Once you hook your first thermal and speck your plane out you will be forever addicted to soaring. If you can master the basic skills to get that far, you will be a lifetime soaring enthusiast. Learning to fly is both frustrating and fun. Some of the best stories old fliers tell are of their first flights and learning to fly. Indeed, there is nothing like your first flight, your first landing, your first launch, or your first solo. Each offers its own unique challenge, but the skills quickly become second nature. Still, learning to fly has its ups and downs (bad pun). You will likely go home a few times with a broken plane, but the days you go home with a personal best will more than make up for it.
One of the most often-asked questions for a beginner is how long it will take to learn to fly. A safe number is six afternoons with an experienced pilot. After about six outings, you should have enough skills to perform your own launch, flight and landings. The actual number of flights and outings depends heavily on how fast you learn, your coordination level, and ability to put yourself in the plane's frame of reference. On rare occasions, I've seen individuals solo after only a day or two. Others may take more than six sessions. It's always good to have an experienced pilot around in case you do get into trouble. I've seen some pretty spectacular saves over the years because a beginner or intermediate pilot was able to recognize when they were in trouble and hand the plane over to someone more experienced.
Tip 22: Plan on at least six sessions with an experienced pilot -- it will save you time and money in the long run!
Before you zoom off to the wild blue with your newly built plane, you need to spend a little time understanding how a sailplane flies. The following sections on aerodynamics and trimming your sailplane are required reading. Unless you've already flown R/C extensively, you need a basic understanding of flight and balance.
If your sailplane is always moving down, how are long flights possible? The trick in successfully flying a sailplane, is to fly it in air that is rising faster than your sailplane is sinking. The savior of your ever sinking sailplane is called lift (rising air), and it comes from two sources, thermals and the wind. Thermals, or bubbles of hot rising air, are created whenever a temperature difference exists on the ground. Wind or slope lift is usually caused by wind blowing up a gentle slope, though it can also be generated from smaller objects including trees, buildings and even cars. Both thermal lift and slope lift can be strong enough to raise your sailplane faster than it is sinking. You can keep flying your sailplane as long as you can find and stay in some of this rising air.
If you've ever stuck your hand out the window on a moving car, you know what drag is - it's the backward force on your hand. Drag acts to pull the airplane backwards; much like your hand is pulled back when you hang it out your car window. On an airplane, the amount of drag generated is related to the amount of lift generated -- more lift means more drag. Thrust on a powered airplane is the force from the propeller or jet engine that overcomes the backward drag and makes sustained level flight possible. A sailplane has no source of thrust, yet it still must generate lift to keep it aloft, which creates drag as it moves through the air. The sailplane generates the energy it needs to overcome drag by always flying downward relative to the air around it. The more drag generated, the faster the sailplane will come down. This is why we carefully design our sailplanes to minimize drag of all kinds, and use drag-inducing spoilers and flaps when we need to come down faster for spot landings.
The sailplane pilot controls the angle of attack using the elevator trim tab. A couple of clicks of down will speed the plane up so one can more efficiently search for lift, while a few up clicks slows the plane for landing or thermaling. A wise pilot knows when to speed the plane up and when to slow it down -- and will manage the energy of the plane to gain both strategic and tactical advantages.
Pilots also increase the angle of attack in turns, usually with a little pressure on the stick. This is due simply to the balance of forces on the plane. When the plane is level, gravity and lift equally offset each other. When the plane turns, lift is still generated vertically from the wings. If the pilot does not increase the now tilted lift vector, the plane will now be out of balance, as gravity is still pulling down with the full weight of the wings. The pilot must therefore apply some pressure to the elevator, raising the angle of attack to generate more lift. The steeper the turn, the more lift required to maintain a level turn. Balancing the right amount of up-stick for a given degree of bank is the single most difficult task for a beginner to learn.
Standing on the ground, a slow stall might appear as follows to a practiced flier. The plane is flying a little nose up, it begins to slow and get mushy . The controls start to get sluggish. The nose rises, the plane comes almost to a complete stop, and then suddenly the plane drops rapidly. The nose falls through, and the plane starts dropping vertically. The plane begins to pull out because it has positive stability, and starts to pitch upward again. Usually an experienced pilot will put a little down elevator in here to prevent the plane from entering a second stall.
