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Gliding Your Way To A Pilot Certificate

A Better Beginning Or A Good Add-On?

Aviation's roots can be traced back to a few gutsy guys in floppy Gatsby hats who routinely threw themselves off of hills in rudimentary gliders while searching for aeronautical truths. Chanute, Lillienthal, and even the Wrights first learned their trade via fragile man-carrying kites. Gliders have always been entry-level flying machines, and today it is no different. There are hundreds of soaring schools scattered throughout the world ready to make pilots of mere mortals. Given the complexity of today's aviation, however, does gliding have a place in a student pilot's career?

Mainstream aviation often, and mistakenly, looks at soaring as a splinter group of enthusiasts who consider cheating gravity to be the holy grail - but make no meaningful contribution to the more practical pursuits of general aviation. Those who make such a judgement, however, are missing something both fun and important about soaring: Learning to fly a glider, either as an entry into aviation or as a rating tacked onto a preexisting certificate, makes a pilot into a better aviator. This point can't be argued. The very essence of aerodynamics is embodied in the glider/sailplane, and by learning to master the machine, the pilot quickly absorbs more aerodynamic understanding than he or she will ever learn in a classroom - or the cockpit of a powered aircraft. He learns rapidly that it is only through a thorough understanding of the aerodynamic consequences of his own actions that his machine will stay in the air for a prolonged period of time.

To save words and reduce confusion, for this discussion we're going to lump gliding and soaring together and use the term gliding. In most training environments, the activity is gliding (assuming a more or less constant descent to the ground) rather than soaring (seeking out and riding thermals and extending the flight as long as possible). This is a fine point and probably open to some argument, but in the interest of brevity, we'll stick with gliding.

The general flying public sees gliders only as "...those machines that need a tow plane to get up and thermals to keep going." They seldom know any of the specifics. However, just as airplanes are represented by a huge spectrum of types, configurations, sophistication, and cost, the same is true of the glider/sailplane. Gliders run from the ever-present and vaguely crude Schwietzer 1-26 (as low as $7,000 used), which has been the backbone of powerless training for generations, to otherworldly composite competition sailplanes (as low as $75,000 to $80,000 used) that are as close to aerodynamic perfection as a flying machine ever gets.

The one physical characteristic that all nonpowered flying machines share is a long, high-aspect-ratio wing. It is this design parameter that also gives rise to another shared characteristic: lots of adverse yaw. Some gliders have more than others, but it's there in all of them, and it's the significant adverse yaw - coupled with the very fact that there is no motor to make up for a lapse in judgment - that make gliders such great trainers. They won't let a pilot get away with uncoordinated flight, and they won't let him or her bumble around not paying attention to what the airplane is doing or where it is going. If the pilot expects to return to base, he has to have his head out of the cockpit constantly planning, and if he wants maximum efficiency out of his glider, he's going to have to spend some time keeping the ball centered. Any powered-plane instructor will quickly say that coordination and planning are two of the hardest traits to hammer into a student/pilot. In the glider, the instructor doesn't have to hammer too hard because the airplane does it for him.

Although much of the world sees gliders as a viable way to get into aviation, here in the United States a glider is usually flown only to add a rating, rather than being the first airplane that a student will fly. Still, there are lots of good reasons a pilot should think about starting from scratch in a glider.

For one thing, glider training can be less expensive than powered training. Jan Driessen at Turf Soaring in Phoenix, Arizona, confirmed that the average charge nationwide is around $40 an hour for the glider plus another $40 an hour for the instructor. That totals $80 an hour, not much less than a powered plane. It has to be remembered, however, that an instructional flight in a glider is generally around 20 minutes, and the number of flights logged figures heavily in FAA requirements. Those same requirements specify a much lower number of hours for the rating and/or certificate.

Gliders are absolutely made for the youngster who is itching to get into the air, because a student can solo a glider at the age of 14 years. Incidentally, Driessen says it takes much less time to solo a 14-year-old than it does a 30-year-old. Assuming no prior flight experience, he says a 14-year-old will take only about 14 flights to solo, whereas the older person will usually take twice that long. In fact, he says as a crude rule of thumb, you can figure one flight per year of age. Looking at the costs for an "older" person (30 years old), and assuming 20 minutes a flight, the approximate cost to solo breaks down as follows:

A tow to 3,000 feet ($25 for the first 1,000 feet; $1 for each additional 100 feet) is $45. Three-tenths of an hour for the flight instructor at $39 per hour is $13, and three-tenths of an hour of glider rental at $39 per hour is another $13-so a typical flight costs $71. Multiply that by the average of 30 flights to get $2,160; add three hours of ground instruction at $39 per hour, and you reach a cost to solo of $2,280.

Of course, this will vary based on the age and capabilities of the student and the local conditions. Longer flights mean fewer tows and less expense.

