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Professional CFI: The Power of Soaring

Cross-rating in gliders can increase your business

My private-pilot friend Don handled the controls as we lifted off on a warm spring morning from Payson, Arizona, elevation 5,157 feet. As you might expect in a Cessna 152 at moderate density altitude, our rate of climb was less than impressive. In fact, after gaining 500 feet or so, we found ourselves in turbulence, teetering between climb and descent and making little upward progress to get us over the ridge blocking our route to the west.

Fortunately, the ground drops off rapidly into the Tonto Valley only a few miles from the end of the runway, so we found terrain clearance increasing even without much climb performance.

As Don heroically struggled to gain us a few feet in each updraft and minimize losses in subsequent downdrafts, I did my own struggling with a classic CFI problem, whether to offer instructional suggestions on this pleasure flight, or do the gentlemanly thing and say nothing since there was no imminent hazard.

Fortunately Don solved my dilemma with a question. "Hey, Greg, I realize we aren't in any danger here, but any suggestions on how we can gain some altitude to clear that ridge and get on course?"

"Well sure," I said. "Let me show you a trick or two that may be helpful." With that I explained how surface heating was the likely cause of turbulence on this calm-wind day, and how the resulting thermals rise in columns, while downdrafts tend to be larger, less-concentrated masses of air descending around them. Explaining my actions along the way, I waited for a thermal to lift one wing, then banked sharply into the rising column of air.

Immediately we felt a big whoosh of air, and our rate of climb suddenly shot up to more than 1,000 feet per minute. As we rolled into a nearly 45-degree bank, I added 10 degrees of flaps to lower our airspeed so that we could stay centered in the restricted diameter of the thermal. Our rate of climb increased even further.

"Wow!" said Don, "This is like riding an elevator! I thought we were supposed to avoid steep turns in marginal climb conditions, but obviously I was wrong."

"That's certainly true in most cases," I replied. "When we get back to the field, we'll talk more about how all this works." I turned the controls back over to Don so that he could try his hand at thermaling. Within minutes we'd soared 1,000 feet higher than the ridge line and abandoned our "elevator" to proceed on course.

"Where did you learn tricks like that?" asked Don as he guided our 152 toward home.

"I'm a long-time glider instructor," I replied, basking in one of those rare moments of CFI glory, "and this is one technique glider pilots learn for flying hours on end without the aid of an engine."

During the flight home I explained other soaring tricks, such as using "ridge lift" from wind flowing over terrain to gain altitude while avoiding associated downdrafts.

Following our debriefing back at the field, Don was intrigued by this new approach to flying, so we made a date to go "soaring," which is how glider pilots refer to their pastime. While gliding implies starting at some altitude and just coasting down, soaring signifies the art of using one's wits and knowledge to remain aloft without an engine for hours and miles on end. For similar reasons, gliders are often referred to as sailplanes.

Not many power pilots have experienced soaring, which is a shame because it's a wonderful and educational flying activity, as different from powered flying as sailing is from powerboating.

Learning to find lift and gaining a better understanding of the atmosphere we fly in are two good reasons for you and your students to consider earning the glider rating, but those aren't the only advantages of learning to soar.

Glider flying demands a degree of rudder dexterity that few pilots learn in today's tricycle-gear aircraft. That skill can be mighty handy when tackling crosswinds or slipping to a landing. Learning to "fly the box" around a towplane's wake has no direct translation to power flying, but it does teach pilots a new level of precision in using the controls.

And since every glider landing is a no-power landing, airplane pilots who soar enjoy greater confidence in their abilities to safely land without power when an engine quits. (John Taylor, of Turf Soaring in Peoria, Arizona, tells of a former employee who credited his glider experience with enabling him to be the first U.S. Air Force pilot to safely deadstick an F-16 to landing.)

Along with new skills, sailplanes offer great adventure. Soaring encompasses a wide variety of flight activities ranging from racing, aerobatics, and cross-country distance competitions to just plain joyful flying on a lazy afternoon.

There are also good business reasons to add a soaring rating to your certificate. Recent letters to Flight Training lament a dearth of glider instructors at least as severe as the shortage of airplane instructors. So there is demand for glider CFIs.

But perhaps the biggest business opportunity in soaring remains largely untapped, it's another great way to draw more young people into general aviation. Did you know that a pilot can solo in gliders at age 14? And earn a private pilot-glider certificate at age 16? Gliders offer us the opportunity to get flying-minded teenagers aloft at the peak of their enthusiasm, allow them to solo and earn pilot certificates, and then move them on to powered airplanes when age permits.

As an airplane and glider instructor, you hold the key to this market. Why doesn't anyone target young people with a combined glider-airplane flight program? Your flight school could team with a nearby sailplane operation and offer a combination package taking young pilots through glider training and then transitioning them to airplanes.

Other prospects include working adults and retired people who first experience flying through a "novelty" glider ride. Why aren't we using that draw to turn those folks on to powered airplanes, as well? With the aging of the baby-boomers, that's a growing market too. (Taylor estimates that 60 percent of his company's current clientele is over age 40.)

Then there's the fact that glider pilots, like balloonists, are allowed to self-certify medically, meaning some pilots who can no longer hold an FAA medical certificate may qualify to fly sailplanes. Soaring is a way to keep more of those pilots in the air, where they belong.

Adding a glider rating to a power pilot certificate is relatively straightforward. Without getting into all the details, a private pilot certificated in powered airplanes may add a glider rating with a minimum of three hours of dual instruction in gliders, including 10 dual flights. Ten solo flights also are required, and, of course, a practical test.

Commercial pilots in powered airplanes may add a commercial glider rating with a minimum of three hours instruction or 10 dual flights. Twenty solo flights of no minimum duration are required, and again, so is a practical test.

You should know that written knowledge tests are not required for glider ratings added to private or commercial pilot certificates for powered airplanes, applicant knowledge is tested on the oral portion of the practical test.

Adding a glider rating to your flight instructor certificate requires earning a commercial pilot-glider rating, accumulating 15 hours as pilot in command in gliders, and passing flight instructor-glider knowledge and practical tests. Again, you should be aware that glider flight instructors also self-certify medically, so some CFIs who cannot hold medical certificates may qualify to offer primary training in gliders, even if they no longer can teach in powered aircraft.

Of course, mastering the finer points of thermaling, cross-country flying, and flying advanced sailplanes takes a bit longer after passing the tests, but that sort of learning is what makes flying so much fun.

Time and time again we're reminded of the value of broadening our experience as pilots and instructors. You owe it to yourself and your students to check out soaring. It will enhance your skills, add new adventure to your flying, and broaden the audience that we can attract to general aviation. What's more, while your airplane students may not all become glider pilots themselves, they'll certainly benefit in a big way if you do.

"Here we are at 2,000 feet, Don. This is the 'release altitude.' Pull the big red knob to disconnect the towrope, roll right, and savor the silence. Hey! An eagle has joined us in formation off the wing, and we're climbing!"

By Greg Brown

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