What? Where’s the engine?
Grace and elegance in motion: Theo Newfield and Alan Holgate show off the lines of Theo’s ASH25 above the Mackenzie Country’s Lake Ohau.
Other than an albatross in flight, nothing is more graceful to observe from the ground than a glider. Totally silent, they effortlessly fly with that slim fuselage and those long slender wings. They are close to aerodynamic perfection, with some having a glide ratio of close to 50:1 and the capability of flying faster than most GA aircraft.
How many of us have seen gliders in the air and wondered what they’re like to fly? As for me, I was always fascinated by the graceful and silent way they flew and decided to give gliding a go.
Back in 1975, early one Saturday morning I hired a Cherokee Arrow and headed south from Ardmore. On landing at Matamata airfield I wandered over to an old caravan they were using at the launch point and received a warm greeting from the then CFI of the Piako Gliding Club, Sandy Norman.
He inquired if I was the pilot of the Arrow and within half an hour had me signed up as a club member and strapped into the front seat of an ASK13 glider. With Sandy in the back, we hooked on behind Pawnee ZK-BZA and were soon climbing behind the tug.
I followed through the tow with my hands and feet lightly on the controls, and immediately noticed the importance of rudders in a glider compared to a powered aircraft. On release Sandy demonstrated thermalling, passed over the controls and soon I was flying, totally amazed at how fast we were climbing without an engine.
Contrary to a powered aircraft, gliders have long wings and so rudder use and coordination in the turn are important to not only maintain the glider in balanced flight but also to help increase the roll rate. I was totally sold, and I remember having three flights that day, working through the training curriculum doing stalls, spins, and mastering the tow.
Before flying back to Ardmore I was introduced to Tony Fowke, the chief tow pilot, who invited me to come back down the next day. After checking my logbook and licence, as I had a taildragger rating, he threw me into the Pawnee to do a series of circuits and gave me a tow rating, then it was back in the glider to continue my training.
It wasn’t long before I mastered the art of gliding, and with experience enjoyed flying in the gliding contests. As with all clubs, I helped out with the towing and enjoyed many an evening in the club bar after a day’s flying, listening to the stories and gaining experience from the real top guns of the gliding world. That was the beginning of a love of gliding that has lasted many years and continues to this day.
In writing this article, my intentions are to recommend that every power pilot should try their hand at gliding, and I’ll explain the reasons.
Firstly, gliding teaches you to use your feet. So many power pilots have “lazy feet” and barrel through the sky behind that spinning propeller oblivious and uninterested in the fact that the aircraft is flying out of balance. Due to these lazy feet, many get into trouble with anything over 10–15 knots of crosswind.
Try having lazy feet in a glider and your rate of descent will soon get you using those rudder pedals.
Secondly, you can’t do a missed approach and overshoot, or go around, so every approach and landing has to be right first time.
Thirdly and mainly, it’s the challenge and sport aspect of gliding, whereby it’s using your flying skills and natural elements to climb, stay in the air and even undertake cross-country flights. Gliding teaches pilots smooth precision flying. All turns must be perfectly balanced, your flying must be coordinated and your judgment must be perfect to get you back on the field.
For the power pilot who has learned gliding, an inflight engine failure, even if it is a full-on emergency situation, can be handled with a greater chance of getting into a paddock safely. Even though the glide ratio and angle are different, the judgment learned from gliding comes into play.
Another aspect of gliding is competition flying. While it is much more practical to use a powered aircraft getting from A to B, competition gliding is the challenge to stay in the air and to find thermals or ridge lift to get you around the contest task. Not only is this a personal challenge but it also brings out the competitive side in you, trying to beat the other pilots flying in the competition.
Many power pilots ignore the fact that gliders can fly cross-country on tasks of up to 300km and that flights of up to 1500km have been undertaken in wave conditions. Terry Delore, a well-known New Zealand glider pilot who was the late Steve Fossett’s partner on world record glider flights, has set his own world record flight of 2499km, flying from Omarama to the southern tip of the South Island, then back north over Cook Strait to Taihape in the North Island and back.
I recently had proof that flying a glider improves the skills of power pilots. One of my students, who started flying a few hours in gliders before beginning instruction with me, mastered the Tecnam and flew solo before completing the training syllabus in much less time than his fellow students.
Very few power pilots have experienced spinning. It is no longer a prerequisite to obtaining a PPL, and very few GA aircraft are certified to spin. The very thought of going into a spin terrifies most GA pilots. It’s the fear of the unknown and sadly is the cause of many deaths of pilots who unintentionally enter a spin.
It doesn’t matter how much spin recovery is studied — when a pilot is confronted with that sudden wing drop and the nose pointing to the earth below, with the disorientation felt as the world starts to spin before you, unless spin recovery is instinctive many pilots have frozen on the controls, forgotten to cut all power and spun into the ground.
In glider flying, however, part of the QGP or qualified glider pilot training is the ability to demonstrate spin detection and fully developed spin recovery. This is because gliders need to perform tight turns at speeds just above the stall to climb in a thermal. As the glider’s airspeed will fluctuate in these conditions, as the glider flies in the changing strength of rising air surrounding and in the core of the thermal, there is the possibility of a glider stalling while in a tight turn with the potential of entering into a spin.
Spinning in a glider is a great experience. With those long wings the spin rotation is slower than for a short-winged power aeroplane and recovery is quickly mastered. I recently organised a day practising spinning for power pilots at the Taupo Gliding Club, and all loved the experience of not only spinning but also flying the gliders.
Take my advice and try it. You might like it.
- Report by Steve Walker, photographs by John McCaw
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