I see this over and over, and it still saddens me every time. Glider pilots who really hoped to stay up a bit longer are drawn by some sinister force inexorably back to the airport and resume their ground-lubber persona hundreds of feet higher than necessary. Having already mentally surrendered, they dismiss any thoughts of soaring and glumly force their bird down as if accepting punishment for their own incapacity.
Forgive me if you must, but I see it differently. Any game worth playing, or watching, is only more so when it goes into overtime or extra innings, right? Ever seen, even a bad team play to a tie at the end of regulation and then give up? Outfit like that wouldn’t have many fans. But that’s only my opinion.
Landing protocols vary from site to site. Here at Crystal the Standard Operating Procedures published on this website require one radio call of position at 5000 feet MSL (1,600 AGL), and then another when entering downwind. But there’s no mention of having to land immediately after that first call. The mystery is why so many pilots go right from there into a 45-degree entry leg, still nearly two thousand feet above ground. Often they end up pulling spoilers to hurry in before they’re even low enough to see a windsock. To me that’s like giving up the game before it’s over, at exactly the point where I’m apt to snug my laces and dig in.
Say we’re going by the book and call in at “the bridge”. That gives us at least five hundred feet, entire minutes of gliding time, (double if there’s zero sink) to glide about a mile to a conventional downwind leg. It’s a savory surplus which the rules do not require us to waste! Ample time to find the only thermal in the world you can use, providing it’s there. And honestly, south of that bridge it often is! In fact, many winter days, that’s where most of the fun gets had.
There’s also a very reasonable no-thermaling zone over the airport itself, however, amounting to a square two miles on each side. With the airport being one mile long, that puts the perimeter of the zone only half a mile off either end of the runway…
Now be realistic. When you look straight south from either IP you’re sighting along the west, or east, edge of that no-thermal zone, and everything on the side away from the airport is fair game! At the west end it’s a huge field of naked boulders, as favorable a thermal source as you could imagine, and the further you sniff along it the closer you come to a proper downwind leg. At the east end, no dry wash, but the principle is the same. Our house thermal there is those ripples we’ve spoken of, triggered by the very wind that makes runway 07 active, also outside the no-thermal zone and often workable at 4500 MSL.
Climbing away from pattern altitude is one of the most satisfying achievements in soaring, and having done so countless times outside the no-thermaling zone, I can vouch that averting premature capitulation gets easier the more you do it. (Also, aside from the obvious incentive it’s maybe the most fun you can have with your clothes on, but that’s a separate issue.)
Anyway, whether in timely fashion or otherwise, now let’s get into the pattern. Some glider students are taught to not just check spoilers beforehand, but always use them on downwind, and many others will habitually open them on base leg, no matter what… That usually works in the highly controlled training environment, but not always in real life. If you always open spoilers at any particular phase of flight, inevitably you’ll open them when it would be smarter not to, leaving you too low, which is one thing nobody wants while landing a glider.
I say use the spoilers like brakes in a car, when you need them. See a stop sign a quarter mile away? No need to stomp on the brakes immediately, or even start slowing down for a while. Wait till you get there. Use the energy you have now to facilitate your objective, rather than hastily dumping it and then wanting it back.
Or if you do need that much drag just to stay down on a proper approach, perhaps you’re still entering downwind unnecessarily high, i.e. too soon. Beginning the process a bit later can reclaim another small surplus of altitude/time good for other stuff, such as more thoroughly observing surface conditions, letting traffic or ground personnel expedite — or if you did come down sooner than you wished, finally finding a way back up in the game.
For me the endless obsession of searching for lift is like a green stained ball in high grass. Even if you’re done playing for now, only two reasons to stop looking: either you find the ball, or darkness.
Gravity will have its way soon enough, why rush it?