Soaring Is Learning
Soaring is about learning all the time. Here are some tips on becoming a better soaring pilot. Brought to you by Southern California Soaring Academy.
Soaring is about learning all the time. Here are some tips on becoming a better soaring pilot. Brought to you by Southern California Soaring Academy.
I was setting up to land after a double ride, everything pretty much normal — except the spoilers wouldn’t open… Eeek! What to do? Time to employ that oft discussed, yet seldom seen solution, slip to a landing. Except I’d never flown one before, or even seen it done by anyone else…
But I was an instructor, you say. How could that be? Well when I started this journey in the 1970s, things were different. I slid through with so little training, we discussed emergencies once, but never did any actual simulation. Nor was the topic even mentioned during my check ride!
Nevertheless, the inclusion of ‘slip to a landing’ in the Glider Practical Test Standards has made it a hot topic over the years (in some jurisdictions anyway). According to the PTS, the objective is to determine that the applicant:
1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to forward, side,
and turning slips to landing, with and without the use of drag
2. Recognizes the situation where a slip should be used to land
in a desired area.
3. Establishes a slip without the use of drag devices.
4. Maintains the desired ground track.
5. Maintains proper approach attitude.
6. Makes smooth, proper, and positive control applications
during recovery from the slip.
7. Touches down smoothly within the designated landing area.
Sounds simple enough, but what do those words really mean? Are you required to bring that slip all the way to the ground with NO drag device, or may you return at some point to straight and level with open spoilers? If your examiner demands the latter, no sweat. Demonstrate a slip same as you would a thousand feet higher, then resume standard configuration and land normally. It’s the former case that can blow the lid off Pandora’s notorious box.
Ask examiners for clarification and they all say, “It’s right there in the book”. Yet personal interpretations of those 76 words – identical for Private and Commercial – have varied widely from one examiner to another. #1 can be completed on the ground, verbally. #2 could be air or ground, but doesn’t necessarily involve physical action. #3-6 are simple and easy, and all of these first six should be within the grasp of any solo student. #7 though, in its strictest interpretation, may lie beyond the capabilities of some beginners. In a Grob 103 for example, a novice without specific training faces one of the most difficult and critical maneuvers in the entire repertoire, potentially consuming several thousand feet of open space, and exposing the aircraft to high risk of damage from PIO or ground loop.
For years, some examiners insisted on the most stringent interpretation (and pocketed extra cash when retesting failed applicants). Now it seems they’ve become more reasonable. Fortunately for the new applicant, a recent decree suggests you only have to show a few seconds of slip somewhere on final approach. That makes the check ride easier, but dismisses the eventual real-life problem of actually getting down and stopped – perhaps in a constricted area – with no brakes whatever.
This procedure, while no longer required, remains one of the most vital to ultimate safety, and you need to know you can perform it when necessary. As with spins, if you haven’t already learned and practiced it, don’t try it the first time solo. Arrange for at least a demonstration with someone you trust, to keep you out of trouble. There are many ways to execute (and teach) no spoiler landings. What we offer here is not the ‘only’ method, but one that works well and helps to limit the risk of unwelcome results.
First, it’s smart to leave spoilers closed but unlocked, with your hand on the lever so you can open them smoothly when the far end does eventually near. Some say modern sailplanes don’t like to slip, but that’s hogwash. Bring in heavy rudder at first, and you can slip some glass ships twice as far sideways as a 2-32 or Blanik. Coming out of that slip just above ground level, though, requires twice the finesse — and if you level out a touch too high you’ll be needing maybe twice as much runway, too.
For transitioning power pilots, you don’t need to hold nose low when slipping a glider. In fact higher is better, up to a point. Gliders usually won’t stall in a slip unless you just haul back, something there’s rarely any call for. Think of it this way: the slower you are the steeper you’ll come down in a headwind, and the faster you are the more energy you’ll need to dump before touchdown. Also, slipping at comparatively high speed unduly stresses fragile T-tails and feels a lot less safe…
Think beforehand about which wing to lower, and for what reason, such as crosswind or direction of pattern. My preference is to start downwind leg in a full slip from the usual location and height, banked toward the landing area, so all you need when turning in is to temporarily relax your opposite rudder. Stay with a smallish but normal pattern.
Whenever it starts to look like you’re too low, just come out of the slip for a moment and you’ll be surprised how quickly you end up high again. (A left-hand pattern to a right crosswind might necessitate changing slip directions while turning final, a hiccup that always seems to result in a higher/steeper approach.) Then any time you’re not low, get right back in the slip. Warning: if you don’t stay with the big fat slip you will not get down in time!
The final phase of a no spoiler landing requires extreme PATIENCE. If it doesn’t look spooky low approaching the threshold, you’re probably still way too high. Stay in the slip until it almost feels like you’ll drag a wingtip, and only then smoothly rudder around to straight and LEVEL… Now comes the hard part: waiting, and waiting in ground effect while those last inches of altitude bleed away. At this point, if you panic and nudge the stick even a smidge, all unholy heck may erupt. Be brave and do nothing! If room ahead does begin to look tight, that’s when to smoooothly ease spoilers out and get on the ground while you still can.
