Flight instructor, Phil Jones, tows a 28-foot long Cobra glider trailer behind his 2013 Northstar Laredo and camps on the flight line. Inside the trailer is a Schleicher ASW-27B glider. Buckle up. We’re taking it higher.
Nearly every traditional hobby is currently experiencing a generational crisis for survival. From sewing to astronomy, coin collecting to golf, the next generation isn’t taking up traditional hobbies. Longer work hours and less resources are often cited as the culprits, but one can’t escape the influence of screens.
The real tragedy is that traditional hobbies have been directly linked by multiple studies to improved work performance, physical health, and reduced stress. Want to avoid occupational burn out? How about just feeling more relaxed? Pick up a traditional hobby. Even better, inspire a young person to pickup a hobby you enjoy.
Phil Jones is doing just that, only his preferred hobby isn’t exactly traditional. Flying since the age of 17, Phil enjoys teaching young people to fly sail planes. Also known as gliders, sail planes are unpowered and rely on air currents to stay aloft. As Phil explains it, “good stick and rudder” skills are required.
When he’s not inspiring the next generation of pilots, Phil parks his truck camper on the flight line and takes on fellow flyers in Soaring Society of America (SSA) glider races. These week long events challenge a pilot’s ability to read the skies as they speed through a determined course collecting points.
His camper unloaded, Phil’s truck is ready for any unplanned landings and retrievals. Back on the flight line, the off-grid Northstar Laredo camper is ready for meals, sleep, or kicking back with the competition. As it says on a banner in Phil’s photos, “Eat… Sleep… Go Flying.”
Above: Phil Jones sitting in his Schleicher ASW-27B glider
Your inspiration to become a truck camper was influenced by an article published in Truck Camper Magazine over eight years ago. How did that happen?
Before we bought a truck camper, I was taking our 2002 GMC Sierra 1500 to glider races and camping in a small backpacking tent for the week.
Then I came across an article in the February, 2012 issue of Soaring Magazine titled, “Truck-Mounted Campers – An Ideal Soaring Solution”. The article was originally published in Truck Camper Magazine in November of 2010. Soaring Magazine republished it.
The article featured fellow pilot Mitch Polinsky and described how soaring and truck camping go hand in hand. My wife, Patty encouraged me to consider a truck camper even before the article, but the article closed the deal.
The idea of having a larger space, climate control, a dry bed and my own shower seemed to good to be true. Not to mention I can cook my own breakfast, make lunch, and have a place to hang out on rainy days when we don’t fly.
After your article was published, Mitch Polinsky took a number of long sabbaticals flying around the western United States breaking distance and time records. He is one heck of a pilot. It’s because of Mitch that I got into this.
Above: Phil originally had a long bed (pictured above) for his Laredo and then changed to a short bed truck. The Laredo can be hauled on a long or short bed.
What led you to choose your specific truck camper?
Originally I wanted a pop-up truck camper. Mitch Polinsky had one and extolled the virtues of this camper type. However, my wife – who has walked the entire Appalachian trail and ran the Grand Canyon twice in a kayak – said that she wanted a hard side.
We compromised and got a Northstar Laredo. The Laredo is great because it can work with long or short bed trucks. When we purchased our 2016 Ford F-250 short bed, the Northstar Laredo was compatible.
The glider trailer appears to be exceptionally long. What’s it like to tow?
When I go to a truck stop, I am just a bit shorter than the semis. However, the trailer is very aerodynamic and less than 2,000 pounds, so it’s easy to tow.
I tow a 28-foot long Cobra glider trailer with my Schleicher ASW-27B glider inside. There is nothing special about the trailer set up, except that I needed a 14-inch extension from the hitch to the tongue of the trailer.
How did you get into gliding?
When I was seventeen years old, I learned to fly airplanes as a Civil Air Patrol cadet. Founded in 1941, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is a federally supported, not-for-profit corporation that functions as the civilian auxiliary of the US Air Force. Its membership is all volunteer and the missions include search and rescue, disaster relief, homeland security and cadet programs.
I attended the Schweizer Aircraft factory in Elmira, New York. That’s when I took my first glider ride, which was not fun. They were sort of clunky and, at the time, I was more interested in airplanes.
After college I was stationed in Germany as an Army officer and helicopter pilot. I taught flying of civilian airplanes.
In Germany, there was a glider club on the field where we refueled our airplanes. Those gliders were high performance, fiberglass, sexy and sleek. I had to do it. They were too beautiful. I was too busy with the army and teaching flying at the aeroclub, but flying gliders was a goal.
Then I left the army and became an airline pilot. Seven years later, my wife passed away. That’s when I decided that I was going to become a glider pilot.
My first lessons were in Nevada in 1995. My first solo lasted two hours. I earned the Silver Altitude gain of the Silver C badge award; a series of international awards. There are three components; cross country, altitude, and the time. To win a Silver Altitude award you have climb 3,281 feet above tow release.
I was an airline pilot so it only took a week from start to finish to become a commercial glider pilot. I added the flight instructor rating a few years later.
It’s funny how things go full circle. The day I bought my camper I drove to a glider race in Elmira, New York. I dropped off the glider and took my 2002 GMC pickup truck to get my camper at Truck Camper Warehouse in New Hampshire. Then I drove the rig back to Elmira for the race. That was my first truck camper experience.
That’s an incredible story. Looking at the trailer, it must be quite the process to unload and set-up the glider. How does that work?
