Outlanding Procedures for Glider Pilots
by Norm Sanders
Gliders depend on rising air. Powered aircraft depend on engines. Sometimes things go wrong. With engines, it is not a matter of “If the engine is going to quit,” it is “When it does quit.” If you really want to terrify yourself, think of all those moving parts, all the nuts and bolts, all those hose connections and electrical terminals. One failure of even a minor component, and…silence. With motorgliders, we try to consider the engine as the equivalent of a tow plane. Once we get up to altitude and stop the engine, we are gliders. Of course, the lift around the coast is often weak or non-existent. Then we start the engine again. Some like to “Arm” the ignition switch by flipping it up to “On” to save time. I feel this is not a good idea, especially for Australians who have learned from birth that “On” is down, not up. (Blame the Poms!) I have watched an experienced pilot, who had “Armed” the ignition switch, flip it down in an attempt to start the engine. If the pilot was really in an emergency, this could have been disastrous. Most Cessna and Piper skydrivers have NEVER landed without the engine running. The instructor throttles back and the student makes an approach to a paddock. At 500 feet AGL, the instructor (who has probably never made a dead stick landing either) shoves the throttle forward with the words: “Well we would have made it. Lets go.”
Glider pilots, of course, are skilled at engine-less landings. But unless they spend their entire gliding career directly over the home field, there will come a time when they have to assess, approach and land at a new location – an outlanding.
Like all landings, a good outlanding depends on a good approach. Planning for the approach starts before the aircraft leaves the ground. Remember the “Outside” O in CHAOTIC? Assessing “OUTSIDE” should then continue for the duration of the flight with little scenarios: “OK, the engine just quit, where am I going to land?” “Lots of lift at the moment, but what about that blue patch up ahead?” Pilots should be constantly searching the terrain for suitable landing spots for when the inevitable happens and the aircraft starts DOWN.
Here is where the glider pilot has a great advantage over a skydriver. Skydrivers are used to managing rate of descent with the throttle. No throttle = PANIC!
Gliders have airbrakes/spoilers which give precise control for approaching a paddock.
But what kind of a paddock? Ideal would be a 1000-meter long, recently grazed (but with no animals present), level, field with no rocks, and no power lines, suitable for an aero-tow retrieve or a motorglider takeoff. Of course most don’t match that description, although some do out West. The next best paddock would have good trailer access through a nearby gate, and be right next to a farm house complete with friendly farmer, cold beer and a phone. (Mobiles are often out of range.)
Communication can be a problem. Many farmhouses are now vacant. The first thing to try is calling other gliders. Of course, this should have been done in the air. Once on the ground the line of sight coverage is more limited. But radio can still work in an emergency. I once heard a Qantas jet on 122.7 directing a ground crew to a downed glider. The pilot had sent out a call on 121.5, which all airliners monitor. The Qantas driver, also a glider pilot, came to the rescue. 121.5 would be a better option than firing off a beacon, which causes all sorts of expensive things to happen.
Around Tyagarah there are lots of great paddocks – and even an airfield just South of Mullumbimby, by the golf course. Private airfields like this one are often just cleared strips of land, sometimes with a taxiway and a windsock. But beware! There is another former airstrip nearby which now has a fence across the middle. Fences themselves are often hard to spot from the air, but stock may graze the grass to different heights on each side of the wire.
Powerlines, like fences, can be difficult to see. The wires themselves are all but invisible. Best to look for lines of poles (or fence posts.) Out West, there are the infamous SWER lines (Single Wire, Earth Return) and the poles may be 500 meters or more apart. Many a crop duster has tangled with them, to their dismay.
If the only available paddock has power lines, Ian McPhee suggests landing over the lines after taking a position about a wingspan to the side of the power pole to provide side vision. Once past the pole, apply full airbrake and dive into the paddock.
There are a lot of long, green paddocks around Tyagarah. Some, near the airport, are turf farms and smoother than our runway. A good choice. Others are sugar cane. These are a last resort, unless recently harvested and/or ploughed. Landing in a mature sugar cane field with the crop 2 meters high will probably damage the aircraft and incur a bill from the farmer.
The beach is also a last resort. If the aircraft can’t be removed before the tide comes in, it will be a write-off. But, it would be better than putting it down in the scrub. At least the passengers would be uninjured.
