Normally winter is a quieter time for glider operations. Not so for Aero Club Albatross! We just wear the appropriate cold weather gear when it gets chilly. As Philip DuPlessis, our resident expert sailor says, there is no bad weather, just poor choice in clothing. And this year, we came up with a very enjoyable way to spend an early December day; learning to launch using a winch!
Beltzville Soaring Club has a winch, but few opportunities to use it. So when I contacted David Bradley to express that several ACAers were interested in learning how to ground launch, he was very eager to help! Dave suggested that we fly from Grimes Airport, a wonderful little grass strip at the base of the ridge about 70 miles from Blairstown. The airport management at Grimes is very familiar with glider flying and has hosted quite a few events and fly-ins. They don’t operate much this time of year and were eager to host us. Gerry Wild was our local airport contact and all-around great glider guy. He volunteered to help instruct, run the operations and drive the winch!
Aero Club Albatross, in turn, voted in David Bradley and Gerry Wild as honorary members and the club volunteered to handle a considerable portion of the logistics. We brought our venerable 2-33, nicknamed the Mad Cow to the event. To our knowledge, no one has ever ground-launched the Cow before. We were really excited!
The event was a massive undertaking, involving a large and motivated crew. On Friday, Pete Ayers and Tommy came out to prepare the towplane and the Cow for its long aerotow to Grimes. They cleaned off all the snow and ice on the 2-33 so it didn’t have to thaw in the morning before its journey. On Saturday morning, Philip and Luke DuPlessis volunteered to do the long cross-country tow. To deal with the frigid temperatures and drafty cockpit, they were instructed to wear clothing fit for an arctic expedition! Tommy and Sebastian towed in the club’s Cessna 182 towplane. Jonathan and Gus picked up the canopy covers and tiedown kit and followed the Cow to Grimes in their Aeronca Champ.
Steve Beer picked up Bobby and membership documents for Dave and Gerry. Rob Dunning brought lawn chairs, coffee, bagels, and donuts. Bob Graf brought two cases of water and more chairs. Cookie and Joe (Dave’s son) also came to help out and crew.
My job was to haul the winch from Dave’s shop to Grimes.
The winch was a freakin’ monster! It weighed 6-7000 pounds, with 600lbs on the tongue. Only a large vehicle like a pickup truck could move it safely (and legally). It was an ordeal getting it on the hitch and we had to position the truck perfectly. Then we found we couldn’t get it on the hitch because the tail end of the trailer would hit the ground. Through a combination of gingerly pulling it with a chain, a 12-foot pole as a lever to lift it, concrete blocks and huffing and puffing, we finagled the trailer onto the hitch. We were finally ready to hit the road!
Joe joined me for the drive as the navigator. The winch was a real monster to drive; unlike glider trailers, you *feel* this thing behind you. So did my gas mileage; I was getting 8.5 MPG thanks to the weight and the flat plate dragging through the breeze. But we arrived safely at 9:20 am, right as Phillip and Luke lined up on short final. Everything was coming together!
Gerry and Dave started the morning ground school and briefing at 10am. Gerry introduced the museum and noted that it’s a volunteer, non-profit organization. Gerry’s wife, Kristin also introduced herself as a contributor and made us feel very welcome. She was so kind as to cook hotdogs for us and provide a variety of snacks! They offered membership forms and five of us joined to support the organization.
Dave discussed the mechanics and safety of winch launching, emphasizing the decision-making at different points of the launch. When launching, first establish a 10-degree climb until reaching a safe altitude around 100-150ft or so. Then rotate into a 30-degree climb, while maintaining adequate airspeed. Flying too fast is bad; you don’t get as high and you can over stress the glider. If you have a rope break, you have to shove the nose forward and visually verify that you’ve got airspeed. Dave’s mantra was, think with the stick forward and emphasized that experienced pilots training to winch tend to think faster than their airplane can fly. After releasing, consider your options. If you are within a 5-1 glide, land straight ahead. If you’re above 250ft or so, consider tear-dropping back. Use judgment, maintain airspeed and be coordinated in the turns.
We really liked Dave’s approach to safety. He clearly conveyed, here is how winching can kill you. The winch driver can accelerate the glider too quickly and flip it over. Once you’re in the air, the glider can over-rotate, break the rope and hit the ground before getting flying speed. During the tow, you can have a rope-break, fail to achieve flying speed, and subsequently stall/spin. And for the folks on the ground, the rope is moving at 50-60 mph and can unpredictably go in different directions. Stay clear, behind the glider or on the safe side of the winch while the operation is in motion.
Then there was the fateful moment when Dave asked,
“So who’s going first?”
Everyone looked at each other, offering the opportunity to someone else. Finally, I volunteered to be the guinea pig.
Next, we hustled over to the winch. After some fiddling and adjustments, it roared into action. While Gerry and the onlookers were figuring it out, I walked on over to the Cow, patiently waiting on the side of the runway.
The Cow looked like it was nervously grazing on the beautifully manicured grass runway. She was probably thinking, “What are we doing here, so far from home? I can see it their eyes, these guys are up to no good!“
I walked around the glider and it looked in ship shape. A whole entourage of glider pilots rode over in the golf cart, eager to see Dave and me off. They brought the rope and we strapped in.
The experience of winch-launching is on the edge between being excitement and terror. Steve hooked us up and was our wingrunner. Once on the tip, he waggled the wings up and down, up and down, indicating to the driver to take up slack. Once he stopped, the winch driver “hit the goose” and we rocketed up. We were airborne in less than three seconds, screaming along at the speed of heat.
It was quickly apparent that we were going too fast, approaching 80 mph on the dial. Dave kept the angle flat rather than rotating to minimize the load on the wings. After getting to only 250ft, Dave released and said, here you go! I did a quick 180 and landed back where we took off.
