A Tow Pilot’s Near Disaster

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 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.

Piper PA46 De-Ice Boots Care


It’s winter time, which means it’s time to use those Piper PA46 de-ice boots a little more often. Most of us know the winter flying rules, don’t stay in ice, get rid of frost, etc. However, most of us aren’t as familiar with how to maintain those Piper PA46 de-ice boots. The do need some TLC every couple of months to keep them in tip top shape.

Below is the recommendation from Goodrich (the maker of the boots) on what to use to clean and polish the boots and how often to do it.

Steps 1-3 below are your twice a year items to make your Piper PA46 de-ice boots last through the lifetime of the aircraft.

Step 1-ShineMaster Prep

ShineMaster Prep strips all the dirt, grime, grease, oil, silicone products and old ShineMaster on the Piper PA46 de-ice boots to prep them for Step 2.

ShineMaster Prep can be found on Goodrich’s website.

Step 2-AgeMaster #1

AgeMaster is your second step the in the Piper PA46 de-ice boot preservation and protectant process. AgeMaster is a rubber preservative that protects against weathering, ozone, and ultraviolet rays.

Make the first application when your de-ice boots are 6 months old, then re-apply every 150 hours (or twice a year) after that.

AgeMaster #1 can be purchased on Goodrich’s website.

Step 3-ShineMaster

Step 3 in the Piper PA46 de-ice boot care is ShineMaster. As the name implies, ShineMaster shine’s the boots up after getting rid of all the old gunk & grime with ShineMaster Prep and after AgeMaster is applied. 2-3 coats should be sufficient.

ShineMaster can be purchased on Goodrich’s website.

During icing season, Goodrich recommends ICEX II. ICEX II is an ice inhibitor that should be applied every 50 hours during ice season. This will help prevent ice from sticking to the Piper PA46 de-ice boots. ICEX II can be found here.

Finally, for general cleaning of the boots after each flight, utilize Goodrich Aerospace Cleaner to debug, then follow up with Goodrich Aerospace Protectant. Goodrich claims their Protectant will resist dust, soiling, and staining. There may be less bugs to clean each time!

With just a few hours a couple times a year spent working on the Piper PA46 de-ice boots, owners will never have to worry about the hefty price tag of boot replacement!

MMOPA Vision Video


The Malibu & M-Class Owner’s and Pilot’s Association recently released their MMOPA Vision Video. It is a great video detailing the history of the Piper PA46 & the history of MMOPA. The PA46 would have ceased to exist without the founding of the original Malibu Coalition.

Checkout the video above (and Texas Top Aviation’s Hank Gibson even gets a cameo!).

Will Fly To Food: Texas Airport Diners

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The Hundred Dollar Hamburger (or BBQ plate, or Chicken Fried Steak) still lives!  AOPA released their 2019 Best Restaurants List giving plenty of options to all of us hungry pilots out there.  No Texas airports made the official list, but The Southern Flyer Airport Diner at the Brenham Airport (11R) brought home honorable mention.

Southern Flyer Diner

Looking for some other options?  Here are some other good fly-in eateries around Texas.  These are ranked in no particular order because they are all just really good!  Most of these are located on the airport property, but a few are in town and worth the drive!

  • Lockhart BBQ (50R):  With 4 BBQ options in Lockhart (and City Market BBQ 10 minutes away in Luling), you can’t go wrong with a stop in Lockhart.  Just grab the keys for the giant suburban, and away you go. Most folks who stop off in Lockhart will give it a legitimate claim over Hard 8 in Stephenville.
  • Angelina County Airport Restaurant (KLFK):  This is pure East Texas eating here in Lufkin.  With greasy, tasty burgers and sandwiches, breakfast, and ladies who call you “Sugar” when taking your order, this is down home if I ever tasted it.  Lufkin and Brenham are currently neck and neck for the best Texas burger.
  • Black Walnut Cafe (KCXO):  This airport diner newcomer, located at the Galaxy FBO in Conroe on the north side of Houston, is top notch.  The food is excellent (I have eaten several different sandwiches and have not been disappointed) and you can’t beat the 3rd floor runway view from the patio.  Not a bad place to spend the lunch hour, though make sure you get there before the lunch hour.  It fills up quick.

