ON BEING A TOW PILOT
by Gene Hammond
On August 4, 1997, the FAA issued the revised Part 61 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Included in this revision is FAR 61.69 which describes the experience and training requirements to act as pilot-in-command of an aircraft towing gliders. Simply stated, to act as pilot in command of an aircraft towing a glider, a person must hold at least a private pilot certificate and be rated in the category of aircraft being used. Additionally, the pilot must have logged at least 100 hours as pilot-in-command in the category and class of aircraft being used and have a log book endorsement certifying completion of ground and flight training in towing gliders. This instruction must include three tows as sole manipulator of the controls of the towing aircraft. Furthermore, the regulation requires each tow pilot to make at least three tows while being supervised by a qualified tow pilot or to make three flights as pilot-in-command of a glider each twelve-month period.
The Soaring Society of America had argued that the twelve month requirement was not a reasonable regulation based on several factors, but compromised by accepting the three glider flights as a recurrent qualification. This does not mean that three flights in a glider or three supervised tows makes an individual a qualified tow pilot - it only means the FAR has been satisfied. The responsibility for being truly qualified rests with the pilot. Every tow pilot should remain current and competent in the tow aircraft.
The currency part is pretty easy to satisfy - the regulations are very specific in this area. Competency, on the other hand, is more difficult to define. What constitutes competency? Is it the regulations or simply being able to land without having an accident? I don't think so. Competency has two facets, being proficient and knowing the aircraft.
Knowing the aircraft is a little more complex than knowing where the fuel gauges are and how to start the engine. What control regulates manifold pressure? How does the pilot select the proper RPM for each phase of flight? What combination of RPM and Manifold Pressure gives the correct speed to let down, or to make an approach? How much runway is required for towing operations? What are the Recommended SSA Signals? How does the pilot make a properly coordinated turn? What about use of the flaps? What is the best procedure to use for descent at the conclusion of a tow? Pointing the nose of the tug at the ground after the glider releases may not be the best, or even the safest way to return to the airport.
Being competent means that the pilot can fly the airplane efficiently and accurately, is comfortable in every phase of flight, and can operate the aircraft at the corners of the performance envelope at will. Being competent means knowing how to take care of the engine and airframe and still keep towing time to a minimum. It is not enough to come to the field, climb into the tow ship, and proceed to tow.
Study is required to know an aircraft. The operator's handbook, maintenance manual, questions to other pilots familiar with the aircraft, and even sitting in the aircraft on the ground are methods of developing a symbiotic relationship with the tow plane. Furthermore, it is essential that frequent study be continued. The twelve-month requirement imposed by the regulations indicates the FAA believes that tow pilots do not train frequently enough, and that includes "book-work." Many clubs and Fixed Base Operators have competent and qualified pilots available to "check out" new tow pilots. Unfortunately, there is no recurrent training program within most of these groups. Therefore, it is the responsibility of each tow pilot to properly prepare to tow each day, not each year. Responsibility. Take the challenge seriously and assume responsibility for your actions - not only in the tow plane, but also in the gliders, on tractors and mowers, and even driving to and from the club.