What all pilots can learn from glider flying

Can a glider-only rated pilot contribute useful insight to readers of mostly power-only backgrounds? I’ll try.

Having been born with the flying gene and astigmatically-myopic eyes when 20-20 was still a military and airline prerequisite, the need to fly remained and I was lucky enough to bumble into soaring soon after school. It’s met my need since 1972. I came close to acquiring a power rating nine years later… until I couldn’t find an examiner willing to flight test me in my co-owned C-150 sans functioning VOR. (Back then an applicant had merely to provide the examiner the opportunity to test radio navigation skills; actual testing was examiner-optional.) By then I’d ridden with friends as safety pilot, including in hard IFR, but with no interest in anything beyond “pure VFR,” I sold my 150 share.

Glider
Does flying one of these make you a better airplane pilot?

Decades of being a small airport bum and EAA member (Oshkosh – woo hoo!), hundreds of glider launches towing behind all manner of towpilots ranging from newly-minted on all fronts to fellow glider pilots to heavy-iron drivers enjoying busmen’s holidays, uncounted bummed rides with buddies and pilot acquaintances, and sometimes simply being in the right place at the right time… and before a person knows it, he can make a few considered observations about various groups of pilots: similarities, differences, how they think, how they view their cloud-dappled domain, and such.

Another gene in my makeup was the self-preservation one. Consider: I preferred to walk and hitchhike the seven miles home from parochial high school rather than avail myself of a college-age sister’s chauffeuring – her driving scared me. Years later, the airline industry started calling the missing element so concerning to callow, not-quite-immortal, me, “situational awareness.” I’ve politely declined offers of lightplane rides due to the same concern. Point being, I’ve never been able to look at flying, myself, and my fellow pilots through entirely rose-colored lenses. I’m predisposed to like and admire all my fellow aviators whatever their backgrounds, preferred flight arenas, and hours, of course, but differences are real, skills vary, and all generalizations are false, including those I’m about to share with readers. Take ’em for what they’re worth.

At the risk of (inaccurately) coming across as aviationally elitist, I’m most comfortable sharing a cockpit with pilots also having at least a few cross-country sailplane flights and off-airport landings under their belts. Why? Fundamental piloting skills, general weather awareness, mental outlook and approach to routine in-flight considerations. I don’t mean to suggest the absence of a few self-inflicted off-airport sailplane landings precludes a person from being a fundamentally skilled, aware, and eminently safe power pilot, of course. Far from it. It’s just that even the relatively simple act of “collecting a glider rating” can easily have beneficial blow-back; learning how to soar without ever leaving the vicinity of your training airport even more; planting a foot in both the power and soaring worlds still more.

Does the potential for loss of power in the pattern concern you? (It could happen.) Every sailplane landing comes at the end of an eye-ball-judged gliding approach. No sweat normal. You get your approach and landing right the first time or ugly things can happen; no throttle for a go-around.

How about engine failure en route? I think I surprised my power instructor when he chopped the power in my 150 and said, “You just lost your engine. What are you going to do?” What I was thinking was, Sheesh, I guess the syllabus requires this, but what I said was something along the lines of, “Well, I guess we’ll be going into that field over there… no crop, it’s been disc-ed, into the wind, good approach, plenty long.” That earned me a sharp glance and a slightly challenging, “OK, so do it.”

I knew enough to talk him through what I was going to do before I did it, set up a mid-flap glide (as the situation warranted) for an overhead entry into a rectangular pattern, pattered about checking fuel, carb heat, and whatever else one might wish to do in a 150 given sufficient time, and – just about the time I thought he was actually going to permit things to go so far as touch down (Darned bold! I remember thinking) at the slowest possible speed I could get from the plane – he shoved the throttle in. Fortunately, it didn’t hiccup as it sometimes did, or “Some disassembly required” may have been in the plane’s future.

He knew I had glider time, though he never asked to see my glider logbook, but I suspect my matter-of-fact response surprised him. He chopped the power on two or three other flights, the last time when no decent field was within reach. I raised my eyebrows and went through the routine drill, during which I informed him we were going to seriously bend the airplane; I no longer remember whether it was going to be “just the landing gear” or “into the trees.” I may have added words to the effect, “That’s why I don’t like to fly over terrain like this,” because I let him choose when and where we flew.

Recently a pilot deployed a Cirrus airframe ‘chute on a calm, CAVU, Colorado day. The worst injury seemed to be to the airframe… as Cirrus intends. I don’t know the circumstances, but the still photographs I saw showed the plane had come down on Colorado short-grass prairie east of Colorado Springs…no trees, ravines, slopes, or drainages worth mentioning in sight. Assuming no airframe or control issues, truly a puzzlement to glider pilots why one would prefer the ‘chute to a controlled, held-off, landing.

