Cross-Country Mentoring

Using Single Seat Gliders

By Peter Kelly

The three things that this page is not!

  1. This page is NOT about “mentoring” in a two place glider.  Mentoring in a two place ship is not in fact mentoring, it is training, or at the least, it is allowing observation on a ride along flight. The “instructor” is the pilot in command at all times and is responsible for the safe conduct of the flight. You, acting as “student”, may have the opportunity to observe and possibly practice various aspects of cross-country flying.
  2. This page is NOT about Buddy Flying – which is also a well established, proven form of effective mentoring. In Buddy Flying, the student should not expect the mentor to stay behind or even wait for the student to catch up to him. In Buddy Flying, the mentor may often get well ahead of the student, and find himself flying in a different type of air mass, possibly resulting in each pilot taking a very different route home, depending on conditions. Buddy Flying is something many of us do on a regular basis. We are always learning from each other. It is commonly considered an advanced form of mentoring.
  3. This page is NOT about “Lead and Follow” which is another well established, and proven form.  The difficulty with the lead and follow method is that the student is not making the most important decisions – namely: where to go, how high you must be to go there, finding the next thermal, selecting the route, etc..

What this page is about!

Two pilots, each operating their own glider as pilot in command, and each responsible for their own safety and for every decision made on that flight.  Mentoring in single place ships requires you, the pilot being mentored (herein referred to as “the student”), to fly solo while the mentor flies in the same vicinity in a different glider. The information presented on this page is strictly addressing a student of cross-country, flying solo in one glider while the mentor is flying in another ship.


The following is an outline of methods and procedures that are used here at Williams to assist you as you learn to fly cross-country. There are so many aspects to consider in this endeavor that this outline my appear haphazard or disorganized, but some items don’t need a full page of discussion, they only need to be mentioned.  Thus many items will be interjected  in seemingly unrelated areas.  Your patience in sorting through the material is appreciated.   The personnel who are acting as mentors may be certified instructors, but more likely they will not be FAA Certified Instructors. The Mentors will be experienced glider pilots, serving as volunteers, who are donating their time in an effort to help you to improve your skills. The student is attempting to improve his/ her cross-country skills, and the mentor is attempting to share his/her own experiences. For the purposes of this discussion, the instructor will simply be referred to as “mentor.” In that same regard, you in fact may have numerous ratings is several types of aircraft, but you are interested in flying greater distances. In the context of this program you will be referred to as the “student”, and later in the flight section, the “student” is referred to as the “leader”, since the student is expected to make the important decisions of route to fly, locating the next thermal, etc.

Cross-country is the most challenging aspect of flying that exists. Many pilots “give up” the sport of soaring before they achieve a level of competency that allows then to try cross-country. They may have been told about it, but they didn’t understand it. They obviously never witnessed it. It is somewhat incomprehensible. To explain to a nonbeliever that you are confidently going to release from tow, travel several hundred miles and then triumphantly return home that evening is too difficult for most people to imagine. But, since you are reading this page, you are obviously aware of this, nearly exotic, form of adventure.

Everyone is a “student” when it comes to cross-country. We never stop learning.  As ground based mortals, we are attempting to pit ourselves against the forces of nature (which includes winds, sun, clouds, and gravity) in an effort to travel from one location to another, while traveling in the atmosphere. Granted we must employ a lot of technology to accomplish this feat, but large degrees of higher technology in the form of sophisticated equipment are not as important as a slight increase in knowledge and skill of the pilot.

Minimum qualifications

If you choose to participate in this program as a “student” , you must meet minimum standards.  Your experience will speak for itself.   If you are willing to volunteer as a “mentor” , you must be an experienced cross country pilot, who has accomplished a credible number of long flights and have accomplished at least one off-field landing. You are not required to hold an instructor certificate.

Pilot in Command

Whether you are the student or the mentor this paragraph applies to you. Whether you are going to use your own glider during this cross-country “training”, or rent a glider, you are the pilot in command (PIC). You assume all liability and responsibility for yourself and your glider, including any expenses related to ground or aero retrieves for you or the glider you are flying.


A cross-country training/mentoring flight is scheduled individually by the person who would like to improve his/her cross-country skills. Contact a staff member at the Soaring Center and request a date for the training, or contact a potential mentor directly and then coordinate your plans with the WSC Staff.


The mentor has a willingness to share what he knows, and is contributing to the soaring community, and you are serving as the beneficiary of that effort.  If the mentor is going to commit to that day, there should be commitment by the student. The commitment begins with the schedule, and mission preparation, begins as soon as the flight is scheduled.

Both the student and the mentor must come to the preflight briefing prepared to talk about the flight, and prepared to fly.  A discussion before flight is mandatory.  A post-flight discussion is also an integral part of this process. In flight, the mentor will be following the student, not leading the student, based on the profile used. Before the flight, both pilots must discuss and agree on the key issues.

