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intro to soaring for the disabled glider pilot

pete golden
pete golden
6 years ago
17 posts

Soaring introduction

Soaring, "the sport of kings" is a unique, challenging and incredibly rewarding way to fly, especially for disabled and physically challenged individuals. Especially because in the glider disabled pilots have no  disadvantage nor advantage over other pilots. Except one. the advantage of looking down on your wheelchair below, and leaving it far behind.

Soaring is the art of staying aloft, in a glider. Gliders are very high performance planes, also called sailplanes, with a thrust-less glide slope as high as 65-1, while most modern sailplanes would fall between 30-1 and 45-1, and most power planes dropping out of the sky at a 5-1 ratio.

Primary Glider Humble Beginnings of Soaring

In the beginning there was the primary glider. And it was good. Man separated himself from the earth below and began his journey into the sky. A  dumb wise man once said, flying is simply forgetting how to fall. Well, it wasn't exactly that simple, first we had to control our fall.


Capable of being lunched off a mountain and landing in a field in the valley. You can almost envision the steepness of the glide slope from the photo. Gliding flight began as little more then controlled fall from the sky.

But with this humble beginning began our passion for flight. The passion for gliding, and soaring flight has never faded since man first controlled a fall from the sky.

To this day, primary gliders are useful experience to have (if your ever able to have the chance) the very basic forces of flight with minimal performance almost, gives you a crash course in flight dynamics. If you have lots of altitude when you start you can maneuver, doing turns, even practicing stalls, but your always headed quickly towards the ground. Your log book would show flight times recorded in seconds.

Today's sailplanes are pushing the limits of design refinement.


Capable of glide slopes as great as 65-1 they can fly a long way from less altitude. and can take advantage of "earth energy" to gain and maintain altitude, to extend flights to great distances.

"Earth energy' come in many forms, solar energy being the most widespread and available energy source. Wind over terrain is another form of earth energy a sailplane pilot will use.

The ability to predict, identify, and utilize the various forms of energy available is what turns a gliding  pilot, into a soaring pilot. To excel at the sport of soaring, requires you to become masters of the atmosphere, and in tune with the movement of the air around you, to the point of being able to feel, or sense where your chances to climb may be.

Soaring, is the art of understanding both the physics of flight, and the forces of the atmosphere itself and using them to sustain flight beyond the "dead air" glide ratio.

turning gliding into soaring

What turns a good day to fly into a flight you will never forget? A warm fall day with all the fall foliage changing colors is a good day to fly. Twenty minutes smooth as silk sight seeing in the peace and (relative) quite with no engine.

While taking a tow to a mile high and being able to fly up to 65 miles seems pretty good.. and it is.. turning that day into a 650 mile day, that is the difference between gliding and soaring. Taking a tow to 2,000 feet, then riding a wave to 20,000 to a new high. Breaking records, personal, regional or world. Blazing across the finish line at the Grand Prix and becoming world champion. Granted, not every flight to remember a lifetime will be a competition. I have seen glider pilots break down in tears flying over the grand canyon.

Short version:

Entire 5 hour adventure:

If you are like me, the most magical flight might not be  the longest, you might not fly the farthest, it might just be a shared moment of eye contact with a hawk or an eagle.

thermals and thermalling

in most cases this will be the 1st, and most common source of lift you will encounter.


Solar powered soaring: as the sun heats the ground, it heats some areas faster then others. hotter air will rise over warmer areas, and sink over cooler areas. the areas of rising air are much stronger, but very much narrower then the surrounding sinking air. a skilled glider pilot will circle in tight circles in the core, or strongest part of the lift, and faster through the sinking air. this technique can achieve distances, and course speeds significantly higher then "gliding" allows. this ability to turn a 45-1 best glide ratio at a speed of 57 knots, into a 600 mile day, at 110 knots, is what the sport of soaring is all about.

Cumulus clouds and thermals

cumulus clouds, often called fair weather clouds form from thermal activity, they are a good indication of where thermals will be, but not the only 1


cumulus clouds have a life cycle, i am sure we all have observed it while lying on the ground watching clouds change shapes, and imagining things we see in them. but might not have observed them from the 1st whisps start to form, then build into a big towering mature cloud only to fade away and decay. the stage of the cumulus will tell you if there will be lift, or not. the tops of decaying clouds have less distinction, the undersides lost its concave look and might appear to be falling apart. while this might be the perfect cloud for picturing dragons in, its not 1 good for looking for lift under.

the life cycle of the thermal begins before, and, in the absence of any clouds. this is important to note, as there might be lift over a dark colored field, or rock quarry or large paved area, long before that thermal carried enough moisture to cloud base (see future posting on soaring weather for more detail on what determines the heights of cloud formations). prior to decay stage, the thermal will detach from its ground source prior to decay lift may only be found closer to the cloud.

