Your connection with the sky

Off Field Landings

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.

My personal standard is to keep at least two "known safe" landing sites within conservative glide range which, given the glide performance of sailplanes, isn't difficult. 99.9% of 'land-outs' are accomplished without damage to the glider or anything on the ground - although the pilots ego is another matter. Unlike airplanes, gliders land slowly and stop quickly so you don't need much landing room - a space the size of a football field will do nicely.

The following is a fictional story constructed from true elements of actual glider land outs.

You should have noticed a developing high overcast sooner. It has cut off solar heating that had been generating the thermals. You suddenly realize this flight will end soon and you are out of gliding range of a runway. (Been there, done that)

You can see many farm fields within easy glide range but which one is best? Farmers will cultivate any field they can and use rough land as pasture. Landing in a pasture with cows is bad because cows will trample gliders. Worse, you can't tell the difference between cows and bulls from above - landing with bulls is a VERY bad idea. Cultivated fields have been leveled, rocks removed and are generally smooth. Standing crops are a poor choice since they are likely to damage the glider and vice versa. Roads are too narrow and ALWAYS have adjacent obstacles like sign posts. The best bet is harrowed earth, stubble or freshly cut alfalfa.

You spot a big stubble field and head for it. As you get closer, and lower, you look for fence posts and power poles with invisible wires between them but there's plenty of room and it looks like there is a gate with access to a dirt road. You can see the wind direction in riffles on a pond so you pick a landing pattern and fly it just like landing on a runway. Full spoilers and wheel brake stop the glider near the gate after rolling a short distance. You open the canopy and it's quiet - really quiet. Welcome to rural America.

In the day, you would have set out on foot to find a telephone. Today, you press the "Help" button on your Globalstar SPOT which sends a short text message via satellite to a fellow pilot's cell phone saying, "I've landed out at these GPS coordinates, please come get me." (If your situation is more serious, the 911 button will summon emergency services in addition to your friend.)

Upon receiving the message, your friend will be cracking up. It's YOU in a farmers field and not HIM. He Twitters your land-out location to the known universe for everybody's amusement. Your one-man crew has swelled to three since it's traditional for pilots being retrieved to buy beer and a steak dinner. Free beer ALWAYS gets you a retrieve crew. They get organized, hook up your glider's trailer and hit the road.

Somewhat less mirthful, you wait. After a while a pickup stops on the dirt road and the lady driver yells, "What happened, the wind quit? Yuk,yuk." Then, "I'll unlock the gate - lock it when you leave - see ya later at the Steak House, hee hee". As she drives off you're thinking, 'this gal seems suspiciously well informed'.

When your crew arrives, you put the glider in the trailer and head for the local Steak House, obediently locking the gate as you leave. The pickup gal is there with friends waiting to hear your adventure. You learn your field has been used as an emergency strip before and the pickup gal knows about Twitter AND free beer. Friends, new and old, beer and a great steak have you in a much better mood.

So, how do you get sailplanes INTO the air? Next time I'll write about how gliders are launched. You probably know about towing gilders with airplanes. How about 0-60MPH in 2.5 seconds and 0 to 2000 feet AGL in 40 seconds for only $10?

Glider Club of the Week: Soaring Society of Boulder http://soarboulder.org Their playground is the snowcapped peaks of the Continental Divide and beyond.

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