Cross country flying is a captivating experience because it draws from so many different aspects of our skills and emotions. A typical flight depends on our understanding of the art and the science of soaring techniques while at the same time delights us at the sight of joining a thermal with a red-tailed hawk.
A single flight is a constant stream of small decisions that rely on the efficiency of our piloting skills along with the calculations of our inner engineer.
Gliders, also known as sailplanes, can remain aloft for hours by utilizing the energy in the atmosphere. The sun is the ultimate cause for each of the following sources of rising air:
Thermals are rising columns of air that are caused by uneven solar heating of the ground.
Slope soaring refers to using updrafts produced by the mechanical lifting of air as it encounters the upwind slope of a hill, ridge or mountain. Slope soaring requires two ingredients: elevated terrain and wind.
Wave lift is created when stable air flows over a mountain or descends from the downwind side of a plateau. The air then “bounces” very high into the atmosphere. Altitudes of more than 50,000 feet have been achieved in gliders using mountain wave and distances of more than 2,000 kilometers flown using mountain wave systems.
Milestones in Cross Country
The Soaring Society America(SSA) ABC Training Program was developed to have a standard of training for building glider cross country skills. It is designed to provide a basic approach to building cross country flying skills for the student glider pilot as well as to give the accomplished power pilot the knowledge and skills unique to soaring so that the transition may be made safely.
ABC BRONZE TRAINING PROGRAM
The SSA ABC Training Program was developed at the prompting of Society members to have a standard of training available. It is designed to provide a basic approach to flying for the student glider pilot as well as to give the accomplished power pilots the necessary points unique to soaring so that the transition may be made safely.
This program is administered by designated SSA Instructors who must have 50 hours of glider time with 100 flights and hold a current CFI-Glider.
The SSA Instructor is responsible for ascertaining that the training requirements have been met. The appropriate pins and blue cards are awarded to the students who achieve the level indicated by A, B, C, and Bronze, each designated to develop skills and experience necessary for future safe flight and FAI Badge attempts.
Requirements (All Badges):
Applicant Must be a Current Member of the Soaring Society of America, or the membership dues should accompany the badge application form.
A Badge Requirements:
Applicant Demonstrates Knowledge of:
Sailplane Handling Procedures
Sailplane Pre-flight Check
Airport Rules and Federal Aviation Regulations
Tow Equipment, Signals, and Procedures
Hook-up of Towline
Valid FAA Pilot Certificate
Pilot Logbook or Suitable Permanent Record
Applicant Has Completed the Following Minimum Flight Training Program:
Cockpit Check Procedure
Effects of Controls – Ground and Flight
Takeoff Procedures – Normal and Crosswind
Flight During Tow
Straight Gliding Flight
Circuit Procedures and Landing Patterns
Landing Procedures – Normal, Downwind, and Crosswind
Moderate and Steep Turns Up to 720 Degrees in Both Directions
Stall Recognition and Recovery
Conditions of Spin Entry and Recovery
Effective Use of Spoilers/Flaps/Slips
Oral Examination on Federal Aviation Regulations
B Badge Requirements:
Soaring ability by a solo flight of at least 30 minutes duration after release from a 2,000-foot tow (add 1½ minutes per 100 foot tow altitude above 2,000 feet).
C Badge Requirements:
Pre Cross-country Phase
Applicant Has Completed the Following Flight Training:
– Dual Soaring Practice, including instruction in techniques for soaring thermals, ridge soaring, and wave (simulated flight and/or ground instruction may be used when suitable conditions do not exist).
– Has Knowledge of:
* Cross-country Procedures
* Sailplane Assembly, Disassembly, and Retrieves
* Hazards of Cross-country Flying
– Demonstrates Soaring Ability by Solo Flight of at Least 60 Minutes Duration After Release From 2,000 Foot Tow (add 1½ minutes per 100 foot of tow above 2,000 feet).
– While Accompanied by an SSA Instructor, Demonstrate the Following:
* Make a Simulated Off-field Landing From the Approach Without Reference to the Altimeter
* Perform an Accuracy Landing From the Approach, Touching Down and Coming to a Complete Stop Within an Area No Greater Than 500 Feet in Length.
Bronze Badge Requirements
(study guide available here):
– Complete the ABC Training Program with the C Badge Awarded.
– Log at Least 15 Solo Hours in Gliders. This Time Must Include 30 Solo Flights with at Least 10 Flights Flown in a Single-Place Glider if Possible.
– Log at Least 2 Flights, Each Having Duration of Two Hours or More.
– Perform at Least 3 Solo Spot Landings in a Glider Witnessed by an SSAI. The Accuracy and Distance Parameters Established Should be Based on Glider Performance Data, Current Winds, Runway Surface, and Density Altitude. As a Guideline, a Maximum Distance of 400 Feet Would be Acceptable for a Schweizer 2-33 Glider.
– Log Dual Time in Gliders with an Instructor during which at Least 2 Accuracy Landings are Made without Reference to the Altimeter to Simulate Off-field Landings.
