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FreeFlight Advice: Flying the right glider

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Hang Gliding and Paragliding magazine
It seems like a simple enough question, doesn’t it?  But how often do we ask it of ourselves?  Hopefully we examine it thoroughly before and during the purchase of a new wing… but not many look back to reevaluate their gear once purchased.  I’d like to do just that, and inspire some thought on the subject.  I’ll also offer some ideas to consider, and some ways we can self-diagnose to better answer the question: “Am I flying the right hang glider?”
Sometimes, to answer a question, we need to first ask another question.  In this case, it’s helpful to ponder “why do I hang glide?”.  Wow, that’s quite the question!  Most have a difficult time refining that answer into just one sentence, so let’s clarify it to “What do I look to get out of hang gliding?”  When driving home after a day at the local hill or flight park, you are satisfied if A) you had a safe and successful flight, regardless of duration B) You had a soaring flight of decent duration C) You flew cross-country, be it out-and-return, open distance, or to somewhere other than the standard LZ for that site D) You got high before conditions mellowed enough to perform some aerobatics above the LZ before landing E) You stayed up longer, got higher, and/or went further than your friends (doesn’t matter how long/high/far, just that you “won”).   There is no wrong answer here, and you might want to choose more than one, but knowing what you want is important.  This line of thinking will help guide you on the characteristics of a wing that will best deliver what you seek, maximizing your enjoyment.
Performance, performance, performance.  Know it or not, but we all crave the highest performance equipment we can get our hands on.  The important clarification on that statement is this- there are many yardsticks we can use to measure “performance”.  For some (stupid!) reason, wings that glide better are labeled “high performance”.  In order of “performance”, Wills Wing’s lineup would look something like this: Alpha>Falcon 4>Sport 2>U2>T2>T2C.  But what about a ridge soaring site like Point of the Mountain?  Compared to a T2C, an Alpha or Falcon is lighter weight, drastically quicker to set up, and is able to fly considerably slower- which means launching sooner and spending more time flying in the lift, and requiring fewer passes/turns which deteriorate sink rate.  These wings also handle easier which makes navigating the high volume of traffic far less tense.  The result is more time to fly, a wider range of soarable conditions, and a more enjoyable flying experience.  In this example, an Alpha or Falcon provides much higher soaring performance than a T2 or T2C.  Obviously this is a specific case, and these wings are the extreme ends of the “performance” spectrum, where the Sport 2/U2 (and of course other similar wings by other manufacturers) are compromises somewhere amid the range.
Skill.  The above two paragraphs had us thinking about how much (glide) performance we might desire and hopefully you might see that having MORE glide performance than you NEED is actually a detriment, because the sacrifices made to improve the glide might actually take away from your maximum enjoyable experience each flight.  What I have found to be far more important than the glide performance of a wing, is the performance of the PILOT.  For example a pilot that is passionate about flying great distances XC might want the maximum glide performance available… but at what cost?  The highest performance wings are expensive- they cost us many paychecks, but that’s the least of it.  They cost us flight time because they have more battens and take longer to set up.  That also means they cost us time at the end of the day, as they are more complex and must be rolled and packed with excessive care so they don’t eat themselves while bouncing on your roof rack.  They fly faster, even when you don’t want them to, which means launches and landings are by default higher risk (and require more skill, which I’ll get into later).  The handling is stiffer in roll and more delayed- often requiring additional clearance from terrain or other traffic.  And these so-called “high performance” wings also require constant focus and attention in order to be efficient.  These wings are fast… they climb fast, but they also sink fast too.  One bad 360 can cost you LOTS of altitude, as can even a slight stall of one wing while trying to climb.  High performance wings require a lot more input, both in roll and in pitch, to climb as efficiently as possible… costing you concentration and energy.  When flying cross-country, for example, it can be very tough for even the most experienced pilots to focus on climbing and planning their next glide to stay on course and find the next thermal.  For many it can be too much, and that’s ok to admit to yourself!  I have quite a bit of flying experience, and I can say that sometimes it’s too much for me.  Sometimes I must choose between climbing as quickly as possible OR planning my next move, because I can’t possibly do both.  An easier to fly wing allows the PILOT to perform at a higher level, which over the course of a flying day or a long XC, can add up to an improved experience all around- in miles and enjoyment.  The “higher performance” wings also require larger LZ’s, which despite the improved glide can actually make flying from landable-area to landable-area more difficult.  In this regard a glider like the Sport 2 is usually the safest balance, offering the glide to reach LZ’s and the low end to land short in tight places (of course with the requisite pilot skill to do so).
