anatomy of the glider
In its simplest form, a glider is an unpowered aircraft, an airplane
without a motor. While many of the same design, aerodynamic and piloting
factors that apply to powered airplanes also apply to gliders, that lack
of a motor changes a lot about how gliders work. Gliders are amazing and
graceful machines, and are about as close as humans can get to soaring
From paper airplanes to the space shuttle during re-entry, there are many
types of gliders. In this article, we will focus on the most common type
of glider, often referred to as a sailplane.
Parts of a
A glider has many of the same parts as an airplane:
But, there are significant differences in
these parts on a glider, so let's take a look at each.
Gliders are as small and light as possible. Since there is no large
engine taking up space, gliders are basically
sized around the cargo they carry, usually one or two people. The cockpit
of a single-seat glider is small, but it is large enough for most people
to squeeze into. Instead of sitting upright, pilots recline with their
legs stretched out in front of them. The frontal exposure of the pilot is
reduced and the cross-sectional area of the cockpit can be substantially
The glider's fibreglass construction enables a
sleek, smooth design
Gliders, along with most
other aircraft, are designed to have skins that are as smooth as possible
to allow the plane to slip more easily through the air. Early gliders were
constructed from wood covered with canvas. Later versions were constructed
from aluminium with structural aluminium skins that were much smoother.
However, the rivets and seams required by aluminium skins produce
additional drag, which tends to decrease performance. In many modern
gliders, composite construction using materials such as fibreglass and
carbon fibre are quickly replacing aluminium. Composite materials allow
aircraft designers to create seamless and rivet-less structures with
shapes that produce less drag.
If you look at a glider next to a conventional powered plane, you'll
notice a significant difference in the wings. While the wings of both are
similar in general shape and function, those on gliders are longer and
narrower than those on conventional aircraft. The slenderness of a wing is
expressed as the aspect ratio, which is calculated by dividing the square
of the span of the wing by the area of the wing.
Glider wings have very
high aspect ratios -- their span is very long compared to their width.
This is because drag created during the production of lift (known as
induced drag) can account for a significant portion of the total drag on a
glider. One way to increase the efficiency of a wing is to increase its
aspect ratio. Glider wings are very long and thin, which makes them
efficient. They produce less drag for the amount of lift they generate.
The aspect ratio of a wing is the
wingspan squared divided by the area of the wing. The glider has a much
larger aspect ratio than a conventional plane
Why don't all planes have
wings with high aspect ratios? There are two reasons for this. The first
is that not all aircraft are designed for efficient flight. Military
fighters, for example, are designed with speed and manoeuvrability well
ahead of efficiency on the designer's list of priorities. Another reason
is that there are limits to how long and skinny a wing can get before it
is no longer able to carry the required loads.
Gliders use the same control surfaces (movable sections of the wing and
tail) that are found on conventional planes to control the direction of
flight. The ailerons and elevator are controlled using a single control
stick between the pilot's legs. The rudder, as in conventional aircraft,
is controlled using foot pedals.
Ailerons are the movable sections cut into the trailing edges of
the wing. These are used as the primary directional control and
they accomplish this by controlling the roll of the plane
(tilting the wing tips up and down). Ailerons operate in opposite
directions on each side of the plane. If the pilot wants to roll
the plane to the right, he moves the control stick to the right.
This causes the left aileron to deflect down (creating more lift on
this side) and the right aileron to deflect up (creating less lift
on this side). The difference in lift between the two sides causes
the plane to rotate about its long axis.
Elevator (horizontal stabilizer)
The elevator is the movable horizontal wing-like structure on the
tail. It is used to control the pitch of the plane, allowing the
pilot to point the nose of the plane up or down as required.
Rudder (vertical stabilizer)
The rudder is the vertical wing-like structure on the tail. It is
used to control the yaw of the aircraft by allowing the pilot to
point the nose of the plane left or right.
Another way to reduce the size of an airplane is to reduce the size
of the landing gear. The landing gear on a glider typically consists
of a single wheel mounted just below the cockpit.
3-view drawings of a modern sailplane.
Although somewhat simplified, the drawings show the basic structure of a
typical sailplane for the 15 metre class. There are many different racing
classes of gliders, Standard Class (15m span, no flaps), 15 Metre Class
(15m span with flaps), Open Class (Large metre spans, ranging from 15m to
25m and over), and the new World Class which uses the PW-5 sailplane
Inside a typical glider cockpit, you'll find the
Altimeter (to indicate your altitude)
Air-speed indicator (to tell how fast you are going)
Variometer (to tell what the air around you is doing)
Radio (to contact other planes or someone on the
Control stick (located between pilots legs)
Tow rope release knob (to disengage the tow rope)
Instrumentation on each
sailplane varies according to pilot preference, but each carries a minimum
of altimeter, airspeed indicator, a magnetic compass, a variometer (a
sensitive vertical speed indicator), and the "yaw string".
Most pilots immediately
upgrade their factory "vario" for a total energy system. Simply put, the
total energy system allows the pilot to get a more accurate reading on the
lift or sink surrounding the sailplane, but does not take into account
"stick lift" or a vertical acceleration by the pilot like an uncompensated
The most useful instrument
by far is the yaw string. Attached to the outside of the canopy at one
end, this 3 inch piece of red yarn shows the pilot the relative airflow
of the glider. It works opposite to the more common "ball" found in
powered aircraft. Glider pilots try to keep the plane co-ordinated at all
times, but with large wings and ailerons on the planes, adverse yaw is a
factor to be reckoned with. Glider pilots are forced to use the rudder
pedals all the time to get the most from their plane.
Of course, the most
important instrument for all pilots remains on our body, the eyeball.