10 things every aerotow pilot should know

1. Aerotowing is a rare synergy between silent and not so silent aircraft and requires that two skill-sets are combined in a team effort to safely deposit a glider at height. Each pilot must take responsibility for the safety of his own aircraft and in this respect the glider guider must ensure that the aerotow release and retracting wheel (if fitted) operates faultlessly. The release must be operated by a separate switched channel, the toggle positioned so that you can comfortably rest a forefinger in position throughout the tow phase. If at any time there’s a need to release in a hurry, covering the switch in this way will ensure an instant detachment. Fumbling around to find said switch in the critical seconds of an emergency scenario can easily lead to the loss of your glider and maybe the tug. Personally, I’d recommend a traditional release system that uses a loop in the line and that’s operated by a high torque servo with the power to do its job under duress.

2. You can fit a release to almost any type of glider. You really don’t need a 6m span all composite model to enjoy aerotowing, far from it. This discipline is just as much fun at a smaller scale with home designed gliders or an old PSS or F3F model. The reward is in going up safely, having a dash about and then landing nicely. I genuinely believe the spirit of aerotowing is the adventure of giving it a go. If you start small and pick up the basic techniques with your flying buddies at the local club site then you may find you wish to aspire to the better performance gliders at a later date. The basic rules of engagement remain the same with whatever size gliders you chose to tow.

3. Choosing the right tug and pilot is a critical decision for every glider pilot. To be safe always ensure that you hook up to a seemingly over-powered tug, particularly if you’re a little nervous and new to the aerotowing scene. There’s safety in power, provided the tug pilot knows how to use it wisely. Experienced pilots can ascend in a scale manner and take their time. However, it’s safer for the first few tows to ascend quickly. This way, there’ll be little for you to do on the way up and less chance to get into trouble. Having arrived quickly at a safe height, all you need do is simply flick the release switch.

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4. For very small models the safest solution is to use a take-off trolley or a dolly, as they are also known. In the early take-off phase try to station your glider behind and above the tug, then, when your tug pilot announces his intention to turn, make sure you turn wider than him so that no slack seeps into the line. Make little adjustments at all times rather than leaving it too late and having to make big ugly inputs to correct your track. Also, remember to use your airbrakes if you find that the line is bouncing the glider about or you’re catching up the tow plane. If you’re flying lower than the tug, deploy your flaps to reposition at a higher level. Never take your eyes off the model to talk to anyone because, believe me, you need to concentrate at all times. Finally, at the zenith of your tow, always ensure you can see the pennant on the tow line separate before the two of you head your separate ways.

5. When aerotowing in the best of British weather, you need to be mindful that losing sight of your sailplane at height in the dazzling brightness is a real possibility. In this respect, I’d recommend finding some wrap-around polarised sunglasses and a white sports cap to offer a better chance of keeping a firm visual contact. This very real issue is all the more serious when there are ‘blue out’ conditions with little or no white cumulus clouds to provide a backdrop. Have a spotter with you at the phase of your flight where you feel most at risk and keep talking to him to verify your position.
Looking out for lift indicators to prolong your flight takes some skill and experience, so I would have a quick swot up on the basics of meteorology. I strongly recommend cheating by using on board telemetry to assist your task and help you to quickly learn the art of finding lift.
6. Thinking about landing protocol is imperative before flying. Take a good hard look at the topography all around the airfield. Make a mental note of potential hazards as you never know what may unfold when you get down to a ‘no return’ height and find yourself committed to a landing. Plan your landing approach taking into account the wind direction and turbulence generators such as trees, hedgerows, telegraph cables and electricity pylons. Rehearse in your mind other scenarios such as an aborted take-off, i.e. do you land straight ahead or, alternatively, at what height could you manage a circuit? Landing is usually a pleasant unhurried process if properly planned. At a busy aerotow meeting, be mindful to call your landing as early on as you can to allow time to look out for and, if necessary, avoid other air traffic. Remember, also, that there may be other tugs taking off, their precious cargo trailing behind on a 30m tow line and passing close by. If the lift suddenly drops, as it sometimes can, there may be a bottleneck on the final approach with many other pilots all being forced to land at the same time. This is where you have to make quick decisions to avoid incidents. Communicating clearly with the other pilots, decide where and when to land, short or long, to avoid the other models on the strip. If it is simply too risky to land on the strip, look at a land-out in the adjacent field.
When it all comes together and you perform a long, stretched, final approach, resulting in a beautifully scale landing, trust me, all you’ll want to do is get back up there as soon as possible and do it all again.

7. The CAA recommends that we keep our flying activities below 400 feet, which would scupper most aerotow meetings as we want to elevate the bigger sailplanes to 2000 feet and more. To comply with the ANO a request has to be submitted to the local ATC to obtain a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen). Armed with this, I believe you have the right to fly to the height stipulated or requested depending on air traffic corridors in your particular zone.

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8. When you’re flying at height it’s easy to get disoriented, particularly with smaller sailplanes and gliders. If you find you’ve lost visual contact with your model then deploy the wheel, airbrakes and, if you have it, the crow braking. Next, put the model into a spin to stop it flying out of sight. When you’ve regained reliable ‘visual’, fly out of the spin with all the drag aids still hanging so you don’t over speed the airframe. As always, a spotter is very helpful if you’re hooked in a strong thermal.

9. Many pilots have high performance sailplanes that can perform impressive aerobatics. Flightline etiquette dictates that you should announce your low level antics before screeching around. Keep the manoeuvres at a safe distance from the pit area and well out from the flightline, just in case it goes wrong. When flying aerobatics at height, have a word with the other pilots operating at the same level and ask them if they would slide their models to the other thermal. This way, you’ll know you have a full chunk of sky to safely use.

10. Make a day out of the aerotow session so you can involve your families and friends. Compared to slope soaring, it’s a most convivial activity, indeed even the younger family members seem quite interested when there are lots of tugs taking off and glass ships rocketing around and howling as they do. Aerotowing is a challenging, but a fully rewarding activity with the potential for great camaraderie and family interaction.

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Have fun and fly safe.


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