The object of the flight is allow the student to practice decision making, while being open to a second opinion, in the event the mentor disagrees with the decision.

The student must know how to:

  • climb efficiently in lift
  • predict locations of lift
  • remain within a safe gliding distance of a place to land

What is meant by “safe gliding distance of a place to land”?

If a normal glide (typically 30 to 1 (or five miles per 1,000 ft of altitude), will leave you over unlandable terrain, with no possibility of finding a place to land, then your are not within safe gliding distance of a place to land.  If you remain within safe distance of landing back at the origination gliderport, then you are not on a cross-country flight.  You are just far from home, but very high.  If you are on a cross-country, but want to remain within glide distance of known landing areas (other than a cultivated empty field), then you must remain aware of how far you can be from each of those known landing areas.  For flying at Williams, there many know landing areas that are usable.  Here is a possible list:

known landings






Using the typical 30 to 1 (or five statute miles per 1,000 ft of altitude) here are each of those landing areas with 30 statute mile circles around each, which indicate, in no wind conditions, that if you exceed 6,000 ft above pattern altitude for each of these places, you are within safe gliding distance of a place to land:







Possible Mentoring Profiles

Each of these profiles should be discussed before flight and one of them should be initially chosen as the starting format for that day.  However, there is no reason not to switch from one format to another as the conditions warrant.

1. Mentor leads and then waits.

  • mentor takes the first tow and locates the first thermal
  • student should acquire visual contact with mentor before release from tow and join mentor in that first thermal
  • mentor will suggest the next goal, and if student agrees to follow, mentor will proceed
  • mentor will demonstrate finding the next lift and then demonstrate climbing, and wait for the student to enter that lift.
  • mentor will announce the distance to the safe landing area he is using, and wait for the student to concur
  • mentor will announce distance to the next goal and will then announce leaving the thermal and say the altitude when leaving
  • student will climb to that altitude and will leave the thermal at the same altitude

Each successive goal is chosen and flown to in the same manner

  • mentor will suggest the next goal, and if student agrees to follow, mentor will proceed
  • mentor will demonstrate finding the next lift and then demonstrate climbing, and wait for the student to enter that lift.
  • mentor will announce the distance to the safe landing area he is using, and wait for the student to concur

This profile #1 of “Mentor Leads and then waits” is only for the first couple of thermals on a given day.  If it is a good soaring day, and the student is either hesitant to follow, or is unable to  follow, then the mentoring will end after a few thermals and each will fly then go off and on their own.  However, if progress is being made, then what should happen after the first couple of thermals is that the profile should transition to Profile #2 –  “Student Leads and Mentor Follows”. The student does not learn cross country by following.  The student needs to demonstrate his ability to make decisions about where and when to climb, and where to fly and at what speeds.  The real learning will happen after the flight, when the mentor explains what the student could have done better.  Ideally, the flight will progress to Profile #3 after a hundred miles or so and it will become a series of mini races incrementally returning back to the gliderport.

2. Student leads and mentor follows.

  • student takes the first tow and locates the first thermal
  • mentor will acquire visual contact with student and join him
  • student will suggest the next goal, and after mentor agrees, student proceeds, and mentor follows behind
  • student will demonstrate finding the next lift and then demonstrate climbing
  • student will announce the distance to the safe landing area he is using
  • student will announce distance to goal and will then announce leaving the thermal and say the altitude when leaving

3. Individual races to a finish altitude at each next next goal.

  • mentor will suggest the next goal, and suggest a finish altitude at that goal.
  • after agreements, they start together, at same altitude
  • the pilot who reaches the finish altitude within one mile of the goal is the winner
  • mentor will immediately “explain” why the winner had the better time
  • the final glide should be accomplished in the same manner – with a declared finish altitude

Any one, or a combination of these profiles should be used.  There needs to be an agreed plan prior to selecting each goal, otherwise, the pilots will become too far apart to assist each other.  This fact is important.  Agree on each subsequent goal!

The mentor is not there to demonstrate his/her superior ability by arriving first at the next turnpoint. Flying ahead and leaving the student to his/her own devices will only lead to problems. If the student is unable to follow, it will most likely lead to a decrease in self-confidence for the student. The result of leaving the student will either be an off-field landing, or at the least, a dejected student returning to the field with a feeling of inadequacy.

The mentor should follow, when necessary, and observe the student, letting the student experience the conditions, assisted if necessary by advice from or demonstration by the mentor. The mentor may temporarily take the lead and locate a thermal, or even share in finding thermals, but should then wait for the student to catch up and become established in that thermal. Communication by radio must be limited to what is necessary.  The mentor should keep the student in direct sight throughout most of the flight until the student begins final glide for landing.

Page last revised: 4/8/2016
Questions/ Concerns/ Suggestions should be addressed to webmaster Peter Kelly
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