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Buying Your First Glider

Buying Your First Glider . . . or . . . there are three kinds of Sailplanes!

by Peter King
4200 Loch Highland Parkway
Roswell, GA 30075

No, they are not Wood, Metal and Glass. What sailplanes are made of has a lot to do with why you buy one. But you will find those materials in all types of aircraft. The three kinds of sailplanes are those that cost $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000. Granted, many sailplanes cost more than that, but if you're in the market for one of those, you are likely not buying your first sailplane. I knew a guy in the Army who used to count 1, 2, 3, .......many. He figured that he could beat any three guys. If there were more than that he was going to run anyway so it didn't matter how many there were. If you're in the many dollars category, this article is not for you.

When you last bought a glider, how did you make the decision? I know, you don't own a glider. I didn't say you owned a glider. I'm talking about the one you bought the last time you went to the gliderport, read Soaring magazine, walked the display floor at the convention or thumbed through the pages of the Sailplane Directory. That glider. When we buy a glider, we all use the same criteria: Lift/Drag (L/D) ratio. We even admit that the sustainer motor, heads up display, and flight computer are a little beyond our means. What we really want are 60:1 L/D, carbon fiber spars, a Kevlar fuselage and winglets: World Championship Stuff.

Yet it's strange that of the characteristics that we use when we own a glider, L/D is one of the least important. What! The sacred Grail of sailplane performance is unimportant? Unless you are a world class competitor, it is. Whether you fly a Grunau Baby or a Nimbus III, when was the last time you used the L/D in whatever you fly? Did you go out of glide range of the field? Or did you stay one thermal away? If it's the latter, you were using the sink rate of your plane, and not the L/D. When the day was done, did you compare notes on who flew the farthest, or did you see who topped out the highest thermal? You were using sink rate, and not L/D. On the way home did you delight in how much faster you flew a triangle or did you chortle at how you outclimbed another glider? You were using sink rate and not L/D. When you think about it, unless we're on a badge flight, we don't use the L/D of our plane in our daily flying.

What does that have to do with the kind of plane we buy? A lot. Let's forget about the plane we bought at the convention, and look at what we want a plane to do for us:

1. Survivability: Stay up on weak days. Better yet, stay up on crummy days. Unless you live in Uvalde, strong days always happen on Wednesday. You want a plane that can stay up when the birds are flapping their wings. It's what lets you tiptoe home when the day dies. It's what lets you fly while the hot ships are on the ground. This takes low wing loading and a climbing airfoil.

2. Room: Americans are taller than their European ancestors. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to stretch out in the cockpit? How many hot birds do you know of that have different size cockpits as different model numbers? The limiting factor here is length. You can accept a narrow cockpit more easily than a short one.

3. Maintainability: We thought fiberglass would last forever. Maybe it does, but gelcoat doesn't. Have you priced a refinish job on a glass bird lately? It can be more than the purchase price of a used plane. How about a plane you can tie out once in a while, or that can fly in wave without worrying about the finish peeling off?

4. Performance: Enough performance. A respectable glide ratio, low stall speed and no bad habits in addition to survivability. We're supposed to enjoy our flight, not ride around on the edge of a razor blade all day. It's hard to achieve ultimate performance. It's not quite so hard to get good performance. This takes a careful balance between weight, airfoil and material.

5. Price: Affordable. That means a different things to different people. Whatever your means are, the price should fit your lifestyle without pain. That way you keep flying. Some adjustments in your flying style may mean the difference between flying and not flying. That's what partners are for.

6. Instrumentation: Heads Up Displays are great. So are flight computers. But they're no substitute for a pilot. They can cost more than the plane if you're not careful. Before you invest in electronic widgets, get a copy of Reichmann's "Cross Country Soaring" for another perspective. Beware though. He's the kind of engineer who beats personal computers with a bamboo slide rule. He likes simple panels.

7. Landoutability. It's a word. A plane with modest performance that can land out may make more sense than one with more performance that cannot. If you can't land outside the gliderport, what good is a magnificent L/D? The size of landing fields where you fly has something to do with your choice of plane too. Very small fields in the northeast will require shorter landing capability than will the trackless steppes of Colorado. Think about that when you consider a retractable gear leg over a skid under the nose.

8. Trailer: Probably the most overlooked feature of a glider purchase. You have to be able to put it together, take it apart, and take it with you with a reasonable amount of effort. It should also keep the plane dry and not eat the car in the process.

Good climb, big cockpit, short field capability, OK glide, not hard to keep up, easy to tow around and cheap. Sounds great doesn't it? But it's not the plane you bought in your dreams on the floor at the convention. What kind of plane are we talking about? Let's look at a typical classified section of Soaring and see what we can find.

Type I - $5,000 - $10,000

  • Schweizer 1-26
  • Schweizer 2-22
  • Cherokee
  • Schleicher K-8, K-6
  • Duster
  • Monerai
  • Marske Monarch
  • Schempp Hirth Standard Austria
  • Schreder HP-11, 14

Type II - $10,000 - $15,000

  • Schweizer 1-34, 2-33
  • Libelle
  • Schleicher ASW-15
  • Schreder HP-18, RS-15
  • Blanik L-13

Type III - $15,000 - $20,000

  • Schweizer 1-35, 1-36
  • Schempp-Hirth Open Cirrus
  • Lark IS-29
  • Pik 20B
  • Grob 102
  • Glassflugel Kestral 17/19
  • Jantar 1,2,3
The list is not all inclusive. But it should give you an idea. There are some great planes out there that you wouldn't think of if you buy a plane based on L/D. A group of very different aircraft. What puts them on the list? If they have one thing in common, it's that they were all world class aircraft in their day. They may not have the specifications of current designs today, but that doesn't take a thing away from the performance, handling and manners that they have. An old Ferrari is still a Ferrari. Let's look at some of the types we've found we've found.