Engine stopped in a Cessna
This doesn’t have to be a major emergency.

Under many circumstances, loss of engine power in many mass-market two- and four-seat airplanes, need not – should not – be thought of as a life-threatening emergency… unless the pilot perceives it as such, in which case he or she likely will fly tense and scared and probably not at their best. Soaring experience can help reduce the stress.

Similarly, I think my instructor was surprised by my efforts during – and how much I liked – low-speed, high angle of attack exercises. (Finally! Some flying with a direct correlation to soaring… thermalling and aero-towing.)

All my Oshkosh trips have been by lightplane from Colorado’s Front Range. All have been with IFR-rated friends, one a glider buddy, and one power-only, both initially with roughly the same amount of power time (500-700 hours). Along the way, both have had opportunity to use their hard-IFR skills. Perceived differences in PIC mindset have been interesting. Though the planes differed – Cessna 182 vs. Mooney – my glider-also friend seamlessly brought to the flight table some of his sailplane-derived thinking and actions. Prior to entering clouds that may or may not have been scud, or possibly deepening stratus, he was prepared simply to “hold in the air” by circling as a means of increasing assessment time. Gliders necessarily circle during most “refueling,” savvier glider pilots continuing to assess weather ahead on-course while so-doing. My power-only friend thought only in terms of changing course, boring straight ahead, or making a precautionary landing. Perhaps not earth-shatteringly different, but possibly usefully so. Options are good.

It’s my sense “reasonably experienced cross-country” glider pilots tend to be more skilled at assessing weather, both visually in cockpit and from FSS-like (remember them?) inputs. I suppose one can argue today that self-reading weather as a skill is losing importance in the face of in-cockpit electronic links to radar and satellite information… but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

As a group, in my experience ag-aviation pilots may well have “pilotage attitudes” most similar to “glider types,” though I’ll guess bush pilots do as well. While GPS and lots of button-pushing are definitely part of modern spray-plane cockpits and skills, the technology is in addition to the genre’s unchanging pilotage and situational awareness demands. So far, I’ve encountered only one ag pilot whose basic judgment was – in my view – seriously dodgy. I think the FAA eventually pulled his ticket, so it was a judgment thing, not a piloting-skills thing. (There’s probably a lesson in there!)

Mechanical piloting skill is good. Combined with good judgment, it’s seriously good. Throw in improved situational awareness and we might need vaccination against overconfidence. (Warning: dry humor nearby!) But it’s a fact that soaring a sailplane cross-country without a healthy complement of situational awareness is impossible.

12 Comments

  • Good article that many power pilots should find interesting. I say that because almost every power pilot I’ve talked to over the years who found out I was a sailplane pilot has said something to the effect that they always wanted to try out soaring.

    This even included Bill Cullen, a well known game show host of the 1950s-1960s, whom I met in a restroom on Santa Monica airport in 1979. He was looking for an aerial photo business in the building my office was in with the Soaring Society of America and asked for directions. When he heard I was a sailplane pilot he said, like the others, he’d always wanted to try it out. He was an avid pilot, getting his license in his teens prior to WWII and served with the Civil Air Defense as an instructor and patrol pilot.

    He asked me if I could give him a ride. Sure, I said. Then he said he’d get me a ride on the Goodyear blimp, something my wife would have given our son for…well, close anyway. She was also jealous that I was always running into celebrities in odd places.

    I obtained my SEL license in a taildragger I had bought, then took aerobatic lessons and then got a glider rating and bought a competition sailplane, all in about a year. Why?

    Well, having come from sports car racing I wasn’t used to having people with me, especially my 4 month old son. Next, shortly after getting my license, I found flying around our little airport boring and going some distances more trouble than it was worth. The big pastime for my pilot friends was flying out to the nearby dam, seeing if it was still there (it always was) and flying back. Boring.

    However, I thought flying out to the dam and back with no motor would be a lot more of a challenge and nowhere near boring. Even staying home at the local airport wasn’t boring when I went up to see how long I could stay up in minimal lift.

    And aerobatics was a big help since I’d already seen extreme attitudes and so flying steep banks in thermals was no big deal.

    Also, the idea of having one shot at getting the landing right when putting down off airport is a hoot…and generally blows the minds of power pilots.

  • If you would like to get a feel for soaring, from an intellectual and emotional perspective, watch Bob Drew’s “The Sunship Game”, a documentary about two sailplane pilots going after the U.S. Open soaring championship a few years ago. One guy flies by the seat of his pants/emotion and the other with an analytical approach. I showed this at Oshkosh and many of the audience thought these guys were actors. Music by BeeGees, which kept it from being put on DVD for a long time.

    drewassociates.net is about the only way I’ve seen it available.

  • All forms of aviation are interesting and potentially fun and challenging, including gliders.

