Towing / Operating Tug Aircraft
- ‘Aeroplanes’ are powered aircraft that are not gliders
- ‘Aircraft’ includes both aeroplanes and gliders
- ‘ANO’ is the Air Navigation Order as amended
- ‘TMG’ is a Touring Motor Gliding (eg a Scheibe Falke)
These notes are intended as a general, high level guide to glider towing operations and have been compiled in the interest of safety, efficiency and compliance with law. They include good practice examples that have been developed over many years of successful towing operations at BGA clubs. The BGA accepts no responsibility for any of the suggested practices contained in this guidance. Each club has its operating environment and challenges and should adapt the suggested practices to suit their own needs.
Each tug pilot carries a degree of responsibility. Aerotowing is potentially expensive, can create noise and has hazards associated with it. These factors have a bearing on the very existence of gliding. It is therefore essential that aerotowing is carried out safely, efficiently and thoughtfully, paying particular regard to our neighbours.
Ultimately, a tug pilot is responsible for the safe conduct of the flight and the actions that they choose to take while accommodating the glider pilot’s requirements as far as possible.
The tugging operation exists of course to provide launches to gliders. Waiting time should be minimised and the launch needs of the glider pilot met. For example, solo soaring pilots may require you to drop them in the nearest lift source, whilst students may need to remain near the field with gentle manoeuvres.
Another important point is to minimise cost to the club by conserving the engine, by careful handling and reducing fuel burn, by accurate aircraft handling, and by minimising ground running.
In short. the three main points that a tug pilot should always aim to achieve are:
SAFETY – Safe flying and good airmanship is expected at all times and is everyone’s responsibility.
ACCURACY – Delivering the best service to the glider pilot.
EFFICIENCY – Handling the engine with precision, being economical with fuel, and ensuring efficient turnarounds
The BGA publishes detailed ‘aerotowing guidance notes’ which are aimed at clubs, tugmasters and tug pilots, and are currently being updated. Please note that the licensing and regulatory references described in the notes need updating. However, the tug operating guidance is as valid as it has always been.
The key safety issues are also highlighted to all pilots in the BGA publication ‘Managing Flying Risk’
All three publications are strongly recommended reading for all tug pilots.
EASA tug aeroplanes are subject to Part-NCO rules.
EASA TMG tugs are subject to Part-SAO rules.
Non-EASA tugs are subject to the ANO.
See details at https://members.gliding.co.uk/operations/
Under EASA Part NCO, Part SAO, and the UK ANO, “sailplane towing performed by an organisation created with the aim of promoting aerial sport or leisure aviation, on the condition that the aircraft is operated by the organisation on the basis of ownership or dry lease, that the flight does not generate profits distributed outside of the organisation, and that whenever non-members of the organisation are involved, such flights represent only a marginal activity of the organisation” (in other words, a gliding club) is not commercial activity.
Clubs should additionally have in place club towing operating procedures that reference the law and local requirements or restrictions
The club chief tug pilot or tugmaster is, in conjunction with the club CFI, responsible for safe and efficient operation of the tug aircraft. He or she should be as knowledgeable as possible about gliding and light aircraft operations and should ideally have a direct link to the club’s management committee. Advice for tug masters and tug pilots is readily available from the BGA chief tug pilot (contact via the BGA office). Some large and established gliding clubs have particularly experienced tug masters and would be pleased to pass on advice or help in any way. Any pilots or club officials are encouraged to ask for advice or simply exchange ideas, especially anything safety related.
Tug pilots must maintain pilot licence and rating validity in accordance with the relevant regulations. Instruction associated with a licence or a towing rating may only be provided by an FI or CRI with the required aircraft class rating, towing privileges and experience. The tugmaster is ideally placed to co-ordinate this type of activity alongside the CFI.
Standardisation flights where the tug pilot is PIC and the tug master as passenger observes the actions of the tug pilot are not instructional flights.
Tugmasters don’t need to be an FI or CRI unless of course they instruct aerotowing.
Monitoring Tug Pilots Compliance with Licensing and Medical Requirements
Having an insurance claim turned down because the pilot involved is not compliant with licensing and medical rules could be financially challenging for an individual or club.
Clearly it is the responsibility of an individual tug pilot to comply with licensing, medical and recency requirements. At some clubs, the tugmaster supervises this important aspect of tug pilot administration (and club governance) by monitoring tug pilots relevant due dates.
A simple spreadsheet with the pilots licensing details on it including next check due and date of medical expiry that is regularly checked by the tug master and any subsequent issues raised directly with pilots can be very helpful.
Tug Pilot Licencing
A pilot flying an EASA tug aircraft must comply with Part-FCL rules and medical rules. At the time of writing, the UK CAA exempts aeroplane pilots in the UK from certain FCL requirements. For current details, please check the Official Records Series (ORS) 4 on the CAA website. Learn more here.
