Never Again: Glider Passenger

December 1, 2008

We all enjoy sharing our flying obsession, and usually those flights in which we introduce aviation to friends or family members go smoothly because we make extra efforts to ensure that our guests have comfortable, pleasurable flying experiences. But even the best-laid plans can go awry.

Last year, I decided to take a friend for a ride in my Schleicher K4, a two-seat training glider. I’ve made similar flights countless times over decades as a glider pilot. The Schleicher K4 is an excellent tool for the job. The model first flew in 1955 and has a steel-tube fuselage and translucent fabric covering. People love it on first sight. Sunlight streams through its thin, revealing skin showing the underlying structure. Mine has fire-engine-red, sledgehammer-shaped mass balance weights on each aileron, and they give the impression that a blacksmith designed the glider. But the glider itself is light and strong, and it climbs well. It’s a slow flyer, even by glider standards, so the panorama beneath changes slowly during flight. It’s the fourth in a line of vintage, two-place sailplanes that I have flown during the past 30 years, and I’ve used them all to introduce friends and acquaintances to the joys of motorless flight.

I don’t have anything against engines, having spent four years in the Air Force flying as a crew chief/engineer on C–47s, C–119 Flying Boxcars, and even a B–25 Mitchell bomber. But I’ve always been drawn to the magic of sailplanes and introducing first-time passengers to the art. Many of them have become members of the club to which I belong, the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association in Frederick, Maryland—a group of enthusiastic and capable sailplane pilots, mostly from the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas.

My friend John is a lawyer, a sailor, and a world traveler, and he looked forward to his first glider ride with great anticipation. He has a disability and must use crutches to get around. I knew he didn’t have full use of his legs, but I didn’t think his disability would be a factor on our flight. I helped him buckle into the front seat of the glider, and in doing so, I noticed that his right leg turned inward toward the center of the cockpit and brushed against the joystick. It occurred to me that this might present a problem in flight, so I took off my belt and used it to brace his right leg against the right side of the cockpit. His left leg seemed to be straight and out of the way, so I didn’t give it much thought. John didn’t mind the belt arrangement, and I figured any potential problem had already been solved. So, being careful to hold up my now-loose-fitting pants, I climbed into the back of the glider.

The tow rope was attached to the glider, and soon we began our takeoff. After a short distance the K4 lightly lifted off, and we were cruising a few feet off the ground behind the tow plane. I could see John smiling as we climbed away. I felt glad to share this exhilarating experience. At 3,000 feet agl we released from the tow plane. The flight was going just fine until I tried to turn left. Something was pushing against the stick, and I couldn’t move it in that direction. I realized that John’s legs had shifted, and his left leg—the one that I hadn’t bound with the belt—was pushing against the joystick. As calmly as I could, I asked John to move his left leg out of the way. He replied, equally calmly, that he couldn’t. He tried his best, but John’s leg kept pressing against the stick and preventing me from turning left. I had to use two hands on the stick just to hold the glider straight and level. The situation definitely got my attention, and it raised my pulse a bit. But John was obviously enjoying the ride and seemed oblivious to the problems his left leg was causing. As long as his leg didn’t push any harder against the joystick, I was sure I could keep the airplane under control and get us back on the ground safely.

Frederick Municipal Airport is a very busy general aviation airport with a flight school as well as business jets, helicopters, and gyrocopters. Our glider club has about 30 sailplanes and two tow planes. The glider club sticks to using Runway 30 for takeoffs and Runway 12 for landings when conditions permit. This keeps us clear of the powered traffic that prefers the longer Runway 23.

I continued the flight making only right turns and started working my way back to the airport for landing. As we approached, I saw to my great relief that the wind favored Runway 12—which has a right-hand traffic pattern. We could fit neatly into the pattern, and no one else had to be aware of our situation.

We caught a couple of thermals as we approached the airport, and that allowed me to keep the speed up and increase my control authority. Finally, after what seemed an inordinately long time, we drifted down into the traffic pattern and landed without incident. My arms were nearly exhausted from holding the stick hard left, against the force of my passenger’s disobedient leg.

John enjoyed the flight and seemed unaware of the complications that his constant pressure against the joystick had caused. He’s a quiet person, but I got a good idea of his feeling about the flight when I printed a picture of him sitting in the cockpit after we landed. He was all smiles! I never told him of the precarious nature of our flight, and I probably never will. For my part, I got a solid cardiac stress test and a valuable lesson.

Whenever I give rides in the future, I’ll be more cognizant of my passengers’ physical limitations—and I’ll make sure to take precautions before leaving the ground. I’ll brief them about the things they can and can’t do in the aircraft, and I’ll make sure they know the things they’ll be required to do for a safe flight: primarily, remaining clear of the controls. If these requirements seem too much, or I don’t have the proper equipment to address the hazards, I’ll cancel the flight.

I often see John at church and am delighted that we shared an adventure together that we will both always remember, but each of us for a different reason.

Jim Furlong, AOPA 5256542, is a 1,000-hour glider pilot and member of the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association. He flies his own Schempp-Hirth Ventus B sailplane from Frederick, Maryland.