Glides - Flight Maneuvers

A glide is a basic maneuver in which the airplane loses altitude in a controlled descent with little or no engine power; forward motion is maintained by gravity pulling the airplane along an inclined path and the descent rate is controlled by the pilot balancing the forces of gravity and lift. To level off from a partial power descent using a 1,000 feet per minute descent rate, use 10 percent (100 feet) as the lead point to begin raising the nose to stop descent and increasing power to maintain airspeed.

Although glides are directly related to the practice of power-off accuracy landings, they have a specific operational purpose in normal landing approaches, and forced landings after engine failure. Therefore, it is necessary that they be performed more subconsciously than other maneuvers because most of the time during their execution, the pilot will be giving full attention to details other than the mechanics of performing the maneuver. Since glides are usually performed relatively close to the ground, accuracy of their execution and the formation of proper technique and habits are of special importance.

The glide ratio of an airplane is the distance the airplane travels in relation to the altitude it loses. For example, if an airplane travels 10,000 feet forward while descending 1,000 feet, its glide ratio is 10 to 1.

The best glide airspeed is used to maximize the distance flown. This airspeed is important when a pilot is attempting to fly during an engine failure. The best airspeed for gliding is one at which the airplane travels the greatest forward distance for a given loss of altitude in still air. This best glide airspeed occurs at the highest lift-to-drag ratio (L/D). [Figure 1] When gliding at airspeed above or below the best glide airspeed, drag increases. Any change in the gliding airspeed results in a proportional change in the distance flown. [Figure 2] As the glide airspeed is increased or decreased from the best glide airspeed, the glide ratio is lessened.

Figure 1. L/DMAX

Figure 2. Best glide speed provides the greatest forward distance for a given loss of altitude

Variations in weight do not affect the glide angle provided the pilot uses the proper airspeed. Since it is the L/D ratio that determines the distance the airplane can glide, weight does not affect the distance flown; however, a heavier airplane must fly at a higher airspeed to obtain the same glide ratio. For example, if two airplanes having the same L/D ratio but different weights start a glide from the same altitude, the heavier airplane gliding at a higher airspeed arrives at the same touchdown point in a shorter time. Both airplanes cover the same distance, only the lighter airplane takes a longer time.

Since the highest glide ratio occurs at maximum L/D, certain considerations must be given for drag producing components of the airplane, such as flaps, landing gear, and cowl flaps. When drag increases, a corresponding decrease in pitch attitude is required to maintain airspeed. As the pitch is lowered, the glide path steepens and reduces the distance traveled. To maximize the distance traveled during a glide, all drag producing components must be eliminated if possible.

Wind affects the gliding distance. With a tailwind, the airplane glides farther because of the higher groundspeed. Conversely, with a headwind, the airplane does not glide as far because of the slower groundspeed. This is important for a pilot to understand and manage when dealing with engine-related emergencies and any subsequent forced landing.

Certain considerations must be given to gliding flight. These considerations are caused by the absence of the propeller slipstream, compensation for p-factor in the airplane’s design, and the effectiveness of airplane control surfaces at slow speeds. With the absent propeller effects and the subsequent compensation for these effects, which is designed into many airplanes, it is likely that, during glides, slight left rudder pressure is required to maintain coordinated flight. In addition, the deflection of the flight controls to effect change is greater due to the relatively slow airflow over the control surfaces.

Minimum sink speed is used to maximize the time that the airplane remains in flight. It results in the airplane losing altitude at the lowest rate. Minimum sink speed occurs at an airspeed less than the best glide speed. It is important that pilots realize that flight at the minimum sink airspeed results in less distance traveled. Minimum sink speed is useful in flight situations where time in flight is more important than distance flown. An example is ditching an airplane at sea. Minimum sink speed is not an often published airspeed but generally is a few knots less than best glide speed.

In an emergency, such as an engine failure, attempting to apply elevator back pressure to stretch a glide back to the runway is likely to lead the airplane landing short and may even lead to loss of control if the airplane stalls. This leads to a cardinal rule of airplane flying that a student pilot must understand and appreciate: The pilot must never attempt to “stretch” a glide by applying back-elevator pressure and reducing the airspeed below the airplane’s recommended best glide speed. The purpose of pitch control during the glide is to maintain the maximum L/D, which may require fore or aft flight control pressure to maintain best glide airspeed.

To enter a glide, the pilot should close the throttle and, if equipped, advance the propeller lever forward. With back pressure on the elevator flight control, the pilot should maintain altitude until the airspeed decreases to the recommended best glide speed. In most airplanes, as power is reduced, propeller slipstream decreases over the horizontal stabilizer, which decreases the tail-down force, and the airplane’s nose tends to lower immediately. To keep pitch attitude constant after a power change, the pilot must counteract the pitch down with a simultaneous increase in elevator back pressure. If the pitch attitude is allowed to decrease during glide entry, excess airspeed is carried into the glide and retards the attainment of the correct glide angle and airspeed. Speed should be allowed to dissipate before the pitch attitude is decreased. This point is particularly important for fast airplanes as they do not readily lose their airspeed— any slight deviation of the airplane’s nose downwards results in an immediate increase in airspeed. Once the airspeed has dissipated to best glide speed, the pitch attitude should be set to maintain that airspeed. This should be done with reference to the natural horizon and with a quick reference to the flight instruments. When the airspeed has stabilized, the airplane should be trimmed to eliminate any flight control pressures held by the pilot. Precision is required in maintaining the best glide airspeed if the benefits are to be realized.

