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After 46 years, I can finally say that I am no longer a student glider pilot

By Don Grillo

In the fall of 1967, I was in eighth grade at St. Eugene in Detroit, Michigan and I was really excited over something a friend had told me.  His older brother had gone for a glider ride.  I just had to learn more about this glider flying.  Even more important, how could I convince my parents to take me? 

It wasn’t like this was some kid’s passing fancy.  I was already an aviation nut.  I had been hooked on planes and aviation since I was little.  At least 30 model airplanes that I had built were hanging from the basement ceiling.  Spread across the ping pong table were line control balsa wood gas engine airplanes that my friends and I had built.  But the aviation highlight at that point in my life had happened when I was nine.  While in flight over the Atlantic, on our way to visit family in the Netherlands, I got to sit in the cockpit of a Boeing 707 and talk with the pilots.  So now, going for a glider ride was all I could think about.  I bugged my parents all winter and finally, early the next spring…success!  My father said he would take me to go for a flight. 

My friend’s brother had gone to Adrian Soaring Club in Adrian Michigan for his glider ride.  I found it on a map.  It wasn’t very far away and would only be about an hour drive from home.  So, on April 8, 1968, my father took me to Adrian and I had my first dual flight in a glider.  That marked the beginning of my life of flying.  My logbook says that the flight was in a 2-22, N27252.  We took a 2,000 foot tow with a max altitude of 2,100 feet for a total of 14 minutes. It was signed by Ray Jackson, CFI 200626. I didn’t know it at the time, but in June of 1954, Ray had flown a 1-23 to a Michigan high altitude record (right off the scale of his barograph) of 19,200 feet in seven minutes.

Adrian was loaded with soaring pilots with a lot of history. Soaring Hall of Famer, A.J. Smith, waits for a tow during the summer of ’69 in a new Schreder HP-11A. After that first ride, I was so fired up that the next thing I hounded my parents for was lessons.  I worked on Saturdays at my father’s store in downtown Detroit and I told my parents I would use that money to help pay for them.  They agreed and in May, my father took me to Adrian again.  My father said he would take flight lessons too and we both joined the club.   My first three flights were with Winston Smith, CFI 94368.  Winston is a soaring great who really advanced the sport in the Midwest.  Adrian Soaring Club was loaded with soaring pilots who had a lot of history.  My next five flights were with Harold (Slim) Jost, CFI 94509.  I remember Slim as a tall man who really had to work to get into the back seat of a 2-22.  Later, he flew a 1-26 to 26,100 feet out of Black Forest Glider Port in Colorado Springs.  During that summer of flying at Adrian, Robert F. Nichols CFI 37897 also instructed me, but it was Winston, Slim and Ray who were my primary instructors.

I was a skinny 14 year old who only weighed about 70 pounds dripping wet.  I needed a lot of ballast in the front seat.  My father had brought some empty canvas money bags from his store and we filled them with sand.  It took three sacks of sand to get me to a weight that was acceptable for the front seat of the 2-22.  In order to reach the rudder pedals and stick, I wore a parachute and had a pile of cushions both behind and under me.

During that first summer, I took 25 flights with my instructors.  Then on Labor Day, September 2, 1968, with 10 hours and 20 minutes of dual instruction logged, Slim Jost endorsed my logbook, “Checkride OK for Solo.”  I remember that day like it was yesterday.  After a dual ride, Slim hopped out of the glider and told me I was ready!  I was hooked up to the Citabria 7KCAB tow plane and readied for tow.  As soon as the tow plane began its takeoff roll, I popped into the air and went so high that I couldn’t see the tow plane anymore.  I immediately released the tow rope and pushed the nose down. I could see the tow plane below me accelerating for takeoff.  I landed a short way down the field and all the guys came running. They popped open the canopy and told me to stay strapped in as they pushed me back for another take off.  Slim was there to instruct me. He reminded me that he was no longer in the back seat and that the glider was now about 200 pounds lighter.  I would need to put in a good amount of forward stick in order to keep the nose down and the sailplane behind the tow plane.  The tow plane came back around and landed.  They lined me up and hooked up the tow rope again.  This time I was ready.  I kept in a good amount of forward stick like Slim told me and we rolled down the runway.  My first successful tow was to 1,000 feet AGL and my logbook says I gained 200 feet and the flight lasted all of 10 minutes.  I flew six more solo flights that September before the soaring season was over.  My longest flight was 20 minutes and I had a total of 32 flights for my first year of flying.

Donald Grillo solo flight, Sept 2, 1968, Adrian Soaring Club, MichiganThe 1969 season started out for me on April 4th and Winston Smith endorsed me for solo in the 2-22.  I made five solo flights before I was checked out in the club’s 1-26, N8677R on August 10th. My first flight in the 1-26 was only 23 minutes.  However, I made two 1 hour plus flights on August 24th, reaching an altitude of 4,900 feet from a 2,000 foot tow. They were my longest and highest flights ever.  I flew into October that year and by then had logged in a total of 47 glider flights.

In my high school years of 1970 and 1971, my father and I continued to fly gliders during the summer.  Dad took lessons too but he never soloed.  He did enjoy it, but was there primarily for me.  Many times he would give me his tow slot just so I could fly.  While I did use my own money, Dad also helped pay for my flights.  He was a tremendous support.  My last flight at Adrian Soaring Club was on June 24,1971.  It was my 60th flight and was in the club’s ASK-13, N154AS.  It’s logged as a 1,000 foot tow, 6 minute flight with instructor Winston Smith.  I would not fly gliders again until 1988.