Beginner sailplanes are built with lots of positive stability, and will frequently recover from one stall so quickly that they pitch up into a second stall, and sometimes a third and fourth stall before the pilot recovers. A sequence of stalls like this is called horseying or porpoising (slang). It is usually made worse by a beginner's delayed reactions.
Now lets look at the stall from the beginner's perspective. The beginner is flying along minding his own business. Suddenly his plane stops flying and points its nose straight at the ground! The beginner panics - he pulls the stick back as far as he can to save the plane from imminent destruction. But wait, he was a little slow to react -- the plane's own positive stability has already raised the nose of the plane as it gained speed. The beginner's late overreaction therefore pulls the plane into a second, more severe stall. The beginner realizes this just as the plane enters its second stall, and puts full down input. Again, he was too late, but this time the plane dives 100 feet before he realizes and pulls full up again. This creates a third stall, even more spectacular than the first two! Given no instructor intervention, I've seen beginners continue five or six times until they hit the ground. This is why you need an instructor -- beginners tend to react too slow and always be behind the airplane. An instructor can always stay one step ahead of your mistakes.
One final aerodynamic note -- stalls depend on both airspeed and angle of attack. The higher the airspeed, the larger angle of attack before a stall occurs. While it therefore becomes more difficult to stall a plane operating at high speed, it is not impossible. If you perform a sharp enough maneuver, you can technically stall your sailplane at any speed. Beginners tend to stall planes by flying too slow, but experts can stall a plane by abrupt maneuvers at high speed - usually in turns.
In a tip stall the downward wing tip tends to stall before the rest of the wing. This is due simply to the fact that the downward wing is on the inside of the turn and therefore flying at a slower speed than the rest of the wing. Since the tip is flying at roughly the same angle of attack, but slower speed that the rest of the plane, it stalls first. Turbulent air separates from the downward tip first, and quickly spreads the whole length of the wing, so the entire downwind wing stops flying. The plane now has the upward wing flying while the downward wing is not. The net result is a spin -- the plane will spiral downward. The correction is simply to apply opposite rudder to break the spin and level the plane. Tip stalls are not as large a problem at altitude, because the pilots natural reaction is to break the stall.
The most devastating tip stall problems occur on windy days, when it is difficult to judge airspeed. Pilots have a tendency to stall upwind turns, particularly near the ground on final approach. The plane seems to scream downwind because the airspeed seen from the ground is a combination of the wind and plane speed. The pilot on the ground, used to nice calm days, tends to overcompensate on the final downwind to upwind turn, resulting in a tip stall at 10 feet or less. If you are lucky, you can pick up the pieces and rebuild the plane. The best strategy to avoid tip stalls on final approach is to make a slow, conservative turn, and take it easy on the elevator.
A final note for beginners -- most beginner planes have some kind of washout in the wings. Washout is a downward twist at the wing tips that helps to prevent the onset of tip stalls. It reduces the angle of attack at the wing tips slightly. In essence, washout is insurance against tip stalls. If your beginner kit specifies applying some kind of washout to your plane, make sure you don't skip that step, and apply the same amount of washout to each side. Twist the wing trailing edge up at one tip, and then run your covering iron over your covering to hold washout in place. Measure it on a flat surface to make sure both sides are correct. Further, periodically recheck the washout, since your covering will tend to stretch with time, and slowly reduce your washout.
Don't, however, have excessively high expectations for your first flights. Learning to fly can for many people be frustratingly difficult. Your first flights will rarely exceed three minutes, and it may take many sessions before you catch your first big thermal. For your first flights, concentrate on what your instructor is saying, watch the plane, and try to make small smooth inputs. Most beginners over-control the plane and are impatient. Sailplanes take time to react to your inputs. Mentally, you need to stay slightly ahead of the plane to fly it well. Make small, smooth control inputs and wait a second to give the plane time to react. Your skills will dramatically improve after only a few sessions.
Finding an instructor is not hard. Visit or call the local club, and ask who might be available to instruct a new pilot. Most clubs will have one or more people who like to instruct and are good at it. Admittedly it does take a special person to be an instructor. Your instructor should be patient, experienced, and able to explain what he is doing at each step. A good instructor will freely give of his time, sacrificing much of his own limited flying time to teach you. In the US, most instructors are unpaid, though it is not unusual to give small gifts such as cookies, beer or an occasional free lunch to your beloved and hard-working instructor. In return for your instructor's sacrifice, the biggest thing you can do is to listen patiently to his instructions and ask questions whenever you don't understand what he is saying.
