Your connection with the sky

Sailplane instrument panels

, May 4th, 2009

When airplane pilots first encounter a glider instrument panel it can be a jaw dropping experience. Not because of its complexity but its simplicity. Training gliders may have nothing more than an altimeter, ASI, variometer and compass. Instructors will point out that the view outside and a bit of red yarn taped to the canopy are your most important instruments. Read More >>

Diamonds in the sky

, April 17th, 2009

 This story is about my Diamond Distance flight from Sunspot near Alamogordo, NM to Alamosa, CO in a Nimbus 2C sailplane. Perhaps this narrative will give the reader a sense of the techniques and decision-making that goes into a cross country glider flight. There's nothing special about this flight - many pilots have gone farther and faster in lower performance gliders. The photo shows a plot of the flight log on a Sectional Chart. Cool colors mean the glider was losing altitude and warm colors mean it was gaining altitude. Read More >>

Sailplane racing

, April 2nd, 2009

Many glider pilots find enough challenge matching wits with nature for a few quiet, beautiful hours of soaring flight, but others have a 'Racing Gene'.  Air Racing has always been a dramatic part of aviation.  However, when racing sailplanes, there is a special tension involved - you have to go fast AND stay in the air. Read More >>

Sailplanes – Getting “Launched”

, March 24th, 2009

We have seen that gliders, once airborne, can fly high and remain in the air for long periods. Pure gliders lack a power source to get them in the air. So, how is this done? Read More >>

Off Field Landings

, March 19th, 2009

All aviators face the possibility of an unplanned emergency landing and are supposed to keep options in mind. Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger made the best of a very bad situation by gliding Flight 1549 to a landing in the Hudson River setting an example for all of us. Glider pilots have a special empathy for Sully and his passengers. Read More >>

The “A Pilot’s Story” Contest goes Live…

, March 18th, 2009

Tell us your pilot story for a chance to win prizes!

The producers of "A Pilot's Story" are pleased to announce the launch of the first contest in connection with the film. You now have an opportunity to have your own "Pilot Story" featured in the film if you are the "Grand Prize" winner of the contest.

Landing a Glider – “But you can’t go around”

, March 12th, 2009

"How would you handle a go-around?" This is a perfectly logical question for a pilot trained in airplanes but it's likely to be met with a quizzical, "Why would you want to?" from a glider pilot. The question simply doesn't occur to a glider pilot who has been trained to land from every approach. So, how do soaring guys and gals manage to land nicely every time? Its a matter of energy management, judgment and planning - something any skateboarder or mountain bicyclist understands. Read More >>

Soaring – Sailplanes

, March 5th, 2009

All aircraft are beautiful in their own way but sailplanes are arguably the most visually stunning. Because sailplanes are raced and "racing improves the breed", the pursuit of pure, uncompromising performance has resulted in objects of unsurpassed beauty. They have been refined through thousands of prototypes until designers settled on long, thin wings, a "pod and boom" fuselage and a "T" tail. The result is beautiful, fast and has superb handling qualities. Read More >>

Soaring – Surfing the Jetstream

, March 3rd, 2009

boulder waveTo pilots of piston aircraft, the flight levels are usually unreachable but who hasn't looked wistfully at jet contrails. Glider pilots, with no engine or pressurization, know how to get there.

Surfers have Hawaii's North Shore, mountain climbers have Mt. Everest, and glider pilots have the Mountain Wave. You don't participate in these extreme sports without serious training, top notch equipment and the ability to manage risk. Flying a glider in a mountain wave is all that and more. For adventurous glider pilots, wave flying offers the possibility of extreme heights and record distances.

High altitude winds blowing across big mountains like the Sierras in California, the Rockies in Colorado, or the Andes in Patagonia, can form atmospheric standing waves resembling those formed in water flowing over a submerged boulder. See:

On January 21st, 2003, Klaus Ohlmann of Germany flew his Nimbus 4 DM glider 1870 miles in the lee waves of the Andes starting from Chapelco Apt. near San Martin de los Andes, Argentina to establish a world distance record.

What is a wave flight like? Let me describe one of mine. It was an unusually warm January morning in Colorado 30 years ago. A great "Lenticular" wave cloud floated stationary in the fast moving air at 25,000' MSL above the Continental Divide. An hour before takeoff, arrangements had been made by telephone with Denver Center for access into a "Wave Window" - an area above 18,000 feet, defined in a letter of agreement and available to glider pilots by request.

The takeoff was into a very turbulent, 20 knot west wind. I wore an insulated flight suit, boots, thick gloves and a sheepskin lined WWII leather helmet with a tight fitting oxygen mask as protection against the cold and lack of oxygen. I pulled the tow rope release knob at 11,000 feet and the tow pilot dove away with a radioed "Good Luck". The turbulence rolled and pitched the glider like a raft on the Colorado River making me work hard to maintain control - but I was climbing.