So it’s recommended that you practice (don’t say master!) no spoiler landings, with supervision as necessary. Not to pass a check ride, but because it’s challenging and fun, and confirms that you truly can handle your aircraft near the edge of its envelope. Most importantly, you WILL be needing this esoteric skill some day soon! See you then.
We had four pilots soar cross-country last weekend, two on Saturday which was ‘promising’ and two on Sunday, which was a little more so. None made the coveted diamond distance, but all had a fine time trying, as their stories make clear.
Sean Eckstein, 48 miles to Nelson strip in San Bernardino county.
I landed at Nelson airstrip, it’s an old private strip north of Lucerne dry lake. The altitudes and winds toward Las Vegas showed the best chance for some distance.
My takeoff time was at 11:40, the tow was uncommonly smooth over the flats and the 2nd. ridge, I didn’t release until I reached the house thermal by the labor camp, and not in lift. I dove towards the hill east of the labor camp and got a little teaser that eventually took me to 10k.
Leaving the Wrightwood area at 11.4k towards Apple Valley I noticed the absence of teaser thermals, and the winds turned from WNW at 3 knots to W at 13 knots. Both Dave (SAS) and I were struggling low on the hills east of Apple Valley, and not making any progress in the 100 plus heat. Thermal lift was maintaining me between 5.5k and 6.7k so I decided to leave the area to look for better lift, I had enough altitude to head east in hope of better altitudes. I continued to struggle with the same results.
I landed at Nelson, an old airstrip that looks like it hasn’t been used in a long time, but still in good shape. Both Peter (6PK) and I have visited this location a few times over the years and it has always looked landable.
For anyone interested in flying cross country, flying in conditions and altitudes were you must fly proficiently, and make decisions about what to do next is the best way to improve your skill and knowledge.
Simple report: Dr Jack showed good weather for a flight out to Williams [320 miles], I flew to Apple Valley [36 miles].
Mike Koerner 268 miles to Mesquite, NV:
I flew to Mesquite for my season closer on Sunday.
It was like two different days. One was a good day. Anytime you were above 8,000 feet you were immediately whisked to 13,500 by powerful thermals which averaged 280 feet per minute. That happened both behind Crystal and over Clark Mountain.
The other day, when you were below 8,000, was only marginally soarable. It was brutally hot. Lift was weak, averaging about 100 feet per minute, but often less and distributed sparingly. I had to turn back toward 031. After a low save there I orbited around East Cronise trying to get high enough to move on. I viewed the runway at Baker with longing as a I passed overhead, having decided to give the radar tower a go. I turned back toward Mesquite 3 separate times before finally switching to Unicom and calling it a day.
You may wonder why I didn’t stay high, stick with the good day. I’ll have plenty of time to think about that in the months ahead.
Richard Smolinski, 110 miles to Cinder Cone dry lake:
Originally I planned to fly on Saturday but after looking at the forecast, I switched to Sunday.
Chris and his tow crews are getting better and better at launching all XC flights fast without letting us sizzle in the sun waiting. Big thank you for that.
I took late afternoon tow toward ridges. Tow took me to usual place by the Work camp and from 7500ft I started circling until I reached 12k and begin my hop through the desert.
There was lot of wave clouds and I was using sporadic rotors on my way. At Rosamond I found rotor that took me to 11k and after that I head toward mountains having Cal City as a backup.
Mountains work but only up to 10k and here the fun begin. Using rotors going up and down 1.5K each time, I pushed toward Inyo Kern AP. It was fun flying low at 8 – 10K between rotors. Finally, I got into 8K sink and since was getting late I decide to land at Cinder Cone. I was thinking of more fights on the hills but I spotted glider already on the ground and think “hey people are there so I do not have to seat alone waiting for my awesome wife to pick me up” so I landed… I was welcomed by Tom and Britton from Inyo Kern just packing (BB) in to a trailer. It was awesome flight it was long time since last time I was hugging hills going fast and low….
Saturday morning is the worst time for line kids to fly, but that’s typically when they get their chance. Tough life. Randy was reaching that delicate breakthrough we’ve all had where towing goes from seemingly impossible to surprisingly easy. The whole point of our flight was to cement this progress.
Then after takeoff Bomber didn’t fly the usual wide 270 around the field to gather height, but went straight and stopped climbing. (Yes the tow pilot was called Bomber, because of how he used to ski back before that awful limp.) We were already more than a mile out over rising ground at less than pattern height, and now… descending? No, this wasn’t loss of power, Bomber was accelerating!
“I got this!” I shouted, “But stay on it with me and watch close, whatever it is I do.” Wondering if Bomber was okay and what the response should be, I cracked spoilers on principle, then needed hefty pressure to hold them only half open. Suddenly this was a barnstorm pass down a small green vale by a farmhouse between big elms, up a road lined with parked cars toward a crowd beside a bell tower that never looked so tall before — before slowing at last into a proper climb.
