Hands on, or hands off? That’s a looming question facing general aviation. The NTSB and the FAA are taking increasing notice of the category of stupid pilot tricks called departure from controlled flight, or loss of control, a type of accident that more often than not has fatal results. While the safety of light aircraft flying has gotten markedly better over the past couple of decades, one kind of accident, loss of control, has stubbornly persisted. For the FAA, cutting down on loss of control accidents is job one, as it knows that doing that will greatly cut down on accidents overall, and fatal accidents, in particular.
Sure, we can limit the pilot’s ability to do stupid things with computerized flight control systems, or design aircraft that can’t stall or spin—like the original Ercoupe. We should first admit, though, that these aren’t perfect solutions, if they’re solutions at all. The truth be told, for all its innovative safety features, the Ercoupe had just as bad a safety record as the Cubs and Champs of the day. So maybe we should focus on what’s actually the most critical part of the system: the pilot. And while hardware and software solutions are certainly worth working on, they’re expensive and will only cover a small percentage of the fleet and pilots. The last thing general aviation needs is more expensive aircraft and mandatory equipment.
Regardless, the root cause of stupid pilot tricks is the lack of proper training in basic stick-and-rudder flying skills and knowledge.
Let’s look at a couple of knowledge areas that lead to problems. Deep down, I think most pilots believe the engine is what holds them up. This tends to lead to panic in an engine-out situation, and panic isn’t conducive to good airmanship. Most pilots also think that the elevator is what makes them go up or down; that’s only a partial truth. The elevator controls the trim airspeed of the aircraft. When you pull back on the stick, the aircraft slows down. Because most of the time it has an excess of power, it then climbs. It’s the “most of the time” that bites pilots who don’t truly understand the physics of flight.
In the curve of drag versus airspeed, there’s a minimum point where the induced drag (the drag that comes from producing lift) is equal to the parasitic drag. As you know, the parasitic drag goes up very fast with increasing speed. Induced drag is the inverse, increasing very rapidly as you go slower, as the wing has to work much harder at lower speeds, and the induced drag heads toward infinity limited by the stall speed. On the “most of the time” side of the drag curve, pulling back on the stick does, indeed, indirectly lead to climbing, but if you get slower than the crossover speed, pulling back on the stick results in an increase in power required, slowing the aircraft down and producing a descent, not a climb.
“By learning from the past, we can get more pilots in the air, especially young people... A glider can be soloed at age 14.”
This is known as the backside of the power curve, or a region of reversed command. Inadvertently wandering into this corner of the envelope is what bites pilots and bites them hard. You’ve heard about people crashing cars through storefronts and garages because they put their foot on the accelerator when they thought it was the brake. The automatic response is to push harder by the driver. Most pilots will pull harder on the stick or yoke when they need to go up, but it doesn’t always work that way. You can mush into the South Atlantic from 30,000-plus feet because you’ve become dependent on your instruments and don’t really know how to recognize when they have failed or how to hand-fly the aircraft (even an Airbus, for that matter) when they do.
How do we do a better job of training pilots in basic stick-and-rudder skills? I’ve taken a look at the history of the development of heavier-than-air flight, of flight training in the past, of techniques used in current air cadet programs and of my own flight training history, and I’ve come up with a plan that has proven to work: Start basic flight training in gliders.
A Short History Of Gliders
Aviation pioneer Sir George Cayley built the first man-carrying glider in the 1850s. In the 1890s, Otto Lilienthal made thousands of glider flights and wrote about them, influencing the Wright brothers and other experimenters. One of the things Lilienthal learned fatally was that weight-shift control wasn’t always entirely adequate, something our modern hang gliders learned again painfully. The Wright brothers built gliders to test their evolving control system and to learn how to fly. They learned how to fly their glider before they were confident enough to build a bigger version to carry an engine.
In my view, powered flight is just a noisy offshoot of glider development. Aircraft and engines developed rapidly through World War I. After the war, one of the unintended consequences of the Treaty of Versailles was the development of gliding in Germany, where most powered flying was banned. We now don’t fully appreciate how huge a phenomenon manned flight was at the beginning of the 20th century. The dream of human flight, I believe, dates back to our prehistoric ancestors, so it was a huge cultural phenomenon when it actually appeared. The appetite for flight had been teased by lighter-than-air craft, which had about a 100-year head start on heavier-than-air aircraft.
Glider clubs in Germany and in other countries were formed by enthusiasts, sometimes with government help. They were very cooperative enterprises. Only a few cottage industries, more like workshops, built gliders, so many were built by club members themselves at very low cost. This could be a model for today.
Students started out on what was called a primary glider, the most basic flying machine you can imagine—wings and a tail, with a minimum of structure to tie them together and a skid with a seat on top. The control system consisted of a stick and rudder pedals and cables to the control surfaces, the original fly-by-wire—no instruments for distraction. I don’t think they even used a yaw string, as the wind on your face took its place.
Before we look at modern embodiments of the primary glider, we need to mention the evolution of hang gliders. Around the 1960s, there were a few experiments with updated Lilienthal- and Chanute-type hang gliders. Hang gliding really took off with the development of the much more portable Rogallo wings. Somewhat later, ram-wing parachutes had more cells added to become paragliders. Power was added to both types in backpack and trike formats. What we have now is one of the few areas in aviation that’s growing, what I call the floppy-wing flyers. Relatively low cost, minimal regulation and portability are key factors in that growth. Rigid-wing ultralights with aerodynamic controls evolved from these lightweight flyers.
