I recently had the opportunity for some soaring in America during two trips there for work. I visited the friendly folks at Coastal Soaring in Pensacola, Florida (www.coastalsoaring.org) and Carolina Soaring in Spartanburg, South Carolina. (www.carolinasoaring.org).
Coastal Soaring is located about a mile from the Gulf of Mexico on the North West side of Pensacola, Florida. Pensacola is in the far west of the Panhandle of Florida, about as far from Disney World as you can get and still be in the same state. It’s the only gliding club for quite a ways, so they have members from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. They even have one member who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and drives over 200 miles to fly. The Ridgewell crowd thinks they have it rough driving to Wattisham in the winter! Due to the presence of Naval Air Station Pensacola the city prides itself as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” and home of the Blue Angels. I went through flight school there as a brand new Second Lieutenant, so I was looking forward to starting my American gliding career in familiar airspace.
I emailed back and forth with Emmitt Moran, a club instructor, to arrange a time for the flight. Since I was not a club member I would have to set up a trial flight; which wasn’t a problem. My ego was only mildly damaged. I was just in town for a week and the first half of my stay was cold and rainy. It was enough to make me think I was still in the UK! However Thursday was warm with partly cloudy skies; perfect for an afternoon of flying. It was still a bit cold in Florida for mid-February, but coming from Suffolk the 15 degrees Celsius and sunshine felt fantastic. I showed up to the field about 3pm to see Emmitt and the tow pilot DI-ing a Twin Astir II. When I saw no one else out I realized that they had shown up today just for my flight. It made me quite appreciative and determined to enjoy it.
While towing the glider out we discussed my experience level and what I wanted to accomplish with the flight. Since the field was aerotow only I explained I was a solo pilot, but had minimal experience with a tow. I mainly wanted to see the American standard for glider operations and to explore the local area. Emmitt was happy to let me fly the entire launch since he was confident he could keep me out of too much trouble. By now the day was quite blue, fairly flat, and calm winds. I assume that the Sea Front is a familiar concept to all Wattisham pilots. So we decided on an aerotow to 3,000’ to make the most of things.
The launch itself was fairly uneventful. Maybe it was just my imagination, but I found flying a Grob-103a on tow to be much easier than a K-13. We released at 3,000’ and found it quite flat, as expected. After some turns and stalls to get a feel for the glider we set off to explore the local area. I noticed the Twin Astir II had very little attitude change in a stall. It more just ‘mushed’ into a 5K sink with vibration on the controls. While I was doing this, Emmitt pointed out the lack of available landing fields nearby. If we couldn’t make it back to the airfield, our choices were ocean, swamp, pine trees, or housing complexes. Emmitt recommended the trees over the houses.
There was little thermal activity until we found ourselves below 2,000’. Then we noticed some reduced sink when flying over a nearby quarry. It wasn’t big enough to turn in yet, so we continued flying back and forth over it waiting for it to build. Emmitt had mentioned this quarry earlier and described it as their house thermal. His suggestion to check it out seemed to be paying off as the reduced sink turned into broken lift, and the next thing we knew we were going up with a reliable 1-2K of lift all the way around the circle. It wasn’t exactly booming, but for winter soaring I couldn’t complain.
Soon enough we found ourselves back up to 2,500’, but we were slowly drifting downwind into nearby Class C airspace. I had flown into that airspace many times before, but it had always been in a powered aircraft. Since I have an aversion to using the radio in a glider I wasn’t too keen on this next part. Fortunately Emmitt took care of that nasty business of talking on the radio for me. We got a new squawk and continued thermalling.
After about half an hour of that it must have been quitting time by down in the quarry, as the thermal was slowly dying out on us. I wasted some height in a vain attempt to find more lift, but the skies appeared to be done for the day. I flew back to the field, and since we were the only ones out we landed long and rolled out right by the hanger.
They were so used to normal trial flights and not strange glider pilots wanting to spend time at their club that they were surprised when I started helping them put away the glider and push the tow plane back in the hanger. I’ve discovered by now that half the fun of gliding is the social aspect, so I was in no hurry to leave.
A 42 minute soaring flight on a sunny afternoon in Florida seemed like a fantastic way to end my trip. If you ever find yourself in Northwest Florida, the folks at Coastal Soaring are quite accommodating and give a class act.