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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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From the Ground Up
Flying Gliders Makes a Pilot
By Tim Weber

At times, we hear pilots talking about their longing to fly as kids, how they always wanted to be a pilot. They often weave curiously suspicious tales, such as staring endlessly at the airplane mobile hanging over their crib as a baby and afterwards being drawn inexplicably to aviation. Or maybe you’ve heard those aviators that couldn’t help but build an airplane each time they were around an erector set or some building blocks. Somewhat reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss and his obsession with the mysterious mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these pilots paint a picture of an inbred obsession with airplanes, aviation being an undeniable path that they were destined to travel. Not so with me. I had the normal amount of interest in airplanes as a kid, but I certainly was not a prisoner to irrepressible urges to be around aviation any more than I was attracted to bicycles, motorcycles, cars, and later of course, girls. No, my attention may never have been riveted to flying at all but for an unexpected divorce of my parents, and the subsequent move that put me in close proximity to a small, yet very busy airport with seemingly endless glider flying activity.
Now mind you, I don’t believe that there is a red-blooded kid in America that could resist going to watch gliders being towed up behind powered airplanes and their stealthy silent return. Especially if the glider port was within bicycle riding distance! Imagine my thrill at seeing glider aerobatics being flown, with a low pass and a climb to pattern altitude afterwards! Simply amazing. Well, it wasn’t long before I decided that, at 14 years old, I really should be a pilot. In fact, I seem to recall wondering what I had been doing all my life that had prevented me from already having a pilot’s license. Never did the economics of flying lessons enter into my mind. I just really needed to go fly somehow. As you can well imagine, I became a fixture at the airport, hanging out after school and on weekends. During the hot summer days, my friends and I could often be found with our bicycles under a shade tree watching airplanes. Before long, a newly minted private pilot offered me a ride around the patch in a Cessna 150. I loved it. Next came rides in a Tri-Pacer, an Aeronca Chief, and even a Cessna 207. With these flights, the hook was set. I simply HAD to figure out a way to do this on my own. I clearly remember the day I furiously rode my bicycle home and asked my father for flying lessons. Instead of the expected negative response parents are prone to put forth in a situation like this, my dad gave my request some serious thought. He then told me I could be a pilot, but I had to figure out a way to do it on my own. He said he thought I could do or be anything that I wanted if I just set my mind to it, if I wasn’t afraid of some hard work. Before I knew it, I had cranked up my courage and pedaled my bicycle back to the airport. With a quivering stomach and a shaky voice I asked the man in charge how I could become a pilot. Lucky for me this man was Roy Couliette, owner and operator of Phoenix, Arizona’s Turf Soaring School. Roy offered me a job trading work for glider flying lessons. I would be a line boy, airplane polisher, you name it, I didn’t care. If it meant that I was going to learn to fly, I was ready to step up to the plate for any kind of chore. I would trade a full days work, often ten hours or more, for one glider lesson. Sometimes these flights would only last ten or twelve minutes, but the euphoria I felt afterwards would last for days.

Looking back at the remarks in my first logbook, I’m reminded of the thrill I experienced with each flight in a glider. Roy’s brief comments paint a picture of an emerging pilot, from the intro flight with Dutch rolls and forward stalls, to the entries with tow and landing included. It’s obvious on which days Roy was pressed for time, or maybe a little frustrated with my eagerness. On June 11, 1974 after a forty-minute glider flight, Roy’s only logbook comment was “coordination.” Working for my lessons as I did, I was able to fly once every three or four days. Finally, on September 4, 1974, after 21 glider flights and nine hours and forty-five minutes of instruction, I was allowed to solo. Even today I can recall the liberating feeling of looking in the back seat of the Schweitzer 233 and realizing that I was really alone, solo!

To say that I was giddy with joy is an understatement. What a feeling it was being trusted with an airplane, by myself, when I wasn’t even old enough to drive a car! Now the logbook remarks took on an entirely new tone. My notes reflect a youthful curiosity, and a desire to improve. Comments like “first attempt at thermalling solo – bombed out” and “messed around – had fun, stalls, etc” led up to my eighth solo flight in which my remarks after a 70 minute flight read “earned “C” pin! Landed at 5:30”
After solo flight number twelve, I was back in the 233 with instructor Dave Cole for a check ride to solo the single place Schweitzer 1-26. In those days, the 1-26 was considered a good basic aerobatic glider. That being the case, it would only seem reasonable that one should be doing aerobatics while flying it. The logbook comments after my fourth flight in the 1-26 read “spin entry, wingovers, kinda cold!” The next flight had more revealing comments, “did three loops, kinda scary, first one terrible.”

If you’ve ever been snow skiing, no doubt you’ve seen the 10 year old kid that blasts past you going mach-2 on the moguls, no fear, no worries at all. These kids start young, and develop their skiing skills before adult caution (common sense) takes over. I think that I may have been in a similar mode. Without ever having an aerobatic lesson, I found myself doing progressively more difficult aerobatics with each flight. My 26th solo flight, which was my ninth flight in the 1-26, had “Split S, Loops, Spins, Stalls, Dutch Rolls” written in the remarks section of my logbook. Experimenting with aerobatics without training was strictly against the rules, and I personally don’t recommend it today. At the time though, my common sense had not yet kicked in. In fact, I seem to recall getting scolded by Roy one afternoon when I had been spotted doing loops in the 1-26. Guess I needed to tow a little higher and get further away next time!

Those days of flying and working at Turf Soaring School were the greatest. I was lucky to meet many talented individuals and form life-long friendships with people like Mac Childers, mechanic, pilot, and now retired FAA Inspector. Hanging around the airport, eavesdropping on every flying conversation I could, handing tools to experts like Mac, watching restorations; these were the things that made those times wonderful for me.

As I approached driving age, I could only think of one thing, getting a car (okay, two things). My job at Turf was strictly a trade situation, so there was no way I could amass the fortune required to purchase an automobile while working at the airport. Soon I drifted away and took various part-time jobs after school and on weekends so that I could buy my first car after my 16th birthday. (It was an Opel Kadet 1.1 station wagon, and had a blown head gasket. It cost me $50.00, and was partially subsidized by my parents.) Aviation continued to tug at me as I focused all of my attention on cars and girls. My flying became sporadic, and at times weeks or even months would pass between visits to the airport.

Later, while still in my teens, a friend started talking about an ultralight airplane that he wanted to purchase. I really didn’t know much about ultralights, so I set out to learn all I could. I discovered that ultralights were very affordable on the used market, and that you could disassemble them and take them home after flying. Imagine my excitement at the prospect of being able to fly again, and even own my very own airplane! Within a few months, I had managed to purchase a Wizard Ultralight. The Wizard was very used, and came with one-hour of ground instruction prior to my climbing in and flying it. It had only one seat, and was a weight-shift ultralight. The pilot sat on a plastic seat approximately the size of the keyboard for your PC. The seat was hanging from the airframe, attached by seat belt material. Turns were accomplished by moving your weight left or right, and climbs and descents by pulling yourself forward or pushing your weight aft. It was powered by a 15 horse power Yamaha two stroke-engine, and was very light. In fact, the wing loading was so light that it was absolutely silly to fly on a windy or gusty day. Ultralights were largely unregulated back then, and I don’t recall there being any two-seat trainers available at the time, so getting in and going for it was the order of the day. My first flight was a thrill, and my glider flying experience proved invaluable. Unfortunately, my buddy didn’t fare so well. I witnessed his first flight, and could see immediately that it was also going to be his first crash. As he approached for landing his speed was low, and he stalled the plane around thirty feet high. Luckily, as the nose dropped the wings remained level. He came down in a wash, his impact softened by tree branches and the soft sand below. He was not seriously injured and vowed to get more ground instruction before attempting his second flight. As it turned out, he would have plenty of time, as the repairs to his aircraft took several months.

I spent hundreds of thrilling hours flying my Wizard ultralight, and eventually some of the newer three axis ultralights as well. Having the wind in your face can be a great experience, and I will always have a soft spot for the low and slow flying of ultralights.

At this point in my life, career decisions began to call, and I found myself living in Denver, Colorado and later San Diego, California. It would be several years before I was able to get back to Turf Soaring School and resume flying gliders. I did manage to take the odd glider flight here and there, as well as an ultralight flight or two, but not nearly enough to satisfy my flying needs. In the late 1980’s I moved back to Phoenix and soon found myself visiting the glider port. (It’s true, old habits are hard to break, especially airplane addictions!) During my hiatus, Turf had moved from North Phoenix to their current location, at 99th Avenue and the Carefree Highway, northwest of town near Lake Pleasant. I was pleased to find that Roy Couliette still owned and operated the soaring school, and that other than growing bigger and better, things were the same as I remembered from the old Turf airport.

Excited at the prospect of regular flying once again, I jumped in with both feet and soon had my commercial glider rating. Next came working part time at Turf, giving intro rides and aerobatic rides in gliders. This proved to be a real pleasure. What better way to gain invaluable experience, than to be doing ten or twelve flights per day? I’m usually the first to admit that the passing of time always tends to enhance the memory of our experiences, but, I seem to recall on a particularly busy day giving eleven aerobatic rides in a row, without ever getting out of the glider. What fun!

It’s been many years and thousands of flying hours since then, and as I look back on my glider flying experiences, I can’t help but feel that they’ve been instrumental in my development as a pilot. Whether I’m strapping into an aerobatic plane, a twin, or just a single engine air knocker, I can always apply the lessons I’ve learned as a glider pilot to my everyday flying. I find myself anticipating lift, even using it to my advantage when in a climb. I watch the ground and think about relative wind, and thermal triggering points. When approaching mountainous terrain I always consider wind and work to avoid possible rotor or sink on the leeward side. It’s rewarding to anticipate sink or turbulence in advance, and it’s comforting to know that all these airplanes are just big gliders when their engines quit. Of course the sink rates are higher, and the knuckles are whiter, but in my opinion, given a calm head and a flat spot of sorts, an engine out landing should prove more successful to a pilot with glider experience than one without.

My recommendation to all pilots is to get some gliding experience. For beginning pilots, I think that a glider rating is a great way to start a flying program. When I decided to get my power rating, I soloed in a tail-dragger on my second lesson with less than three hours of instruction! I feel strongly that this was due to my prior glider flying experience. There are several great soaring facilities available in the southwest, and Turf Soaring School is among the biggest, oldest and most established facilities anywhere to be found. When you get there, be sure to say hi to Roy. Oh, and that grin on your face after your first glider flight? Don’t worry. It will go away in a couple of days.

Tim Weber is a nationally renowned airshow pilot and ICAS ACE (aerobatic competency evaluator). He has performed in over 100 airshows nationwide, and been seen on ESPN, Speedvision, and featured in many television and newspaper stories in cities throughout the U.S.

Tim felt that things had come full-circle when the student got to teach the instructor. Last year he was able to help his original instructor, Roy Couliette in designing his aerobatic routine, and getting his low altitude airshow waiver. Tim also accepts a limited number of students for personalized aerobatics training in his Pitts S2-B (623-780-7506).

For more information on the joy of motorless flight, contact Turf Soaring School at (602) 439-3621 or, or contact the Soaring Society of America at (505) 392-1177 or
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