– Pass a Closed Book Written Examination Covering Cross-country Techniques and Knowledge. The Minimum Passing Score is 80%. This Examination is Administered Only by an SSAI.
Established in the 1930’s, Federation Aeronautique Internationale (“FAI”) Badges acknowledge internationally-recognized levels of soaring achievement. The hundreds of Badge applications reviewed by SSA’s Badge and Record office each year reflect the popularity of this challenging and rewarding program, administered in compliance with the FAI Sporting Code.
Detailed information about the program and requirements can be obtained directly from The Soaring Society of America.
FAI Silver Badge
The FAI Silver Badge involves 3 required elements. Silver Altitude is a 1,000-meter (3,281-foot) altitude gain above an in-flight low point; Silver Duration is a 5-hour flight time after tow release and Silver Distance is a 50-km (31.07-mile) cross country flight.
FAI Gold Badge
The FAI Gold Badge involves 2 required elements. Gold Altitude is a 3,000-meter (9,843-foot) altitude gain above an in-flight low point; Gold Distance is a 300-km (186.42-mile) cross country flight.
FAI Diamond Badge
The FAI Diamond Badge involves 3 required elements. Diamond Altitude is a 5,000-meter (16,404-foot) altitude gain above an in-flight low point; Diamond Goal is a 300-km (186.42-mile) cross country flight using a pre-declared Out and Return or Triangle course; Diamond Distance is a 500-km (310.7-mile) cross country flight. As of January 1, 1996, a total of 818 Diamond Badges have been awarded in the US among a total of 5,846 worldwide.
Diplome Badges – (750k and 1000k badges shown)
The FAI 1,000-Kilometer Diplome was adopted in 1964 and is awarded for a cross country flight of at least 1,000 km (621.4 miles). As of January 1, 1996, a total of 68 1,000-Kilometer Diplomes have been awarded in the US among a total of 275 worldwide.
The FAI 2,000-Kilometer Diplome is the most recent addition to the FAI Badge program and is awarded for a cross country flight of at least 2,000 km (1,242.8 miles).
SSA DISTANCE AWARDS
In 1995, The Soaring Society of America adopted the SSA Distance Award. Pilots’ accumulated cross-country soaring miles add up in the SSA Distance Award Program, which uses the Carl Herold Handicap system to equalize distances for glider performance. Written notice of flight claims must be submitted within 7 days and flight documentation must be turned in within 45 days of the flight. In every other way, application procedures parallel those in place for FAI Badge flights. Applicants may submit any number of documented cross country flight claims, each accompanied by a $10 processing fee.
The SSA Distance Award winner, second- and third-place pilots are determined each calendar year, based on the SSA Distance Award points granted for each pilot’s best flight in each of four flight categories: Straight Distance to a Goal; Out and Return; Triangle Distance and Free Distance.
SYMONS WAVE MEMORIAL
In the late 1940’s when Robert F. Symons, a mountain pilot and wave pilot pioneer, was working out of the airport at Bishop, California, he instigated a new and unique system of awards for wave flying which he called “lennie” pins. Pilots who soared to great heights in the Sierra Wave received a one-lennie pin for attaining an altitude of 25,000 to 35,000 feet, a two-lennie pin for reaching 35,000 to 40,000 feet, and a three-lennie pin for exceeding 40,000 feet.
Very early, Symons recognized the excellent soaring conditions in the Owens Valley and helped organize a soaring group in 1938. As a professional pilot engaged in cloud seeding, he learned first hand of the power generated in the Sierra Wave and became well-known for his studies and lectures on mountain wave phenomena. Although his lists are incomplete, it is believed that he issued some 35 one-lennie, 16 two-lennie, and 10 three-lennie pins. The awarding of these pins ceased in 1958, when Symons lost is life in a glider accident.
In 1962, Carl Burson Jr., saw one of these pins and upon learning of its history, became interested in re-establishing their issuance as a memorial to Bob Symons. In 1963, the program was re-established under the official auspices of SSA, with each new pin holder also receiving a handsome wall plaque. The pin itself is 7mm in diameter (the same as the FAI Gold Badge) and has one, two or three white lenticular clouds set off against a blue background with a silver rim. Each pin is consecutively numbered.
All applications for lennie pins should be made on the standard SSA badge application form. More detailed information can be obtained by contacting the SSA directly.
World Distance Award
On Jan 1, 1992, The Soaring Society of America Board of Directors approved the World Distance Award. The purpose of the award is to promote and encourage cross-country soaring on a long term basis. The award is presented to pilots who accumulate through a series of cross-country soaring flights a total of 40,000 km, the distance around the earth. There is no time limit for accumulating the total distance.
This award is conducted on the honor system. Turnpoints do no have to be declared prior to take off. No barograph or GPS trace is rquired. Any reported flight distance must be greater that 50 km after being corrected for the difference between start and finish altitude as stated in the Guidelines. There is no documentation to submit other than the pilots yearly distance accumulation. The distance accumulation is to be reported to the WDA Administrator when each 5,000 km level is achieved or at least the end of each year. A one time registration fee of $20 is required at the time of registration.
