Something Totally New
Well, totally new to me, in this case launching a glider behind a truck. This has been around for quite a while, which you probably already knew, but it is worthwhile to celebrate the fact that after 25 years in aviation there is still new territory to explore.
Our tow pilot never showed yesterday, so someone got the bright idea of practicing ground launch. Only one pilot in the bunch has the necessary logbook endorsement, but he volunteered to sit in the back of the Blanik and show everyone how it went. It was a good day for it, with no wind at the surface and no noticeable change in the wind with climb. The airport was quiet. We reviewed the speed calculation (at least I could do a little instruction). Let's go! But I have never seen a bunch of pilots so reluctant to fly. Why? A lot of it is the huge amount of superstition about ground launch. I tried to tell myself that it was like an MU-2: not inherently dangerous, just different. Flying judgments based on superstition are no different than judgments based on superstition in any other area of life.
There was a little bit of bravado in the hangar. People asked me, as the "instructor", what I though of ground launch. "I have no experience," I said, "so how can I compare something I have done with something that I have not done?" There was a murmur of agreement. "On the other hand, when I was a little kid I heard about there being two ways of doing something [I tried to make my voice a little dusky here], but even with no experience I knew right away that I preferred one of them." This got a laugh.
I questioned my own reluctance to fly. I had an excuse: if I left early I could go to the EAA chapter meeting. No, wait, they met last night. I had another excuse: my zipper had failed, and I was running around with my fly open. Like anybody cared around the airport. But, if we did a bunch of flying then we would want to go out to dinner and how could I go out to dinner with my fly open? This was clearly unacceptable!
My motives were not pure. I was making excuses. People have been ground launching for years (hint: how did the Wright Brothers get airborne at Kill Devils Hill?). Tim had been doing it for years, we had all the right equipment, and the right number of people. Time to be the samurai and volunteer to go first.
So we climbed into the Blanik, Tim in back and me in front, with my zipper open. We did the checks and gave the signals. I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what to expect! It has been a while since I said that in an aircraft.
We were too slow on the first one, and only got to about 400' before the truck ran out of runway. I looked at the wingtip's angle against the horizon; the angle was far less than the 45 degrees that I had been told to expect. We released, Tim gave me the controls, I wandered around a little (remember, we were pretty low), and landed. If nothing else, low level maneuvering in a glider is good practice for landing out.
We did a quick analysis and decided that the truck had to go faster. And now it was my turn to try it.
It was not that difficult. My initial climb was slow, dragging the rope, and that meant more friction and less final altitude, but we got off the line at about 700' above the airport. This was enough to try to work a little bit of lift, but still we were back on the ground in a few minutes.
Now it was fun. I pulled a little more strongly the next time, got the rope off the ground, and transitioned into the 45 degree climb. We were right at the maximum speed, which was good. Another one gave me a good feel.
I decided that it was someone else's turn, mostly because I felt that as the instructor I needed to experience what the ground crew was doing. Adam got into the glider, I got into the truck, we hooked up, and off we went. The glider seemed to hang in the air directly above us. They released, I released, and we drove off the end of the runway.
But they broke the weak link, so that was the end of flying for the day. Ground launch involves forces on the glider that the pilot cannot feel, so we use weak links in the rope to make sure that it breaks before the glider does. That's different from aero tow. Not dangerous, just different.
Ground launch requires everyone to pay closer attention to details. The goal is perfection. A lot of aviation problems would disappear if everyone aimed for perfection.