Soaring in LIT

January 26, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

Hawker2As you’re reading this I will be attending my first Soaring Society of America (SSA) Convention in Little Rock, AR. These are enthusiastic users of the airspace and most of the time powered aircraft and sailplanes co-exist quite nicely. Rarely is there a collision but as we’ve seen in the Hudson River Corridor Collision, sometimes there are some precursors that forecast bad things if all the right factors line up in just the wrong way. Back in August 2006 a Hawker XP Bizjet and a Schleicher ASW 27-18 Sailplane collided as the Hawker was descending out of 16,000 feet.

HawkerThe jet was equipped with TCAS but since the sailplane transponder was not in use at the time of the collision, it didn’t show up on ATC radar or the on board equipment. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt but the sailplane was wiped out after it lost a portion of the wing and spun in. The sailplane pilot bailed out. The Hawker did not fare well either and limped to an engine out /gear up emergency landing in Carson City, NV.

I am part of a safety panel that will be discussing safety in general and how airplanes and sailplanes can play well together. The Nevada incident is worthy of discussion because high density soaring operations are interspersed with high density airport arrivals and departures. Here at Frederick, MD the soaring group is typically out on the weekends. Generally, everyone gets along well. The main thing is to look and listen. I suspect that transponders and ADS-B will be likely topics of conversation.

Would like to hear from any of you on what works in your area and what doesn’t. ASF and SSA will be looking for ways to make an unlikely event even more remote.

UPDATE: Courtesy of the winter storm working its way across the South and into Little Rock, we canceled our GA flight and booked with Delta Airlines yesterday. This morning ( Friday) Delta canceled their flights into LIT for the rest of the day – good decision – so we’ve started the discussion here and it needs to continue. My debut at SAA is momentarily postponed. Your comments are greatly appreciated as this dialogue moves forward.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Rick Sheppe

    As I’m sure you know, FAR 91.215(b)(3) effectively exempts gliders from the requirement to carry transponders in some of the airspace in which other aircraft are required to have them. Later in the same section, FAR 91.215(c) requires that transponders, if installed, must be turned on.

    This puts the conscientious glider pilot in a no-win situation. If he installs a transponder for TCAS visibility, he must leave it turned on, even when he is far away from Class B airspace. This drains the battery when the transponder is not needed, possibly to the detriment of it safety when it is needed.

    It should be legal for glider pilots to turn their transponders on and off, as required, don’t you think?

  • Tony Condon


    I’m looking forward to seeing you at the convention, this is just one small part of helping airplanes and gliders play well together. I’ll be at the Soaring Safety Foundation whenever I’m not taking in a presentation. See you in Little Rock!

  • Richard Depinay

    As someone who flies for the same fractional company involved in this accident, and various type of gliders, I must admit that I sad but not surprised by this. It was only a matter of time, as it happened before between a G103 in instruction and a Airbus 320 in France in the mid- 90’s.

    Installing a transponder into a glider is certainly what will come to mind first, but it actually will not serve much purpose in most of the” 2-33″ gliders staying close to most gliderports for example , or in this particular case, if the transponder is left OFF to save the battery.

    There are no easy answers, but one thing I would love to see is a better understanding of what a glider is capable of in matter of speed (faster than some singles), altitude (as high as the flight levels a jet pilot sees). distance (a range than even a light jet pilot would dream of)

    I would love for an IFR pilot to know where most of the gliderports are in the country, and avoid flying close to them when soaring conditions exists, as we may avoid some parachuting activity for example.
    Unfortunately, most of my colleagues have no clue what “soaring weather” means, and I often cringe when ATC leaves us at an altitude just below some cumulus clouds. That’s right where a glider would be, and I ask for something different when I know a gliderport is near by.
    I am also more vigilant and looking more outside like one of the STAR arrival into Albuquerque, which is designed right over Moriarty gliderport, one of the few places in the US, where a glider will regularly climb to 17,999 feet without a radio or a transponder.

    By the same token, it would be nice for glider pilots to receive some form of training as well about IFR procedures for the airspace they share with. They need to be aware of SID’s, STAR’s or any local approaches near by. Although they can not be prohibited from being there at the same time as an IFR traffic, if they have ways to avoid it, the better.

    Again, requiring transponders is a nice thought, but not practical in ALL gliders in the country.

    Better training for both IFR pilots and glider pilots will be already a great help…

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Rick, Tony & Richard…..

    Your comments exemplify exactly the challenge we face. I am not a fan of more regulation but perhaps more self policing and awareness. I suspect it will be lively discussion in LIT and I hope to become far better educated on this.

    I also think that we ( ASF) can do a better job of education. There are certainly other ideas and I look forward to hearing them both here and down South

  • Brent Sullivan

    This is one of those discussions that I’d rather not have, but I know it must be had.
    At the soaring club I belong to, we’ve recently begun communicating more with the Houston tower and Houston center. Recent changes to arrival and departure routes brings big, powered traffic closer to our field. The club is considering putting transponders into one or more of our training ships so it will be obvious when the club is operating.
    We’ve recently used our listserve and other web communications venues to better educate club pilots on the ‘highways in the sky’ near our club–several of which criss cross areas the cross country pilots frequently fly through.
    My partner and I will probably buy the Trig transponder for its low power use and ADS B capability. Watching an Airbus pass a couple hundred feet below me and a couple hundred yards in front of me while I was over 100 miles from the club provided purchase encouragement.
    I’d like to see transponder manufacturers focus on reducing power consumption eventhough gliders represent a small market. I’m not sure any of us could, with absolute certaintly, turn our transponders on “when we need it”. Accidents happen precisely because of unexpected events.