On the topic of SAFETY, it can be difficult to judge exactly how safe we are on our wing.  It is NOT as simple as, “I’ve never gotten hurt, so I’m fine on my wing”.  Unfortunately it’s even more complex than “I have great flights, staying up, getting high, going far, I’m obviously experienced enough for my wing”.  There is no such thing as truly “safe”, a better way of thinking of it is managing your risk.  Flying cross-country for example, by default requires flying in thermic conditions, and very well may result in landing in an unknown LZ.  This can be one of the most demanding- read risky- situations in a hang glider.  Let’s take one step sideways from the concept of safety and examine the skills required for the various levels of performance wings.  To be honest, a hang glider flies like a hang glider, and even most H2’s could fly a topless wing.  Notice I said fly, not launch, not land… these two phases of flight are the highest risk, and where most accidents happen.  And, by no coincidence, require the compilation of experience, knowledge, precision, anticipation, and execution.  I hope that sounds like a lot, because frankly it is.  Even beginner wings require these things, it’s just the margins are higher and the penalties for not completely delivering are lower.  I personally like to dissect no-wind launches and landings, in smooth conditions.  Yes, smooth conditions.  While thermic conditions require much more skill, there are a large number of variables in play, and there is a low level of “repeatability”- meaning you can perform the same exact actions 6 times and get 6 entirely different results.  In no-wind, you know that anything the glider did or didn’t do, was the results of your inputs.  As you go up the performance food chain, each wing requires more and more precision.  Because high performance wings have much less twist, they are more critical of proper angle-of-attack.  Because they carry weight more efficiently (and weigh more) we tend to fly them at higher wingloadings.  Launching a topless wing in no wind- especially at high altitude- requires near perfection.  And when it comes to planning a landing approach, as the ability to adjust landing placement through airspeed becomes less and less.  Spot landing is an exercise in precision flying and putting the glider exactly where you want it.  Most schools of thought say that, to get good at spot landing, fly the same approach every time.  For the purpose of evaluating how precise we can be with our wing, I like to ask myself if I can do several very different approaches and get the same result, landing on a specific spot.  Can I do an aircraft approach, can I do figure 8’s, can I do a variety of 360’s- changing diameter and even direction- and still hit my landing spot?  And can I do it in different LZ’s, especially ones I’ve never seen before?  If so, I’m pretty precise on my wing!  Landing quality is an entirely different animal.  I like to look at full-flare-no-step landings as that is one of the hardest maneuvers to perform in *any* hang glider, and doubly so in high performance gliders.  Performing these landings requires a delicate balance of art and science, applying technique with exacting timing and anticipating what inputs the wing WILL need, thinking ahead of your wing and not behind (again, faster wings require faster thinking).  To be clear, I am not stating that one must be able to do a no-step landing in no-wind every single landing in order to be safe; What I am proposing is that, like landing accuracy, can be used as a measure of your precision on your current wing.  But if you CAN do it every time, on a topless glider, I think we’d all agree that is impressively precise!
Those that know me know that I love to “stir the pot”… and also that I have no problem speaking my mind, no matter how unpopular my opinion may be.  I will be so bold as to say that the majority of hang glider pilots are flying at least one performance level beyond what they should.  As you read this, are you probably thinking I’m being pompous, or that I’m right-on… but probably not getting what you should out of this- that in all probability I am talking about YOU!  I’d like to suggest thinking of topless wings like the T2 and T2C (and of course the comparable offerings from other manufacturers) as COMPETITION class wings.  If you don’t fly several times a week, 100+ hrs a year, AND have the skill to attend a competition and expect to do reasonably well… you don’t need a topless comp wing.  You probably don’t have the skill to extract and capitalize on the additional performance.  For a matter of perspective, a wing like a U2 has nearly the same glide polar as the Wills Wing Fusion, their first topless offering.  A U2 or similar is the max performance any recreational pilot should ever need… anyone saying they need more performance to fly for fun is just hoping the performance of their wing will make up for their deficiencies as a pilot (yea, I said it).  For many, a Falcon or similar offers the most soaring performance for their needs and desires.  If you’re willing to put up with curved tips and a few more ribs, the Sport 2 and similar gets you a big step in performance, with nearly the same level of forgivingness in everything except landing approaches.  Most recreational pilots that are flying for fun (answers A and B in the first paragraph) are probably best served by a Falcon or Sport 2.  If you are competitive with your friends and/or like to go for it in terms of XC (answers C and E in the first paragraph) gliders like the Sport 2 or U2 are literally made for you!  Observant readers will notice I skipped over which gliders apply to answer D from the first paragraph- this is because aerobatics is a general term.  The Falcon and Sport 2 perform excellent aerobatics, if the pilot is capable.  Again some perspective- in the 80’s people performed straight-over loops in gliders that were probably most comparable to the Sport 2 (I don’t recommend trying it!).  As pilot skill increases and the desire to “go bigger” builds, the added performance of a wing like the U2 allows for that.  Unless you are performing aerobatics at a level in which you’d be willing to enter an aerobatic meet (if there were such a thing anymore)- and do at least somewhat well- the speed and energy retention if a topless wing is highly unnecessary.
Bringing this back around to the question at hand: “Am I flying the right hang glider?”  Clearly that is a question no one can answer for us, as it depends on what we look to get out of each flight, pilot skill and experience, and the level of risk we are willing to accept for ourselves in pursuit of… whatever it is you are in pursuit of.  Whether you’ve read this and it’s solidified your chosen wing, or it’s made you question your choice(s), I just hope this article has raised the question for you the reader: I Am I flying the right hang glider?  Well, sometimes I fly a T2C, and I recently purchased a Falcon 4.  I chose to write on this subject because now each day I am asking myself this very question… and some days after launching I realize I got it right… or got it wrong!  Usually the days I get it wrong I’m reluctant to land because the T2 is so much more demanding, it just isn’t as fun/enjoyable as the Falcon.  And the more I fly the Falcon, I see that the performance of my wing doesn’t always improve my enjoyment the way I thought it would…