It seems that wings are getting smaller so I thought it might time to explore their behaviors, risks and benefits. I, too, have come to love flying smaller sizes but there are, as always, tradeoffs.
What we’re really talking about is flying heavily loaded. After all, what’s small to a 250 pounder is huge for a 140 pounder. Most pilots fly at wing loadings (pounds / flat area) below about 12 pounds per m². I consider a wing small at loadings around 14 per m², extremely small over about 17 lbs/m² and crazy small over about 20 lbs/m² . I’ve done that once and will never do it again.
Heavily loaded generally means more resistance to collapse but a more spirited response. It clearly means faster takeoff and landing speeds, and much more dynamic handling.
So far, our limited accident data suggest that small wings do increase fatal accident risk during training and/or new pilots due to overcontroling. Otherwise, most risk comes from falling due to the higher takeoff and landing speeds and to mishandling on launch. I’ve seen examples of this.
High loadings make engine failures on takeoff or at low altitude (5 and 20) feet more consequential. It takes a lot power to keep small wings happily aloft and when that power dies, they dive. Not handling it right could be quite thwackful. At heavier loadings you need enough height so that, if the motor quits, you can establish a glide and regain enough speed for a full flare. On really small wings, 30 feet might not be enough. There are ways to handle this, of course, but they require practiced reaction that still won’t necessarily leave you standing up.
Inflight left/right oscillation is another problem. Many wing/motor combinations will oscillate left/right even without any brake input and its usually worse at higher loadings. The slightest bump gets them started and, in some cases, will diverge until becoming big wingovers. Of course YOU won’t ever let that happen.
Knowing You’re Ready
How can you know if you’re ready? Well one way to handle this question is to progressively fly smaller gliders. Do some maneuvering each time, though, so you get a feel for the wing. If you’re already flying in some level of turbulence, or come from thermal-based free flight, you’re probably in good shape from a maneuvering perspective.
One thing to be proficient on is the slider landing, where you slow down with moderate brake pull then, at 20 to 30 feet, ease into a hands-up dive, then use that extra energy to flare, sliding slide along the ground briefly before stopping. If you’ve got that down, you’ll be better prepared for the necessary technique of small wings, or at least the most reliable technique for landing at their higher speeds without falling.
The biggest benefit of small wings is incredibly crisp handling. Load ’em up a bit you can they bank extremely aggressively. Plus they have quite a bit of speed range. You want to be real carfule because you’re already loaded heavily and then, if you get into a bit of a spiral, the reaction becomes eye popping. The heavier the loading the more responsive it will be. And by responsive I mean that it might only take an inch of brake travel to effect and immediate 60 degree roll. Do that close to the ground and you’ll become unwittingly one with earth.
Another benefit is super easy inflation. Not only does the wing have little area to resist your run with, but it doesn’t have far to come up. Get some speed, as with any wing, to be sure it doesn’t fall back.
If you’re into soaring or handling high winds, small wings rock. They’ll let you at least kite in 20 mph winds and, if you’re at a soaring hill, it’s possible to soar them in strong conditions. You can use a LOT of brake to slow down and reduce descent then, when you want to sink, let off the brakes to plummet. Very cool. Most pilots only get to this level after hundreds of flights, many of which are in challenging conditions.
Anyone who likes to go fast will enjoy being loaded. You can have the speed of a reflex glider but pay a price on the low end since a larger reflex glider will go just as fast but be able to go slower.
Lastly, they pack up into a duffle bag and weigh next to nothing. Folding is fast.
Nothing is free and the benefits derived from flying heavy come with various drawbacks.
- Risk is obviously the biggest drawback so you’ll want to be highly experienced, risk tolerant and pay attention attention while flying.
- You’ll need more room for launch and landing.
- You’ll need more power and will burn more fuel.
- You’ll need to run like a gazelle and have really good technique in zero wind.
For the experienced pilot who knows the risks and that wants to sow some oats these are great fun. Be careful, make sure you’re ready and enjoy!