OURAY – The wings of many would-be pilots are clipped by the formidable expense of learning how to fly. Ouray-based flight instructor Jim Pilkington has worked for the past several years to level the playing field and make flying more accessible to greater numbers of people, through winch-launched glider flight.
Gliding, or piloting a lightweight unpowered aircraft, is a great way to learn how to fly, Pilkington said. As opposed to engine-powered aircraft, gliders use currents of rising air in the atmosphere to remain airborne.
In the U.S., gliders mostly rely on an “aerotow” from a powered plane to get them into the air. But gliding, or soaring, enthusiasts outside of the U.S. prefer an alternate launching method. “Instead of using a powered plane to tow, the rest of world uses a piece of equipment called a high-speed winch,” Pilkington said.
The winch is comprised of a heavy-duty engine that rapidly pulls in a cable made of high-tensile steel wire or synthetic fiber. The cable can be up to a mile long. The winch operator sets up at one end of the launching field, and the glider pilot sets up at the other end, facing the winch, with the glider attached to the far end of the cable. The winch operator then activates the winch, hauling in the cable in a great burst of speed, and sending the attached glider up into the air in a short, steep ride, after which the cable is released.
Winch launches are more affordable than aerotows; the greatest expense is the purchase of the winch, and virtually anyone can be taught to operate the equipment.
As one enthusiast put it, “Winches are fast, economical, quiet (compared to a tow plane), simpler maintenance, fun and GREEN,” using only a quart of fuel or so per launch.
Pilkington, who spent the past several years as a commercial certified glider instructor on the Front Range before recently moving back to Ouray (where he had previously lived in the 1970s and 1980s), developed a passion for this affordable means of flight after acquiring a winch of his own – an upgraded Gehrline originally manufactured for the US Air Force Academy.
Pilkington is a CPA by trade and possesses the intellect and fanatical attention to detail that are typically associated with that profession. But he is also animated by a healthy dose of wanderlust and hunger for adventure, that have led him to live on a sailboat in Alaska, work as a miner in Silverton, and bicycle the length of Canada’s west coast from Alaska to Washington state.
He learned to fly at age 30, and since becoming a certified flight instructor in recent years has also developed a passion for teaching other people how to spread their wings and soar.
But not surprisingly, he has always been put off by the elite, moneyed clubbiness that typically pervades flying clubs and motorized flight training programs.
Gliding, and especially winch-launched gliding, is the antidote to all that, he said. It has a vastly more affordable entry point, while still giving students the opportunity to learn virtually everything they need to know about flying that doesn’t involve a throttle.
“It’s affordable, safe, and is it fun? Oh, my gosh!” Pilkington said. “All you need is a glider, a winch, a field to set up in, and a group of fellow enthusiasts.”
Pilkington hopes to establish a winch-launched gliding club here on the Western Slope, that trains pilots to learn how to use a winch, and how to be winch operator ground crew.
He would also love to help build enthusiasm for soaring among young people in the area. “We don’t have enough student pilots, particularly young student pilots because if your daddy doesn’t have deep pockets it’s too expensive to learn to fly,” he said.
Hoping to peak some interest, Pilkington and fellow glider pilot Carl Keil are teaming up to conduct a free demonstration of the winch-launch method at Delta’s Blake Field this Saturday, Dec. 21, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Keil will be flying a Ventus glider, launched with Pilkington’s Gehrline winch. The event is weather-dependent; call Delta Airport manager at 970/874-5181 for updates, or visit grandmesasoaring.com; the website is currently under development but should be launched in time for Saturday’s demonstration.
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