Learning to Fly at SOSA
Eric Gillespie, SOSA Member
For over 50 years the SOSA Gliding Club has been introducing new pilots to the world of motorless flight by helping them earn their own wings.
The absolute thrill of your first solo, and the pure natural joy associated with soaring are very real. They have been written about quite eloquently by many other authors over the years.
However, once a person has been captured by the dream of flying in a glider, the next step is to try to find an environment that will allow you to fulfill your dream in a safe, practical and cost effective manner.
Flight training is offered at a number of gliding clubs in Southern Ontario. In my own case, I began training at SOSA Gliding Club in Rockton, Ontario in the spring of 1998. What follows are some of the reasons why I'm personally very happy, and very grateful that I was able to learn to soar at SOSA.
My introduction to the club came on a May 24th long weekend. I arrived to find the gliding operation in full swing, with a Field Manager (responsible for co-ordinating flying operations for the day), an Assistant Field Manager (to also help keep things running smoothly), a Duty Tow Pilot, and perhaps most importantly a Duty Instructor whose primary role was to assist in maintaining a safe flying operation.
While all of these positions were volunteer, I soon discovered that club members were asked to do "shifts", and depending on their level or type of experience, everyone took their turn to ensure that each weekend and holiday throughout the flying season, people were available to provide an organized program designed to assist their fellow pilots to fly, and fly safely. Right away, this helped me to feel quite a bit more comfortable about what I was getting into.
I also appreciated that I was given the chance to take an "Introductory Flight" at a reasonable price, or offered the option of purchasing a "5 Flight Instructional Package", which as the name suggests gives a new member five short instructional flights in which to find out if they really want to get serious about gliding before committing to a full membership.
My first flight at SOSA was with a very experienced cross-country pilot, who took me up for a full one hour soaring flight. That one flight literally terrified me, fascinated me, and showed me the sheer magic of soaring, that I sincerely hope I'll never quite get over. After that flight, it was pretty clear that I was hooked. Six weekends and 54 flights later, I flew my first solo.
A number of things that SOSA offered really seemed to help me move from being a new pilot with no flying experience, to (thankfully) completing that first solo flight. First, SOSA is one of the largest gliding clubs in Canada in terms of membership. This creates a lot of benefits. With about 150 members in any normal gliding year, this means there's a very sizable group of people available to assist a new student pilot with the many things that everyone always needs help with. On the practical side, on any flyable weekend or holiday between April and October, you'll almost always be assured of enough people to have a flying operation from quite early in the morning until the last person wants to call it a day. As well, there are enough other pilots who love to fly that throughout the summer months, on most good soaring days in the middle of the week, you will find the club in operation. In light of the fact that getting solo definitely requires regular practice, a daily flying operation is a big asset to any student pilot.
In addition, at any given time SOSA has between 30 and 40 licensed gliding instructors. This offers two other major benefits to new students. One is the obvious, that once you get to know who they are, there's almost always someone around who is available to take you up. Given that SOSA allows student pilots who are "pre-solo" to take two short instructional flights in a row before passing the aircraft on to the next member, it's not too difficult to gain experience quickly if you're able to put in the time.
The other benefit that comes from having such a large instructor group is that student pilots often have a wide range of choice in who they fly with. As with anything, some of us will invariably "hit it off" better, and learn more effectively from certain people. At SOSA, most days there are number of different instructors available that you can choose to work with.
In addition to giving new pilots lots of variety in personalities, there is also an extremely broad range of experience to which a new pilot can benefit from being exposed. As an example, within my first 20 flights I was fortunate enough to fly with some incredibly experienced instructors, such as a 6 time Canadian Gliding Champion who has competed for this country at the world level.
At the same time, I also found that by bringing different kinds of experiences with them, even the newest instructors were able to pass along knowledge that helped me a great deal. Virtually every instructor I flew with during my own personal training gave me a specific piece of knowledge or advice that was extremely helpful to me, and that I still remember and associate directly with that person.
