The history of human flight is a long procession of ideas considered heretical at first, that were eventually adopted when their functionality left no choice, and to heck with old ways of thinking. Wacky stuff like mounting pitch control on the tail of an aeroplane rather than the nose, articulated ailerons instead of wing warping, and who’d be dumb enough to build a flying machine with metal wings… or even glass? Ridiculous!
Well at this age I can afford scorning repudiation, so here’s where I stick my wrinkled neck out and propose a novel method for something pretty much everyone reading this supposes they already know how to do: thermaling. I’ve had seasoned pilots declare my idea wouldn’t work, and might even be dangerous… until they try it. Then they say wow. Direct your opprobrium to them, please.
This discussion is based on two separate concepts, the second of which serves the first:
* Flying in or near a prescribed core of lift requires perfectly round circles, which are only possible with ATTITUDE absolutely CONSTANT in pitch, roll, and yaw. It’s a must!
* While circling, rudder can be used in part to control all three axes at once (whereas stick movement of any kind tends to disrupt attitude, not stabilize it).
If the air were rising uniformly, perfect circles would be easy, but thermals are mildly (or not so mildly) explosive currents who only want to eject us. Resisting that is exactly what we must do to stay in them despite all kinds of sporadic fluctuations, whether bundles of stronger lift boiling up and outward, or weaker voids between. The challenge of maintaining CONSTANT ATTITUDE intensifies as thermals grow more dynamic, and that’s where this emphasis on rudder proves its value.
After decades of thermaling with hundreds of glider pilots from the entire spectrum of experience and skill, I have to say that very few, even among the greats, employ their rudder enough, or as efficiently as they could. When a pulse of stronger lift raises the nose and inboard wing, pushing the glider away, too many respond with only stick. Or if they do move a pedal it’s often too late, and too little to prevent a self-defeating adverse yaw away from the thermal’s core …for only a moment, but wasting one such second with every correction adds up to many many during a single thermal climb – and entire minutes over a long flight – time wasted pointing out of stronger lift instead of into it.
But what if you’re turning a smidge too tight already, or lift weakens, bank steepens and the nose drops? That calls for rudder the other way. Instead of stick to the outside (yawing adversely toward the turn), a savvy touch of top rudder will nose you out and restrain the bank, while also preventing an undue gain of airspeed. It really is this simple if you act immediately and don’t overdo it, and is guaranteed to increase the amount of precious time spent in optimal lift.
Quick reaction is crucial for boisterous thermals, and expedient rudder applied in measured pace can fix attitude and direction instantly, with no adverse yaw and zero interruption of uniform flow over the entire wingspan. Think about that! We’re not saying never move the stick. Move it whenever you really need to, but not as a thoughtless reflex! Consciously limit aileron inputs to those that actually produce positive results, and FLY WITH YOUR FEET.
One proviso: the more aggressive an input for any reason, the more you might need a snappy reciprocal to reestablish coordination, same as you unwind the steering wheel in your car after a turn. In other words, a stamp of rudder in one direction followed closely by a corresponding stamp the opposite way, to set you back in the groove. Kinda like the fabled Ali Shuffle, but almost no chance of getting punched in the face.
Don’t think of this as inimical to coordination; if timed and executed properly it’s a nifty supplement. Sure, coordination is better than uncoordination, but momentary skids or slips that restore and refine attitude to keep your glider in the best lift can be worth any small amount of extra drag. Quick and dirty? If you must. (Everyone should know of course that skidding can be overdone and induce a spin, but what we’re suggesting here are isolated short-term inputs specifically to stabilize attitude and/or redirect the flight path.)
Full disclosure, in wide, smooth lift this method is not particularly more effective than conventional technique, nor is it needed. For narrow feisty thermals, however, eliminating unnecessary stick movement with vigorous use of rudder can keep you in the strongest stuff more of the time, providing steadier, quicker climbs… and isn’t that the point?
Still, as with all other kinds of information, this will never do you any good until you’re willing to try it!