In November of 1971, with my parents going through a divorce and racial tension and rioting in the Detroit schools, I chose to drop out during my senior year.  I took the GED (General Education Diploma) exam, enlisted in the United States Air Force, of course, and was in basic training on January 3, 1972 at the age of 17.  I thought that by joining the Air Force, I could keep my interest in aviation going.  While I couldn’t be a pilot in the Air Force without a college degree, as an aircraft mechanic, I was able to work on all kinds of fighters, bombers and cargo planes. I even spent a year in Thailand during the end of the Vietnam War.  I had a great tour of duty and it was well worth it.  I made some great friends and learned a lot about aviation.

With an honorable discharge from the military at the age of 21, I was anxious to get back into flying.  I had taken a few power lessons at the Aero Club at Forbes AFB but that was it.  I found a job as a piano and organ salesman at the local mall in Sacramento, California.  It paid enough for me to start private pilot flight lessons. It took more than a year to complete my private but when I finally did, I immediately enrolled in a Part 141 Aviation School for the rest of my ratings.  At that point I was able to use the GI Bill to pay for most of the training.  The cost to me was a total of only about $400 dollars for my Commercial, Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings.  What a deal and a big “Thank you” to the U.S. Government!  As soon as I earned my ratings, I found a job flying light aircraft doing aerial photography.  I spent 8 years in that industry learning everything about cartography that I could. 

My ultimate dream job was flying for the airlines but I never thought it would be possible without that college degree.  I set my goals on business jets and would be happy with that.  In 1982, I was hired by a company that had 2 Lear Jets and a contract to photograph the entire United States from 40,000 feet above ground level.  They sent me to Flight Safety for my Lear Jet type rating and off I went in the left seat of a Lear jet. During my four years with them, I mapped much of the U.S., the entire continent of Greenland and a few African countries.  The Lears we flew were in the experimental category and we had a waver to fly them to 51,000 feet.  The highest I could ever get that Lear 25c was 49,000.  It was like flying on the tip of a needle, bank too much and you would fall out the sky.

I loved the job! I don’t think glider flying ever really went through my mind at that point.  I do remember going for glider rides in Calistoga and Vacaville, California but I never pursued it further.  In the mid-80s the commercial airlines were growing quickly and expanded their hiring.  So, I applied and was hired by American Airlines in 1986. WOW!  My dream of becoming an airline pilot came true.  I was also married to a beautiful woman.  What more could a man ask for?  I had been blessed.

My fascination with gliders was never lost and, in 1988, I got the bug for flying them again.  There was a glider operation in Hinckley, Illinois, not far from our home.  On April 9, 1988, I took two lessons in a 2-33a and was checked out for solo in the 1-36 and 1-26.  It was almost 20 years to the day since my first glider ride in Adrian.  There was great soaring weather in April and May of that year and my logbook shows all my flights over an hour and a half, with altitudes reaching 8,700 feet.  I flew those ships for the rest of the summer and even earned an endorsement for a glider check ride.  For some reason, I never took the test.  After 20 years, I still didn’t have a glider rating.

Well, life went on and glider flying once again faded to the background.  My family and job came first.  My wife and I raised two wonderful children.  Our son is now an Air Force Officer and holds all his pilot ratings.  Our daughter is working and living on her own after receiving her college degree.  I’m still working my dream job with American Airlines but now have time to get back into my favorite sport.  After another 26 year hiatus, glider flying is a renewed passion.

In the spring of 2014, I decided to join Sky Soaring, a glider club in Hampshire, Illinois.  I took a number of dual lessons and was checked out again for solo.  My goal this time was to get my commercial glider rating.  No more messing around.  I also decided to purchase my own glider.  The passion runs deep.  All summer I studied for the commercial glider check ride and practiced all the flight maneuvers that would be required on the test.  I also spent the summer looking for a glider to purchase.  I wanted something that was high performance, one that would stay flying even in the weakest of lift.  In August, I found the sailplane I wanted, a LAK 17A with both 15 and 18 meter wingtips.  It wasn’t far from home either.  I purchased it, brought it home and put it in the driveway.  I was so excited and couldn’t wait to fly it.

I scheduled my check ride with our local examiner, Ron Ridenour, for Labor Day, September 1,2014.  How symbolic.  It was 46 years to the day from my first solo back in 1968.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate.  I had to reschedule for later in the month and my second attempt was also cancelled due to weather.  Finally, on Friday, September 26, 2014, a fellow pilot and I completed and passed our glider check rides.  After 46 years, I can finally say that I am no longer a student glider pilot.

I’ve flown my new 18 meter LAK 17A three times so far, with all three flights being over 3 hours each.  What a dream it is.  The cg hook is new for me and my take-offs are still a little rough, but I’m getting used to it. I can’t wait to get started on earning the SSA badges and maybe enter some contests.  I’m really anxious to do some ridge and wave soaring and can’t wait to travel out east and west with my glider in tow.  But those dreams are still in the making and perhaps the subject of another story.


Don Grillo
Captain, American Airlines
Owner: LAK17a   F2   N129WY

Top Photo: Adrian was loaded with soaring pilots with a lot of history. Soaring Hall of Famer, A.J. Smith, waits for a tow during the summer of ’69 in a new Schreder HP-11A.

Middle Photo:Solo Flight, Sept 2, 1968, Adrian Soaring Club. Adrian Michigan

Bottom Photo: Checkrides Passed, Don Grillo, Ron Ridenour (examiner) and Craig Zimmerman

Posted: 1/7/2015 By: Don Grillo

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