Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #238 – Alone Time

Towplane Selfie

This week, Ann-Christine challenges us to reflect on our perception of Alone Time. She writes, “Alone time means time spent by an individual or a couple apart from others. It is often used to ground oneself, or to do something creative… “ You can read her entire challenge post here.

Though Ann-Christine allows us the luxury of defining alone time as either individually or as a couple, I opted to feature singular alone time, that time I spend alone in an aircraft providing glider tows. The image above features a “selfie” I captured after landing and waiting for the glider to land so the two aircraft could reconnect and I could launch again.

Preparing for glider tow.

Except for tow pilot training, the tow pilots are alone in the tow plane while there is a flurry of activity in preparing the glider for another tow. In the image above, taken by a remote camera in the rear window of a tow plane, the glider ground team and glider pilot go through the Glider Launch Checklist. While that’s going on, the tow pilot has his or her own checklist to complete. In 2003, while I was training for glider operations, I set up a remote camera that captured images every couple of minutes to document the views of the glider under tow.

The glider launch.

Even a glider carrying two passengers is less than half of the weight of the tow plane. The glider becomes airborne well before the tow plane has enough speed to fly. The glider pilot needs to keep the glider low until the tow plane leaves the runway and starts to climb. It’s during this part of the launch that the tow pilot is the busiest. Preplanned patterns and safety items are the primary thoughts of both the glider pilot and tow pilot during the launch. Even though each pilot is alone, they are coordinating their operations to complete a safe launch.

Tow Plane-1
Tow plane shortly after takeoff.

In the image above, note the tow rope descending from the tail of the aircraft. The tow plane is climbing and the glider is at the end of a 250-foot (75 m) tow rope. Before each flight, one of the members of the ground crew is responsible for checking that rope to ensure that each end of the rope is capable of the stress of launch. Tow pilots and glider pilots alike are trained in procedures for safe operations in case of a rope break. Annual recurrence training for glider pilots includes the requirement of a simulated rope break where the evaluating pilot releases the tow rope early to gauge that the pilot being examined follows proper procedures all the way to a safe landing.

Glider on Tow
Glider tracking behind the tow plane.

Unless training for glider take-offs and landings, the typical maximum height when I am towing is 3,000 feet (900 m) above the ground. The two aircraft make oblong tracks above and to the side of the airport runway in case of a rope break. This typical tow takes somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes usually. Unless there is a need for radio communication between the glider pilot and tow pilot, both pilots are alone in their own separate worlds.

Glider release.

Another view from that remote camera shows the disconnected glider and tow plane as they separate. The glider pilot climbs and turns right, and the tow plane pilot descends and turns left so that there is no possibility of collision as the two pilots truly are alone with their thoughts and procedures. The tow pilot descends quickly spiraling down and going through the before-landing checklist. Since the glider pilot disconnected, the tow plane has one extra complication in landing. That long tow line is trailing behind, still connected to the tow plane. Prior to landing, the tow pilot passes over a drop point where the rope is disconnected to be retrieved and repositioned by members of the ground team. Only then the tow pilot is ready to land the aircraft.

At the end of the day.

A typical day for a tow pilot might include 20 or more tows, but eventually, the sun tells everyone that the gliding day is done. The glider pilot has landed, the ground crew is securing the airfield, and the tow pilot is over at the fuel depot refueling the tow plane for its return to home base. I captured this image after refueling and while walking toward the glider to help stow it in the hangar where it is kept.

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…”
John Gillespie Magee Jr.

Thanks to Ann-Christine for giving me another opportunity to share my love of aviation. I have spent many hours alone on cross-country journeys, but most of my “alone time” in an aircraft is when I am alone with my thoughts in a glider tow plane. It is then that I really appreciate how fortunate I am that I have the skills to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Next week, Tina of Travels and Trifles hosts the challenge “Finding Peace.”

If you’d like to join with your own challenge response but aren’t sure how to get started, check here.

John Steiner


  1. The local Glider Club has fly days for people. I wanted to but I reckon, just chicken. I have flown a small light plane, probably a lawn mower engine ๐Ÿ˜‚

  2. A great description! I have actually been a passenger In tow plane once when it wasnโ€™t towing as well as being several times a glider passenger.

    • I enjoy riding in the glider on occasion. I don’t have a glider rating, so I have to have a qualified pilot at the controls, but that’s fine. I just enjoy the views.

  3. I just keep learning more and more about you!!! I’ve been a glider passenger so this brings a new perspective! Hope you are staying warm now that I believe you are back in Fargo for a few “days”. See you in June.

    Jan Hernandez


  4. This is SO interesting! and such a unique look at alone time. We used to see more of them near lake Pleasant. I wonder if we don’t see them anymore its because you aren’t here. This was cool, John.

  5. Fascinating, John – thank you for explaining the routines and what it takes to go. I’d love to be a passenger in a glider – the peacefulness and the views must be something to long for.

    • I have soloed, but I didn’t take the time needed to earn the rating to carry passengers. That was over a decade ago, so when I ride now, there is a glider pilot doing the work. I just take photos. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks, Dan. It took me a long time to get up the fortitude and financial wherewithal to meet the goal. It’s hard for me to believe that I started that journey in 1996. Where does the time go?

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