How To Choose Your First Glider

This article appeared in the February 1999 issue of Hang Gliding magazine as a sidebar to the Incident Reports column.

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?one of those sleek high performance jobs...

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 usThe highest probablitiy of soaring... 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!)The Average Pilot...

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 pretty easy.

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.

By Mike Meier


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