If your plane fails the preflight checks or a problem is discovered during trim flights, don't get discouraged. If you have to go home to correct the problem, just be thankful that someone was able to identify it before it resulted in a crash.
A good instructor will give you some ground instruction before launching. He will provide some simple instructions for transferring control of the plane. Next he will explain the flight path and the turns and straight flight he may ask you to perform. Ask the instructor to show you how much control input is required to turn the plane, and which direction is up and down. Have him explain to you how controls appear to be reversed when the plane is flying towards you.
On your first flight you might want to ask the instructor if you can fly the trims . Using this technique you fly the plane using the trim tabs only, never touching the sticks. This develops an appreciation for how little input it takes to fly the plane. Since the number one problem for beginning pilots is over-control of the plane, this is a great way to start. Just dial in a little left trim to make the plane circle left, and a little right trim to make the plane circle right. On a calm day the plane will fly itself, and needs very little guidance from you. This is an important lesson, since beginners almost always over-control and over-compensate when flying.
Eventually, you will want to begin flying the sticks . The key is to remain calm, and make smooth small control inputs until the plane reacts. Once you see the plane react, you can usually ease off slightly on the control stick. Be patient, as it takes time for the plane to change course after you have made a new input. Listen to your instructor, and try to watch what he is doing when he is flying. Observe the inputs he makes as he flies, and try to emulate those inputs when you fly.
When flying it is a good idea to keep your plane upwind of your landing site and try not to venture too far from the field. The reason for this is simple -- if you make a few mistakes, you want to have enough altitude to get the plane back for a safe landing. If you fly too far from the field or too far downwind, you may not have enough altitude to get the plane back. If you do get in trouble with the plane far out, you might want to hand the plane over to an experienced pilot. While the expert might not be able to get the plane all the way back, he may be able to guide it to a safe landing in an adjacent field. Until you are experienced, keep the plane upwind of you and near the field.
Second, as you experiment with turns begin to add some up elevator to hold the nose up. This is called coordinating your turn. If you add too little elevator during your turns you will lose a lot of height with no gain. If you add too much, you risk stalling the plane or tip stalling it into a spin. Watch the plane carefully and try to keep it at the same speed it was flying before the turn. Try to keep the fuselage in a level attitude. Don't allow the nose to drop too much, and don't let the plane slow down enough to lead into a stall. Adding the right amount of elevator for a given turn is a matter of practice.
As you get better at turning, you will be able to perform tighter turns without losing altitude. Try making figure-eights in the sky to practice transitioning from one to bank to another. Perform both left and right-handed turns, and try to avoid developing a favorite turn direction.
Tip 23: To recover from a stall, add just a little bit of down elevator as the plane begins to pull up.
The key to recovering from a stall is adding just a little bit of down elevator as the plane begins to pull up. Timing is the key -- you need to anticipate the recovery. Most beginners add the elevator too late, making the subsequent stall worse. Beginners also tend to pull up rather than down after a stall, making the next stall worse. Try to time your input so you are adding the down elevator just as the plane approaches horizontal. Smooth application of the elevator at the right time will result in a quick transition to normal level flight.
The first thing to absolutely forget when learning to land is a spot landing. Any landing that results in an undamaged plane is a great beginner landing. My instructor used to say that it is better to walk a long distance to pick up your plane than have to rebuild it. This is sound advice that I haven't forgotten to this day.
Landing does require some forethought. A key consideration when landing is how large your field is and where the major obstacles are. Most fields are bounded by trees, fences, transmission lines, buildings, parking lots and other solid grounded objects. Ideally, you would like to avoid smashing into these objects with your relatively fragile sailplane. If you have any wind at all, your downwind approach leg will likely take you much farther downwind than you intended. Frequently you will find yourself totally engrossed with the sailplane, only to find obstacles suddenly appear in your flight path. The bottom line is this: leave plenty of room all around you when landing, and have a friend or instructor spot for you when you fly.
You should start planning your landing well ahead of time. You want your plane to be at least 50 feet above the highest tree or building when you begin positioning for your landing. This will give you some clearance if you stall or make a mistake during the setup. Ideally, you should be flying upwind of your landing site. When you are about 50 feet over the highest tree (perhaps 70 feet total), begin to very gently circle the airplane over the field. If possible make a few gentle turns over the field before you reach tree height so you can gauge your distance from these obstacles.