The lower FAA requirements also reduce cost. Since the glider isn't normally a cross-country machine, most of the cross-country requirements don't apply. The regulatory requirements for a student getting a private pilot certificate in a glider are:

  • Ten hours of dual, which includes a minimum of 20 flights;
  • Two hours of solo, which includes a minimum of 10 flights;
  • Passing the glider written exam, which-although similar to the private pilot knowledge test-obviously isn't as intense in those areas that are absent in glider ops (carburetor ice, engine-out emergency, etc.).

If you already have a pilot certificate, tacking on the glider rating is a no-sweat operation that is less expensive than you'd think. Here, the FAA requirements are:

  • Three hours of dual, which includes a minimum of 10 flights, and
  • 10 solo flights with no hourly minimum.

However, Driessen says that most schools, like Turf Soaring, won't issue a rating with only 10 solo flights. They won't run the student through the flight test until he has 20 flights. This makes for a total of 30 flights or about $2,200, give or take a little.

So, what does a pilot who starts out in a glider get that a pilot who begins in something like a Cessna 152 doesn't?

Some of the advantages of starting out in a glider are subtle. For instance, when a student is first introduced to a powered airplane, universally there is a short period of time in which he is awestruck by the seeming complexity of the instrument panel and the controls he is expected to master. In most ways, the glider has the same number of flight controls (rudder, elevator, aileron, spoilers instead of flaps), but it obviously lacks the gadgets that are there only because there's an engine up front. If you eliminate the electrical system for starting, the mags, the carb heat, the electric flap control, tachometer, oil pressure, oil temp, what do you have left ? Not much. The instrument panel is suddenly reduced to the bare necessities for flight. It is instantly less intimidating and more understandable. The only thing the pilot has to do is fly the airplane and plan the flight.

It is this last advantage, planning the flight, that is one of the strongest benefits to learning to fly without an engine. From the instant the tow handle is pulled and the glider is on its own, the pilot is in charge of an engine-out emergency. Therefore, he's immediately forced to think ahead. This doesn't mean he keeps his nose pointed at the airport all the time, but it does mean that he monitors his progress vis a vis the airport. His situational awareness always has to be turned on high so that he doesn't inadvertently set himself up to be too far from the airport to make it back. From the very first flight, the student is being prompted to keep his return flight foremost in his mind. Since most glider students worry about the concept of flying without an engine anyway, they quickly lock onto the concept of situational awareness.

In a powered plane, although we're always teaching the concept of an engine-out emergency, few pilots - student or otherwise - honestly believe that the engine could quit at any time. They know it happens to others, but they are universally convinced that it won't happen to them. There's a certain amount of self-denial among powered-plane pilots in this respect, and as a result they don't develop the same level of situational awareness that glider pilots do.

The same awareness and planning extends to making the landing approach. In one way or another, regardless of where he is in the flight, a glider pilot is always on approach. They must stay well ahead of the airplane. He has only one shot at the runway, and he's naturally going to be a little paranoid about being in the right place at the right time.

Another factor that increases a glider pilot's understanding of flight is based on the fact that every single foot of his flight is a game of energy management. When he's released from tow he has a certain amount of energy that is the result of both his or her speed and the altitude above the ground. That's the energy he starts out with, and how long it lasts is determined by how well he flies the airplane and how good he is at eking additional energy out of the air in the form of thermals. This is one reason he learns to coordinate the airplane as well as possible: Every single time the ball slides out one way or the other, he knows he's just wasted a little altitude that he didn't need to waste. Maximum efficiency only comes to those who keep the ball centered, and maximum efficiency means that he'll stay in the air a little longer. More important, it's only through operating with max efficiency that he's guaranteed of reaching the runway with ease.

When the glider pilot turns final, he already has a spot picked out about a third of the way down the runway where he or she is going to touch down. Every landing in a glider is a spot-landing contest. This breeds an inescapable increase in visual acuity where the pilot sees every change in his approach picture and knows immediately when something has changed or is not right.

This increase in visual acuity isn't limited to the landing, which is what most nonglider pilots assume is the biggest challenge. It's a big one, but so is the tow. Here the pilot is asked to keep the glider in a given position in relation to the tow plane (high or low). If the glider is constantly moving around it raises hell with the tow rope and tow plane. In essence the glider pilot is flying in formation with the tow plane, and there is no bigger test of his ability to see changes in his visual field than flying formation. If the pilot doesn't want to be jerked around and doesn't want to be the pilot whom all the tow pilots refuse to tow, he learns to be smooth and fly formation.

There are pros and cons to every method of learning to fly, but should a pilot decide to start out in a glider he'll never regret it. And he'll be exposed to a facet of aviation that he or she may find impossible to resist.

For more information on gliding, contact The Soaring Society of America, Post Office Box 2100, Hobbs, New Mexico 88241; telephone 505/392-1177; fax 505/392-8154; or visit the Web site ( www.ssa.org ).

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI for 36 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special.

Budd Davisson

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S–2A.

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