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The Big Blue Schoolhouse in the Sky

. . . by Jim Kellett, CFI

What's a "Big Blue Schoolhouse"?  It's a lot more than the Little Red Schoolhouse of legend.  It's  the university all pilots attend for the rest of their lives once they set out to become pilots.  There's lots of study in the traditional classroom and in the cockpit of a glider to get started - however, the learning process never ends and every flight for the rest of your life will be a learning experience.

Flying of any sort is inherently dangerous. After all, we seek to move at relatively high velocities in machines above the ground - elementary physics and logic define any such position in time and space as inherently more risky than being at rest and on the ground.  That's why the Club's Training Program heavily emphasizes both safety and competence; we desire to enjoy this activity with an minimum amount of risk.

In addition, our members are proud of our "culture of safety" which assures that attention to safety matters is the primary guiding force in our flight operations and that every club member - not just instructors - recognizes and accepts his/her responsibility for assuring safety. [ More information on safety issues ]

What Physical or Mental Limitations Might Affect My Training or Eligibility for Membership?

Soaring is a sport that requires significant mental and physical competence.  Although there is no requirement for glider pilots to have an FAA Medical Certificate, good judgment prevails. 

For general guidelines, consider;

  • If you have been treated for any mental or physical disorder in the last three years, you must discuss the reasons with a Club flight instructor before completing an application.
  • You must have good eyesight and hearing, and must be able to speak and communicate clearly.
  • You must not be taking medications, either over-the-counter or prescription, that could interfere with your ability to fly (for a list of such medications, see http://www.leftseat.com/medcat1.htm)
  • You must weigh less than 242 lbs. (Some Club sailplanes have lower weight limits than that which may affect the extent to which you can use all Club equipment!)
  • You must not have been diagnosed with any condition that interferes with your cognitive ability to consistently follow instructions or exercise sound judgment.

A Club flight instructor, the Membership Officer, or any member of the Board of Directors will be glad to help you answer any fitness-related questions.

Potential Club members who are discovered to be mentally or physically unsafe for flight operations, may be, at the discretion of the Board of Directors, denied membership, and if the candidate has provided false or misleading statements with regard to mental or physical health in order to gain membership, the Club reserves the right to retain any deposits or payments made. Current members who develop an unsafe medical condition, as determined by the Board of Directors, will be reassigned inactive member status.

Can Anyone Become a Pilot?

No, it’s important to understand that not everyone can become a pilot. Flying, like any other skill (think singing, playing the piano, playing golf), is something that not every person can master. And flying, unlike many other skills, is also something that has significant safety elements, important not only to the participant but to others around him/her.

So even if you’re healthy and smart, it’s possible that soaring is something that might prove to be out of your reach. How will you know? How can you find out? That’s what our training program can help you discover for yourself. Our instructors carefully monitor your progress through the training syllabus, and they can advise you if and/or when they detect learning issues that might interfere with becoming a safe pilot.

This can get a little tricky, since everyone learns at a different pace. Young men and women at the US Air Force Academy typically solo after an average of 12 instructional sorties; the Soaring Society of America reports that most instructors feel that 30 - 35 dual flights are the minimum for a student with no experience to solo; other instructors have suggested that that number is about your age plus 20 or so. As you can see, there’s no fixed ‘up or out’ yardstick to use, and a student pilot who takes more than the average number of sorties to achieve solo status may turn out eventually to be a safe and capable pilot. For example, frequency of instructional sorties has a huge effect on the speed with which a student pilot learns. Weather can also be a factor that slows a student’s progress down. And it’s well known that the older you get, the slower you learn to master the skills required for safe flying.

It’s important for you to always review your instructors written and oral reports on your progress, and to challenge them to advise you candidly on your progress. Their experience will help you make decisions about your future as a soaring pilot.


The Skyline Soaring Club's training program includes training for the ab initio student (i.e., people who have never flown an aircraft before) as well as "add on" training for transition pilots who hold other ratings.   Training for FAA Private, Commercial, and Flight Instructor (Glider) ratings is available.

The Training Program uses the series of SSA and FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale) badges as the primary milestones for progress for all pilots in the training program.  While it's not a rigid schedule, the new glider pilot will usually obtain a PPL/G (Private Pilot License/Glider) or CPL/G (Commercial Pilot License/Glider) after the first three or four of these badges.  With the appropriate FAA license, the member can then be accompanied by friends and family as passengers. 