    I am skeptical, however, of the notion that flying a particularly aircraft type at one time in your life will thereafter make one a pilot better at flying other aircraft types. Piloting skills evaporate quickly if not used routinely … so that process of “once upon a time” earning a glider rating (or a tailwheel endorsement, or a seaplane rating) produces an effect that quickly evaporates unless it’s used routinely in the aircraft one actually flies. Breezy generalizations about the superiority of glider flying skills aren’t very useful either, though we see them repeated over and over again in aviation pubs and comment pages.

    For example, a glider pilot who flies only in the flat country likely does not have the weather flying skills needed in the mountains by a powered aircraft pilot who is well trained and experienced on how to fly in the mountains. A glider pilot may indeed possess better stick and rudder skills than do many powered aircraft pilots, but understanding how to properly control and manage your engine, prop, and fuel systems is also a critical skill that glider-only pilots don’t have or need. Neither one is a “superior skill” – it only matters that you’re skilled in flying whatever it is that you fly.

  • I understand Duane’s POV, but I doubt that an experienced glider pilot loses all that skill when he takes up powered aviation… esp. if he flies homebuilts. A man of my acquaintance has most of his time in gliders, but some years ago began flying a homebuilt with a converted auto engine. Failures of that engine caused 3 off-field, powerless landings, which were all non-events. The fellow believes that his glider experience made potentially lethal emergencies into almost routine landings. Of course, that’s in Indiana flatlands, not Colorado mountains….

  • I suspect Duane and I agree that mechanical piloting skills have a short half-life, and we certainly agree there’s little carry-over of flatland-useful skills into mountain flying, though the reverse is far less true IMO. (For the record, well over 80% of my glider time is in/over the mountains of the intermountain western US.) Since the question was indirectly raised, I’ll explicitly note here that those things the article suggests “pilots in general” might “discover” and usefully cart over to their power flying mostly have – with the exception of sustained flight at high angles of attack – nothing do with mechanical skills and everything to do with awareness, mindset and judgment…learned skills in my view that (generally) have a half-life exceeding one’s piloting years.

    By way of further illustrating Hunter’s point, one of the two experienced-pilots/designers of the Questair Venture died after an engine (crankshaft) failure at ~15,000′ more or less directly above a huge Iowa airport (Sioux City? – NTSB database research required) when they stalled/lost control roughly 1500′ agl turning base for the >mile-long runway, somewhere around when they would have been turning base to final. Aviation history is rife with similar, unnecessary, accidents following loss of power above benign, landable, terrain. In my view “useful glider experience” may well help reduce these sorts of tragedies.

    • Bob & Hunter – I believe that loss of control in the landing pattern, whether at an airport or off-airport, has little to nothing to do with a pilot’s inexperience in making off airport landings. It has everything to do with the pilot’s inattention to stick and rudder, and airspeed (or AOA if so equipped). Pilots of powered aircraft crack up all the time in the pattern for a variety of reasons, even while they have full engine power available at all times, and with a perfectly fine runway down below.

      You seem to imply that fear of landing on anything but a smooth asphalt surface is what causes powered aircraft pilots to crack up, but I just don’t think that’s a material cause at all in loss of control, because it happens multiple times every week of the year at airports with fine runways.

      One of my sort of “pet peeves” in all the jillions of words spilled on LOC accidents by the FAA, writers, instructors, and commenters on web pages is the routine failure to acknowledge that pilots lose control most often simply because they fail to focus on flying the airplane.

      Pilots all too often allow ourselves to be distracted by any number of competing priorities for the limited bandwidth in our brains as we sit at the controls of our aircraft.

      Chatty passengers (or pilots) … focusing too much on other traffic in the pattern … weather issues at the airport… mental overload or stress unrelated to flight that carries over into the cockpit …fatigue … etc. etc. etc.

      Everybody who has earned a SEL licence understands how to control an airplane with stick, rudder, and throttle – it’s a base requirement for the ticket. But regardless of one’s advanced training, log time, or ratings, it only takes a few seconds of inattention to the airspeed indicator and to what the seat of your pants is telling you, likely combined with equal inattention to the rudder – and you become a human lawn dart just like that.

      Maybe people don’t like to talk about that factor, because it is a factor to which absolutely every human pilot who ever lived is susceptible … no matter what aircraft they fly or how many hours or how many ratings they’ve collected. It happens to people who literally write books about how to use stick and rudder (Sparky Imeson), and who spend lifetimes training others on how to avoid what just killed them – it’s no more or less than momentary inattention.

      I know how to use my stick and rudder, but I also know I am susceptible to momentary inattention … indeed, I am no less fallible than a couple guys I knew, each with tens of thousands of hours in the cockpit, who nonetheless fell victim to their own momentary inattention and lawn darted into the ground. It’s a worrisome concept, that “there but for the grace of God go I” … but it simply is what it is.