The other major advantage to new students at SOSA is the quantity and quality of equipment that is available. Once again, as one of the largest clubs in the country, SOSA has a wide variety of equipment, that is well maintained and available for members at all levels to use.
From a student's point of view, the most important assets are training aircraft. The club uses two ASK-21's as the primary trainers while the SZD 50-3 Puchacz and L-23 Super Blanik are used as required, giving the club a total of four training aircraft that are ideally suited to the needs of student pilots.
Once a new pilot becomes licensed, the club owns fibreglass two place gliders that allows club members to do dual flight training for cross-country flying, to be part of an aerobatics program, or to just have planes available to take friends and family up in and introduce them to the joys of soaring as well.
Once you've started, the club also owns four single seat fibreglass gliders and leases one other, some of which are capable of successfully competing at the Canadian National level. These planes are frequently released to club members to allow them to fly in various competitions including SOSA's own Mud Bowl, a "fun contest" held each year at the club that's a great way for new pilots to get introduced to competition in a friendly atmosphere around home.
SOSA's planes are also used by members to fly in cross-country soaring clinics (designed to help newer pilots get started and then improve their cross-country skills), and to let pilots fly at destinations in other parts of Canada and the United States, such as down in New York State, Vermont, or Pennsylvania where we "flat landers" can learn about using ridge lift and mountain wave flying instead of the more conventional thermal soaring done in Ontario. In addition, the club owns and operates three tow planes so there is usually no shortage, even when aircraft go in for maintenance, which is performed on all club aircraft on a regular basis.
Other on-site facilities, such as a club house, camping and trailer parking make the non-flying part of the day easier to enjoy as well. Evening BBQ's, regular club dinners and other social events also make it easy to get to know other members and enjoy some time together on the ground.
When it comes to finances, for the average student pilot it normally seems to take somewhere between 30 and 60 flights to get to the point of being able to do your first solo. This means that for around $2,500 you too could be soaring the skies of Southern Ontario as a solo pilot in a glider. If a new pilot has some previous flying experience or proves to be particularly proficient, costs can be reduced even further. The club also offers special discounts for flying at certain times of the day, and for youth or Air Cadet members that can result in additional savings.
The key, however, to any student's progress is to be able to make it to the club regularly, and to have some time to invest in your training when you get there. If you can only make it out to fly once every month or so for part of a day, then this may not be the right time for you to take up gliding. But if you're able to spend a full day at the club, you can often get four training flights. For many people then, it's just a matter of being able to come out consistently for six to eight weekends, and voila, you suddenly find that you're off on your own!
For most glider pilots, that first solo flight will always be a truly memorable experience that seems to stay with you for a lifetime. However, as a chart in the SOSA clubhouse graphically illustrates (click here), getting solo and then getting your licence is really just the start. Beyond these first stages, a huge number of options open up, including many of the examples noted above such as cross-country soaring, aerobatics, gliding and soaring clinics, flying at other destinations, and soaring competitions. ??Once again, one of the real bonuses and privileges of being even a new member at a larger club like SOSA is that no matter where your aspirations may lie, there are almost undoubtedly experienced pilots available who have participated extensively in whatever aspects of the sport that you choose to pursue. This pool of knowledge is readily accessible from the club's instructor group, and from other pilots, both in the air and on the ground after the flying day is done.
Is gliding really for you then? That's a question that every person has to answer for themselves. Generally speaking though, most people know within one or two flights if it's something that's really right for them. At the same time, within my first two seasons as a member at SOSA, I've saw both male and female pilots, some as young as 14 and some in their 70's, take their very first solo flights at our club. It's tremendously gratifying to watch people who began, as I think many people do, believing that they could NEVER do this, and who end up making their own personal dream come true. ??So, if you think that you might want to share in the dream of being able to soar on quiet wings over the earth, it may be well worth your time to give gliding a try.
With some personal effort, and with some help from a good gliding club such as SOSA, you too could find that the sky is really unlimited.