Training at Skyline does not, however, "end" with the accomplishment of any particular FAI badge or any particular FAA certificate.  Club instructors include individuals who are proficient at training aerobatic flight and cross-country flying.  The emphasis on "badge flying" continues throughout a member's flying career, up to and including the Diamond badge.  Several members, including some instructors, are also active competition pilots who encourage and help members who are interested in this aspect break into competitive soaring. 

All Skyline Soaring Club instructors are "SSA Instructors" who particpate in the various programs of the Soaring Safety Foundation (SSF) and are empowered to award the first four badges (A, B, C, and Bronze) of the SSA/FAI badge series.   

What to Expect

Safe and competent sailplane pilots require learning in three different "domains" which overlap.
    A "Knowledge" Domain - the explicit academic stuff such as aerodynamics, FAA rules, etc. You get this in classroom-like experiences (e.g., "ground school"), independent reading, consulting with flight instructors and others, etc. It's "things you know that you know" and can not only recite, but remember at the time you need them.
    A "Skills" Domain - the implicit physical stuff such as eye-hand-foot coordination, scanning techniques, integrating aural, visual, and physical cues into flight.  You get this by seeing a maneuver performed and then practicing, practicing, practicing.  It's the "things you know but didn't know you knew" and which your body performs without having to think about it.  This is the area where it is critical that good habits be developed from the very beginning.
   An "Experience" Domain - the judgment stuff such as knowing when to apply explicit facts to a given situation or which implicit action should be selected.  You get this by experience (re-read the first paragraph on this page!).  It's the "things you know how to discover" without having ever actually done them; some may call it wisdom. 

  • Each of these domains require different teaching/learning strategies. Every pilot differs somewhat in their aptitude for acquiring these skills and in the ease with which he/she masters them to an acceptable degree. 

Will I Get Airsick?

It's possible, at least in the beginning, but not likely if reasonable precautions are taken.  While it's possible to make ANYONE airsick (no one is immune), people vary widely in their sensitivity to motion sickness, and most people have no such sensations learning to fly gliders.  As a very rough rule of thumb, passengers tend to be much more vulnerable than pilots! So even if there is some discomfort on the very first few flights, when the instructor is demonstrating things for you, it's likely to go away as you take more and more control of the flight. It is extremely unlikely that any discomfort will persist beyond the first few flights.

If you know you have a predisposition to motion sickness, tell your instructor before you take off on the first flight!  He/she can take steps in the air to minimize discomfort, and/or recommend some simple preventative measures to assure that your first flights are comfortable.  Do not take antihistamine-based motion sickness preventatives!! They interfere with your alertness and ability to learn.  If you know you are particularly vulnerable to motion sickness, consult your physician before beginning flight instruction - some remedies (e.g., scopolamine patches) may be useful in some cases.  

How Long Will it Take?

People very widely in the time required to reach particular milestones in flying (e.g., first solo, license, various badges, etc.) and there is no pat answer to this question.  Generally, younger people learn faster than older people, and people with some experience in flying learn faster than those with none.

In general, you will learn faster and better if flight instruction can be concentrated in time - that is, try to fly as much as possible each day you are on the field, and try to schedule flying days as closely together as possible. This is particularly important to the beginning student, although "currency" is important to all pilots all the time.  (A general rule is to "fly until you are tired, but don't fly when you are tired.")  Scheduling flight time may be harder that it appears at first!  But be patient and work with one or more Club instructors to schedule your flying.   

An early big milestone is the first solo flight, earning the SSA "A" Badge.  As a very crude rule of thumb, we think the ab initio student pilot can expect to reach this stage after about as many dual instructional flights as his/her age plus 20.  Transition pilots' requirements are generally much less, but vary considerably based on their currency and experience.

How Much Will it Cost?

It depends on how much flight instruction is required.  While the costs of a single flight vary from as little as $20 - $30 (for a "rope break", e.g.) to as much as $85 (for an hour's soaring flight in the K-21), MOST training flights run $35 - $45 each for a 15 - 20 minute flight from a 3000' tow.  A typical training day will include anywhere from one to a half-dozen (on rare occasions, more) flights, depending on the weather, where you are in the syllabus, and the schedule.

