by Jim Hanson
I like gliders. They are pure sport. There is not pretension of being able to use them for efficient and reliable travel. Gliders fly more like jets than piston airplanes fly like jets. Like jets, gliders are so low in drag that when you put the nose down, the aircraft accelerates. They have retractable gear, complex flap systems, and speed brakes. Like a jet, you manage the energy. Some even have a deceleration chute like a jet. Gliders are just FUN!
The fun doesn’t stop when the lift quits, either. Flying a glider involves a number of people – a tow pilot, someone to run your wing, perhaps help with assembling, and a chase crew if you set off cross-country.
When the gliders are put away, the social side of flying sets in. Grills come out, families gather, and everyone shares in the stories of the events of the day. It is something sorely missed in the powered side of flying, and the chance to socialize with others is one of the reasons that soaring – along with ballooning, skydiving, and flying ultralights and light sport aircraft – is increasing.
If there is a down side to glider flying, it is that same need for people. Sometimes, you just want to go flying, and it is hard to fly a glider by yourself, or perhaps you don’t have a tow plane. There are other ways to launch a glider – a winch launch, an automobile launch – or the ultimate freedom to fly gliders by yourself – the MOTOR GLIDER.
Motor gliders come in two styles – “self-launch” and “sustainer.” As the names imply, “self-launching” gliders have the capability to launch by themselves. “Sustainer” engines provide only enough power to keep the glider aloft if it encounters unexpected sink. This glider must be launched by other means.
Why Motor Gliders?
Motor gliders are a cross between airplanes and gliders. They offer the following advantages:
• The ability to fly without a medical certificate. Since they are gliders, there is no provision for denial of this privilege in the event that a medical certificate has been previously denied, as in Light Sport Aircraft. Like any other glider (or airplane, for that matter), the pilot is expected to not fly if they believe they are not fit to fly –self-certification.
• The ability to self-launch without a tow plane or winch.
• The ability to fly during times when there is no lift – early mornings, evenings – winter.
• The ability to go places. Many of these are well-designed traveling machines, capable of long-distance flights. (Most Brazilian-built Ximango motor gliders are flown here from Brazil!)
• Since they have an electrical system, they are usually equipped with radios, GPS, and transponder/encoders, allowing flight within Class B airspace.
• Unlike LSA aircraft, they are not restricted to altitudes of 10,000 feet.
• With their long wings, they burn very little fuel – 2.5 to 5.5 gallons per hour, depending on the engine type. Of course, they burn NO fuel with the engine shut off! Rotax engines are designed for auto fuel.
• With their large wing area, these aircraft offer low stall speeds, fast climb, and near-STOL capabilities. They usually employ glider-like spoilers or airbrakes for direct lift control and steep descents. Once you fly an aircraft with spoilers, you’ll wonder why every airplane doesn’t have them.
• The ability to own or fly a unique aircraft… an aircraft sure to turn heads wherever it flies.
• Since motor gliders are certified as self-launching gliders, you have to have a glider rating to carry passengers. This isn’t a big issue. For a private pilot converting to gliders, a minimum of 10 solo flights are required to qualify to take the glider flight test. No written exam is required – just a flight test – and it counts as a biennial flight review.
• These aircraft are BIG! Unless they have folding wings, they won’t fit in a t-hangar. Fortunately, many designs have folding or quick removable wings. They can be rigged or de-rigged in 20 minutes or less, and then you can put several of them in one hangar, or in your garage!
• Some airports have narrow runways and taxiways, lights, or other obstructions that may make the motor glider difficult to operate.
• They can be more difficult to fly in strong winds (but no more so than LSA aircraft).
What Are My Choices?
Motor gliders have been popular in Europe for decades due to the high cost of fuel, so it stands to reason that most of them are imported. They tend to fall into two general categories – the training-sport-utility gliders with glide ratios approximating 27:1 – and the high-performance gliders with retractable gear – often capable of nearly 50:1 performance. Like all high-performance machines, high performance costs money!