Try to land directly into the wind. Landing into the wind reduces your ground speed, resulting in less damage if something goes wrong. Since the ground speed is slower going upwind, it is also easier to control and judge an upwind landing. Unless you find yourself too low to turn, try to plan your landing approach so your plane will land into the wind.
Have a mental picture of your landing approach before you fly it. Most instructors will have you fly upwind of your landing site while you are learning to fly. A standard landing pattern consists of flying the plane down to about 20 to 30 feet, flying a downwind leg followed by a final upwind turn into an upwind approach.
The two most critical maneuvers are the upwind turn and final approach. The final upwind turn needs to be made slowly and smoothly. This means your downwind leg cannot be directly over your head, or you will need to perform a hairpin turn to fly your approach. The downwind leg should be positioned approximately 100 feet to the right or left of your position, depending on which way you plan to make your final turn. By properly positioning your downwind leg, you can make a very gentle upwind turn and final approach.
On final approach the key is to keep your hands off the elevator. Most beginners think they can magically control the glide of the plane by flapping the elevator. It's a losing battle! If you pull up to slow the plane down, it will balloon and probably stall, smashing hard into the ground. If you push the nose down the plane will only gain speed and hit the ground very hard. Just fly the plane straight and level and let it land where it may. Unless there is a major obstacle in its path, don't change course or try to adjust the glide path. Amazingly, if you leave it alone, the plane will settle gently to the ground on its own. Remember its much better to walk a little distance to recover your plane than go home with it broken.
If you find yourself in a position where you don't have enough altitude to complete your final turn, then don't force it. Its OK to land cross-wind or even downwind as long as there are no obstacles. Many beginners do a lot of damage to their planes trying to force a final turn around when they don't have the energy and altitude to complete it. If you force it, you will likely tip stall the plane and it will cartwheel into the ground. If you can't complete the final turn, just try to straighten the plane out and let it land. The only time to force a low level turn is when you are absolutely going to collide with a fixed obstacle.
As you are learning to land you will frequently hit the ground very hard. This is a fact - everyone does it! Assuming your plane has no obvious damage, you need to carefully inspect it for internal damage. Frequently a very hard landing will break the servo mountings loose, crack an internal spar or damage the control linkages. If you just visually inspect the plane, your plane may auger in on the next launch. This particular point was brought home to me when I was helping a friend learn to fly his Gentle Lady. We had put in about six flights when the student made a very hard landing. We went over, picked up the plane, and launched it, never noticing that the stabilizer linkage was damaged. On the next high-start launch, the plane plowed straight down into the ground before I could even get my hands on the sticks of the transmitter. The plane was repairable, but we both took home a valuable lesson. Check the physical integrity of your control linkages and plane's structure after a hard landing - don't just visually inspect them.
The primary consideration when launching is that your glider is moving very fast on the high-start or winch. As speed increases, the plane reacts much more quickly to control inputs. This means that you need very small inputs to control the plane during launch. The slightest amount of rudder or ailerons will change the direction instantly. A small amount of elevator can result in a pop-off or stall. If you don't believe me, watch the way some people zig-zag up the launch line "hunting" for the center as they slowly over-control both to the left and right. To launch effectively you need to make small, smooth control inputs.
Before launching, turn your radio on and make sure all of your control surfaces are working and in trim. It is critical to wiggle the control stick again before releasing the plane to make sure your radio is still on. I've launched with the receiver off, and I can assure you that it is a very unpleasant experience.
Tip 24: Always wiggle your controls before launch to make sure your radio is operating properly.
To learn to launch, its best to have a friend or your instructor throw the plane and operate the winch or high-start while you fly. This will allow you to focus on flying the plane, and not get distracted by how it is thrown or the speed of the winch. Work out your signals before you launch. The standard signal system is for the person launching to shout "Ready" to the pilot, the pilot to yell "set" and the launcher to yell "Go" as he throws the plane. The launcher should throw the plane hard and straight ahead, with the wings level. Avoid the urge to throw the plane upward, because you risk stalling it and crashing. Throw it straight ahead as if you were hand-tossing it.