This is, of course, in addition to the initiation fee and annual dues.  

The Initial Syllabus 

There is a syllabus/checklist in the back of one of the required texts that members may find useful to get a sense of the tasks they'll be working on.  However, the Club uses a customized combination syllabus/checklist to measure progress of student pilot members through the first milestones of a member's flying career.  That syllabus is tailored to flying in our area and to the unique procedures used at our primary training airport. View Training Document [ HTML ]

While the syllabus provides a rough chronological order in which you'll be experiencing things, each flight lesson will be tailored by your instructor to the conditions on that day and your skill level.  Your progress through the flight instruction program will be greatly facilitated by your having read well ahead in the texts.

It is normal to experience one or more learning plateaus (when performance seems to get worse than before) during flight instruction, and it's not uncommon to have more than one "eureka moment" when suddenly things come together unexpectedly.  These are characteristics of learning in the Implicit Domain which everyone experiences at one time or another..

The Computerized Training Syllabus

Our Training Syllabus and the sample lesson plans contained within are available for anybody to view: [ HTML ] [ PDF ].  Members of Skyline Soaring Club should log into the members-only section of the website to see the training syllabus. One of the unique aspects of flight instruction at Skyline Soaring Club is the excellent integration of the club's website, the training syllabus, and the flight logs database. We haven't seen a system like this anywhere else in the world

When a student chooses to sign up for flight instruction, he contacts the duty instructor of the day by phone or e-mail. The instructor then visits the club's internal website and views a progress page, showing the student's progress in all applicable areas of training beforehand.  Based on what the student has already demonstrated at the satisfactory level, and what the student still requires, the instructor will develop a lesson plan to fit the day's activities.

After the flight instruction is completed, the duty officer uploads a list of all flights performed on that day. The instructor receives by e-mail, a notice that he can document the flight instruction that was given on that day with the student.  The report of instruction for that day is sent to all of the other instructors as well as the student. 

As the student progresses through his or her training syllabus, the system also tracks the areas that still need to be completed to cover all areas before first solo.  Once the syllabus has all of the required areas completed, and the student demonstrates the right stuff, he or she can get signed off for solo by the instructor. 

Texts and Other Materials

The Club's required training manual, the Glider Flying Handbook (FAA 8083-13) is available from several vendors, (see below).  It is also available free as a direct download from the FAA - see  FAA-8083-13 (WARNING: This is a HUGE file!)

The Club recommends the purchase of several other items at various stages in training.  Your instructors will guide you on which items at which time that you need them.  There are also other useful books that many pilots acquire for filling out the soaring library and expanding their horizons. Purchase of such materials is strongly recommended, and they are available from many vendors.  You might want to talk about various books with several different instructors to help guide you in building your soaring library.

Here are links to just a few vendors of such materials:

Several DVDs are available for viewing in the Club hangar.  Some are provided by the Soaring Safety Foundation, and cover specific topics; the list is continually expanding.  There are a few videotapes made by instructors at Front Royal, demonstrating the proper view in a normal landing takeoff and aerotow. 

Ground School Instruction (Preparation for FAA Written Exams)

Ab initio students are required to take a written FAA examination.  You must have an endorsement from a flight instructor or school to take this test.  

Skyline does not currently provide formal ground training in preparation for the FAA written test(s). You may want to discuss one-on-one training with an instructor of your choice, with arrangements made separately from the Club's training program.

You may also be able to find a formal ground school to prepare you for the FAA written exam from another soaring club.  Often a large club will allow non-members to participate.

There are also ways for you to get familiar with the kinds of questions on the FAA written test by exploring practice tests online, e.g.:

Finally, after mastering the material, some pilots like to take a 'crash course' (pardon the pun) which is one day of concentrated 'teaching to take the test' - see the Glider Pilots Ground School for more information on how to find one of their scheduled seminars.

Other Interesting Links on Training

Without a doubt, the Soaring Society of America's website is an excellent starting point.  You'll also find a link there to the Soaring Safety Foundation which, in turn, has a number of articles, notes, and links that you may find useful.

Information about the SSA and FAI badges, including application forms, can be found at SSA Badge Program

Finally, the Club's training syllabus also contains MANY references, links, and videos which deal with each individual item in the syllabus - just click on the topic in the "Phase" column.