Sit for a few hours in your backyard or go on a hike in a nearby park. Either way, you are bound to see an Air Force Academy Glider in Colorado Springs. These aircrafts have become part of the scenery of the city. But while it never surprises a resident to see gliders in the sky, very few individuals know much about the gliders—other than the fact that they are from the Air Force Academy and likely contain a cadet. The following will provide a little information about these gliders and what it is like to fly one.
The United States Air Force Academy And Its Gliders
As stated in the name, the Air Force Academy is dedicated to getting students up in the air, preparing them to defend their country. Because of this, much of the time at the school is spent learning how to fly, from the basics of the concept of flight and navigation to a hands-on operation to gliding courses. Every year, the 306th Flying Training Group fully trains 2,500 cadets in these skills.
It is mainly the fourth-class cadets that get up into the sky—and these are the cadets that you see gliding over your neighborhood. Each of these students gets four glider flights during the course. However, there are third-class cadets who enroll in a Basic Soaring class. They are allowed to solo pilot gliders and can apply to become instructors—the cadets who pass this program are then responsible for 95% of glider flight instruction in their fourth-class.
How Does Gliding Work?
Gliders, also known as sailplanes, are kind of like the sailboats of the sky. They are unpowered and instead use air currents to fly. On average, these aircrafts travel at about 100 mph and they can fly over significant cross-country distances, at altitudes of more than 30,000 feet.
To the average individual, this probably sounds terrifying. Flying in an airplane with an engine is scary enough, flying without an engine is unimaginable. But the cadets that are trained to fly gliders understand the physics behind them and this understanding removes fear. Here is a look at some of the mechanics of the glider and the flying process:
The aircraft requires a combination of gravity and lift—lift is the force that opposes gravity, which is simply the air’s force below the wings. The key is to provide just enough surface area so that plenty of air can push up on wings, keeping the aircraft gliding through the sky.
The gliders that the Academy uses have three basic controls–a control column, a rudder, and airbrakes. The control column manages the roll, pitch, angle, and speed of the aircraft. It sits between the pilot’s legs and is controlled with the right hand. The rudder is controlled with pedals and helps the glider to turn. The airbrake lever helps with landing–it slows the glider by increasing drag without reducing lift.
Take-Off And Landing
Keeping a glider up in the air is far from the only impressive physics feat. There is also the matter of getting the glider up into the air. While this can be done in several ways, the Air Force Academy uses the aerotow method, which is exactly what it sounds like. Another airplane–one with an engine–tows the glider with a 200-foot long rope. The airplane taxis down the runway takes off, and pulls the glider up to the desired altitude. At this point, either the glider or the towing airplane can release the rope and the glider stays up. Finally, after taking off and gliding, cadets must land the plane. And just like other planes, gliders land with their wheels and brakes.
The Glider Flight Experience
Flying or riding in a glider might make your stomach turn, but cadets at the Air Force Academy do not feel the same way. They simply do not involve fear in the equation. They replace any fear with a comprehensive understanding of how gliding and the science behind it works.
They also know the limits of gliding, as well as their own personal limits. These limits apply to their flight plan, the weather, and the glider. Before they take off, they have crafted a plan for the flight, including flight time and the environment that they will fly in. The cadets also complete a total check of the aircraft before they fly. They look over every inch of the glider to ensure that it is in perfect flight condition. Finally, the cadets are taught to continuously review their plan during the flight and adjust when necessary. So while the pilot went into the flight with Plan A, they may need to change to Plan B to identify another source of lift so that they can stay in the air. They may even have to switch to Plan C and find an alternative place to land that is not the original airport. In short, cadets are fully prepared when they step into a glider.
And it is this preparation that allows them to fully enjoy the flight. They embrace the challenging aspects, push themselves to try new maneuvers, and enjoy the exhilaration of the process. An example of this can be seen in how they handle turbulence in the glider. While turbulence can be caused by a number of factors, power plane pilots often have difficulty identifying the source, as their predetermined course forces them to push through any turbulence without variation. Glider pilots, on the other hand, can easily identify the turbulence’s source and then use that source for their benefit. In some scenarios, turbulence can help the glider to soar. In other conditions, the glider can use the turbulence to climb to higher altitudes. So where certain conditions might seem frightening, a glider pilot will often see an opportunity to have fun and challenge themselves.
Another fear that power airplane pilots or passengers often have is that the engine will fail. Pilots must constantly be listening to the engine for any small changes in the noise, watching the dials and gauges for any issues, and looking for potential landing spots if a dead stick landing is necessary. This never concerns a glider pilot because, well, there is no engine. This allows a glider flight to be one of the most relaxing flight experiences a pilot can have. There is a quiet buoyancy to the aircraft, creating the most peaceful flying adventure possible.
Any Air Force Academy graduate will tell you that there are few experiences that compare to piloting a glider. And when you understand what is involved with flight preparation, as well as the flight experience that gliding offers, it is easy to understand why.