Randy turned around to look back at me, speechless.
“No idea, sport.” (What would you have said?)
Randy finished the tow normally, but was too discombobulated to accomplish much else and we soon landed. Next lesson: dealing with distractions in flight.
Not surprisingly, I had questions for Bomber. Turns out his stunt was planned. We were the unwitting kickoff for a country wedding of a couple pilot friends. The whole crowd was there, even us! The only people who didn’t know about our appearance were Randy, the parents who entrusted me with her life, and her hapless instructor, your humble scribe.
The video was crude and shaky but here we came, two airplanes one second apart, horrid blast of engine and prop tips, blurred streaks a hundred feet up, then whoops, cheering and applause. Of shrieked epithets or snarled profanities aboard the glider, no forensic evidence exists.
Later I got Bomber to agree, when he stopped laughing, that any such performances in the future should include also apprising the talent beforehand.
On a dusty stack of all holy books I avow this freak show did occur! Only once after all, but that’s enough. Many times though, I’ve had seasoned pilots who believed they knew what they were doing try to drag me and those in my care unto certain sink and grave danger. Honestly, up narrowing canyons against the wind, or lee of high peaks in a gale, to reach what anyone should know could only be invisible Niagara. When the single goal in every case was maximum rate of climb. Strangest of all, the tow pilots’ chances after power failure in such a hellhole are vastly worse than ours in the glider. Don’t get me started.
Most glider pilots will never have a tow pilot stray off on some unspecified mission so hazardous as buzzing a wedding beneath a church steeple. But tow pilots are human too, and even the very best are subject to the same, ahem, imperfections that beset us all. If you take enough tows, eventually you’ll get one where those at either end of your rope have entirely different views of what’s up. Or what’s going down, which might be most important.
All can agree that Bomber’s stunt was bonehead, for scads of reasons. What could be dumber, right? Well, one thing we could have done to make everything worse is panic and release the tow. I knew someone who did exactly that, under normal conditions, only because an unfamiliar tow pilot turned in an unusual place. What followed was the needless destruction of a glider.
We’ve all been conditioned to release quickly in awkward situations – during takeoff. But this was not that. There may be no better time than screaming down the aisle of a wedding not your own (or slogging through nasty sink soon after departure) to preserve the only resource you’re sure of and stay on tow at least until you’re high enough to land. Got a better idea?
It happens about every week, someone who’s never been in a glider comes to the airport and the first thing they ask is, “How soon can I get a license?” I did the same thing in 1975, and it’s as dumb now as it was then. Newcomers who’re already professional pilots say, “How quick can I get a commercial?” My response is the same each time: you can get the rating lickety split, but it’ll be worthless until you learn to soar. Inability to simply stay aloft is made even more embarrassing by advanced rank. I know, firsthand.
Ask yourself what you really want from this time-consuming and expensive trifle. If it’s the purifying joy of natural flight, fulfillment of learning new perspectives and skills, you have my enthusiastic support. If it’s about status or some other egoistic self-indulgence, you’re sadly missing the point. Consider submarine racing instead.
In my world, soaring is it’s own motivation. It defines motivation. From the moment I first heard of this magical art, all I wanted was to be up there floating on air. The one benefit of a private license is the honor of soaring with friends, developing uniquely personal ways to share the whole miracle while skills compound like interest. But I’d been a mediocre student, and the pinch of weekly tows and rental was making me a lousy pilot.
Then a brainquake: pile up fifty more landings and go straight for the commercial. Give paying rides and grab twice as much flying for free! (If you had a small road apple for every schmuck who’s thought of that before and since, you’d need a fleet of dump trucks to haul us all away.) The commercial didn’t endow me with any more capability than the private, surprise surprise. All it did was heighten legal vulnerability and pressure to perform, neither of which work in anyone’s favor.
This aeronautical version of the Peter Principle grows even more perilous when beginners get certified to instruct. Sharing knowledge of the sky can be the highest of pleasures — if one has something to teach. But writing in other people’s logbooks is a solemn and permanent responsibility whose gravity seems to deepen with every signature. I also got myself sucked/pushed into playing the role of CFIG before I knew what I was doing, and today must cringe at how many seasons my ‘work’ amounted to little more than unsupervised OJT. Got away with so much occupational moydah, I can only plead the pardon of those long-suffering students from my early daze, and pray there’s a statute of limitations on ineptitude. Turns out actual mojo in soaring and teaching develops at its own glacial pace, accumulating not so much with numbered hours, as over TIME…
When folks new to soaring go all rabid about the next higher rating (or snazzier ride) my advice is… relax! Enjoy where you are now, with an eye to optimizing it. Then when you reach an obvious plateau and the learning curve flattens, that’s the time to pursue an upgrade. Proceed organically, and when you’re really ready the check ride (or pricey purchase) won’t be stressful, it’ll be a celebration. The goods will slip into your pocket where they then belong, and imbue your flying with justified confidence, not anxiety.