Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Race For Ratings

It’s important to remember that flying should be fun. New ratings help make it so.

My second was a glider ticket at El Mirage Dry Lake in California's Mojave Desert, again only a 12-15 hour effort. It was strictly a lark, with no connection to the real world, but I knew it would be fun, and that was the whole idea. On the first day of flying without an engine, my weathered, sun-baked instructor put a quarter on the ground in the middle of the runway and growled at me, "When you're finished with your Private glider license, you'll be able to land from 3,000 feet without power and stop on that quarter." As I look back on it, that seems incredible, but as it turned out, he was right.

I trained in a Czechoslovakian Blanik L-13, one of the world's most popular gliders, equivalent to an unpowered Skyhawk in difficulty. Soaring was great fun, but the airplane was predictably slow on the controls, especially in roll. Most gliders aren't all that maneuverable because of their long wing spans, though pitch is still normally sensitive.

The Blanik sported a 28-to-one glide ratio, so approaches took some adjustment after flying standard powered aircraft with a typical 10 to one L/D. Speed brakes were/are a revelation. They provided more glide control than you can imagine, and it didn't take long before I was hitting my spot on the runway within a few feet. Eventually, exactly as my instructor predicted, I was able to stop within a few inches of my target, even if my spot was larger than a quarter. Anyone could do it. Another change that's immediately obvious in gliders is the noise level, or more accurately, the lack of it. Once you've cut loose from the towplane at normal glide speeds, the only sound is the gentle hiss of wind sweeping over the canopy.

I dabbled in marine cabin cruisers back in the day, and learned that soaring is to powered flight what sailing is to power boating, more of an art than a science. Unless conditions were optimum at El Mirage, we were confined to the airport environment. We'd find lift over the local chicken ranch or a nearby asphalt parking lot, circle upward until the variometer bled down to zero, look for more local lift, then, head back to the airport if there were no more updrafts. If I ever win a big enough lotto, one of the dozen or so airplanes I buy will be a powered glider with a stowable engine.

The water rating was next. I'd been fortunate to fly floats in a Super Cub in Alaska, but I learned water flying in a hulled amphibian out of Houston, bouncing around the wet in a Lake Buccaneer. The principles of operating a hulled seaplane rather than a floatplane are the same, but flying off water is a different experience in a Lake that rides in the liquid element rather than on top of it.

The engine is mounted high above the fuselage facing backward on a pylon, and the propeller is therefore a pusher rather than a tractor. This helps keep the prop up out of the spray and minimizes the risk of water erosion during takeoffs and landings. It also imparts a slight nose-down moment if you hit the throttle hard on takeoff from the water or during a missed approach.

The Lake fuselage rides very low in the water. With a normal load, you can taxi with the doors up and trail your fingers in the water over the sidewall without leaning out. Coming up onto the step is a different experience, again because you're riding/floating so low. The impression of speed is far more graphic when your butt is only a foot above water level.

All waterbirds must break the water's suction to lift off. Water is a heavier medium than air to overcome, so takeoff run on water is about double that on land. In the little Lake Buccaneer, water run at sea-level gross was listed at 1,100 feet, whereas land run was only 600 feet.

Landings are more personal, as well. You fly the Lake down to a height AWL (above water level) that you'd never imagine in any other airplane. Once again, the bottom of the hull is only about a foot below your seat cushion. In a typical floatplane, water takeoffs and landings place pilot and passengers five feet or more above the wet, a very different experience.

Helicopters introduced a whole new world of aircraft. It's a totally divergent way of flying, with training costs three to five times that of fixed wings, and rotary wings are so different from conventional airplanes, they deserve their own column.


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