A Special Passenger

Beautiful cumulus clouds over the foothills indicate a great day for flying. The glider in the foreground is the club’s older trainer, a Twin Grob (which is currently for sale). The (much newer) ASK 21 I was about to fly was still in the air when I took this picture just before noon.

When I got to the airport just before 12pm yesterday, the ASK 21 I had reserved for the afternoon was just about to land. One of the local flight instructors used it to give an introductory ride to a gentleman who had earned his glider rating many decades ago but had not flown a sailplane since, and was now interested in getting back into gliding.

Great view of the Continental Divide

As they climbed out of the cockpit, the flight instructor asked me if I would mind taking his student, let’s call him Joe (not his real name) on a ride with me. I was happy to agree as it’s always fun to share a flight with someone else, discuss weather conditions, potential sources of lift, and perhaps share some of the workload. Also, the plane’s cruising performance is noticeably better with the additional weight of a second person on board.

Pretty cumulus

Joe and I didn’t know much of each other until we were up in the air climbing behind the towplane.  That’s when I learned that he was a retired airplane captain who had flown Boing 747s for United for more than 35 years.

A Boing 747 operated by United out of San Francisco – that’s where Joe was flying out of. For all I know he might have been on the controls when this picture was taken.

Prior to flying for United, Joe was a pilot in the US Air Force, mostly flying B52 bombers.  And yet, there he was, eager to be a passenger in a comparatively flimsy sailplane, and to learn about flying gliders from me!

B52 – a little different from an ASK 21 (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Before we climbed through 12,000 feet I instructed Joe in the operations of the oxygen system, something he apparently never had to use during his career in pressurized cabins. He said he had still a lot to learn with respect to gliding. His instincts, honed over many decades of flying the largest multi-engine jets in the world, were to avoid any maneuver that would be noticeable to passengers.  I responded that I very much appreciated this on my hundreds (or thousands?) of commercial flights as a passenger where I either worked or tried  to get some sleep.  But it doesn’t quite work in a sailplane. After observing me pulling back on the stick and banking steeply when entering a thermal (something glider pilots have to do to avoid flying right through the area of lift) he told me that he had to overcome his instincts and become a lot more aggressive with the controls himself.

A cloud street (presumably aided by convergence lift) paralleled the Divide. Longs Peak is just to the left of the nose of the plane.

We had a great flight together.  Cloud base over the mountains was above 16,000 feet so we got a great view of the Continental Divide and the valley beyond.   When I told Joe that we had Granby airport (on the other side of the Divide) within glide range he said he had never imagined being able to get there in a sailplane.

Dark clouds over Allenspark

We circled under dark clouds above 15,000 feet over Allenspark when light rain, and then light snow began to fall with some small graupel mixed in.  Joe, safety conscious by profession, was the first to notice that some of the water droplets froze to the wings and we quickly left that particular area.  It only took a few minutes of gliding under clear skies when Joe pointed out that the ice build up had already sublimated.

Cumuli over the foothills

The area to the northwest of Boulder overdeveloped so we headed further south.  We found ourselves in sink over Golden Gate Canyon when we noticed rain showers moving towards Boulder. The automatic weather system reported winds from the West with gusts of 16 kts. I parked the glider in a weak thermal over the flatirons until the rain had moved through and the winds at the airfield had calmed down again.

We landed safely in light crosswind from the North after just over three hours in the air.  It was a great experience flying with a true veteran of the skies and I gained a better appreciation just how different gliding is from flying big aircraft. Thank you, Joe!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: