A Tow Pilot’s Near Disaster

by Lance Stick & Hank Gibson A couple of months ago, I had a life-threatening experience while flying. Thankfully, with my flight training, along with a lot of luck, I am here to talk about it. One of my many piloting jobs is as a glider tow pilot. For those not familiar with gliding, since […]


by Lance Stick & Hank Gibson

A couple of months ago, I had a life-threatening experience while flying. Thankfully, with my flight training, along with a lot of luck, I am here to talk about it.

One of my many piloting jobs is as a glider tow pilot. For those not familiar with gliding, since a glider doesn’t have an engine, every time a glider pilot goes and flies, it’s a team effort. A powered airplane (anything from a Super Cub to a turbine powered Air Tractor) is attached to the glider via a tow rope, which is about 200 feet long. Once the glider pilot gives the go ahead over the airport’s CTAF, then the tow plane begins it’s takeoff roll, pulling the glider along behind it.

The glider becomes airborne prior to the tow plane, then the tow plane will circle the airport environment till it get’s to the pre-determined altitude to release the glider. Some tows are pattern tows and some are higher (not usually above 3,000 AGL), depending on the request from the glider pilot. Once the altitude is reached, the glider pilot pulls a handle in the glider to release the tow rope, then begins his glide. The rope stays attached to the tail of the tow plane, which in turn descends back down to the runway and lands. The tow plane also has a tow rope release handle in case of emergency.

On this particular tow, the plan was to tow the glider up to 3,000 AGL. Upon reaching 2,500 AGL, the glider pilot called me on the radio and stated that his rear canopy had opened up. I looked over my shoulder and sure enough, the rear canopy was fully opened while he was still in level flight behind me. I asked him if he wanted me to tow him closer to the field, but he didn’t reply.

Now, as an experienced tow pilot, I know a glider canopy popping open should not be an emergency situation. It’s definitely abnormal, but would be similar to a door or window popping open in a powered airplane. Not a big deal. If too much force from the relative wind is applied to the canopy, it would snap off; however, a glider can easily land without a rear canopy.

About 5 seconds after I radioed the pilot (and received no reply), I felt my tail instantaneously lift up into a completely vertical position, which caused my nose to go straight down. The next thing I knew, a whole lot of earth suddenly filled my windscreen and I was in what’s known as a graveyard spiral.

A graveyard spiral (as defined from the Airplane Flying Handbook pg 4-23), “is a descending turn during which airspeed and G-load can increase rapidly….the airplane is flying very tight circles, in a nearly vertical attitude and will be accelerating since it isn’t stalled.” It’s also known as a spiral dive.

Back to the story. At this point, I tried to reach for the glider release handle. Unfortunately, due to the shoulder straps holding me against the seat, plus the g’s, and also the quart of oil and tow bar that flew forward and hit me in the back of the head, I couldn’t reach it. I was semi-upside down at a certain point, which dislodged the oil and tow bar from the floor of the baggage compartment. They sailed over the seat and nearly gave me a concussion.

At this point, 2,500 feet above the ground, I had a choice to either fight for my life at a very low altitude or to sit back and become part of a big explosion.

I decided to fight for my life.

As I was spiraling to the ground, I felt the tow rope snap. Up to this point, I had still been attached to the glider. The rope snapping was a good thing, as my airplane was now under my control, not attached to, and being affected by, a glider (more on that later). I now had a lifeline, no pun intended.

After I felt the rope snap, my instincts and training kicked in. I initiated the spin recovery procedure using the PARE acronym. This task was difficult to do as I had a lot of debris flying from the rear of the plane to the front, blocking my view out of the windshield. There was also debris around my feet, hampering my ability to use the rudder pedals. The spiral finally stopped and I recovered approximately 500 feet above the tree tops. It took my heart a lot longer to stop spinning.

After barely regaining my emotions, I tried to evaluate the condition of the plane. Were all the pieces of the plane still there, was the engine damaged, did my control surfaces still work?

Once I advanced the throttle and saw an increase in my engine RPM, I started an immediate climb to give me altitude to get back to the airport. I had engine power but I wasn’t sure how long it would last if I had damage. Now, what they don’t teach you during spin training is that when this happens unexpectedly, you will become very disorientated. You have just been spiraling unexpectedly and your equilibrium will be out of whack. As I leveled out just over the tree tops, I was too low to visually see any landmarks, nor could I see the airport. Once I was able to climb, I was able to orient myself and figure out where the airport was.

I had to be very careful getting back to the airport and landing without radio communication, since my radio was knocked out with all of the FOD from the baggage area. Thankfully, the landing was uneventful. After I landed, I saw the glider limp in over the trees. The rear canopy was totally gone, while the front canopy and other parts of the glider had suffered major damage. Miraculously, my airplane wasn’t damaged, except for the wire from the radio which came loose during the spiral.

So, how did all this happen, you ask? Well, the glider pilot made 2 huge mistakes. First, in gliding, the moment the glider pilot loses visual sight of the tow plane, you are supposed to release the tow rope. He did not do that and almost killed both of us.

Second, as pilots we are taught to always fly the airplane first. Everything else, no matter what it is, always comes after flying the airplane. As I stated previously, the loose canopy is not an emergency situation, but since the glider pilot did not aviate first and was distracted, it was almost a fatal day for 2 people and 2 airframes.

So, what caused this chain of events? By getting distracted by the open canopy, the glider pilot inadvertently pulled back on the stick while trying to close the canopy. Then, by not releasing the glider from the tow plane, the glider pilot climbed rapidly with an excessive rate of climb while still being attached to me. The rapid climb is what pulled my tail up, causing my nose to drop and put me into the spiral. The tow rope snapping set into motion my recovery, since up till that point, I literally had no control. An extremely high lift wing was attached to my tail, pulling it up, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

We all spend time practicing and demonstrating emergency maneuvers during our flight training and during flight reviews. Many times you might think, I’ll never need to use this stuff. Thankfully, some of the procedures I learned in the past kicked in at a time of need, even though my heart was beating out of my chest.

At some point in every pilot’s career, some type of spin training or Upset Recovery Training would be highly recommended. Then, when things go wrong, remember to always aviate first, then handle all the other things that need to be handled.

Interested in spin training or Upset Recovery Training (UPRT)? Check out the list of Malibu & M-Class Owner’s and Pilot’s Association (MMOPA) approved UPRT vendors and schedule UPRT training today.

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