After landing, Dave called up Gerry to ease off the throttle and turned us around. He said that I would have the controls on the next launch.
It was amazing how quickly we were airborne! I kept too much forward pressure and Dave eased us back. At 100ft or so I rotated into a climb. We were still too fast and climbed to little more than 250ft.
I made a dumb decision after releasing the rope. Figuring we were a bit more upwind than we were, it felt that we lacked the room to maneuver to turn upwind (we had a slight NWerly crosswind). I did my 180 to the left, downwind and this did not work out well at all. I drifted in the turn much more than I expected and button hooked the final turn. I was not happy with that approach.
The third flight was better. This time we got to 450ft, enough to do an abbreviated pattern for a downwind landing. I was not eager to do a “full” pattern from this height.
The fourth flight was better yet and we got to around 550ft on this launch. I still had to work on rotating more deliberately, but I got the mechanics of the launch figured out. We were high enough to do a full pattern and had an uneventful landing.
Dave asked me if I wanted to do the next one on my own.
Sure deal and better now than later; I want to do it while the training is fresh!
Dave hopped out, buckled up the belts around the cushion and cut me loose. After hooking up, I rocketed up. Man, the Cow climbs so much better solo! Climbing up to 750ft, I saw the airspeed bleeding off and firmly pulled the release twice. I was free!
A left 90 degree turn and I stumbled into a thermal. How convenient! I started circling, happily gaining height every turn. A raptor even joined me!
I looked down and watched the action on the ground. People looking up at me from the winch. The golf cart traversing along the runway. The cars buzzing along I-78. The beautiful and familiar ridge a little over a mile away. What a gorgeous place!
When I saw the golf cart making its journey back to the launching area, I cut my flight short and headed back. I felt like a king entering the pattern at 900ft. Compared to all the unusual attitudes and altitudes, I felt high. I even got to make my base leg at 500ft and turn final around 300ft or so. What a blessing!
After landing, everyone was smiling. Dave asked me if I wanted to throw his CG hook equipped 1-26 (020) together and try to soar in the afternoon. I eagerly agreed!
Dave’s son, Joe and I went on over to assemble the ship. We got halfway, but couldn’t find the fourth main pin to finish the job. We looked everywhere but to no effect! We relayed this to Dave, who arrived 45 minutes later after being relieved of his instructor duties by Gerry.
He found the pin stuck in a deep socket in his toolkit. We were all relieved that the pin wasn’t missing and Dave laughed his butt off and singing, “Victory!”
By now, Gus had taken several instruction flights and completed a solo flight. Jonathan was on his third flight. But then, the Cow decided it had enough winching for the day. On Jonathan’s last landing, the tire went flat. This unfortunately grounded the ship for the rest of the day.
Since the 1-26 was nearly ready to go, I quickly sealed it up and got it out on the line. Best to use the winch while we still had the chance to fly!
Launching the 1-26 was really fun! It got airborne really quickly and settled into a very natural climb. The CG hook definitely makes it climb better! I firmly pulled the release at a comfortable 800ft. 020 is a simple ship, with basic instruments, but man it flies great. 1-26s are just a total blast!
The glider quietly sailed through the sky. There was little lift left this late in the day, so I quickly fell out and entered into the pattern. After landing, a whole bunch of folks eagerly took up the 1-26. Dave went up first and had a grand old time. He entertained the crowd with mild aerobatics and screaming along the runway at 100mph. 020 was surprisingly quiet at such a high speed! Dave was all smiles, waving as he passed us at the winch.
Gerry and Adam then took their turns in the 1-26, getting as high as 1100ft off the tow!
As our friends were flying, we surveyed the Cow situation. We really wanted to get the wheel fixed, both so Steve B. had a wheel to fly on the following day back to Blairstown and so that the ship was airworthy when it returned. The mechanic at the shop found an old 600X6 tire, which fit the Cow’s wheel. A whole crew of us got to work. Bob Templin, Bob Graf, and Bob Cook all played key roles in this project, helping to get the glider jacked up and the wheel off. Walter, a local Grimes member helped coordinate different parts and materials and helped us a whole bunch. The rest of us Beltzville and ACA members lent our brains and brawn while these guys labored away.
The job took us several hours. The wheel hadn’t been taken apart in many years and the Cow resisted getting its appendages operated on. The axle had to be banged out. The backseat, torsion bar, and wheelbrake had to be taken apart to get to the wheel off.
Taking the wheel itself apart was a nightmare. The axle was deformed and the hub wouldn’t separate. Mike the airport volunteer mechanic spent a good hour and a half, sanding off the burrs on the edge of the axle and hammering the unit apart. As the sun went down at 4:30pm, we managed to get the new tube in, the wheel together and reassembled back on the glider.
Steve B, Bob Graf and I tied down the 2-33 in the darkness, all ready to fly the following day while Dave and Joe hooked up the winch to my truck. We all had dinner at the local Midway Diner, only four minutes from the airport.
After trading stories and having a great time, we parted ways. I went back with Dave and Joe to drop off the winch at Beltzville airport. I hit the road back to Brooklyn at 8:30pm, thoroughly satisfied after an awesome day of flying.
The next day, Steve and Tommy safely aerotowed the Cow back to Blairstown. The ship is now happily back in its tiedown, ready to fly.
The winching day was a real blast! Everyone had a great time and contributed to make this event a blast. We learned a lot about winching thanks to Dave and Gerry’s wonderful instruction. Thanks a million to Aero Club Albatross, Dave Bradley and the Beltzville folks and Grimes airport for making this happen for us. We are all eager to do it again, get more people endorsed and promote winch flying!