• I owned a Romanian motor glider – an IS-28B2B Lark. It was a two-place, side-by-side retractable gear aircraft, powered by a Limbach/VW engine with a full-feathering propeller. It had a 55 ft wingspan, and very effective spoilers emanating from the top and bottom of the wing. It offered 27:1 glide ratio – cruise speeds up to 120 mph, and a 1700 lb gross weight. About 400 Larks have been built, but a check of Trade-A-Plane doesn’t show any for sale today.
• Schweizer built a dozen SGM 2-37 motor gliders – 9 of which were destined for the USAF Academy at Colorado Springs. Four remain flyable.
• Diamond Aircraft builds the HK-36 Super Dimona. They shortened up the wings and introduced it to North America as the Katana – a certified airplane. With the long wings, the Dimona is not only a motor glider, but is strong enough to be used to tow other gliders aloft! Over 1000 have been built, and even better, you can RENT one in a school in Waukegan, Illinois! Here’s the link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/dws378cx8exo362/GliderBrochure-Prices.pdf
• Like the GA industry in general, sometimes the best way to get the aircraft you want at an affordable price means building it yourself. For decades, the Europa has met that need with nearly 1000 aircraft kits produced. The aircraft is unique in that it can be built with interchangeable wings – long wings for better soaring, or speed wings for touring (up to 150 mph and 1000 fpm climb). It offers a wide cabin, lots of baggage space, great economy, limited aerobatic performance, and the ability to rig or de-rig either set of wings in less than 20 minutes. The quick-build kit is $70,000 U.S. It can be built with either the single, retractable glider-like main wheel (preferred by Europeans for rough-field operations) or tri-gear. (If the airplane looks familiar, it is because it is type-certified in the U.S. as the Liberty LSA airplane). Don’t dismiss the mono-wheel until you’ve tried it… it offers many advantages: http://www.europa-aircraft.com/motorglider/index.php
• There are any number of European imports that come on the market from time to time, the most common of which are the Fornier and Sheibe models, constructed of wood, tube, and fabric.
• Perhaps the most common motor gliders in the U.S. are the Brazilian Ximango, a two-place, side by side aircraft with a claimed 31:1 glide ratio. For a short video of just how much fun a motor glider can be, go to http://www.touringmotorgliders.org/forum/showthread.php/179-Ximango-Video-Clips.
The other entrant in this class is the Grob 109. The Grob is built in Germany, and Grob gliders are among the world’s best. The early aircraft are heavy and have smaller powerplants, and the useful load is not good—all that changed with the B model. An added advantage is that the wings fold for storage, but despite factory claims, they are so heavy that you really need a helper. These aircraft can be purchased in the $50,000 range.
• The high-performance class of motor gliders are true sailplanes, and not designed for touring or powered cross country. Though most are very expensive (Nimbus 4, DG-29, Ventus), the single-place PIK-20E version of the PIK-20 can occasionally be found, and most at a reasonable price. It offers a 42:1 glide ratio while soaring. There are also the “superships” – very expensive gliders with glide performance of 50:1 or better. (Think about it… one of these gliders located a mile above your home airport could reach any airport within 50 miles in a no-wind condition, with no lift at all! Another way to think about it, since we usually can’t SEE 50 miles from 5000 feet. That means “if you can see it, you can get to it!” This class includes the Stemme, with a retractable propeller in the nose) and the Antares – an electric-powered self-launcher that has been out for many years. There are even jet-powered self-launchers!
• On the other side of the performance spectrum, Pipestrel Aircraft makes the Sinus – the motorglider version of the Virus (Who picks these names? Are they English-proficient?). This VERY capable aircraft has flown around the world (including over-flying Mt. Everest)! You can have it YOUR way – factory built, or 400-hour kit. It is available as a tri-gear or taildragger. You can license it as a motor glider with the 50 ft wings, and also build the 40 ft wings for ease of hangaring (they change in 20 minutes). Glide ratio is 30:1. The aircraft is artificially limited to 120 kts to make it LSA-capable, but you can license it experimental (aircraft or motor glider) and go much faster. The aircraft has a range in excess of 700 miles. The kit costs $81,000 U.S: http://www.pipistrel-usa.com/models/sinus.html
The Touring Motor Glider Association (http://www.touringmotorgliders.org/) is a great source for information. This link takes you to their home page, with lots of photos of different motor gliders. Here’s the link to the forums on each type http://www.touringmotorgliders.org/forum/forum.php.