As you fly your first launch, concentrate only on keeping the plane straight. If your plane is properly trimmed and thrown, you may not need to correct the launch path at all. If the plane does veer to one side, make controlled movements to bring it back to a level climbing position. Try to avoid applying elevator pressure as this can result in a pop-off or make the plane more difficult to control. If something goes drastically wrong on the launch, do your best to level the plane and hand it over to an experienced pilot immediately.
One fairly common launch emergency is the pop-off . In a pop-off, the tow line comes off of the tow hook prematurely during launch. This usually happens between 20 and 70 feet of altitude, when maximum stress is placed on the plane. Frequently it happens on windy days when one is a little too heavy on the winch pedal. From the pilot's perspective the steeply climbing plane will suddenly separate from the tow-line and go vertical into a very deep stall. The best recovery for a pop-off is simply to hold full up elevator in, and complete a full loop back to level flight. The elevator must be applied before the plane stalls and loses all of its energy. Most people will stand there stunned, watch the plane stall and then try to recover by pulling out of the subsequent steep dive. This uses more altitude than looping, and may result in a crash if your pop-off occurs very low. Its most important to be aware of the possibility of a pop-off and avoid freezing up if it happens to you.
After you have learned to fly the launch, you can move on to launching and flying yourself. For a high-start, the procedure is fairly simple. Place the transmitter on the ground, calmly hook up your plane and then firmly hold your plane in one hand. Take the transmitter in the other hand. Firmly throw your plane, wings level, towards a point on the horizon straight ahead of you. Throw the plane hard -- if the line breaks you want it to have sufficient flying speed to continue on its own. Immediately after throwing bring your hands up to the transmitter stick and begin flying your plane.
If you are using a winch, your should first try having someone else fly your launch while you throw the plane and pulse the line up. It is very important to have someone show you how to operate the winch before you launch. Ask where the safety cutoff switch is, how to work the brake, and how fast you should pulse the foot or hand switch. If you have a wood trainer in particular, you need to be very careful with how fast you pulse a winch. If you pulse it too fast, your wings will fold and your pride and joy with have an impromptu meeting with terra-firma. Watch several others launch first. Also, grab the parachute in a bunch in the palm of your hand and see how hard the winch pulls on the line. This will give you an idea how firmly you will need to hold the plane when tensioning the line. I've seen several first time launchers begin to tension the line only to have the plane ripped out of their hand by sudden tension.
The process for winch launching is largely the same as with high-starts. Unless you have a top of the line all-composite plane, do not use a pedal-to-the-metal launch you may have seen the experts perform. A winch can fold a pair of wooden wings easier than you can fold a piece of paper. First, you pulse the winch once or twice to tension the line. Remember to hold the plane firmly and get a solid stance, as a winch can easily pull the plane from your hands. Once the line is tensioned throw the plane straight ahead, wings level. Next, very gently pulse the plane up the winch. Try to establish a regular tapping rhythm, just barely touching the switch each time. Emulate the pace of the experts around you and listen carefully if the pilot tells you to go slower or speed up. Watch or listen to the winch drum. If you listen to the winch strain when its running you will get some idea of how much tension is on the line. After each tap you can hear the motor and drum begin to slow down. When the winch is nearly stopped between taps and before your model begins pulling line off the drum, pulse it again. Try to just barely tap the winch pedal each time to avoid overstressing your trainer.
As the plane nears its apogee, start to slow your rhythm, stopping as the plane approaches the apogee over the turnaround. The pilot should then tip the plane down just a bit to get it off the line. Generally the person operating the winch then runs the winch line down to the turnaround pulley. Stop when the parachute is about 30 feet off the ground so you don't accidentally pull the chute through the turnaround. On certain conditions and fields you can let the chute drift back towards you.
When you are an expert at both pulsing the winch and flying the launch, you can begin to put the two together -- launching and flying. This is tougher than it sounds, since you need to be able to properly throw the plane, get your hands on the transmitter fast, and still remember to pulse the winch at the right pace. Many beginners trying this will do one or two of these tasks well but completely forget the third. For example, I've seen several beginners tension the line, throw the plane, grab the transmitter and then forget that they need to pulse the line. I find it easiest in my mind to remember to throw, then pulse, then fly . A properly trimmed plane won't get in much trouble as long as its thrown well and good tow speed is maintained.
Have a goal for each flying session before you go to fly. Try to avoid general goals - select a specific skill to practice each time. By setting specific skills to work on your valuable flying time will be put to better use. Here are some of the basic skills to practice.