Sailplane - Instrumentation and Other Technical Aids

Instrumentation and Other Technical Aids

In addition to an altimeter, compass, and an airspeed indicator, gliders are often equipped with a variometer, turn and bank indicator and an airband radio (transceiver), each of which may be required in some countries. An Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (ELT) may also be fitted into the glider to reduce search and rescue time in case of an accident.

Much more than in other types of aviation, glider pilots depend on the variometer, which is a very sensitive vertical speed indicator, to measure the climb or sink rate of the plane. This enables the pilot to detect minute changes caused when the glider enters rising or sinking air masses. Both mechanical and electronic 'varios' are usually fitted to a glider. The electronic variometers produce a modulated sound of varying amplitude and frequency depending on the strength of the lift or sink, so that the pilot can concentrate on centering a thermal, watching for other traffic, on navigation, and weather conditions. Rising air is announced to the pilot as a rising tone, with increasing pitch as the lift increases. Conversely, descending air is announced with a lowering tone, which advises the pilot to escape the sink area as soon as possible. (Refer to the variometer article for more information).

Gliders' variometers are sometimes fitted with mechanical devices such as a "MacCready Ring" to indicate the optimal speed to fly for given conditions. These devices are based on the mathematical theory attributed to Paul MacCready though it was first described by Wolfgang Späte in 1938. MacCready theory solves the problem of how fast a pilot should cruise between thermals, given both the average lift the pilot expects in the next thermal climb, as well as the amount of lift or sink he encounters in cruise mode. Electronic variometers make the same calculations automatically, after allowing for factors such as the glider's theoretical performance, water ballast, headwinds/tailwinds and insects on the leading edges of the wings.

Soaring flight computers, often used in combination with PDAs running specialized soaring software, have been designed for use in gliders. Using GPS technology in conjunction with a barometric device these tools can:

  • Provide the glider's position in 3 dimensions by a moving map display
  • Alert the pilot to nearby airspace restrictions
  • Indicate position along track and remaining distance and course direction
  • Show airports within theoretical gliding distance
  • Determine wind direction and speed at current altitude
  • Show historical lift information
  • Create a GPS log of the flight to provide proof for contests and gliding badges
  • Provide "final" glide information (i.e. showing if the glider can reach the finish without additional lift).
  • Indicate the best speed to fly under current conditions

After the flight the GPS data may be replayed on computer software for analysis and to follow the trace of one or more gliders against a backdrop of a map, an aerial photograph or the airspace.

Because collision with other gliders is a risk, the anti-collision device FLARM is becoming increasingly common in Europe and Australia. In the longer term, gliders may eventually be required in some European countries to fit transponders once devices with low power requirements become available.

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