Discussion of Harmonious Towing
by Les Taff


The following is a brief discussion of the signals, procedures, and policies adopted by many flight parks with regard to your safety and enjoyment of your towing experience. Please ask for assistance if any of these points need clarifying.

Tug pilots are capable of giving you a very enjoyable tow, within limits. The following discusses a typical tow scenario in which non-radio signals are used.

To take up slack in the rope, hold arms up in air. To signal take-off, wave arm in circle like propeller. For the take-off, the tug pilot will fly at whatever speed he deems necessary for his safety in the given weather conditions. This speed is usually faster than the rest of the tow, as airspeed is your friend. Very rarely will you fly at "trim" this close to the ground, and by all means, NEVER push out to catch up to the tug! Pushing out down low can cause sudden weak link breakage, or increases the effect of pulling the tug into a stall, or perhaps even dangerously tip-stalling your glider, which in the past, has resulted in fatalities. If the tug pilot notices you low, he will try to speed up if he can. If you still wind up in prop wash, and are not comfortable, release!

If you stray too far off-line, he may give you the rope, but his responsibility lies only with ensuring his safe ascent. If you are in trouble, do NOT rely on the tug to release you! You should be flying with a main and backup release, and you need to use one or both of them before things get too out of hand. A general rule of thumb is to err on the side of caution, as re-tows from release altitudes below 500 feet are free. As little as 15 degrees off in roll down low can very quickly become a deadly lockout, so be vigilant in roll control. Pitch is important too, but roll must be corrected first, especially if you are low on the tug AND banked. Contrary to popular belief, most weak links will not "save" you from excessive bank angles low to the ground. Weak links are only load limiters. RELEASE, RELEASE, RELEASE! In summary, the first 200-300 feet belong to the tug pilot, and you must either follow or release.

After 200-300 feet has been reached (or higher if you are a new tow pilot), you can relax somewhat the critical release angles. At this time, if you feel the tug is towing you too fast, you can either radio him to slow down, or indicate your desire by getting slightly high on him for a few seconds and then pulling back down. (Try not to go higher than half a wingspan above the horizon, or you will end up pulling his tail up and preventing him from slowing down). If he can, (and some heavier tug pilots cannot) he will slow down a notch or two, thus making the bar pressure more manageable. Bar pressure can also be managed by "re-trimming" the upper tow point forward before the next tow.

You can also signal your desire for the tug pilot to speed up by either getting slightly low, or, if it is not too turbulent, waving your arm below the basetube back and forth several times. REMEMBER, the tug pilot has MANY things to watch besides you! Be patient.

You can signal a turn desire if it is not too turbulent by placing your hand on the downtube in the direction you wish to turn. He will comply if it does not place him over an area he should avoid (such as pattern entry for General Aviation traffic, or over subdivisions). Normally, he will turn 90 degrees. However, if you are in lift when you give him the turn signal, he will most likely interpret that as a desire to turn in the lift and keep turning.

You can signal air traffic that you feel he may not have seen by waving your arm up and down to the side you see the traffic. Do this only if you feel safe doing so, and feel threatened by the air traffic.

Tug pilot signals to you

Sometimes, the tug pilot cannot comply with your wishes, such as slowing down. If he extends his left arm with the forearm bent downward, he is requesting that you pull in and come back down to "Wings on the Horizon" proper tow position. If his left arm is extended with the forearm bent in an upward position, he is requesting you to let the bar out to obtain proper position. (AVOID pushing out while low!) His left arm extended straight out and immobile means "Good position, please hold."

If he waves his left arm slowly, he is indicating either normal tow release altitude, or you are in good lift. You need not release with a slow wave. You may pay for extra altitude if you wish.

However, if the tug pilot gives you a very FAST wave of his extended arm, he is saying, "RELEASE IMMEDIATELY!" You MUST comply, or you will end up with the rope. This signal is usually reserved for an engine emergency, and sometimes you may never receive the fast wave, just the rope. In the case of full engine failure, the tug pilot has no time to wave you off, but rather MUST give you the rope to re-establish airspeed. Another scenario for a fast wave is if the tug runs out of fuel or experiences engine overheating.

In Conclusion

No person or persons can foresee all the possible complications or dangers inherent in flying. What we all can do is be vigilant and speak up in the name of safety. If the tug pilot ever gives you the rope because he felt you were too out of position to correct it or you were interfering with his safe operation of the tug, NEVER get angry or criticize him. Sometime, someday, a tug pilot will have to make a quick judgement call to try and prevent an accident, and if he feels that he might get reprimanded, he may make the wrong call. Also, always remember that YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY! No tug pilot can make all the calls for you. His primary job is to fly the tug and watch out for his OWN safety! If he can help, he will, but that is not his job. Flying is inherently dangerous, and as pilots we assume all responsibility for ourselves. Aviation towing history has proven that the tug pilot is at the greatest risk, so keep safety first and foremost in your mind. Secondarily, remember why we are all here:



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