Energy Management Skills
It’s no secret that gliders (most of them) have no engines. There are exceptions, of course, in the form of motor gliders. For the most part, once a glider is in the air, flight is an exercise in energy management to stay aloft as long as possible. Glider pilots become expert at maximizing and exchanging altitude (potential energy) for time in the air. The concept of energy management goes hand-in-hand with a deep understanding of weather and coordinated flight.
Understanding of Weather Dynamics
Understanding weather patterns – winds, clouds, and precipitation is required for all pilots. Glider pilots though, don’t necessarily have the ability to traverse the weather; they don’t have engines to travel to better conditions. What’s more, glider pilots depend on lift to stay in the air. It is paramount that a soaring pilot always be learning about and studying the weather.
In order to remain aloft, pilots must locate thermals (columns of rising air), or other forms of atmospheric or orographic lift. The pilot who understands how the atmosphere behaves and why, will be safer and more skilled. Of course, this isn’t something one learns overnight.
There are many great books available that go over weather theory for soaring. Understanding the Sky by Pagen is a good place to start.
Stick and Rudder Skills
Generally speaking, gliders have much longer relative wingspans than powered aircraft. This is by design to allow for a more efficient glide ratio; the distance an aircraft travels horizontally measured against the amount of vertical distance lost. With longer wings, comes a greater incidence of adverse yaw. Gliders, even more so than traditional aircraft, require the pilot to be coordinated on the flight controls in order to maintain maximum efficiency, which in turn, allows the pilot to stay in the air longer at better speeds.
This ability to work the controls and maintain coordinated flight is often referred to “stick and rudder” flying; a term made popular in the early days of aviation and the name of one of the most popular flying books of all time: Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langewiesche.
For operations that utilize tow planes to carry gliders aloft, there is an added benefit – flying formation with the tow plane while on tow. Gliders are connected to the tow plane by about 300 feet of rope. That is not a large distance by any means. Being towed aloft while maintaining the right position behind the tow plane requires considerable coordination on the glider flight controls.
Like many things in aviation, costs vary depending on geography, club vs. flight school, type of aircraft being used, insurance rates, etc. When compared to flying powered planes, however, glider costs can be considerably lower. Here are a few ways cost savings can be realized:
· No fuel cost for the glider
· Lower rental rates for gliders
· Lower storage rates (self-contained trailer or tie-down as opposed to hangaring)
· Lower insurance rates
· No medical certificate required (USA)
· Less maintenance cost
· Launch fees
Glider or soaring clubs are quite popular across the USA and indeed the world. They are a great way to keep costs down among members. The fact is that going to a commercial flight school will likely cost more to train and fly casually but the pilot will likely receive more time in the glider compared to a club. Alternatively, club flying is more relaxed and dependent on participation of club volunteers and members to launch each flight. If a pilot is looking to fly frequently, the club may not be good fit but can offer cost savings instead.
As an example of the cost differences, one glider club lists the average cost to attain a private license in gliders at about $4500 (Hood River Soaring). A private pilot license in single-engine airplanes, on the other hand, can cost about $10,000 according to several outlets.
No Medical Certificate Required
Many airplane and helicopter pilots in the USA are required to have a current medical certificate to fly. According to the FAA, “If you are going to pilot a balloon or glider, you don’t need a medical certificate. All you need to do is write a statement certifying that you have no medical defect that would make you unable to pilot a balloon or glider.”
Not being required to have a medical certificate means less trips to the doctor. If you are healthy, you can fly. This also means that someone who can’t hold a medical certificate for airplanes may be able to fly gliders. Because medical issues can be varied and wide-ranging, speak to a flight instructor or aviation medical examiner if you have questions about aeromedical fitness.
Talk to anyone who has been in both airplanes and gliders and they will almost undoubtedly mention the lack of noise in a glider. Once a glider is towed to altitude, the pilot pulls the tow rope release, and the sound is actually quite serene. There is no need for headsets. Both pilot and passenger can speak in a normal voice, without shouting.
Then, there is the beauty of thermaling with the birds; slowing circling in nature’s lift, enjoying the beauty all around. While it is true that powered planes and helicopters offer stunning views, being in a glider without the noise of a motor and without a ‘flight plan’ can make for a truly eye-opening experience. More than one pilot has stated that soaring is the closest one can get to flying like a bird.
Gliding, more so than helicopters or airplanes, requires a team effort to really make things work. An average operation that utilizes a tow plane could see three or four people involved in the launch of the glider: tow pilot, glider pilot (and passenger), wing runner. For some, this team environment can be a real bonus. In fact, this is one of the big draws of soaring clubs aside from cost sharing. If you enjoy sharing experiences, being around like-minded individuals, and talking about flying, gliders might be right for you!