Black Walnut Cafe

  • Airport Diner (T82):  Right next to the Hangar Hotel, the Airport Diner in Fredericksburg brings back memories of the old soda fountains of the ’40s and ’50s.  With plates like the Warthog (their sausage sandwich with Fredericksburg made sausage) and the Whirly Bird (their chicken tenders wrap), the Airport Diner fully embraces the airport theme.  Better to stop for lunch on a weekday rather than a weekend as their isn’t a whole ton of seating.  Check your NOTAMs as the restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
  • Radial Engine Cafe (KGPM):  A good little stop in the Dallas area for a simple burger, fries, and a Coke. Don’t get the smaller 17/35 runway at GPM confused with the much larger 16/34 runway at GKY just to the west.  Approaching from the south, this can be easily done.
  • Clear Springs Restaurant (KBAZ):  Come for the onion rings, stay for the fish.  Clear Springs is just a 5 minute drive from the airport and there are always plenty of crew cars available.  You could probably make a whole meal out of the onion rings themselves, but the fish is top notch too.
  • The Big Bib (KSSF):  Excellent little BBQ joint inside the terminal at Stinson Field.  Portions are good size and you have 4 different sauces to choose from.
  • Cooper’s BBQ (KAQO):  Llano, TX is known for BBQ.  Just fly in to the airport, get a car, and after a 10 minute drive, you can take your pick of any kind of BBQ under the sun.  Careful, as it’s easy to over order!
  • Hangar 6 Restaurant (KUVA):  The newest restaurant on the list, located on the ramp at the Uvalde Airport, Hangar 6 tips it’s hat to the military history of the Uvalde airport while serving really good food.  Taxi in and walk up to the quaint little joint.  They even have a playground for the kids!
  • Sky Restaurant (KVCT):  Not quite within walking distance, but just a short drive from the FBO, Sky Restaurant specializes on the seafood, but they also have good burgers and steaks.  VCT is popular amongst the Air Force and Navy trainers in the area, especially around lunch!
  • Runway Cafe (KLBX):  The best place I have found for seafood along the Texas Gulf Coast.  With a huge runway to land on and a beautiful FBO next door, this is my go to for Fried Shrimp when I’m in the Houston area.
  • Delta Charlie’s (KRBD):  I just discovered Delta Charlie’s last week.  I usually go to Ambassador FBO, but I heard there was a restaurant in the terminal building and it didn’t disappoint!  With quite an extensive menu (and a full bar for those overnight trips), I will definitely make RBD one of my routine stops. Rumor has it a new FBO is going into the terminal at RBD, so fueling your stomach and your plane can all be done in one spot.

In my book, these are the other great places to stop on a flight in Texas.  Always make sure to come hungry! I probably missed a few along the way, so please feel free to add others to the list!

Cirrus Approach


Earlier this year, Cirrus debuted it’s new Learning Management System (LMS), Cirrus Approach. For several years, Cirrus has led the way in online systems training while using several different platforms for it’s LMS. Cirrus Approach is the culmination of lots of sampling and tinkering, and boy, did Cirrus knock it out of the park.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Cirrus training program, here is the quick rundown. When a pilot who has no Cirrus time buys a Cirrus aircraft, initial transition training is required to familiarize the pilot with the aircraft systems, speeds to fly, power settings, etc. The Cirrus Transition Course is a 3 day that gets a VFR pilot up to speed in the airplane. Under the Cirrus Embark program, those 3 days of training are covered by Cirrus and free to the new owner.

If the pilot is an IFR pilot, then the 5 day Cirrus Advanced Transition Training Course is required. If the pilot has Cirrus experience, but with a different engine or avionics configuration, there are courses for that too. The Cirrus Embark program covers 3 days of training for most courses for a new Cirrus owner.

As part of the aforementioned courses, there are systems to learn about and procedures to understand. This is where the Cirrus Approach LMS excels. Cirrus has done a great job of putting together lots of good videos (that are actually interesting but not annoying) on the airplane, systems, how to fly it, etc. for each course. It cuts down greatly on the time that the training instructor has to spend on the ground with the pilot since the pilot has already compiled knowledge through Cirrus Approach.

Cirrus Approach is accessible online at learning.cirrusapproach.com. To get access to the courses, create an account, then select the Learning Catalog. The courses are categorized based on the type of training (Transition, Advanced Transition, Avionics Differences, Airframe & Powerplant Differences, Recurrent, and Specialty), then further broken down into the type of airplane, engine and avionics (eg. SR22T G6 Perspective+). Make sure the correct engine and avionics configuration is selected! Notice, there is a difference between the SR22T and SR22 (Turbo & Non-Turbo).

Anyone can do the specialty courses. I would highly recommend for everyone to take the Engine Management course as well as the Icing Awareness Course for you TKS and FIKI operators. The Takeoff & Landing course is a good refresher course for a pilot who hasn’t done any training in a while.

The Recurrent Training courses are encouraged for all Cirrus pilots. There is an IFR Refresher, a VFR Refresher, and a Skills Refresher. These are recommended to rotate through with a CSIP (Cirrus Standardized Instructor Pilot) on a yearly basis. With a little extra ground, a Flight Review and an IPC can be accomplished yearly using these courses.

Interested in Initial or Recurrent training in your Cirrus using Cirrus Approach? Contact Texas Top Aviation today!