability to hold their smart phones so that they perfectly block your view of the tow plane. And you’re supposed to do all of this in a way that leaves the cadet excited and looking forward to the next O-ride, as well as going on to the academy and becoming the fighter pilot that saves the free world, Mazer Rackham -style.

It’s a pretty heavy responsibility and I take it seriously.  The good news is that I flew three cadets yesterday and I felt well prepared. I think that each of them will be back for rides 2, 3, and 4 respectively. And that’s what this flying is all about.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 5.22.07 PM

Thanks for Chris Felton for the picture that leads this post.


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.