Aerial Cross-Training

Most of the time, “silent flight” means hitting the intercom’s “pilot isolation” switch to keep the passengers’ conversation from overpowering Air Traffic Control… most of the time. In other contexts, silent flight is a radio communications outage, or the horror of an engine failure in a single-engine airplane. On a whim the other day, though, silent flight was the result of seeing a sailplane staked out in the grass, the words “glider rides” on a bedsheet blowing in the breeze against the July 4th corn and a cumulus-laden sky.

I’d logged a couple of sailplane flights long ago, before starting to learn to fly, but for those few introductory excursions, I’ve been a “power pilot” my entire aeronautical life. On a short, enthralling hop over the east Tennessee hills I was reintroduced to some of the basic flying that’ll improve my skills — even flying a light twin during single-pilot IFR. Here’s just a sample of what came up on a 20-minute sailplane flight:

  • Pitch control. Since acquiring my ATP, I reckon I’m fairly good at holding precise pitch attitudes, and therefore airspeeds, but this was still great practice. A sailplane pilot must hold precise airspeeds to get performance out of the airplane. In a sailplane, airspeed is efficiency. Go a little fast and there’s more parasite drag, a little slow and more induced drag — either way, the rate of descent increases, or if in a thermal, the rate of climb is reduced. The same is true for any powered airplane: Attitude control is critical to obtaining best performance — especially at high density altitudes or in emergencies.
  • Rudder control. This was, by far, the most important lesson of the flight. I told my pilot (a recently-retired Delta Airlines Boeing 777 captain) that I could stomp the rudder hard if an engine quit in the Baron I fly, but that, otherwise, I was pretty used to an airplane that didn’t require much rudder control. In the air, after dropping the tow (releasing the rope between the towplane and us), this was obvious. Adding to the “seat of the pants” feel for coordination I had a slip/skid indicator (a “ball”) on the small instrument panel and, more important and precise, a yaw string taped to the outside of the windshield. ‘Keep the string flowing straight back in the slipstream,’ I was told, ‘and the airplane is in coordinated flight.’ ‘Let it blow to one side or the other and the performance will drop as the airplane slips or skids, and creates far more drag.’ In minutes I’d had ample practice on “stepping opposite the string” (if it blows left, add right rudder, and vice versa), and could see the big reduction in performance in uncoordinated flight. Flying a sailplane makes rudder coordination more automatic, which could significantly improve my chances if an engine quits in the Baron I fly … and which makes an inadvertent spin much less likely in any airplane.
  • Weather interpretation. Power pilots talk about updrafts and downdrafts, wind flowing up and down slopes, and the development of cumulus clouds, but sailplane pilots live by it. For most people, the object is to fly as much as possible. For the engine-less airplane pilot, a long flight depends on reading weather signs and acting on interpretation. “There’s more lift on the upwind side of that cloud,” I heard one soaring pilot explain. “I bet there’s a good thermal over where the trees have been cut,” said another. “When the wind’s out of the west and hits these hills square-on,” explained a third, “you can run up and down the ridge all day long.” It should be obvious that improved weather-interpretation skills will improve safety in any type of airplane.
  • Advanced planning and energy management. It struck me as odd that, once we decided it was time to land, we had to speed up for the traffic pattern. That’s in part to increase drag in the slick-as-ice sailplane, and in part to provide a little extra “energy,” or speed that can be turned into altitude, in case we hit an unexpected downdraft or somehow wind up short on final approach. Gliding for a landing is an exercise in understanding how airspeed, bank angle, total drag, and sink rate are all interrelated. By varying each you end up exactly where you want to be, when you want to be there. Sure, you have “spoilers” on the wings to add drag and help slow you down on final (actually, they “spoil,” or decrease lift, and therefore increase sink rate for a given airspeed), but they’re just another variable to be mastered. Energy management practice improves short-field performance in powered airplanes, as well as precision in instrument flight and other precision maneuvers.

My twenty-minute glider flight reawakened me to the basic skills that — all too often — go soft in day-to-day ‘powerplane’ flight. It might for you, too. It’s a good idea to sample “somebody else’s” type of flying now and then, to see how you can improve your own skills. Problem is, you may like it and find you have a new “addiction” to support!

Bottom Line: A little aerial cross-training will enhance your skills no matter what you fly. Access the Soaring Society of America at for more information, and for soaring locations near you.