This article appeared in the February
1999 issue of Hang Gliding magazine as a sidebar to the Incident Reports
New or used? Single surface or double surface?
What performance level? Which manufacturer? Which model? Which size?
These are some of the questions a pilot thinks about when he gets
ready to buy his first hang glider. And where can you go for reliable
information? How do you decide, among the varying and sometimes conflicting
advice, which is valid?
The biggest concern pilots seem to have
when buying a first glider is that they not buy a glider that they
will "grow out of." Peer pressure strongly supports this
concern. "Oh, you don't want one of those, you're going to grow
out of that within a few months. You need a (double surface, high
performance, insert your choice here) glider." Pilot ego, which
remains a major factor in pilot decision making, reinforces this idea.
("I don't want to be showing up at the flying site in one of
those. They'll think I'm just some dumb beginner! I need one of those
sleek high performance jobs to be a real pilot.") Ideas about
future goals in flying weigh in here also. ("I'm going to want
to be going cross country soon. You can't do cross country in one
of those - you need more penetration. You need more glide!")
This attitude, and the misunderstandings
and misperceptions that give rise to it, are probably doing more to
hurt the sport of hang gliding than any other single thing. Let's
look at a few of these myths and how they relate to reality.
Myth Number One: The worst sin in the world is to buy something
you'll grow out of. This is an interesting idea. When confronted with
this one, I usually ask the pilot, "Do you have children? When
your (or, If you had a) daughter (who) was six years old, and ready
to learn to ride a bicycle, did (would) you buy her a full size adult
bicycle with 15 gears on which her feet couldn't come within 2 feet
of the ground to make sure she wouldn't grow out of it?" The
fact is, gliders designed for entry level pilot skills exist for a
very good reason. A suitable entry level glider has high levels of
stability and damping, it reacts in a gentle and forgiving manner
to pilot input, and is predisposed to try to do the right thing for
the pilot even when the pilot's control inputs are less than perfect.
A high performance glider does none of this; it reacts slowly when
you need it to react quickly, (in the roll axis, when flying slowly)
and quickly when you need it to react slowly (in the roll axis when
flying fast, and in the pitch axis at any speed). It does only exactly
what you tell it to do, and if you don't tell it with great precision
and at the exact right time, you get a seriously wrong response. A
far worse sin than buying something you might grow out of is buying
something beyond your skill level - for this will inhibit your performance,
greatly slow your progress in learning, interfere with your enjoyment,
and may even just be actually dangerous to you. This "growing
out of" a glider is an interesting idea all by itself. I fly
on a weekly basis with some of the most skilled and experienced professional
pilots in the sport. I don't know one of them who feels that he has
"outgrown" the idea of flying an entry level glider.
Myth Number Two: You Need A High Performance Glider To
Do Real Hang Gliding. This is an interesting idea in light of how
our ideas of "high performance" have changed over the years.
The lowest performing entry level flex wing available today has higher
performance than the highest performing competition flex wing available
prior to 1980. Those of us
that were competing and flying cross country in the 1970's sure thought
we were doing real hang gliding. Guess not though. One thing
to keep in mind about things like cross country flying, however, is
that the first pre-requisite to going cross country is to stay in
the air. Most cross country is done flying down wind anyway, and even
paragliders are flying nearly 250 miles XC these days.
Myth Number Three: I'll Automatically Get Better Performance
On A Higher Performance Glider. This myth is based on another misunderstanding
- the idea that performance is something that inheres in a glider.
Performance is not in the glider, it is in the relationship of the
pilot to the glider. A high performance glider has the potential to
yield high performance, but that performance is only available to
a pilot with the skills required to extract it. The example I use
to illustrate this is one I see played out on a regular basis. When
we do production flight test, the trailer normally contains a mix
of models, everything from entry level gliders to competition class
wings. All the members of the flight crew have about the same skills.
If it's easily soarable, everybody soars. If it's dead air, nobody
soars. In between, when it's maybe soarable, but only if you do everything
right, an interesting thing occurs. The pilots with the highest probability
of soaring are the ones on the "lowest performance" gliders.
The ones with the lowest probability of soaring are the ones on the
"highest performance" gliders. What's going on here? The
answer is simple, really. Soaring in the most difficult and challenging
conditions - when the lift is small, broken, weak and turbulent -
places the highest premium on the pilot's ability to put the glider
exactly where he wants it exactly when he wants it to be there. At
any skill level, even the highest, this is most easily done with a
glider with the most responsive and predictable handling characteristics,
i.e. an entry level glider. The small margin of "higher performance"
that the competition class wings offer cannot make up for the deficit
in handling in these most challenging conditions.