The turbulence suddenly ended as the glider entered the perfectly smooth air of the wave itself and the rate of climb increased dramatically. I could actually see the mountain peaks falling away. Denver Center granted a clearance into the wave window just before reaching FL180.

Now, facing into the jet stream climbing 2500 feet a minute, I concentrated on staying inside the assigned airspace while navigating around the upwind edge of the Lenticular cloud. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the glider was above 30,000 feet and it was getting intensely cold. Ice was forming on the inside of the canopy as my breath froze. The outside air temperature was minus 40C and dropping but fierce sunlight provided a little warmth.

As the glider soared past 38,000 feet, I felt the "pressure demand" oxygen system automatically pushing pure oxygen into my lungs. At 42,000, the glider would go no higher. (I wasn't sure I wanted to go higher.) Jet contrails were visible BELOW my altitude. The slide rule glide calculator said I could glide more than 300 miles downwind to somewhere in Kansas. Instead, I just sat there for a few minutes taking in the view.

The cold seeping into my flight suit told me I needed to get down so I flew into the descending part of the wave which now carried the glider down even faster than it went up. As I rolled to a stop after a 40 minute flight, friends ran up with questions about how high the flight had gone. I tried to speak but my facial muscles refused to work - they were just too cold. I had surfed the jet stream at Flight Level 420 and no North Shore Kahuna could have been more satisfied.

Next time I'll write about sailplanes and their advanced technology. Meanwhile here's some great reading.

Exploring the Monster by Robert F. Whelan Amazon ISBN-10: 1891118323

Soaring – The Nature of Thermals

, February 26th, 2009

To pilots schooled in the meticulous care and feeding of aircraft engines, the concept of extended flight which depends on something free and invisible called "Lift" verges on the magical.

Consider the ubiquitous "thermal." Imagine a cool, clear, summer morning. The sun is warming the earth as it has for billions of years. The air is still and cool but pockets of air, perhaps over plowed field or a sun facing slope, are warming faster than the rest. These pockets of warmed air expand into bubbles which are lighter than the surrounding cooler air. Like a hot air balloons, they begin to rise.

As the sun rises, solar heating becomes more intense and the bubbles form more rapidly, ascending in a continuous stream from favored thermal generating sites. As solar heating becomes still more intense, the bubbles merge into each other forming large columns. These columns of rising air are the "thermals" glider pilots speak of reverently. On a summer day, thermals generally start around 11 AM and last until around 7 PM.

A sailplane flown at 45 knots in a 45 degree bank will fly a circle about 300 feet in diameter. That circle will easily fit inside a thermal column. A sailplane sinks at around 100 feet per minute but the thermal column can be rising at more than 1000 FPM. The glider's variometer, a glider's special, fast response, rate of climb instrument, will show a 900 FPM climb. Sailplanes are solar powered. If the atmosphere is slightly moist, the thermal will generate a fair weather cumulus cloud as it reaches the condensation level thousands of feet above the earth. These clouds are welcome signposts glider pilots use to find thermals.

There are other signs. Glider pilots know bare earth, particularly sand and rock heat up faster than vegetation as do paved parking lots. Airports are almost always good thermal generators. In the deserts, dust devils may rise thousands of feet. Strong thermals may contain bits of trash or plant matter that give them away. Soaring birds are a good thermal markers as are circling gliders. Glider pilots often find themselves in the company of a hawks and eagles who have used THEM as a thermal marker.

As a rule of thumb, thermals are five times as far apart as they are tall. In other words, if thermals are 5000 feet tall, they are likely to be five miles apart. A glider with a glide ratio of 50:1 will pass ten thermals in a glide from 5000 feet. By watching carefully for signs, an observant pilot will find many thermals, one after another.

When a glide path intercepts a thermal, the variometer will indicate a climb beeping to alert the pilot. If the decision is to accept nature's offer of free energy, the pilot will fly a circle. The first circle probably won't be centered on the strongest lift so the pilot will shift the circle until it is. The pilot will continue circling and making small corrections until the thermal weakens or the glider nears cloud base before gliding off in search of the next thermal. Where I fly, thermals often reach the base of Class A airspace at 18,000 feet. Of course, we use oxygen at those altitudes.

Spending a hot afternoon high in a cool sky cruising quietly under cumulus clouds is a indeed a magical experience.

Next time, I'll write about lift which depends on wind and the fascinating ways it behaves as it flows across the earth. Imagine the view from 40,000 feet while surfing a monster called Mountain Wave - soarings equivalent of Mt Everest.

Meanwhile, see some great videos at: