Safety: Lessons from Gliders

There are myriad reasons why soaring represents a challenging, enjoyable sport, and why a great diversity of pilots—with varying backgrounds and levels of experience—take to the skies to experience the thrill of flight without an engine.  If you or your club is pondering entering the world of gliders, there is one great reason for even the most seasoned powered pilot to think seriously about getting at least some soaring experience: it will make you a better, safer aviator. 

Why do glider pilots make some of the safest, most prepared pilots in the sky?  There are a couple of prominent reasons.  One lies in the innate aerodynamic characteristics of gliders, and the fact that—without an engine—a pilot is flying with only a stick and a rudder.  The purity of this type of flight forces an aviator to develop strong fundamental skills—skills that will serve one well regardless of the type of aircraft one may eventually pilot.  The second reason is that training undergone by glider pilots includes areas of emphasis that—while good for all pilots to master—tend to be assigned less weight in the powered universe.  We will look at both of these reasons in more detail, and examine some of the ways that accruing time in a glider can help any pilot sail through an otherwise stressful emergency situation. 

Take it from this powered pilot: if you are interested in honing your stick and rudder skills, there are few better options available than to take some lessons in a glider.  If you are new to soaring, one of the first things that is likely to strike you as you first take the controls of a sailplane is just how much rudder is required to maintain coordinated flight.  Why is there such a pronounced difference between the handling characteristics of a glider and those of a powered aircraft?  The answer lies in the fact that the wings of a sailplane are long—much longer than those of an airplane.  The long wings mean that deflected ailerons will have far more leverage when a pilot rolls into a turn, creating much more adverse yaw than one may be used to.  To counter this adverse yaw, a greater amount of rudder must be applied.  Getting a feel for how much more, and for the timing at which it must be applied, will likely challenge even the most proficient powered aviators. 

In addition to bettering a pilot’s skills in maintaining coordinated flight, flying gliders will also give one great practice at slipping.  While airplane pilots might use forward slips or side slips in different landing scenarios, they tend to employ these maneuvers less frequently—and less aggressively—than glider pilots.  In an engine out scenario, it might be necessary for an airplane pilot to quickly shed excess altitude.  In addition to using flaps, an aggressive forward slip may be required.  This is just the kind of slip that is second nature for sailplane pilots, as it is a scenario that they face frequently in setting up for a landing. 

Transitioning to gliders can be beneficial to powered pilots not only because it will improve stick and rudder skills, but also because glider training emphasizes proficiency in areas that are not always highlighted in airplane training.  For example, when training in gliders, one will practice rope breaks at a variety of altitudes—including some as low as 10 feet off the ground.  To recover, the pilot must immediately push the nose over to avoid a stall—a response that would be necessary within an airplane were it to lose power on takeoff, but that is practiced far less often in powered aircraft.    

Another type of emergency that sailplanes help prepare one for is perhaps the most intuitive: power failure in cruise flight.  After all, with thrust removed from the lift equation, an airplane pilot with a failed engine is essentially flying a glider—a situation that will seem far more routine if that pilot has, well, flown a glider.  In such a scenario, it is necessary to immediately identify an ideal field in which to land—a skill that glider pilots have honed both through instruction and often through experience in off-airport landings (termed landing out).  While any airplane pilot has almost certainly practiced numerous engine-out drills and knows that finding a field is one of the first priorities in such an instance, it is less likely that pilot could articulate exactly what the best options are.  A glider pilot is far more likely to be aware that freshly cultivated fields—usually brown in color—represent the best landing surfaces, and that pasture land (rarely ideal for cultivation) is likely to contain more hazards.  A glider pilot will also be very vigilant in scanning for obstructions, such as fences or wires. 

When setting up for an off-field landing, a sailplane pilot is used to flying a pattern based on angles (using a technique called TLAR, or “that looks about right”), and to carrying about 500 feet of excess altitude into the downwind leg—knowing full well that it is easier to lose this altitude on final through the use of slipping and/or spoilers than it would be to gain altitude should the approach be too low (a scenario that is unlikely to end well).  A pilot with gliding experience is unlikely to feel stress when faced with an off-field landing, simply because in a sailplane any takeoff necessitates a power-off landing as a matter of course; as a result, they become routine. 

Takeoff and landing emergencies are just two scenarios that powered pilots can become proficient in while flying gliders.  There are many other areas of knowledge that will be enhanced as well, such as calculating glidepaths and the intricacies of weather.  Stated simply, the pursuit of a glider rating will not just give a powered pilot a chance to enjoy the immense fun that the sport has to offer, but will also make one a more confident, more proficient, and safer pilot in the process. 

Related Articles