By way of an example of maintaining the validity of a licence, here’s some guidance on maintaining the validity of a LAPL(A)*;
The privileges of your LAPL(A) will only remain valid if you have completed, in the last 24 months, as pilot of an aeroplane or TMG:
- At least 12 hours flight time as PIC, including 12 take-offs and landings; and
- Refresher training of at least 1 hour of total flight time with an instructor.
If you do not meet these requirements you will need to:
- Complete a proficiency check with an examiner before you exercise the privileges of the licence; or
- Complete the additional flight time or take-offs and landings to meet the requirements above, flying dual or solo, under the supervision of an instructor.
*for further details, please refer to the Aircrew Regulation.
A pilot flying a non-EASA tug aircraft must comply with UK national licensing regulations and medical requirements, as detailed in the Air Navigation Order (ANO), eg hold an NPPL with the relevant class rating privileges. No towing rating is required (or available on an NPPL).
Training for an FCL Sailplane Towing Rating can take place at a club that has relevant DTO status. Training a tug pilot who intends to tow in non-EASA aircraft only can take place at any club that chooses to supply the training. Most clubs require their tug pilots to be glider pilots – the reason should be obvious.
All tug pilots are strongly advised to monitor their recency, date of last refresher flight, and to regularly check the validity of their licence and associated privileges. Failure to do so can result in operating illegally, and in the event of an accident and insurance claim, the pilot may become liable.
Transitioning from Newly Trained tug pilot to a Club Approved tug pilot
Once qualified, the new towing pilot should be briefed in detail by the club tug master ahead of local standardization including, possibly, a type conversion. This is a very important aspect of a tug pilot’s development as there will be a number of local hazards that must be taken into consideration and mitigated by following local operating procedures. Once up to speed with club procedures, new tug pilots are usually monitored closely by the club tugmaster. After all, the tug is probably one of the clubs most expensive and difficult to replace assets!
Recency and Standardisation
Recency and checks in addition to that required by law are at the discretion of the club tug master and can also depend on the individual pilots experience.
Anyone who has not flown within a reasonable period of time should fly a standardization trip in that aircraft before towing. This should be done with the tug master or qualified instructor if possible. Note that 3 landings within 90 days are legal requirements when carrying passengers.
It is suggested that each tug pilot should occasionally have a standardization flight with the club tug master or a suitable FI or CRI to include normal tows, general handling and emergency drills. The flight should be viewed as an opportunity to practice flying skills and practice unusual situations with a ‘friendly critical’ observer.
Continual towing or descent over the same area may cause nuisance and irritation to our neighbours. Some tugs have already been modified to minimise the actual noise produced. However, we can also spread the load by thoughtful and varied tow-out patterns. Variation therefore should be part of club developed noise abatement procedures.
Remember that the noise of a descending tug with a relatively high power setting can be annoying, so apply the same noise abatement techniques and practices during the descent. Also try and make your descent route different from the tow-out route.
All aircraft movements need to be recorded. Most clubs use an aerotowing log in the aircraft. All aero-tow retrieves, positioning flights or hire flights should be entered. Particular attention should be paid to overdue procedures and the reporting of any defects. The log sheets are an important part of the clubs financial record keeping – accuracy is key including names, membership numbers, tow heights and engine time used. The person who has to use the data will be delighted if they can read the handwriting! However, don’t let the paperwork detract from safely operating the aircraft; it’s important to carefully manage cockpit tasks.
Deciding enough is enough
It is the tug pilot’s responsibility, after full consultation with the person in charge, to terminate aero-tow operations if the tug pilot is not happy to continue, eg because conditions are unsuitable (eg weather, light, etc). Tug pilots must resist all forms of persuasion to launch if they do not want to. Remember, however senior the pilot of the glider the tug pilot is commander for the whole combination until release. Where possible, its helpful to give the glider pilots/the instructor in charge advance warning of an intention to stop towing. Avoid towing in extreme weather conditions, eg thunderstorms, heavy showers, etc or where the weather causes the aircraft handling in the air or on the ground to become unreasonably difficult. And please be reasonable – listening to and considering advice from other more experienced pilots is all part of the learning process.
Cables in the air or on the ground are particularly dangerous. Before every take-off it is essential to check that a winch launch is not taking place or about to take place and that the tug pilot knows where the cables are. If its not possible to make a visual check, a radio call is suggested to confirm this with the glider launch point. Delay the launch until the cable is clear of the planned takeoff run. Do not take off across or close to winch cables. An AAIB report into a fatal accident resulting from an aircraft attempting to take-off having picked up a winch cable is available here.
Tow Rope Clearance
Ensure adequate clearance of the towrope from the ground when approaching to land and in general do not over fly people, cables, aircraft or vehicles prior to landing. Leave a reasonable amount of height approaching over crop or any boundary.
