Life as a pro gliding instructor

Gliding provides opportunities that go far beyond leisure, and a few committed and passionate pilots have made it their career. Jordan is one of those.

Over the past decade thanks to a lot of work from the British Gliding Association, UK Junior Gliding, individual clubs and various sponsors, gliding has been heavily promoted as an affordable and highly successful route into aviation that many are now considering over the large costs of a PPL from scratch.

From this, many clubs have seen a large increase in junior membership. This has translated to a highly successful and competitive UK Junior Gliding Team. Which at the world stage has been taking the top spots in recent competitions such as the two week 11th FAI Junior World Gliding Championships held in Hungary where Jake Brattle and Finn Sleigh took 1st and 2nd positions respectively against a very competitive field of international teams.

Jake Brattle (left), Finn Sleigh (right) and team captain Matthew Scutter. (British Gliding Association photo)

It isn’t just the competition environment which is seeing change, with the solo age now at 14 compared to 16 a decade ago, a new opportunity has arisen for people to get into gliding instruction at an early stage in their flying career, the youngest basic instructor (those that fly introductory flights) is currently merely a few months older than his 16th birthday, a phenomenal achievement considering the fact you cannot even drive at that age!

The aviation industry currently faces challenges and there is likely to be a shortage of flying jobs for some time. It is important then, that any opportunities for work within aviation are made use of. Exposure to industry experience may be vital in what will be a competitive market when commercial careers re-open.

Becoming a professional gliding instructor doesn’t rely as much on the educational academics as the need for a deep understanding and passion not just for flying itself, but for the sport of Gliding. This can be demonstrated by meeting the instructor course requirements for the Flight Instructor (Sailplanes) course run by the BGA and their clubs after having a couple of hundred hours of PIC gliding time, post licence. This will generally be a course taken part-time over a few months with theoretical and practical elements to it, ending up with an assessment of competence at the end. There are often bursaries available to cover this course and some clubs may sponsor you to complete one. It’d be wise to spend some time just doing ad-hoc volunteering to help build your aviation CV.

The relationship between gliding and professional aviation is closer than you might imagine

It is important to mention that for any professional gliding you also need to be 18 and be able to hold a Class Two medical. Having access to a car is also essential, given both the rural location of most gliding clubs and the need to occasionally pick gliders up from fields in the middle of nowhere. You will often have accommodation and some form of subsidy allowance to cover food as often there aren’t many places without driving some miles. Unsurprisingly gliding clubs aren’t luxury palaces, but you won’t miss a commuter lifestyle when living in the tranquillity of the countryside.

Flying Instruction is only part of the job if you stick at it, the biggest clubs have management teams lead generally by the Chief Flying Instructor. This challenge is no greater displayed than at Lasham where I am based, which is the largest gliding club in Europe with 250 based aircraft and 700 members. It’s also the airfield owner with 600 acres of land with multiple tenants! 

With such a diverse operation, I took on the newly created role of Deputy Chief Flying Instructor in 2018. Within that role I’ve been involved working alongside our air traffic colleagues to safely manage the commercial airliners we have operating right alongside our gliding operation, and to developing our training syllabus; delivering new types into the fleet and even being involved on projects such as website upgrades and local airspace design, all alongside flying! 

In Australia these non-flying roles varied even further, for example ensuring there was enough water for the site and dealing with the wildlife in the form of Kangaroos, who blocked the runway in the evenings!

Winter in the UK. Not so many kangaroos to worry about!

It’s generally expected that you will start your instructing career at a local club, once you’ve built up a good flying record. Whilst there are around 80 gliding clubs in the UK, only the larger ones which open 7 day a week generally employ professional staff.  Job locations can be worldwide however, and are based on flying seasons (normally April-October in the Northern Hemisphere and October-April in the Southern Hemisphere.) Whilst the pay is normally modest, the travel and experiences can be far reaching, and still follows the general principle of gliding being one of the most accessible forms of aviation.

The day in the life of a summer instructor? Well, two days are never the same but here’s what you might get up to.

8:30am- Arrive for work, check emails and check which aircraft you are likely to be flying, it may be more than one and, depending on experience, might involve flying several types in one day, including perhaps ferrying a towplane for maintenance.

