Spreading Your Wings

WHERE’S THE ENGINE!? There are probably as many ways to rationalize why we fly as there are pilots, but it’s hard to argue with the beauty, simplicity, and performance of soaring. Flying sailplanes, sharpening your skills and tuning yourself to the core medium of flight can win mountains of benefit. The nuances and intricacies of air movement, which we often just rumble through in our thirsty Spam cans (riding their hefty 20lb per square foot wing loadings), become much more obvious — and severely relevant — when you remove the engine and bring the wing loading down closer to 5lbs per square foot. Still, maybe we’re missing the most basic benefit: the aesthetic. Even a stubby looking Schweizer 2-33 becomes a gossamer creature of dreams, transporting you to a world some have to experience to understand. Here is just a glimpse…

First, a sailplane has the same flight controls as an airplane. The elevator controls the angle of attack and just like in your airplane (at a fixed power setting) it also controls airspeed. The rudder controls yaw. There are, however, a few devices and instruments you’ll find in a sailplane that Skyhawk probably does *not* have. …short section, I know.

AILERONS: It is in the ailerons, which control bank angle, where a sailplane becomes a caricature of a power plane, because with it’s longer wings, the ailerons’ leverage and thus their adverse yaw is much greater. (Incidentally, the instrument used to indicate coordinated flight in a sailplane is the same one invented by Wilbur Wright: the yaw string, which indicates ‘backwards’ from a slip-skid indicator; you step on the string’s attachment point, not where it’s pointed.) In general, flying sailplanes does tend to improve your technique; flying “out of trim” is much more apparent — both in the cockpit and from the ground. More to the point, flying an uncoordinated turn is the same as performing a slip and for non-powered aircraft, that means you won’t stay up as long!

FLAPS: Some sailplanes have flaps to lower stall speed, which decreases the turn radius in thermals. Some even have negative settings to reduce wing loading, which improves performance at higher speeds.

SPOILERS: Your Cessna has flaps to generate more lift (and drag) for various phases of flight — but especially for landing. On the contrary, a sailplane usually has spoilers that it deploys for landing. Believe it or not, when landing a sailplane, extra lift is seldom a problem … what you usually need is a whole lot *less* lift. Spoilers (somewhat akin to speed brakes) handle the task nicely. Most sailplanes have either spoilers, set more forward on the airfoil, or dive brakes. Spoilers are not used as much as the more familiar dive brakes, which are set well back, and which produce drag. This is good, because a good approach in a sailplane is always “hot and high”.

YOUR ‘NORMAL’ APPROACH: One thing I learned is that if your engine quits in the “red over white” on final, you’re going to eat dirt. So I never fly an approach (unless it’s IMC) outside my “glide horizon”. Let’s just call it my new perspective. Needless to say, sailplane flying does improve your “engine out” state of mind, since every landing is an engine-out.

YOUR OPTIONS: In a sailplane, you always make an announcement, out loud, when passing through 200 feet AGL. It helps you know what your response will be if the rope breaks below 200 feet — basically flying straight into whatever is there. Above 200 feet, you’ve got a better option: the 45-degree bank “about face.” (Sailplane pilots use a nearly “optimal” 45-degree bank angle — optimal as far as rate of turn over stall speed.) This mental readiness transfers well to powered flight as you can’t help but be more aware of your limited options if your engine quits below your own personal decision height in a powered plane, whether it’s 800, 1000 feet, or whatever.

YOUR SEAT: You also gain a more intuitive feel for where various “working speeds” are, and the difference in sink rates at different speeds: near a stall, at minimum sink, or best glide — and how these are affected by wind. You also learn more about the criteria to use in evaluating off-field landings, if you ever have to “land out”. If you’re already a power pilot, there’s no additional written test. If you don’t have or can’t get a “medical”, you don’t need one for sailplanes, anyway. And you can solo a sailplane at 14!

BOTTOM LINE: You’ll gain a greater knowledge of the sky, the movement of air, and learn how to exploit previously unknown sources of energy. These are just a few rewards that came to mind. Much as one gains wisdom traveling to foreign lands, likewise flying a sailplane confers many benefits on the power pilot, from the mundane to the profound.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about soaring from the Soaring Society of America.