The trailer clam shell pops up and the glider slides out. Then I install the wings and the tails. There are two main bolts you put on to make the wings sturdy.
The controls go on automatically, so it’s fool proof. We also do a positive control check to make sure all the controls are rigged correctly just in case.
The glider goes together in about 20-minutes. Then we apply aerodynamic drag tape because where the wing and fuselage join gives us drag.
That’s one thing different from glider pilots and airplane pilots; glider pilots put together their own aircraft. Gliders are designed to land in places like a farmer’s field. They have a low center of gravity so they don’t tip forward.
The drag tape sounds interesting. I wish we could add tape to improve our truck camper’s aerodynamics.
There are major areas where air gets trapped around a truck camper rig including the front of the truck camper and the gap between the cab and truck. The surfaces are flat. It’s like a suction cup back there.
The tape is used for noise prevention in vehicles. In my army days we had awful window seals. That made for a lot of noise. We put duct tape on the frame of the truck and around the door. That silenced the noise.
You understand what noise is when you’re flying a glider. Going fast through the air, friction makes noise. When there is no air going over the wings it is very quiet. That is a sign about an impending stall. We teach that to the cadets.
How did you get involved with the cadets in the glider academy program?
I fly gliders, and I also teach kids to fly them. Through the Civil Air Patrol, the Air Force pays for cadets to have five glider rides and five airplane rides.
At the end of June and again in August, sixteen kids who are cadets come to Farmers Pride Airfield in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania to learn to fly. We have four FAA certified gliders and four flight instructors.
During the program we teach them everything they need to know to solo a glider. The first year they get to be the student pilot with an instructor in the back. The second year they get to do the same program and finish it off with a couple of solo flights.
On average the cadets are fifteen or sixteen years old. They have to be fourteen to solo. We teach them how to fly at slow speeds and in thermals. They get to soar with the birds and hawks. One year I went on four flights in a row and saw bald eagles on each flight.
That’s incredible! You can’t even get a driver’s license until you’re sixteen. What an amazing way to introduce young people to flying. Tell us about the glider races.
I participate in sanctioned Soaring Society of America (SSA) races. They are cross country races. It’s not how long you stay up, but how much ground you cover and how fast you can do it. That’s how you earn points.
The races go for about a week. Each race day has a task. You might need to go from Point 1 to Point 2 to Point 3. They draw circles around each of those points with a 5-mile, 10-mile, or 20-mile ring. You have to decide how far into the circles you want to go. You have to get back and they only give you a couple hours to do it.
You have to be strategic. It’s about going faster for a longer distance and figuring out how much time you have left. You try to get the best lift and the best thermals. It’s an intellectual challenge to read the sky; to go as fast as you can and as far as you can.
When there are no clouds to read, it’s very challenging. Other days it’s survival mode just trying to stay up. You could also go from cloud to cloud to cloud and circle back.
The beauty is what everyone got into flying for. We fly with the birds. They are the best thermal markers out there. Thermals are a rise in air currents that lift the gliders.
How is having a truck camper helpful when attending these events?
I camp in the middle of all the action. I have meetings with instructors inside the camper. I get up and don’t have to commute to the air field. I can bring my dog and he can hang out with me. It’s wonderful to have your house wherever you go.
There’s also a lot of camaraderie and fun that happens at the air field. They’ll have morning coffee and cinnamon buns. In the evening there are big potlucks or bonfires. I have used my camper for after flying parties. Everything is at the airport, not the hotel.
There are other people who bring campers but they park in the RV area where they have electric posts. I like being around the preparations and flight line. I’ll point my dinette’s window toward the flight line so I can watch.
Typically, at races, we off load the camper so we can have the truck to do a retrieve. Gliders don’t have internal engines so we rely on the sun. Sometimes that fails us, and we slowly descend to terra firma and do an off-field landing.
It’s nice to have a truck to negotiate the sometimes difficult approaches to the non-airport landing sites. When setting up for the landing, the last factor of importance is an easy retrieve. It’s all about a safe landing that avoids obstacles.
The ability to take the camper off the truck is nice because you don’t want to be driving your rig through a corn field with a 2,500 pound camper on the back. Also, you aren’t going to be the one retrieving. Asking someone to go off-road with the glider trailer and the camper is a tall order.
What else do you enjoy doing while truck camping?
We also cross country and downhill ski. We take the camper and stay near the resort. We enjoy being able to cook our own good food instead of eating the less than healthy downhill fare.
The truck and camper are also used for family vacations. The second year I had the truck camper my wife walked the Appalachian trail from Maine to Georgia. It was a shower and resupply vehicle four to five times on the trail. Jack, our terrier, and I walked with her part of the way.
We also use our camper when we’re hosting during the holidays in December. We let family or friends stay in it when they visit us.
That’s one multi-purpose rig. Flight line to party time. Is there anything else you want to add?
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger – the pilot who safely landed in the Hudson River after losing both engines – was a glider pilot from the United States Air Force Academy. A glider pilot has to have good stick and rudder skills. It’s all you, all the time.
That’s what I got into flying for. You have to work together with the sky to sustain flight. That’s what’s fascinating about it. Plus, it’s mentally challenging and fun.
Philip Jones’ Truck Camper Rig
Truck: 2016 Ford F-250 Lariat, 4×4, Club Cab, short bed
Camper: 2013 Northstar Laredo SC
Tie-Downs and Turnbuckles: Torklift Tie Downs and Fast Gun Turnbuckles
Suspension: Firestone Air Shocks