A stabilized, power-off descent at the best glide speed is often referred to as normal glide. The beginning pilot should memorize the airplane’s attitude and speed with reference to the natural horizon and noting the sounds made by the air passing over the airplane’s structure, forces on the flight controls, and the feel of the airplane. Initially, the beginner pilot may be unable to recognize slight variations in airspeed and angle of bank by vision or by the pressure required on the flight controls. The instructor should point out that an increase in sound levels denotes increasing speed, while a decrease in sound levels indicates decreasing speed. When a sound level change is perceived, a beginning pilot should cross-check the visual and pressure references. The beginning pilot must use all three airspeed references (sound, visual, and pressure) consciously until experience is gained, and then must remain alert to any variation in attitude, feel, or sound.

After a solid comprehension of the normal glide is attained, the beginning pilot should be instructed in the differences between normal and abnormal glides. Abnormal glides are those glides conducted at speeds other than the best glide speed. Glide airspeeds that are too slow or too fast may result in the airplane not being able to make the intended landing spot, flat approaches, hard touchdowns, floating, overruns, and possibly stalls and an accident.

Gliding Turns

The absence of the propeller slipstream, loss of effectiveness of the various flight control surfaces at lower airspeeds, and designed-in aerodynamic corrections complicates the task of flight control coordination in comparison to powered flight for the inexperienced pilot. These principles should be thoroughly explained by the flight instructor so that the beginner pilot may be aware of the necessary differences in coordination.

Three elements in gliding turns that tend to force the nose down and increase glide speed are:
  • Decrease in lift due to the direction of the lifting force
  • Excessive rudder inputs as a result of reduced flight control pressures
  • The normal stability and inherent characteristics of the airplane to nose-down with the power off

These three factors make it necessary to use more back pressure on the elevator than is required for a straight glide or a level turn; and therefore, have a greater effect on control coordination. In rolling in or out of a gliding turn, the rudder is required to compensate for yawing tendencies; however, the required rudder pedal pressures are reduced as result of the reduced forces acting on the control surfaces. Because the rudder forces are reduced, the pilot may apply excessive rudder pedal pressures based on their experience with powered flight and overcontrol the aircraft causing slips and skids rather than coordinated flight. This may result in a much greater deflection of the rudder resulting in potentially hazardous flight control conditions.

Some examples of this hazard:
  • A low-level gliding steep turn during an engine failure emergency. If the rudder is excessively deflected in the direction of the bank while the pilot is increasing elevator back pressure in an attempt to retain altitude, the situation can rapidly turn into an unrecoverable spin.
  • During a power-off landing approach. The pilot depresses the rudder pedal with excessive pressure that leads to increased lift on the outside wing, banking the airplane in the direction of the rudder deflection. The pilot may improperly apply the opposite aileron to prevent the bank from increasing while applying elevator back pressure. If allowed to progress, this situation may result in a fully developed cross-control condition. A stall in this situation almost certainly results in a rapid and unrecoverable spin.
    Level-off from a glide is really two different maneuvers depending on the type of glide:
    1. In the event of a complete power failure, the best glide speed should be held until necessary to reconfigure for the landing, with planning for a steeper approach than usual when partial power is used for the approach to landing. A 10 percent lead (100 feet if the decent rate is 1,000 feet per minute) factor should be sufficient. That is what is given in the Instrument flying Handbook, so that should be the general rule of thumb for all publications.
    2. In the case of a quicker descent or simulated power failure training, power should be applied as the 10% lead value appears on the altimeter to allow a slow but positive power application to maintain or increase airspeed while raising the nose to stop the descent. Retrim as necessary.

    The level-off from a glide must be started before reaching the desired altitude because of the airplane’s downward inertia. The amount of lead depends on the rate of descent and what airspeed is desired upon completion of the level off. For example, assume the aircraft is in a 500 fpm rate of descent, and the desired final airspeed is higher than the glide speed. The altitude lead should begin at approximately 100 feet above the target altitude and at the lead point, power should be increased to the appropriate level flight cruise power setting when the desired final airspeed is higher than the glide speed. At the lead point, power should be increased to the appropriate level flight cruise power setting. The airplane’s nose tends to rise as airspeed and power increases and the pilot must smoothly control the pitch attitude so that the level-off is completed at the desired altitude and airspeed. When recovery is being made from a gliding turn, the back pressure on the elevator control, which was applied during the turn, must be decreased or the airplane’s nose will pitch up excessively high resulting in a rapid loss of airspeed. This error requires considerable attention and conscious control adjustment before the normal glide can be resumed.

    Common errors in the performance of descents and descending turns are:
    • Failure to adequately clear for aircraft traffic in the turn direction or descent.
    • Inadequate elevator back pressure during glide entry resulting in an overly steep glide.
    • Failure to slow the airplane to approximate glide speed prior to lowering pitch attitude.
    • Attempting to establish/maintain a normal glide solely by reference to flight instruments.
    • Inability to sense changes in airspeed through sound and feel.
    • Inability to stabilize the glide (chasing the airspeed indicator).
    • Attempting to “stretch” the glide by applying back-elevator pressure.
    • Skidding or slipping during gliding turns due to inadequate appreciation of the difference in rudder forces as compared to turns with power.
    • Failure to lower pitch attitude during gliding turn entry resulting in a decrease in airspeed.
    • Excessive rudder pressure during recovery from gliding turns.
    • Inadequate pitch control during recovery from straight glide.
    • Cross-controlling during gliding turns near the ground.
    • Failure to maintain constant bank angle during gliding turns.