When Should You Step Up Gliders?

This blog post originated from a Facebook discussion where Trey Hackney offered some prudent thoughts on upgrading wings. He nailed it, so we wanted to give his writing a more permanent home on our blog. Big thanks to Trey for graciously agreeing to let PGNE republish his work. 


"When Should You Step Up Gliders?"

Here would be my best advice on that if you are interested:

After having slowly worked my way through the ranks and glider classes over 14 years and 2,000+ hours of big air thermal flying in large mountains and strong flatland sites, racing for 13 of those years, and finally into 2 line comp gliders for the last handful of years, my absolute very best advice would be: 

Take your time, and then take even more time. And possibly even more time. You can't go too slow, but you sure as hell can go too fast. 

Don't level up on category of glider until you are able to do these things:

  1. Consistently push your current glider at or near maximum speed through rough air and then do it for another MINIMUM of 100-150 hours.... if you can only go to max speed in clean air, you are not maxing out your current glider, and you are not ready to move up. You should be able to essentially max out your current glider in strong conditions before moving up.
  2. AND don't level up until you can SIV it and reliably fix it in all configurations.
  3. AND don't level up until it is completely annoying you to the point that you are consistently not just "thinking," but REALIZING that it is the glider that is holding you back - and NOT your decision making. I "realized" these things when I was consistently maxing out a glider in rough air on long transitions with pilots of similar ability on better gliders and I was consistently coming in lower and eventually getting left behind when I was too low to catch a thermal. But I could keep up in every other way, and I could max the glider out comfortably, even in rough air, and could reliably keep the glider open, and fix collapses and stalls etc.. And I would usually stay on that glider and remain "annoyed" and endure it for another extra season or 100+ hours just to make sure I was really ready and comfortable and ahead of the curve for the next class of glider. And I never regretted the extra practice when I moved up because I was comfortable when I did. I generally averaged 2-3 years and 300+ hours per glider, and usually 2 gliders of the same class before stepping up. I've obviously seen MANY people go much faster, but I'm a fan of taking it slow.

    Also, you really shouldn't be taking anymore than a couple major collapses a year on your current glider (maximum) if you are considering moving up - ideally none or just one. If you are taking collapses regularly, or think collapses are "a normal part of flying," you are wrong, (and are already on too hot of a glider unless you are a total newbie) and absolutely not ready to step up. -Collapses are virtually ALWAYS pilot error, even when the air is trashy. If you are taking regular whacks, you are not feeling your glider carefully enough, or not predicting what is coming, or your timing is too slow, or your inputs are wrong, but until you figure it out, and how to reliably keep it open in rough air, you ARE NOT READY to step up. It's really that easy. Set your target goal for zero collapses, it is possible, or possible to get really close. 

Far too often people just want to "buy" better results or performance with a hotter glider, rather than "earning it." This is a bad idea.

The truth is: better decisions on a lesser performing glider will outperform bad decisions on a super hot glider every time. So, spend a lot of time on a safe glider learning the game and the craft, and the fundamentals of how to fly a canopy safely. Pre-load the early part of your career with a LOT of time on safe gliders. The performance gliders will come more easily once you understand the game, and the fundamentals of how the air works and canopy management. 

It's easiest to learn all that on a safe glider that allows your brain CPU's to think about more than just canopy management. When you are on too hot of a glider, too much of your band-width gets sucked to canopy management, and leaves too little to concentrate on learning the game and how the air moves and works, and for observations like where there is a suitable bail-out LZ, what the wind direction is, how is the sky changing, what are the birds doing, what is the best decision to make next to continue the flight. There's zero benefit to being on a glider that requires all your brain resources to manage the canopy if you can't freely think diligently about the game you are playing and easily still have enough CPU to take in all the things you need to observe and calculate to be safe and play it well. Observation and good calculations will outweigh an extra 0.5 points of glide ratio or 2k/hr of speed EVERY time.
I would give my full heartfelt caution against trying to buy performance before you are ready, (assuming your current glider is a current shark nose design already). Nothing is for free. There are no safe shortcuts. Take your time, and then take extra, and earn every last skill, and "own" your current glider in every situation before thinking of moving up, and then spend another couple hundred hours mastering it. What's the rush? Trust me, you will wind up a far better pilot, with far better fundamental skills, and you will be a far safer and well versed pilot in the end. 

There are no real disadvantages to taking it slow, but many real disadvantages and risks with going too fast. 

The guy in the video [topic of Facebook discussion] clearly either didn't get, or heed that advice, which is really unfortunate. He had no idea how to handle that glider when it bit him. Truly sad. Truly avoidable. Almost certainly he stepped up way to soon.

I hope he's ok. That looked like a brutal impact. Completely avoidable by not moving up too fast. Stay safe, take it slow, take it easy. This can be a life-long sport if you play your cards right. It can also hurt you bad. 

My advice for leveling-up on gliders: Just play the long slow game - there's truly no rush, and lots of benefit to taking it slow.

And get SIV and continuing education coaching, or quality mentoring along the way! If this helps just one person to be safer in the long run then it was worth writing! Cheers
Trey Hackney