The Towing Experience – Confessions of a New Tow Pilot

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      Don GrilloDon Grillo
        The Towing Experience – Confessions of a New Tow Pilot
        Gary Timbs
        I’m sure that most readers have heard of the changes in regulations that allow private pilots to be compensated for towing gliders. The FAA made that ruling a while ago, and the insurance companies just recently agreed to abide by the FAA decision. The FARs state that a pilot with a private license cannot carry persons or property for hire. However, as a tow pilot, there is nothing in the plane that is being carried, so a person with private privileges can be compensated. In all honesty, this sounds like something that could only be thought up by a lawyer, expert in splitting hairs, but who am I to criticize?

        When the insurance companies gave their blessings to us lowly private pilots, some of the members of my glider club in Southern California, Cypress Soaring, began talking to me about checking out to tow, this due to the airfield having operations on Saturday, but not on Sunday. With me checked out to fly tow the club would have a “captive” tow pilot available whenever a day of Sunday flying was desired. So here’s my story on my transition to towing under the new rules.

        First, a bit of background on myself. I started flying gliders in 1975. By the end of 1976, I had earned private, commercial, and CFI ratings in gliders. I then went on to earn a private rating in airplanes. (I am fully convinced that learning to fly gliders first, while more expensive, results in a person being a much better pilot. Those of us who flew gliders first are more “one” with the aircraft.) In 1977 I was also checked out in both high-performance aircraft (C182) and complex aircraft (Cardinal). The Cardinal required a minimum of ten hours of retract time for the checkout. I pointed out that I had about 40 hours in a Blanik L-13. That worked until the FBO discovered that the Blanik was a glider. I tried to explain that it works the same ± gear comes up, gear goes down ± but they didn’t buy it. Dang insurance companies! I also got a tail wheel checkout in a J-3 cub (the Cub has two speeds, barely flying and not flying at all). At any rate, I have built up about 1300 hours (flying off and on ± you know how that goes, right?) about half in power planes and half in gliders and about 450 hours in a Cessna 140 taildragger that I own.

        I approached the owner of our glider-port and voiced an interest in checking out as a tow pilot. When informed that I owned a C140, he was confident that I could easily handle his tow plane, a Piper Pawnee. So I began studying up on the Pawnee and the challenges associated with towing gliders. There was quite a bit of information on the Internet, and the field’s chief tow pilot sent me info on everything from preflight inspection to flight operations. I also read the POH and then got some good advice from one of the other tow pilots. His number-one point was that if a glider got far enough out of position to put the tow plane into jeopardy, I was to give the glider the rope. This is especially scary because we were flying in the high desert of California. There is a point between 100 and 200 feet AGL when the glider would have no choice but to land off field, and the desert floor is littered with creosote bushes. I am convinced that these bushes rival structural steel in strength. Giving the glider the rope early on would probably result in severe damage to the aircraft ± something to think about if your gliderguiding skills are a bet rough.

        Now let me explain about this high desert gliderport. Flying there is much like I would imagine flying would have been back in the 1920s. The runway is dirt, which is OK, but there are many areas where the sand is soft, and the runway, while straight, undulates with the lay of the land. Between these two conditions there are plenty of opportunities to lose control on landing and ground loop the plane. Not the easiest place to take off and land, and I was going to be making my first flight in a new aircraft and then making my first tow there. A bit nerve racking!

        When the day came to make my first flight, I arrived at the field early and got a cockpit checkout from the owner. He made me memorize the position of the altimeter and airspeed gauges. He also required that I be able to identify the tow release, and the Johnson bar (that actuates the flaps) with my eyes closed. Apparently, he had lost a few ropes when new tow pilots accidentally dropped the rope instead of setting the flaps. This done, I went through the starting check-list and then did a run-up.

