A Little Lift
Gliders so responsive they can stay up on a breath of fresh air.
- By Paul Ciotti
- Air & Space magazine, May 2005
(Page 3 of 3)
Because its long, lightly loaded wings act like a magnifying glass that enables the pilot to sense the slightest change in speed, pressure, or lift, the sailplane can also confer advantages on pilots who use it to soar conventionally in thermals. “When you cross the core you can feel it in your wings,” says Osoba. “I would toss out a Kleenex and it would stay centered in the core. And I would just plant my wingtip, pointing it at the Kleenex and get tighter and tighter.”
New Hampshire hang glider pilot Steve Arndt says his home-built Magic Dragon—he added winglets, stretched wings, and a graphite shell, and made other modifications to Maupin’s basic design—can fly 80-foot-diameter circles in thermals, compared to at least 300 feet for a fiberglass ship. “It flies so slow in turns it looks like the inside wing is going backwards,” he says. The small turning radius enables Arndt to fly wingtip to wingtip with vultures in rising air. “They’re always looking for other soaring creatures,” he says. “Once they get used to you, they’ll fly right with you.”
Osoba is now teaming with Kiceniuk and Paul MacCready to develop two unmanned aerial vehicles whose internal computers will be programmed to use dynamic soaring techniques to significantly extend flights—go faster, fly higher, or stay up longer. MacCready has made a career of designing aircraft that embody his unconventional ideas about low-power flight. His achievements include the human-powered Gossamer Albatross, which was pedaled across the English Channel in 1979 (it’s now enshrined in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center); the solar-powered Solar Challenger, which accomplished the same feat in 1981; and Helios, a solar-powered UAV that in 2001 flew to nearly 97,000 feet, snatching the altitude record for a propeller or jet aircraft away from the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
Because building a Carbon Dragon is so labor-intensive (up to 3,000 man-hours or more), only nine are known to be flying worldwide. Just 10 others are under construction, and because Maupin’s family stopped selling plans a few years ago, it’s unlikely that many more will be built (though Steve Arndt says that old blueprints are available through the Sailplane Homebuilders Association). Even so, says Osoba, the Carbon Dragon’s famous bloodline will never disappear. Designers in Chile, France, and Russia are building sailplanes closely modeled on it. And there’s Danny Howell, who, when designing the LightHawk was inspired by some of the Carbon Dragon’s best characteristics—though he’s integrated newer technology such as composite construction, a laminar-flow airfoil, and upward-swept wingtips for better control at stall speed.
“For me, it’s never been about going from point A to point B,” says Howell, who as a teenager used to band hawks at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. “It isn’t about getting really high and it isn’t about going anywhere as quickly as you can…. The whole idea here is to build a sailplane that can fly…slow, nap of the Earth, feeling the air…. That’s what it’s about—being a hawk.”