A Skilled Pilot Piles In, What Can We Learn

For more on wings, see Chapter 26: Choosing A Wing | and Overview of Reflex Wings | Pylon Race Collapse Accident

All wings are more dangerous with the speedbar fully engaged. Reflex wings, however, are only dangerous in that configuration if you use their regular brakes, then all bets are off. Even standard wings suffer this same problem; enough that competition free flyers on full speedbar will frequently use rear risers instead of the brakes for small turns.

Reflex wing rounding a pylon during competition

All wings should be flown according to their owner manuals but this article was inspired by the common use of reflex wings in competition — a use that drives pilots to push outside the envelope. Those who like to fly fast, which reflex wings do brilliantly, must be paid even more attention to. If you’re a new pilot wanting to get into flying fast and maneuvering, team up with an experienced pilot who knows these wings and listen intently. 

To reiterate, one of the most important things to remember about reflex wings is this: if you’re fully accelerated and on speedbar, using the regular trailing edge brakes is destabilizing and makes a front tuck dramatically more likely.

Read that again. Every reflex wing designer or representative I’ve ever talked to has told me this. While they may “allow” brake use with some speedbar they acknowledge that risk goes up. And most of them put that fact clearly in their user manuals. Also realize that sand in a wing is like pulling some amount of brake. Plus it can cause a flutter that has undetermined affects, especially at high speed.

I’ll admit to an experience I had while reviewing the Dudek Hadron, for which I had not read the full manual. I assumed that I could use the trailing edge tip steering while trimmed fast and fully accelerated. When I went up to fly it, that resulted in an immediate tip collapse. I did it several times with the same result. Nothing dangerous, actually, but certainly not what I expected and no way to turn the glider. So I landed and asked an owner. His response: “oh yeah, that’s stated in the manual, you have to use the stabilo steering (they call it “ALC”) when fully accelerated.” Ahhh. This glider has regular brakes, stabilo steering AND trailing edge tip steering . The tip steering goes out to the outer brake lines but you can’t use it at full speed like you can with some other reflex gliders.

I flew the wing again a few weeks later and solved the problem. Just like the manual says, don’t go all out with trims and full speedbar; rather experiment to see how much trim you can let out and use full speedbar. For me, about 2/3 fast trim allowed full speed although I would occasionally take small tip collapses when going through my own wake or slipping a bit while turning.

Pascal Valee, a world champion competitor who flies this wing, says that he primarily uses the stabilo steering (ALC) when fully accelerated to minimize his collapse risk. I have recently purchased an Ozone Viper 18 which has tip steering lines that go to the outer two brake line attachments and it’s OK to use when flying full speed and on other Dudek models it’s OK to use the trailing edge tip steering when fully accelerated.  Know the difference.

Lesson Learned

The most important point is to fly within the guidance of your wing’s manual and, if you don’t have a manual, consider yourself a test pilot. Go up high, with a reserve, preferably over water with floatation, a coach and a boat nearby, and wring it out. If it’s a reflex wing, recognize that using brakes while fully accelerated is putting you closer to collapse by some amount.

Secondly, know that just because you got away with it in practice doesn’t mean it’s safe. You may have been within a hair of catastrophe but never knew it. That’s a finger I point right at myself since I did just what Michael did although I did it up high and it wasn’t as dramatic.

Flying fast and maneuvering is indeed risky. Build up  to it slowly. Learn the gear, learn its limits, learn your own limits and help us keep each other around for many years of bigList debates and fly-ins.