Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Fans of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy recognize the number 42. It's one of our cultural memes, like the crash of the Hindenburg or King's "I have a dream" speech. It's the answer to "Life, the universe, and everything."

The fictional Hitchhiker's Guide... had two words on the cover: Don't Panic. The kind of solid but generic advice a hitchhiker needs.

And a pilot.

I was in the glider with a new student. He already has a commercial power license, and although this was our first day of real training he was making fast progress. On his second takeoff, I gave him the flight controls, and he tracked the towplane pretty well. (That may sound like an insult, but it's not. New students, even transition students, even yours truly, find following the towplane to be Very Hard.)

Our first landing had been on the runway but without enough energy to reach the launch point, but the second had us stopped exactly on the line. Cool! (And it was his landing, by the way, I only offered encouragement.) So we turned the glider around and got ready to launch again. I got in, redid my belt and shoulder harness, and locked and checked the canopy. Check. Check. Check. I wiggled the rudders, called "ready" to to the tow pilot, and started my stop watch.

We started to move, but something didn't feel right, and didn't sound right. Did the the tail come up a little too easily?

"Oh, no, we still have the tail dolly attached!" The tail dolly is a large fiberglass cuff with a large castering wheel that fits over the tail. It makes ground handling easier. Taking off with it attached would give us an aft CG, perhaps aft enough to negate or even reverse the glider's natural pitch stability. It would also hurt our glide ratio, in an unknown amount. Bad idea!

So I aborted. I was surprised how surely my eyes focused on the release handle and I pulled. The rope went with the towplane.

"Glider goes to the right, towplane goes to the left," I told Bill, steering rather gingerly toward the right side of the runway. I was really working the stick, keeping the wings level and the nose at the right attitude. We slowed, so I reached for the wheel brake and braked gently. With this much speed dragging a wingtip could lead to a groundloop, and pulling the brake too hard would dump the glider on its delicate nose.

But we stayed poised, balancing on that one big wheel, and came to a gentle stop at the side of the runway. I stopped the clock. The tail came down, on the tail wheel. The tail dolly was still at the launch point, where it belonged.

True confession: in all of my glider training (remember that I am still a newby) I had never done an abort on the runway. Oh, we talked about it, we prepared for it, we had low altitude "rope breaks" and landed straight ahead, we had "rope breaks" at 200' and turned around to land downwind, we had "rope breaks" on downwind and landed. In twins an "engine failure" on takeoff is a standard maneuver, so I've done it or taught it or evaluated it hundreds of times. But I had never actually aborted on the runway in a glider.

A glider on the runway is different from an airplane: there is only one point of contact, so there is less wheel drag, and the glider is more aerodynamically efficient, too. It takes more flying to stay in control. (I know; I tried it in a Cessna 172 this morning.)

I had done the right thing: decided to abort at a reasonable time, pulled the handle, made sure that the rope really released, and maintained control of the glider. The last one is the most important; losing control bends metal and breaks bones. So, following Douglas Adams's advice, don't panic!.

OK, "don't panic," there's the Douglas Adams connection. But where does 42 fit it?

I looked at my stopwatch. The elapsed time, in seconds, was...


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At June 25, 2009 at 8:17 AM , Blogger Sarah said...

What kind of glider was it? Nice one, I bet. I've only seen a 2-place tail dolly on duos/dg1000 and the like.

I've only heard of one t/o with a dolly attached, and it was on a L33. Luckily, a pattern flight resulted & it was a non-issue, in spite of the eastern-bloc railway surplus construction of that dolly.

I admit I've been embarrassed to be asked on the line "do you intend to take off with your tail dolly today?" /palm face plant/. It's on my checklist now.

At June 25, 2009 at 12:39 PM , Blogger Dr.ATP said...

We were in a Blanik L13..."eastern-bloc railway surplus construction of that dolly" describes ours pretty well!


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