Look over these links and give motor gliders some thought. If you have a problem with the FAA medical, or are simply tired of the FAA dithering on the medical issue, give them more thought. If the nice FAA man asks to see your medical certificate, simply smile and tell him “I’m a glider pilot,” and go about your business!
Glider Flying—An Observation
Recently, a group of glider pilots got together at my home field of Albert Lea, Minnesota to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our first glider regatta – or get-together. This isn’t a sailplane competition, like sailboat owners or owners of classic cars. It’s just a chance to get together, to appreciate the sport, renew old friendships, and generally socialize. Fourteen of the 50 or so attendees gathered at my house for dinner. When we asked “how many of you here tonight were at the first gathering 25 years ago, 11 of the 14 raised their hands – a pilot retention rate that would be the envy of the power pilot industry. Glider pilots (and other sport pilots) tend to stay active in aviation at a rate far greater than private pilots as a whole. Why?
1) It’s inexpensive. Glider pilots burn little fuel. They usually keep their gliders in the trailer – no hangar fees. Annual inspections are inexpensive—no engine, fuel, exhaust, or electrical systems to inspect and break. Insurance is cheap, and for only half the year.
2) It’s harder to get a glider rating in the first place than a power rating. For a power rating, you can just show up at the airport. For a glider-only rating, it takes time to get the glider into position, make the tow, make the flight(s), and put it back. It may take a couple of years to get the rating, and people who work hard for a rating, usually stick with it.
3) Glider ratings have no pretensions of being useful. With power ratings, pilots often attempt to justify the rating as being able to go someplace with an airplane, but many rarely do. With gliders, it’s just about the FUN… no apologies.
4) There’s little over-regulation. No medical certificate. No night currency qualifications. No “high-performance” endorsement. No “complex endorsement.” No instrument currency requirements. No need for a lot of equipment and expense to gain access to airspace that you don’t want to go into anyway. Glider pilots self-regulate, and have an accident rate year by year that is equal to or better than power pilots. So much for “regulation increases safety.”
5) With gliders, it’s about socializing, and unlike power flying, there’s very little “social stratification” in gliding… no ATPs… few commercial operators. Everyone is pretty equal, and everyone can identify with what others have gone through.
There’s a lesson in here for the rest of the aviation industry.
Flying The Schweizer SGM 2-37
When we announced the fun fly-in, I received an e-mail from Greg Klein, Aviation Department Supervisor at Lake Area Technical Institute, located in Watertown, South Dakota. The school trains aviation mechanics and those seeking a career as “aerial applicators” – crop dusters. To give the mechanics experience in handling and ground handling aircraft, and to teach pilots stick-and-rudder skills, tailwheel operations, and energy management, the school utilizes an ex-USAF Schweizer SGM 2-37 (TG-7A) and a Ximango motor glider.
“The Ximango is the racehorse, and the Schweizer is the workhorse,” Greg explained. “We can give more rides in an hour in the Schweizer than in the Ximango. For us, it’s all about the experience for the student… not how well we can work lift.”
Greg volunteered to bring the Schweizer to Albert Lea to let other glider pilots (and a few lucky power pilots) experience motor gliding. When it came my turn to fly, I got a double dose of Schweizer flying – we would do some air-to-air shots first, flying formation with the Aviat Husky tow plane with a cameraman on board. Formation flying is tricky enough, flying orbits to highlight the selected background, but flying dissimilar airplanes (the low-drag motor glider and the higher-drag Husky) makes it even harder.