Note that we're talking about the highest
level of pilot skill here. What happens when the level of pilot skill
goes down? The answer is that what is true here becomes true in a
wider range of conditions. Instead of only being observable in the
most challenging conditions, at a lower skill level, you can observe
this phenomenon of "inverted performance" under conditions
that are only mildly challenging. At the lowest level of pilot skill
(the pilot buying his first glider) you will see this performance
inversion under virtually ALL soaring conditions. The "higher
performance" glider is really the "lower performance"
glider. Another way to think of this is that the L/D ratio of the
glider you're flying only matters when the glider is in the air. If
you can't fly the glider effectively enough to work the lift successfully
you won't be in the air, you'll be on the ground. And once you're
on the ground, those extra three points in L/D aren't doing anything
for you at all.
Myth Number Four: Compared to other types of aircraft, hang
gliders are easy to fly. This one is interesting. I can only imagine
it survives because a relatively small percentage of hang glider pilots
fly other types of aircraft. And at one point in time, this wasn't
a myth, it was true. The old standard Rogallos and the better examples
of the first generation of gliders that evolved from them, were very
easy aircraft to fly. If they hadn't been, it would not have been
possible for hang gliding to have grown as explosively as it did when
so many of the pilots were largely or entirely self taught. But in
the quest of higher performance, designs evolved, and by 1977 the
newest designs on the market were already too hard to fly for the
average skill level of the pilots flying them. (Those photos of crashing
which accompanied my article on safety in the September issue this
past year were taken at the 1977 Southern California Regionals, and
they are photos of competition class pilots showing themselves unable
to execute a simple landing!)
Today, even the easiest to fly entry level gliders require more skill
in most phases of flight than a Cessna 172 or a Schweizer 233 sailplane.
If you don't believe me, take a Saturday and go take an introductory
lesson in either. I haven't flown a sailplane in two years, and I
could go out and fly one tomorrow and have less anxiety during my
landing approach than I would have coming in to land in a thermally
landing area in the middle of the day in a high performance glider,
which is something I do several times every week.
Pilots who think that hang gliders are,
in general, easy to fly, will be more likely to think they have to
choose a glider towards the upper end of the performance / skill level
range. A pilot who realizes that even the easiest to fly glider is
more challenging than what the average recreational power pilot or
sailplane pilot is flying may be more likely to give himself permission
to buy a glider that is more within his limitations. In my observation,
on average, I would say that the average pilot is flying a glider
that is one full level above his ability. The pilots I see on competition
class wings would perform better and have more fun (and be safer)
on intermediate wings, and the pilots I see on intermediate wings
would do better on entry level wings.
By far, the most important aspect of
the choice you make in a first glider is to buy one which places demands
on you that are comfortably within your abilities. Your safety, your
prospects for success, your rate of progress, (your budget for spare
parts), and your likelihood of staying in the sport will all depend
on the quality of this choice.
After that, the rest of the choices are
New or used? Buy new if you can. If you can't, buy
used, but pay to get it checked out by a professional shop, and spend
more to get a glider that's more appropriate for you rather than trying
to save money on a glider that doesn't fit your skill level. (There's
a reason that seven year old competition class wing is so cheap; there's
no demand for it because it isn't competitive enough any longer for
the pilots with the skill to fly it, and it really isn't suitable
for pilots with lesser skills.)
What manufacturer? Well, that would be taking unfair advantage
here. You decide on that one.
Which size? Ask the manufacturer directly. Call them
up. Talk to the designer or one of the factory test pilots. DON'T
buy on the basis of numbers, or specifications, or what somebody wrote
in some book or what somebody said on his personal web site. The guys
that know what size glider you should be flying are the guys that
designed and built it. Ask them. Get over the idea that the manufacturer
has some incentive to give you the wrong information. His incentive
is to make sure you get the best glider for you, so you'll stay in
the sport, have fun, and someday buy another one from him.
And after that, all that's left is to
have fun. And you will have fun if you do this right. Hang gliding
is an absolute kick in the pants when you're having success, not being
scared, not breaking stuff and not getting hurt. And one major key
to all that is picking the right glider.