Blue skies and thermals

just cause theres no cumulus doesn't mean there are no thermals. clouds need moisture to form. with lower humidity no clouds will form, so you will be looking to the ground for signs of lift. (really you are always looking to both, but cumulus clouds are more obvious) areas of forest won't heat up as fast as freshly plowed fields, rocky areas, or sand. roofs of buildings, parking lots, all heat up rather quickly. hotter areas surrounded by cooler areas are most likely to cause thermals. while crossing water like a lake is sure to have nothing but sink, an island in the middle is highly likely to spawn thermal after thermal. its the cycle of heating and cooling air that creates updrafts and downdrafts. finding the most likely sources of heating can result in phenomenal flights.

most cumulus thermalling days, your altitude is limited by the clod base height, even if the thermal continues to rise higher. on blue thermal days you can often get alot higher.

Mountain soaring

once you graduate from thermalling, and sustained soaring flight, maybe your ready to conquer the majesty of mountain soaring. Mountain soaring uses a completely different lift source. the deflection of wind over the mountains. this comes in 2 main forms with very different conditions.

Ridge soaring and ridge lift


as wind hits a mountain it gets deflected, if that angle it hits the ridge at, is within about 15 degrees of perpendicular, and over about 15 knots, good lift can be expected within the blue shaded area.

taking advantage of ridge lift, offers some of the most beautiful and exhilarating soaring opportunities.

get inspired see our collection of ridge soaring videos opens in new tab/window

because your flying with a strong cross wind, the speed to fly, is whatever speed will keep you upwind of the ridge, in the lift. you can float along with hundreds of feet below you, or race along closer in. when soaring the ridge you will crab into the wind (the direction your nose points will be to the left, into the wind in this image. the number of degrees needed to fly parallel to the ridge depends on wind speed, and your forward speed. in thermals flying slow will mean faster climbing, but on the ridge, speed is your friend. (we will get into control effectiveness and speed soon) on the ridge, the speed to fly is never below best l/d , this gives you enough speed to turn into the wind, if you start to drift over the ridge (note that heavy sink on the other side) but can on the high end be breathtakingly fast. flying hundreds of miles at or above maneuvering speed is definitely possible.

Wave Lift and Wave Soaring

Soaring Mountain Waves to Record Altitudes


downwind of mountain ranges standing waves can form when the right atmospheric conditions exist. mountain waves extend upwards far higher then the ridge lift that initiated the wave motion. waves are theorized to extend high into the stratosphere, the perlan 2 space glider project hopes to reach an altitude of 90,000 feet soon. that will be higher then any sustained flight.

mountain waves allow for a glider to climb to unbelievable altitudes, riding a rising wave that stays stationary over the ground. the wind speed increases as you climb higher so you can be pretty stationary over the ground when high, and just floating straight up.

wave soaring like ridge soaring takes a completely different set of tactics and skills from thermal soaring. at high altitudes the indicated airspeed is significantly reduced from the true airspeed. without specially designed wings for high altitude flight, you might be ready to cross the vne and rip off the wings, while thinking your flying too slow. (instrumentation covered in a separate discussion). additionally, with high altitude flights, there is always a risk of the clouds closing in below you, and gliders are never able to fly within the clouds. 

furthermore,  the rotor turbulence can be heavy to severe. there have even been times where the rotor sat right atop the landing strip. sudden abrupt  and very strong updrafts and downdrafts on final, near the ground require quick reflexes to compensate.

see our wave soaring videos opens in new window/tab

Thermals Ridge and Wave Invisible Friends to Help You on Your Way

Although the air is invisible, there are many clues that tell you where to look. A glider pilot learns to understand the atmosphere as a fluid, dynamic mass with currents that obey rules. While the atmosphere maybe unpredictable, certain probabilities are to be expected. Gliding becomes soaring when your skill, allows you to read the probability of lift correctly, and extend a good flight into a great flight.