It was a classic case of “crack the whip” as the subject airplane is usually on the outside of the turn, causing it to lag in the turn, then surge ahead when the turn stops. Fortunately, the Schweizer has those wonderful speed brake/spoilers. Unfortunately, they make the workload harder. The speed brakes gives an immediate slowdown, but it also spoils lift, causing the glider to drop. It’s a tough balancing act—fly the airplane, manage the throttle, deploy the speed brakes. The solution? Partially deploy the speed brakes to approximate the drag of the camera ship. Note that in the photos, the speed brakes are partially deployed.
After the photo session, we climbed to altitude, then throttled back to cool and stabilize the engine. After a few minutes, Greg shut down the engine. I slowed to 60 mph to stop the prop and we explored silent flight. There was no yaw string on the aircraft—just a turn and bank. It wasn’t hard to coordinate the turns. Like most gliders, we led with the rudder to balance out adverse aileron yaw from the long wings.
When it came time to enter the pattern, we increased speed to 80 mph to give us additional potential energy. We deliberately flew a high base leg, and used those marvelous spoiler/speed brakes to bring us down. Spoilers provide for direct control of lift. Unlike flaps, there is no ballooning or sink as there are with flap changes. It’s easy to put the aircraft exactly where you want it.
I asked Greg “wheel landing or stall landing?” He responded with “try a wheel landing. If it doesn’t work out, make it a tail-low wheel landing.” (Gliders are typically not flared for a landing… they are flown right onto the ground, then spoilers applied to kill lift… again, much like a jet). The forward-swept metal gear legs made the landing a good one. We turned off the runway onto the taxiway, all without power – just like Bob Hoover! – then started the engine and taxied in. Like every other pilot that flew the airplane, I was grinning from ear to ear!
I’ve kept track of the airplanes I’ve logged time in. This is the 314th unique type of aircraft I have flown. I don’t count it unless I make a takeoff or landing (no holding the wheel enroute), and I don’t count it as a separate type unless there are material differences (such as engine types) from previously-logged types. Almost all of them have been fun, but this one was memorable. Thanks, Greg, for a great trip “around the patch.”
The Schweizer SGM 2-37
Schweizer Aircraft has a long history of producing special-mission aircraft, including the “Q-Star” very quiet observation aircraft that served in Vietnam – a design based on the 2-32 glider. East Bloc countries train their military pilots in gliders to develop pilot skills, and the USAF Academy did the same. When the academy sought a motor glider, they wanted a U.S. manufacturer, and approached Schweizer Aircraft. The company quickly responded with an aircraft built to Air Force specifications. They started with the wings of their single-place 1-36 – built a new center section to accommodate side-by-side seating, provide for fuel, and extend the wings – used the tail of the versatile 2-32 commercial ride sailplane, and grafted the engine, mount, and cowling from the Piper Tomahawk to provide the power. Specifications:
• Glide Ratio: 19:1 at minimum sink.
• Power: Lycoming O-235, 112 hp, non-feathering prop.
• Empty Weight: 1200 lbs. Max gross weight 1850 lbs.
• Wingspan: 56 ft 6 inches.
• Cruise Speed: 112 mph.
• Fuel Consumption: 4 to 6 gph.
• Fuel Capacity: 14 gallons
• Service Ceiling: 14,000 feet.
Nine aircraft were built for the Air Force Academy and delivered in 1983. They served until 2003. Schweizer also certified the aircraft with the FAA with optional 150 and 180 hp engines. Additional special-mission aircraft were built for the other Armed Services, with 235 and 250 hp engines.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time operator of the Albert Lea, Minnesota airport. He has flown 314 unique types of aircraft in his 51-year flying career, and is a rated flight instructor in airplanes, gliders, instruments, and multi-engine airplanes. Gliders fly in thermals, rising columns of warm air. There are those that say there is a perpetual thermal over the Albert Lea airport whenever Jim is around. Jim can be reached at 507-373-0608 or firstname.lastname@example.org, when he is not flying.