One of our Experimental Soaring Association members, Mike Sandlin, came out of hang gliding and has been building what he calls “air chairs.” His aircraft are ultralight aluminum structures with cloth covering. They’re designed to be built with what he refers to as “garage technology.” Cartop-able, they can be flown from hang glider sites. They have a seat, aerodynamic controls, a wheel to take off and land on, and can be launched by several methods. Mike has made his designs available on the Internet in a noncommercial way, and people are building and flying them all around the world. Kit and powered versions are now available. Although the air chairs look like the old primary gliders, they perform much better and are capable of soaring and cross-country flying. The air chairs, both powered and unpowered, are typically FAR Part 103 legal, which means they are, by regulation, technically not aircraft at all, but aerial recreational vehicles with no input from the FAA required for licensing or certification. Do as you wish. Lilienthal and the Wright brothers didn’t have any choice but to teach themselves how to fly. It wouldn’t be a good idea to do that today, but at least it wouldn’t be illegal. The freedom of Part 103 allows much lower-cost basic flight training than even LSA.
Besides the potential of lower costs, let’s look at the benefits of learning how to fly in gliders, as opposed to the conventional route with power planes. The most obvious is doing all your early landings deadstick. This experience should produce a pilot having deeply ingrained knowledge that it’s the wings that keep an airplane in the air and not the engine. The long wings of a glider produce enough adverse yaw so that learning proper use of the rudder is required. The unicycle-like landing gear typical of gliders also demands proper use of the rudder. Most modern power aircraft try to minimize adverse yaw, and with tricycle gear, sloppy rudder use has become too common. When one gets farther along in glider training, to the point of learning how to thermal, much practice flying steep turns at low speed is required. With all the emphasis on stall avoidance and spin training, surprisingly, there are still a few glider pilots who manage to fall out of the turn to final like their power pilot brothers.
The current state of training in the world of powered flight is fraught with distractions. There are seemingly endless regulations, airplanes with flying qualities that might even be too benign, easy landings with tricycle gear, not to mention all the distracting radios and other gadgets taking up available resources. With all this going on, basic stick-and-rudder skills are almost an afterthought.
Which is why learning to fly in gliders makes so much sense. Mastering basic stick-and-rudder knowledge and skills is at the very heart of glider training. A training flight in a glider, especially in calm air, lets the student really hear, see and feel exactly how the stick and rudder affect the aircraft.
While there are currently obstacles here in the United States to making glider training the basic training for all types of pilots, in many parts of the world, starting in gliders is mainstream. Many clubs and air cadet organizations use winch-launched gliders for basic flight training (as do, to be fair, some Civil Air Patrol groups here in the States). In the U.S., however, there just aren’t very many glider-training facilities, even fewer with a winch.
The winch is basically a big engine driving a drum with a lot of cable on it. The gliders are hooked up and pulled up into the air just like someone launching a kite by running into the wind. In the U.S., the normal method of launching gliders is the use of tow planes. On the downside, the cost of operating a tow plane with its aircraft engine adds enough cost to make the hourly charges for instruction in gliders higher than for training in powered aircraft. In most parts of the world, the most used launch method is a winch. A winch launch is quite dramatic, with about a 45° apparent climb angle. From initial roll to release is less than one minute. Release altitude is around half the starting line length. Launch costs are dramatically lower than operating a tow plane. The energy cost for a typical winch launch is only about one dollar. If soaring is going to grow and our flight training proposal is going to happen, winching has to become much more popular in the U.S.
A complementary alternative is the powered glider. This seeming contradiction is mirrored in sailboats, as most sailboats have auxiliary engines that make them much more usable in the real world. The same thing has evolved with sailplanes, as many, if not most, factory-built sailplanes have some sort of powerplant since they come from the factory. The flexibility and increased utility make the extra cost an actual bargain. In a 1978 visit to a European sailplane company that pioneered self-launching sailplanes, I was told that their self-launching sailplane cost 50% more, but flew twice as many hours in a calendar year. A powered sailplane that can operate from normal light plane airports eliminates the problem of the limited number of tow plane or winch-equipped fields. With their outstanding efficiency and ability to fly for hours engine-off, are motor gliders the sport planes of the 21st century?
The FAA limits the credit for glider training toward a power ticket. I started flying in gliders, but realizing I wanted to fly power also, I went for my power ticket first and a glider rating later. In presentations, I’ve used the title “Stairway to Heaven” as a musical and visual metaphor for learning how to fly. It would be helpful if the FAA would make it one continuous staircase by giving pilots fair credit for the useful glider training they get before going for their Private Pilot Certificate.
Back To The Future
By learning from the past, we can get more pilots in the air, especially young people flying with outstanding stick-and-rudder skills. A glider can be soloed at age 14. The importance of starting kids flying at a younger age can’t be underestimated. In Lithuania, children as young as age 8 are learning to fly basic gliders with a specialized winch setup that controls speed and altitude. Most, if not most, soaring is done in clubs. Clubs are normally cooperative noncommercial operations, so we might be able to use Experimental Amateur Built gliders for flight training. It’s common in the U.S. for club members to build their own winch. If we can convince the FAA to allow E-AB tow planes, the elements would be in place to greatly reduce the cost barriers to taking those beginning steps on the stairway to heaven. PP
Murry I. Rozansky is President of the Experimental Soaring Association, division of the Soaring Society of America. An active EAA lifer, he’s a private pilot who holds SEL&S and Glider ratings. Visit ssa.org.