Competition flying will often come with the risk of not getting home – safe field landing skills are essential.

Check the bookings and start planning the day efficiently. It may be that there is more suitable weather in the middle of the day for a student who wants to go soaring than a student who might be training for his aerobatic rating and would prefer more calm conditions.

09:00am- Daily Weather Briefing with the Duty Instructor. A must-attend for all pilots and often in the post COVID world these are being done online. Here you’ll get an insight into how the day is likely to pan out and the essential things to remember such as runway in use and potential airspace restrictions.

09:15-10:00– Prepare the aircraft with your first student, carefully conduct the daily inspection, checking for defects and serviceability and then get it to where it needs to be for the first launch of the day.

Circuit training is an essential part of learning to operate safely around often crowded airfields

10:00-11:30- The first student of the day is a presolo student, so theory briefings as required. Normally it will take at least three flights to introduce and practice a new exercise. As the thermals have not yet started, I might be focusing on launching, circuit planning and emergency procedures with this student. This might involve landing at the far end of the airfield; perfect for getting some exercise!

11:30-13:00– Second student of the day. Someone who’s post solo and getting towards their licence. Perhaps now it’s getting a little bit soarable which gives some opportunities to teach thermalling. This is best practiced by the student solo after a bit of dual practice, so we fly for an hour and the student takes the glider solo afterwards to consolidate.

Once you’ve found a good thermal, don’t expect to be on your own for long.

13:00-14:00– Lunchbreak! It’s not always is it possible to take a complete hour out, but it is vital to ensure you are remaining hydrated and eating the right stuff to be on top of your game. Whilst I’m taking a break, I’m keeping an eye on where my student is using the glider trackers that are now commonly fitted, and I can always communicate with the student by radio.

14:00-15:30– Third student of the day. Someone completing their Navigation and Field Landing Training. The student has planned a 100-mile route to fly, as we want to ensure we get out and back, we use a Motor Glider to do this flight. But we realistically conduct it by varying engine power to change altitude and even throwing in a few practice field landings for the student to handle as they’ll need to do on their test. A field landing in a glider isn’t an emergency and a higher standard is required than a PPL Forced Landing as the glider must be reusable afterwards without question! We finish off with some circuits at a local airstrip to solidify the circuit planning as up until now it is likely the student has done the vast majority of their circuits at the gliding club.

Motor gliders are an extremely useful tool for practicing field-landing procedures.

15:30-17:00– Fourth and final student of the day; a student pilot converting onto their first single seat glider. We always do type conversions on aerotow to give people the time to settle down, rather than the excitement of a winch launch. The student needs an aerotow assessment flight in the two-seater, before a check of understanding of the flight manual that they’ve studied before pre-flight familiarisation sat in the cockpit. Single seat conversions pre-licence is something unique to gliding but glider manufacturers have done well in ensuring types are as similar as possible.

Single seaters – a big step towards competition flying.

17:00-18:00– Help finish the day’s flying operation, getting gliders back to the hangar, taking account of any outstanding aircraft and any that may have landed in a field! In the peak of the summer, evening instructors will take over and will fly right up until sunset, perfect for those students who work during the day and can’t always spare weekends.

In reflection, sometimes the fast-paced nature of flying instruction leaves not much time for personal flying and the worldwide travel to pursue this career can take some getting used to. The pride however of sending first solos and seeing students achieve other major milestones is unparalleled.Finally, it’s well documented that 2020 has brought the biggest challenge aviation has likely seen in its lifetime, the consequences of the pandemic have been far reaching for health and economics with strict new procedures and two lockdowns preventing flying. There continues to be a pent-up demand for flying instruction however, as demonstrated over the summer, so I have no doubt that General Aviation, whilst just one of the many sectors in aviation, will yet again bounce back strongly in 2021. Be in no doubt too that the skills and experiences that you can get in general aviation will be useful in the future development of an aviation career, with significant savings to getting an ATPL also made possible.

Jordan lives and breathes gliding. Having started at 14 and gone solo at 15, he has now flown multiple types of sailplanes, old and new, all over the world. In his second year of professional instructing he now splits his time teaching people of all levels to fly, at the Lasham Gliding Society & Lake Keepit Soaring Club, Australia.

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