Cross Country and Competition Soaring

Think soaring around your local airfield won't be enough for you? Some pilots wait years before leaving home, others, are off exploring new areas, setting tasks and reaching for goals soon as they are competent

 Cross Country Soaring "Leaving Home"

During your training, and your early times flying a glider, you will stay in familiar territory, near your home airfield, and generally upwind. On good days when you are up for hours, you'd stay within glide ratio of the airport. If you got low you head back, if your high you might fly a little further out. Your constantly aware of where home is.


Leaving home

Your first cross country flight will likely be for 1 of the S.S.A (Soaring Society of America) (or your countries equiv) badges and achievements.

When you are ready to leave the nest, and the safety it provides, and set out on your own to new horizons, you will know all you need to know to soar long distances safely.

At every moment of your cross country flight, you are aware of what you will do, in case you can't make it home.

When you get low, and you will get low, you will have several fields picked out as possible landing locations, and will be narrowing down your options to the best one. At the very same time you are looking for even the weakest lift, to keep you from having to land. Your first flight away from home, you may turn back towards home several times if you start to get low. You may even be over the home field, about to enter the landing pattern, when you find a strong thermal that sends you on your way again.

Scully pulled off the miracle on the Hudson, only because of his cross country glider experience. Soaring cross country will be your first real challenge as a mature master of the  atmosphere, ready to fly off and away from the tether binding you to home by glide ratio.

Flying Tasks

When your starting to soar cross country, you might set a personal task, like trying to fly to a certain peak and back, or fly a triangle between 3 airports. If you always make the right decisions, you'll always reach each airport at, or above landing pattern height. If you don't, you end up landing in a field. You must always be planning for both potentialities.

As you are likely now aware, cross country soaring takes soaring to the next level, but requires much more skill then soaring around home. However, cross country soaring is still just a stepping stone to whole other levels of soaring bliss!

Soaring Competitions

I feel the need. The need for speed! And, well, altitude, and distance, and, yea, ya know, speed! Soaring competition involves a delicate balance of all these things. As was mentioned a glider can fly a maximum distance, at a specific speed. The best glide ratio drops off in a curve as speed is added. To fly the course in the fastest time possible requires a delicate balance between spending the least time climbing, using whatever lift is available to get the greatest speed over the course. One pilot might take the high road, diving from thermal to thermal, While another stays low racing along the ridge line. The route you take, the decisions you make, and the chances you take, all mater as much, if not more then the speed you fly.

aboutSoaringRacing1.jpg Soaring competitions are a world class sport. Called "The Sport of Kings" because of the level of skill required, as well as the pure majesty of racing through the most remote and forbidding and beautiful areas of the earth. Harnessing only the energy of the atmosphere they push their sleek ships to the limit, along with their skills.

The contest day begins with weather safety and procedure briefings, then the gliders line up on the grid, based on pre-selected positions, awaiting launch, grouped by competition classes.

When it is determined conditions are safe for the selected tasks of the day the contest gate is opened, and off they go. Some contests allow  you to start and restart, till you feel you have your best chances at a long fast flight. Higher level competitions use a rally start, with every glider crossing the start line together within an altitude window.

The Gaggle

preflight gaggle big.jpg

Welcome to the gaggle, the place where the masters of the atmosphere dance, circling one another in an upward spiral, reaching for the clouds. Dozens of gliders in close proximity circling tightly in a narrow column of rising air. Centering in a column you can't see will raise you to the top of the pack. The higher you are to start, the farther you can fly without needing to climb again.

And, the race is off.

Glider competitions range from regional competitions, with multiple classes of gliders, each class flying a different task, to one class competitions, where every glider is equal, only the pilots skills matter, and to the sailplane grand prix and world championship.

And now, you are on your own, competing against yourself, nature, fellow glider pilots, and, maybe even the most elite competitors in the world. Sailplane racing is the ultimate test of skill, understanding of atmospheric energy, and of course making all the right decisions.

Glider Aerobatics

Want more excitement and challenge? Soaring has it all. Most modern gliders are capable of basic aerobatics, loops, chandelles, lazy 8's cloverleafs and some, inverted flight. Special aerobatic gliders however are capable of a whole lot more!

Hold on tight for the ride of your life, puling over 5 G's and inverted flat spins. Gliders are capable of breathtaking, elegant, graceful, and eerily silent high G force aerobatics that are sure to drop a few jaws.

Gravity, that weak force that once bound us to the ground, has become the engine behind a high tech, high skill, high adrenaline sport like no other.