Standard Austria: Type I. A world champion in it's day. Wood and fabric. 17 meter span. Great survivability. It even has a 38:1 glide ratio, although it comes in at a lower speed than it does on some current birds. Performance like this is typical of the wood and fabric super ships. Excellent climb and handling, good L/D, smallish cockpit and panel. Lighter than current birds. The Zugvogel is a like aircraft, but with a steel tube fuselage. The K-6, K-8 and Sagitta have lower glide ratios but otherwise they're typical world class, 15 meter, wood and fabric aircraft. Comparable two seaters like the K-13, are Phase III aircraft and perform much like the single seaters. Interestingly enough, single seater cockpits tended to be copies of the front seat of the equivalent two seater for easy conversion after solo. Schleicher built an interesting open trailer with a cloth cover that is very light and tows well.

Wood and fabric aircraft are excellent climbers, many have skids and fixed wheels that only cost a point or two on the L/D and outland well. They're slower than most glass birds, but still show well at regionals on light days. They're good sports class competitors. They need regular TLC, but if they're kept dry they seem to last forever. If you're local repair person hasn't seen wood and fabric in a while, contact the British Glider Association and get a copy of their glider repair manual. It'll tell you everything you need to know about maintaining a wood and fabric aircraft.

Schweizer birds are surprising performers on this list. Metal, rugged, roomy, great on climb and good on the run. They were world class competitors in their day and quality performers today. A 1-34 was the 1988 National Sports Class Champion. The 1-35 was a competitive 15 meter ship until glass caught up with it. Metal aircraft have a long lasting finish. Even when they need refinishing, there's little worry about maintaining the surface profile. It's a paint job.

Two seaters are Phase II or III aircraft. The 2-32 is the glider of choice for two seat wave flights. The Schweizer 2-33 is very strong, climbs well and has a relatively low glide ratio. But when you consider its role as a basic trainer that's not all that relevant. You don't buy one as a cross country ship. You could buy a 2-33 and a couple of 1-26's for what you would pay to refinish a popular glass two seater in average condition. That's a fleet where I come from. Metal is commonly used in European trainers. The Blanik and Lark are both popular two seaters that are good for cross country training, basic training and acrobatics.

Open Cirrus. Type III. When glass first entered the marketplace, aircraft had pretty much reached the state of the art with existing materials. Open Class wood was 17 meters. The first Open Class glass birds mimicked the wood and fabric birds. Climbing wing, big cockpit, good handling, and what is still a great L/D today. They were so hot by comparison that most had a drogue chute in the tail. Today their performance is still equal to the best standard class birds. Glassflugel build a number of Kestrel variants. Slingsby built a licensed version. Early models of the Open Jantar fit the same profile. A number of the early glass birds were built like their wood predecessors and fit the same profile. Old Open Glass can be very nice.

Homebuilts. Buying factory built gliders is difficult enough. Homebuilts add another dimension. With a factory aircraft you're concerned with repair history and maintenance. With a homebuilt you're worried about that too but you're also concerned with who built it in the first place. It would be easy to pass them by if it weren't for the tremendous value in homebuilts. The Cherokee is a wood and fabric aircraft with the performance of a 1-26 at half the cost. The Monari offers mid range performance in a small package. Jim Marske may well have bridged the gulf between the hang glider and the sailplane with the Monarch. The classic deal in homebuilts is the HP series. Dick Schreder designed them as personal competition steeds. He sold kits so the rest of us can fly them. Just take someone with you who understands how to build the design you're interested in.

Vintage Aircraft. Once you get over the idea of L/D as the only buying criteria, you find a lot of other reasons for buying a sailplane. You're not trying to go anywhere in some vintage ships. You're just trying to stay up. Silver distance is a real achievement in some of them, and a piece of cake in others. There are some real values in Vintage Class, and some very interesting aircraft.

Have I caught your interest? Do you want to know more? The November '83 issue of Soaring magazine is the latest Soaring Directory. It's a great place to start, but it doesn't go into a great deal of detail. The best evaluation of early glass and late wood and metal is "Winning On The Wind" by George Moffat. 1974 was early enough in the introduction of glass that the book is full of the kind of aircraft we're interested in. The Johnson Flight Tests are another excellent source of evaluations. You have to see the tuft testing he did on the Pik 20B.

When you start thinking about gliders in terms of the way we fly them at the gliderport instead of the way we buy them in our fantasies, one manufacturer ranks high in all price classes: Schweizer. American size cockpits, good performance, metal construction. They had a 1-34 running around at 38:1 with fairings at the end of the production run. It makes you wonder if Schweizer Aircraft didn't have it right all along and we just let ourselves be seduced by pale skin, long legs and a foreign accent. Do you think they'd forgive us if we asked them nicely?