      • 100% agreement: 1) “what” causes loss of control (LOC) in the landing pattern is insufficient/momentary inattention due, as Duane writes, “because [pilots] fail to focus on flying the airplane” and as he notes, for all manner of reasons; and 2) it regularly happens to pilots in airplanes with functioning engines.

        Addressing the numerous possible “why’s” is the more interesting (to me) part of the pilot equation. “Flying tense” is one (arguably large) potential “why,” as is – perhaps more obviously – “flying improperly focused.” For whatever reason(s), that latter isn’t limited to only power pilots; ~ 4 glider pilots annually for the past quarter century or so have managed to get that part fatally wrong, too, despite (so I assume) “not needing to have been” flying tense. The devil’s always in the details of course, but to explicitly reiterate some of the major points I sought to convey in the article: 1) cross-experience in fixed wing aircraft can be usefully helpful (duh! 🙂 ); and 2) KNOWing you have but one chance to make a crunch-free landing (albeit in a craft designed for so doing and incapable of crashing AND burning) may very well prove helpful for both focus and stress-reduction reasons.

        FWIW, what I’ve long done in landing patterns (whether flying a single or multi-seater sailplanes) is carry on a conversation in my mind beginning along the lines of, “Screw this pattern up in any substantive way, and you can easily kill yourself…” I don’t think of it as flying patterns scared, but flying patterns “properly focused.” So far, so good…

        Thanks for your thoughts!

  • It may be instructive to remember Sully was an experienced glider pilot when he put that airliner down on the Hudson River. I seem to recall he credited his glider skills high among the factors for that success.

  • This article was very good and got me thinking… I have often wondered if soaring techniques can be used successfully to extend the range ( or reduce the fuel used ) during a powerd XC flight. Sometimes my Cherokee gets tossed around like a rag doll by the thermals. Maybe I should learn how to use that to my advantage. I wonder if I could utilize soaring techniques to make my standard XC trip using only 1/2 the fuel I normally use. It is a challenge.

  • Pete sounds like a member of my target audience for the article…i.e. curious and thoughtful pilots pondering ways to improve their knowledge and skills. My short form answer is, “Yes, indeed, ‘…soaring techniques can be used successfully to extend the range (or reduce the fuel used) during a powered XC flight.’ ” Over the years I’ve encountered two “heavy iron drivers” who claimed to have done so. One was a retired Delta pilot (whom I met through soaring) who used to semi-regularly use wave lift along Colorado’s Front Range during the waning DC-X/Connie years to assist (smoothness, climb rate, etc.) N-S runs in the region; he said that at the time he wasn’t real sure what it was, but clearly (to me, anyway!) he was paying attention to what was going on outside the windscreen. Another was a B-52 driver who’d used wave lift for a reputed “over a hundred miles” just because he could; he said he knew what the lenticular clouds signified, and simply got curious. Convectively, the best thermals in mountainous country often are aligned atop ridges, while in flat country, cumulus clouds often align in “streets” which I know are regularly used by soaring-rated power buddies whenever they can. That’s just one more reason I enjoy riding with soaring-rated power pilots – I enjoy the bumps and the views from “down lower!” As to actual dollar amounts of fuel saved, the sheer intellectual joy of the experimenting may prove sufficient value in itself!

  • On December 19, 2005, I was asked to put an airplane “through its paces”, not having known its dubious history.
    All was going smoothly, until the engine quit 1200 feet above suburban Detroit. Luckily, the glider side of my brain kicked in. I scanned the area, searching for options. With 1 foot of snow on the ground, Southbound I-75 appeared to be my only choice. Since I had previously landed out in a glider, the task became intuitive. In the three minutes I had to execute the task, I found a slot between 2 vehicles and vertically merged with the traffic on the freeway.
    I have no doubt whatsoever that my previous gliding experiences made this scratch-free outcome possible. During life threatening events, our perceptions can be squeezed into tunnel vision, limiting our awareness of options. Some pilots become so stressed that the muscles in their forearms contract, they stall the aircraft, and depart normal flight. The experience of landing out in a glider can train our brains to respond appropriately to the task at hand.
    Soaring is like mindfulness meditation. The pilot is continuously contemplating many parameters: current altitude, cloud base, rate of climb, air speed, as well as surrounding terrain and meteorological conditions. These factors help the pilot to focus on risk assessment, insuring a safe outcome for the flight. The total engagement and immersion that soaring requires is both challenging and extremely rewarding for the pilot.
    Sit in your most comfortable easy chair, close your eyes and imagine a day climbing up close to cloud base inside of a Plexiglas bubble while covering 400 miles through the air at up 170 miles per hour all on your own wits.

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