Notice I only mentioned disabilities in the 1st couple sentences. There is a reason for that. In none of the above examples, does your disability matter! When you soar, you are able to compete on a level playing field. It isn't "he became a top notch competition pilot despite having a disability. No, disability has  no affect on performance whatsoever! Only thing disabilities affect is how you manipulate the controls.

FWIG103FrontSeatControlsInstruments.jpg We use a rudder handle, attached to the left rudder pedal. push forward for left rudder, pull back for right.

Because the left hand is normally used for spoilers, dive brakes or air brakes while landing, that handle has a locking plate, to hold the handle in desired position.

The disabled pilot can easily switch from rudder to spoiler, to control the decent rate on final approach to landing.

Gliders generally are gentle to control, do not require much strength. They are also statically, and dynamically stable. This means when you take your hands off the stick, they tend to revert to straight and level flight.

In the course of controlling the aircraft, much of the control movements are just millimeters of movement, just gentle stick pressures. My own 1st instructor was a quadriplegic with limited use of both hands. He was also the best pilot I ever got to fly with.

Medical issues that may determine eligibility to fly:

Acting as Pilot In Command (PIC)  It is up to you to determine if your healthy enough to fly safely. Some disabilities come with spasticity, when severe the spasms may cause limbs to interfere in control movements. Severe motion sickness can interfere with the ability to safely fly the plane. Seizures obviously would result in an inability to control the craft, and, cause another pilot flying with you unable to control the plane. While O2 use is necessary at high altitudes, O2 systems might not be suitable for people on respirators.

Weight however is 1 limiting factor that is not up to you to decide whats safe, and what isn't! all gliders have a max weight limit, including all instruments gear, pilot, and any water ballast (used to fly fast) In addition they have a specific range the center of gravity must be within. So there is a minimum, and maximum weight. In a 2 seat trainer, the combined weigh of both pilots cannot exceed the max weight of plane + cargo. Even if the weights of both pilots falls within the proper limits, if the front pilot i too heavy, or too light, moving the center of gravity outside the proper limits, the stability of the aircraft is compromised, and a dive, or stall that cannot be recovered from maybe the result.

Welcome to the pure majesty, the excitement the thrill and the skill that is soaring. Ready to give it a try?

Soaring is that rare sport, that even after decades soaring some flights leave you grinning or giggling or exclaiming "it's just so beautiful" every 2 minutes. Unlike commuter flights, no 2 soaring flights are ever the same. The most experienced glider pilots are known to blurt out a "yeeehaw" "or "whooooaaaaahhh" now and then.

Glider pilots often meet and are known to recount their most memorable flights for years after the fact. Every flight has it's moments to remember.

Although much of the knowledge required to become a top notch glider pilot is extremely technical, requiring a knowledge of physics, and meteorology, there is also a very zen like quality, of being one with the movements of the air around you. Your mind is always active, seeking lift, reevaluating every decision, revising every plan, planning for every contingency, and change in conditions. However, with enough practice, this becomes automatic, your mind becomes quiet, and your actions and reactions more automatic.

When Capt. Scully lost both engines over New York City, there was no panic. Having flown so much in a glider (and in the Airbus A320-214 so he knew the flight dynamics well)  his reactions were automatic, performing the proper emergency procedures over a dozen steps before being listed in the emergency procedure manual. More importantly he used the "that's looks about right" technique to determine his glide slope would not allow him to safely land at any nearby airports. Attempting to reach an airport would only result in "landing' in a residential neighborhood. (Usually known as a catastrophic crash) Instead relying on his glider training he performed the "out landing" in the only available option the hudson river.

Gliders need a much shorter landing field, so farmers fields, even golf courses or parks are an option. Glider pilots are always aware of alternative landing options at every altitude, and everywhere along the flight route. A skilled glider pilot is therefore a safer pilot, flying in any plane, in any role, as a result of their glider experience. Recognizing this fact, military pilots are now receiving glider training more often, as part of their general flight training.

Someday, this may be a requirement for commercial airlines as well.

Commercial and military pilots alike often prefer to fly gliders in their off time, or after retirement. you can fly the fastest pine in the world, or the largest, but it will not inspire the passion of soaring flight.

head dreadhead at dreadlocks site
glider pilot student with freedoms wings international soaring for people with disabilities

updated by @soaringeagle: 11/20/21 12:45:30AM
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