  • Brian Lansburgh


    We operate a ride glider at a busy resort in the summer months. I really believe the bottom line for everyone’s safety is communication. We try to make sure that all traffic knows that we’re there and what our intentions are. The better the glider pilot can clearly communicate his needs and intentions, the better we all seem to get along. I hate to say it, but at busy non-towered airports NORDO ops, though legal, are no longer acceptable. We will not launch without a functioning radio.

    General aviation power pilots cannot be counted on to learn about the capabilities and limitations of gliders. They often complicate the situation in the pattern by slowing down, doing three-sixties or other maneuvers designed to give us more time when we’d just like them to continue their approach. They also need to understand our need to make downwind departures under a variety of conditions.

    The decision to turn on the transponder should obviously be the glider pilot’s and should not be regulated. I’m very concerned with the growing tendency of many pilots to depend on their traffic avoidance systems in their panels to the exclusion of looking out the window, but that’s another subject.

    I’m looking forward to your comments after the convention. Thanks for your efforts.

  • Jay Hopkins

    Hi Bruce,

    Great topic! I have flown gliders off and on for 40 years. Texas Soaring Association had to move farther away from Dallas over the years as the Class B airspace expanded. The result is a long drive but little conflicting air traffic near the field.

    Last year I got checked out in the CAP 2-33 at Pleasant Valley Airport NW of Phoenix. It is just outside the Class B airspace, and just north of a major VFR transition route. I was really worried about the amount of traffic in the area. On one occasion I was circling in a thermal when a turboprop went zooming past not far from me. The combination of my tight turn and my need to look at the vertical speed indicator (no audio) to center in the thermal made it very unlikely I would be able to spot high speed traffic early enough to avoid a collision.

    I remember thinking that it was crazy to fly a glider in such a high traffic area without a transponder. It seems like someone needs to develop a simple transponder with a replaceable battery that lasts a couple of hours. That way a pilot could install a freshly charged battery before the flight, and potentially install a spare battery if necessary during the flight, without running down the battery used for the radio and other instruments. This would also work in simple gliders like the 2-33 that have no battery. The transponder could be removed between flights to avoid theft, or pilots could even bring their own transponder.

    I will be interested to learn what comes out of your discussion. While I am a “less regulation is better” person, as the recent training regs for the MU-2 have proven, sometimes a regulation can save lots of lives. I certainly would have been a lot more comfortable if I had a transponder in that glider. The trick will be to design a light weight, simple and relatively inexpensive unit that is appropriate for gliders and especially training gliders.

  • Brian

    Maybe with a portable TCAS device in the glider could signal (you or separate device) to turn on the glider transponder when an aircraft is detected in the area of the glider?

  • Claudio H. F. Fonseca

    Dear Bruce and fellow pilots,

    I am a Glider CFI and Tow Pilot, I live in Brazil and although I do not recall any collision accident along the past 29 years that I have been flying, however, the airspace sharing with IFR aircrafts has always been a concern, specially because I used to fly Mountain waves at 15,000 ft near the largest TMA in Brazil (Sao Paulo), or as already said, near to the cloud base of a nice cumulus cloud.

    It seems a consensus that if small batteries cannot sustain a transponder up to six or eight hours, it may not be a feasible option for high perfomance gliders.

    Although I am not expert on transponder technology, I will risk some humble opinions and leave some food for thought during the SSA Convention :

    – Development of transponders that are always on low consumption (stdby) and only react when a certain level of signal is received;

    – Passive Radar deflectors that will somehow reflect radar singal and clearly tell controllers that a glider is there (Sail boats use that on ocean);

    – Radio comm mandatory whenever below VMC minimuns (i.e. less than 300 m vertical or 1,200m horizontal from clouds (flying without a radio makes no sense on these days).

    These are my quick two cents… something must indeed be done in this area so we see everyone well.

    Thanks for bringing it up, good luck and all the best.

  • Christopher Lichty

    I have flown in the exact spot at the same elevation as the ASW sailplane that collided with the Hawker, many times. The Pine Nut mountains are the launching point for cross country flights south along the Sierra and White mountains down the Owens valley, and east across Nevada. It is some of the best soaring country in the world, and some of the busiest. At the south end of the Pine Nut mountains is the peak with the highest elevation of the range, and produces the tallest thermals. Heading off into the wild blue yonder from 17,999 ft from this spot is not unusual, and most sailplane pilots from the multiple soaring bases in the area use it. Yet the powers that be saw fit to create a corridor for jets inbound for Reno that crosses this exact spot. This is where the collision occurred. To create a corridor or direct traffic through one of the best and busiest soaring sites in the world is just plain stupid. While I think being able to identify ourselves to powered traffic makes sense, those that create the lanes for commercial traffic need to factor in the sailplane use in the area when they make airways.

  • Jeff Banks

    I think transponders are the soloution, however there needs to be an answer about the battery problem. With so many aircraft and radar interogrations today the unit is transmitting quite more than before the days of TCAS. Transmitting draws more power. For the moment I would favor an Exemption to allow the pilot to turn the unit on and off when he best sees the advantage. (I believe the pilot can turn the unit off when in uncontrolled airspace)

  • Ross

    As others may have said already, I’m all up for self-policing and better communication between the two. If the battery power for a transpoder was acceptable for gliders then there would be almost no issue at all!

  • Hans Trautenberg

    With the right transponder there is no battery issue at all. I have a Garecht VT-01 UltraCompact mode S transponder and it runs together with my radio, Flarm and final glider computer for at least 8 hours out of a 7.8 Ah NiCd battery. WIth two of these batteries in my glider, I have more power than required for my flying.


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