Certificates will be awarded to participants for each 5,000 km distance level achieved distance and name of pilot will be reported in Soaring Magazine.. Upon achieving 40,000 km, a ring, representing an orbit of the earth, will be made available to the pilot at a nominal cost. This ring is designed to attach to any FAI Silver, Gold, or Diamond badge. A photo of the ring mounted to a Gold badge is on the bottom of the WDA Guidelines.
Glider Racing is cross country flying in the form of a competition. The challenge is to go around a course defined by a set of turnpoints as fast as you can. A flight recorder is used to record GPS traces and allows full 3D flight replays and analysis. In competitions the trace from this recorder is used to calculate the winner.
Tasks can be of any size and are set to the capabilities of the pilot and glider.
RACING SAILPLANES RULE
Racing sailplanes are the most efficient flying machines ever designed by man. Computer engineered laminar flow airfoils and cantilevered composite-fiber wings carry pilot and craft at freeway and faster speeds, bending the air so precisely that altitude is traded for distance at extraordinary rates. A modern racing sailplane converts one foot of altitude into fifty feet of forward progress, a slope barely detectible by human senses.
These slippery craft also accelerate quickly and are amazingly silent for their size – a stealthy combination that can test even the acute alertness of hawks and eagles. Soaring pilots occasionally get a chance to slide in behind these apex predators and the raptors are often slow to realize they are being followed by an 800 pound craft with 50 foot wings! Yes, you can see their surprise when they finally “check six” … and their reserved camaraderie as they circle and climb with you, but only at a very respectful distance of their choice.
Sailplane pilots enjoy a panoramic view of brown-green earthscape and cloud-filled sky through a streamlined plexiglas canopy, comfortable in semi-reclining seats, controlling the ship with slight and almost automatic pressure on flight controls. In addition, glide-slope computers, GPS navigation systems, and sensitive rate of climb instruments provide positional and air quality data that helps the pilot navigate and optimize flight speeds.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
The tremendous capability of these strikingly beautiful craft to go far and fast is demonstrated during a racing season that starts in early Spring and finishes in late Fall. In any given week, contests ranging from local inter-club meets to regional and national competitions are in progress. Although the size of the event varies, a race day at all of these meets can be very similar. Pilots and organizers arrive at the contest site in the morning to review soaring-specific weather forecasts and plan a suitable task. A good task in the East could be a 150 mile triangle, while stronger Western conditions might indicate a 300 miler.
Racing pilots and their crews will then stage up to 60 sailplanes on a takeoff grid, a set of tow planes gets everyone launched, and the pilots will sustain at various points around the airport waiting for the start gate to open. When the ‘start flag’ drops, racers stream through the GPS defined start-gate at 5000′ altitude heading for a first turnpoint miles in the distance.
Sailplane racing is a competitive sport, but it is not a ‘pedal to the metal’ endeavor. Pilots must find the best lift sources on course and optimize cruise speeds for lift conditions, so in-flight speeds typically move between 60 and 100 mph. Changing flight speeds to match current and anticipated lift conditions is called ‘shifting gears’ and the pilots who do it best are usually listed at the top of the daily contest score sheet.
Reaching the last turnpoint, pilots race back to the contest site using experience, glide-slope computers, and occasionally a bit of gamble to convert altitude into an optimal ‘final-glide’ velocity. Many races are won or lost during this last 30 mile sprint to the finish line. Racers often ‘burn off’ reserve energy during the final mile and cross the GPS-defined finish line at a good clip (around 120 mph) … zooming into a mild wing-over before entering the landing pattern. Since the finishers tend to arrive together, it’s not unusual to have several sailplanes zooming through the finish gate just as others are landing. The aerial maneuvering can look risky, but standard procedures and good radio communication makes this finale relatively easy and safe.
The fastest pilot around the course wins that day and gets 1000 points – and the others receive prorated points based on a ratio to the winning speed. For example, if the winner averaged 50 mph and the second fastest averaged 40, number two would get 800 points for the day. Daily points are added to get an accumulated score and the pilot who has the most points at the end of the contest is the winner. Regionals require three days minimum to be official – and a Nationals requires four and can run for ten days. Average speeds in the East are in the 50-70 mph range, while 60-90 is more typical in the Western US. Not too shabby for a vehicle with no engine.
In addition to using GPS technology for in-flight navigation, racing sailplanes also carry GPS loggers that record the entire flight. This information is used by the contest scoring team to calculate speeds and verify contestants rounded turnpoints properly. Pilots also use the logged flight data and specialized software to replay entire flights in 3D or other modes for self critiques or to perform head-to-head comparisons with other racers.
Racing sailplanes are perfect soaring machines, but Mother Nature does not always serve up perfect soaring weather. Some soaring days are truly exceptional and you can fly in a sky filled with lift and click off a mile and a half a minute in any direction. All sailplane racing pilots have memories of these magical soaring flights. A larger number of other days are average but allow moderately ambitious excursions, and some ‘soaring’ days turn out to be difficult with weak and broken lift and it is a struggle to stay in the air. Although everybody hopes for the magical days, all racing pilots take the most pride in getting around the course in difficult conditions.