No tug aircraft should take off unless the pilot in command is certain there is sufficient fuel in the tanks for safe operation. There are legal limits for minimum fuel defined in Part-NCO and the ANO. If in any doubt, refuel!
Fuel starvation is still the most common cause of engine failures in piston singles but it is also the most avoidable. It is imperative that you do not allow yourself to be pressured into carrying out ‘just one more tow’ when you think you should be refuelling. Prior to takeoff, always know how much fuel you have remaining. As always, think ahead to help keep the operation safe and efficient. For example, is the next tow a spin training exercise to altitude, necessitating more fuel? Or, there will be a natural break after the next launch where the time can be used to refuel.
If your club operates a tug aircraft where assessing fuel content before take-off is very difficult to achieve, seek technical advice from an expert. And please make sure the fuel you take on board is of suitable quality, eg suitable for the aircraft and free of water, etc.
Don’t live with a potentially lethal issue hoping nothing will go wrong. If it can go wrong, it will.
It might be stating the obvious, but ensure that you are fit to fly. If flying under a canopy, wear a hat. If flying for a period of time take a bottle of water to remain hydrated and consider taking a snack. Don’t let any of these items become loose articles and jam your controls!
Many tugs are of the tail-wheel type, which requires extra piloting skills. Tail- wheel types are classed as “complex types” and require training by a qualified instructor (FI/CRI). Some tail-wheel information is reproduced here:
- Tail-wheel aircraft are unstable so that a bounce can become oscillatory
- If landing with a slight tail wind the rudder can reverse in effect
- Torque, slipstream and gyroscopic effects are more prominent
- Excess braking with a tailwind can cause tail-draggers to tip on their nose.
- Taxying downwind requires great care.
The Tug Pilot should conduct a daily inspection (DI) of the tug. Any defects must be brought to the attention of the tug master and duty instructor immediately so that they can be rectified at the earliest opportunity. If necessary, ensure that an unserviceable tug is not used later by someone who is unaware. If unsure about how to carry out a daily (pre-flight) inspection, refer to the Pilot Operating Handbook.
The tug pilot should also DI the rope, checking for chafing, knots, reduced length due to repairs and the condition of the rings and weak links. Generally, the longer the rope the safer it is for the tug pilot. However, in practical terms 180 feet is a reasonable compromise. Unserviceable ropes should be identified and put in a place where they cannot be inadvertently used. Please do not attempt to repair a broken rope or change a broken weak link unless you know what you are doing.
Ensure that there is a suitable weak link assembly located at the tug end of the rope. Some clubs fit a weak link at both ends. BGA Operational Regulations state;
“Weak Links – Aerotow. An aerotow rope or weak link, if fitted, shall have a strength not exceeding the lesser of the maximum breaking load determined by the body responsible for certification of the tug aircraft and the maximum breaking load approved by the body responsible for certification of the glider.”
All tug aircraft maintenance should be carefully managed including use of an appropriate maintenance programme, eg Self Declared Maintenance Programme for EASA aircraft or an LAA maintenance programme for a non-EASA Permit tug managed under their airworthiness system. Tugmasters should note that pilot owner maintenance tasks are defined. It may be appropriate for the club to approve specific tug pilots to carry out approved pilot owner maintenance tasks on the club tug aircraft. If in doubt, seek advice.
Propeller swinging can be very dangerous. Avoid doing it if possible! If the aircraft simply has a flat battery, consider charging it or jump starting the machine. If swinging is carried out it should be done with great caution. A few general safety precautions could include:
- Always treat a propeller as live
- Ensure the aircraft brakes are set
- Ensure the mixture is at ICO (Idle Cut Off)
- Ensure the mags are off
- Ensure the throttle is closed
- Use chocks
- Ensure that there is a competent person in the cockpit
- Ensure that the area around the propeller is clear of oil, water and anything that could cause you to slip
- Establish clear communications
- Never hand swing an aircraft with a 4 blade propeller . 4-blade propellers are lighter as they are made of wood and have less inertia to carry through the compression, usually smaller in diameter so more force is required and the next blade comes around in half the time.
If in doubt, don’t.
Considerations Before Take-off
In addition to the normal considerations prior to take-off, a tug pilot needs to think about the combination of a tug and glider. Radio contact with the glider and launch point can be very helpful for everyone’s situational awareness.
Think about the climb performance. Part-NCO rules require a risk assessment and climb performance is part of that. There’s detailed advice on aerotow performance here.
Think about the glider and glider pilot and consider;
- Tow hook position
- Low-experience pilot
- Short tow rope
- All flying tailplane
- Lightweight glider pilot that might cause a rearward centre of gravity
- Turbulence and windshear
- Cross or slight tail wind
A rule of thumb is that if you have three of these items, consider not launching that glider!
Be very aware of winch cables laid out on the field and winch cables still in the air.
BGA Lead Tug Pilot
The BGA volunteer lead tug pilot can be contacted via the BGA office.