Beach and sugar cane fields aside, there are many good options around Tyagarah, it doesn’t make sense to take the risk involved in struggling back to the field at low altitude. A safe outlanding beats a damaged aircraft any day.
So what about further afield? It is all about practice. When driving, make a mental note of possible landing areas in the region. While in the air, keep up the assessment. Notice the terrain change when leaving the flatlands around Tyagarah. What look like great paddocks at Federal from the air, turn out to be hillsides. Things tend to look flatter from 4000 feet.
Of course, hillsides are still landable. Crop dusters do it all the time. Their strips are on hills by choice so they can land up hill, load, and take off downhill. The technique for landing on a hillside is to pull the nose up and stall like a fly landing on a wall. A short landing roll is guaranteed, but don’t forget to set the wheel brake.
OK. No engine, or no lift or both. Things are getting serious. There is sink everywhere. By 2000 feet AGL (NOT necessarily above sea level. Tyagarah pilots are spoiled!) A suitable landing area should have been selected as the best available. If there are a whole string of landable wheat paddocks, you could press on, praying for salvation. If over tiger country, land.
The next 1000 feet of descent should be spent checking out the site in detail and hopefully encountering some lift. Personally, when I get down to 1000 feet AGL, I commit myself to landing and focus on the task. Some continue to attempt to thermal much lower. I may outland more often, but I have never damaged a glider doing it. I know others who waited too long to concentrate on landing and had expensive prangs.
A major factor is wind direction. Clues are smoke, ripples on dams, (smooth water against the wall is the windward side), windmills, blowing dust, etc. It is best to land into the wind, but sometimes terrain or other considerations make this impossible. Downwind landings aren’t difficult and have the advantage of positive wind sheer. (Think about it!) The biggest problem is the visual sensation of travelling very fast over the ground which causes a reflex action of pulling back on the stick to slow down. Not a good idea.
It is essential to make a normal approach, with suitable airspeed and NOT TOO CLOSE IN TO THE PADDOCK. New factors can become apparent on final. Obstructions, rocks, kangaroos, sheep, etc. Get ready to avoid them if possible. (I once hit a sheep while landing in a Tasmanian paddock in my Cessna 180 with Eartha Kitt on board, but that is another story.)
Once on the ground, keep the wings level to avoid groundlooping in grass or stubble. If your inspection of the paddock didn’t detect a fence which is rapidly approaching don’t just keep rolling. Glider pilots have actually been beheaded by fence wire. One option is to hit the post, which should pull down the wires and thus keep them from cutting through the canopy. This may or may not work.
Ian McPhee suggests another approach, which would be my choice. This involves deliberately ground looping the glider by pushing the stick full forward, kicking hard rudder and putting the wing on the ground. Damage could range from nil, (the glider should be inspected anyway) to write off. BUT, my head would still be attached.
This brings up the subject of crashes. We are all very worried about damaging, or even scratching an aircraft. And so we should be. But there comes a time when life is more important than an insured machine. In the final analysis, gliders are replaceable, people are not.
Most fatalities in air crashes are from stall-spin situations. The pilot is getting lower, he/she instinctively pulls back on the stick and maybe attempts a skidding turn at the same time. These are moves which are guaranteed to produce a vertical impact with the ground.
Aerobatic pioneer Bob Hoover (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Hoover) says, “Just land the airplane like usual, no matter what is in front of you.” Why? The normal landing stall speed of most of our aircraft is about 35 – 40 knots. Any wind and the ground speed will be less. The cockpit is strongly built to protect the passengers who are well strapped in. A controlled crash beats a stall-spin anytime.
We used to sit around in hangars in Alaska discussing the best way to survive a landing on the tundra. A normal touchdown would be sure to end up with the airplane on its back. Some advocated sideslipping into the ground so the wing would crumple and absorb the impact energy. I think I would rather be upside down, but the bottom line, as they say in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is “DON’T PANIC.”
Outlandings (and Crash Landings) are big topics and would rate a book on their own. I am sure that I have left things out or said things which can be argued with. Hopefully, this piece can be a base for discussion.
There are several mnemonics for outlanding. My preference is for the one Bill Dinsmore taught me…
W SS SOS
Wind Size Surface Slope Obstacles Stock.
Obstacles includes SWERs.