        Most of us in the soaring community have transitioned into single-seat sail-planes. Remember that feeling of inadequacy, knowing that you would be committed to the flight, and the landing, even though you had never flown the aircraft before? The same feeling came over me as I advanced the Pawnee’s throttle. I’d read reports that compared the Pawnee’s flying qualities to a J-3 Cub. Seems like every taildragger gets compared to the J-3. Well, I’d earned my taildragger checkout in a J-3. Here’s the difference ± the J-3 has a 65 horsepower engine. The Pawnee has a 235 horsepower engine. Remember about the J-3’s two speeds? The Pawnee has more than that. Before I was ready for it I was off the ground and climbing at about 1400 feet per minute! But you know what; it did fly like a Cub ± a very powerful Cub. I flew the Pawnee for about 15 minutes, getting the feel of the airplane. I then did some approach to landings at 3,000 ft. AGL. After building up a bit of courage, I set up for my first landing. Bounced a bit, but otherwise good. I took off for a second landing. This one got away from me a bit. I described the field’s runway earlier. One of those undulations caught me, and the plane started dancing around. After fighting with it for a few seconds, I got things under control and then took off for a third circuit. The third landing was good. I opted not to do my first tow that day.

        A few weeks later I had the opportunity to make my first tow. The club took a couple of gliders to Hemet airport in Riverside County. This was the home field of Cypress Soaring until a couple of years ago when the County Super visors decided to kick gliders off the field. The FAA got involved with this and let the County know, in no uncertain terms, that, as a public airport, they could not deny access to gliders, especially since we had been flying there for over 40 years. Hemet had a paved glider runway that was flat ± no undulations.

        The time arrived. Preflight the Pawnee. Engine start checklist. Prime. Master on. Left mag hot. Clear prop! Taxi into position. Glider’s wing comes up. Wing runner signals a taught rope. Then the glider wags its rudder. I announce on the radio that the tow plane is taking off ± right crosswind departure, and then advance the throttle. And then ± a smooth take off and climb out! I can see the glider in my mirror. I make a shallow right-hand turn to keep the glider close to the airport in case of a rope break. After a few minutes, we reach 3000 ft. AGL and the glider releases. He announces the release over the radio, and I make a descending left-hand turn. Piece of cake! Of course, the glider pilot was highly experienced and stayed rock-solid behind me, but, nonetheless, I did it! I throttled back to 1900 rpm. I was advised to keep an eye on the oil temperature gauge and to take the reading (190 degrees) and multiply it by 10. That would be the rpm that I should use during the descent. The purpose is to prevent thermal shock to the cylinders. I headed back to the field and did a base-leg entry, a standard approach used at that field.

        All in all I managed five tows over that weekend. All were without incident and I’m proud to say that every landing was good to outstanding.

        Based on my experience, here are a few things to keep in mind if you have the opportunity to start towing:
        • Make sure that you do your homework and find out all you can about the tow plane. This is especially true if that plane is a single seater.
        • Get hold of the POH and go over it thoroughly. Memorize speeds to fly.
        • Don’t hesitate to ask questions to experienced tow pilots. Listen to what they say!
        • As you prepare for your first tow, make sure that the glider pilot is experienced. Someone you know and trust works best.
        • Discuss the planned tow with the glider pilot. Go over details, even though much of it is SOP. Include a plan in case things get out of hand.
        • If possible, have a safety officer stationed to one side of and ahead of the tow plane. I didn’t have this initially. We decided to include a safety officer after the first few tows since we hadn’t flown at Hemet airport for quite some time. The Safety officer relayed all signals to me and acted as a second set of eyes to make sure that there were no traffic conflicts. This made the tows much easier to stage.
        • Make shallow turns. I kept my turns at around 20 degrees.
        • Initially keep the tows close to the airport. The glider should always be within easy glide back to the field.
        • You are still responsible to keep an eye out for traffic. You will need to divide your attention among flying, looking for traffic, keeping an eye on the glider, and (hopefully) finding an area of lift for to drop the glider into.
        • Remember to initiate a DESCENDING LEFT TURN upon release. As a glider pilot, I’ve spent the last 35 years doing a climbing right turn on release. I was nervous that habit would have me turn in the wrong direction.
        • Be careful of your descent after tow. The engine is likely to be warm, and cooling too quickly can result in thermal shock. This, in turn, can result in cracked cylinders and will definitely not endear you to the tow plane owner.
        • Keep an eye out for landing gliders as you enter the pattern, especially if every one is using the same runway.
        • If the tow plane and glider are both equipped with radios, the process is much easier, so the first few tows are best accomplished in this manner.
        • Monitor your fuel situation. It’s easy to be distracted and the last thing you need is to end up with a glider towing a glider.

        Now that I’m an “Intrepid Tow Pilot” I look forward to supporting my club in glider operations. If you have a tail-wheel endorsement and high-performance endorsement you are well on your way to meeting the requirements for towing. It’s different and interesting!

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