[Courtesy of Dick Williamson, November 1998]
Sailplanes are an excellent way to get started in RC planes. In fact, air forces around the world used to train all of their pilots in gliders before placing them in powered aircraft. You may fly gliders as a stepping stone to powered flight, or you may get hooked on the special pleasures and challenges and pleasures of flying graceful and silent sailplanes. CRRC has a very active group of glider flyers who gather regularly at Davis Field. The club also holds one or more sailplane contests during the year.
The clear choice for a beginner's glider in the CRRC area is a 2-channel polyhedral thermal glider with a 2-meter (or maybe 100-in.) wing span. "Two-channel" refers to a glider which has only two moving surfaces, an elevator and a rudder. This simple set of controls is perfect for beginners. A "polyhedral" sailplane has a small angle between the right and left halves of the wings as well as wing tips which are tilted upward at a steeper angle. Polyhedral gliders are very stable, requiring only intermittent inputs from the pilot to guide the plane.
"Thermal" gliders have shallow glide slopes and slow rates of descent in still air. They are designed to ride upward on rising air currents or thermals. In fact, one of the great thrills of sailplanes is circling upward in a thermal to tremendous heights. Flights of a half hour to an hour are not uncommon. Sailplanes with wing spans of 2 meters or more glide well.
For a general introduction to the many kinds of RC Sailplanes, it is hard to beat Randy Carr's web site (http://www.fatlion.com/sailplanes/sailplanes.html). Some of the content in this section duplicates information on Randy's web site.
One of the first questions asked is "How do you get the plane up?" A thermal glider is towed into the air by a tow line which has a ring on one end attached to a hook on the belly of the glider. The power for the tow line is obtained either from an electric winch rotating a take-up drum or from the energy stored in a stretched approximately 100-ft.-long piece of surgical rubber tubing which is part of a "high start".
Come to Davis Field and see both of these types of launchers in action. The sailplanes are launched to elevations of 400 ft. or more before the ring slips off the tow hook and the plane flies free in its search for rising thermals. Club members have several winches and high starts which are usually available for communal use (especially at Davis Field on weekends) so you don't need to invest in one for yourself. The favorite time for flying at Davis Field is Sunday mornings, but you may find flyers there at any time.
The traditional beginner's glider is a primarily balsa plane with plastic-film covering made from a kit. The Goldberg Gentle Lady (http://www.carlgoldbergproducts.com/gentle.htm) is the glider most often recommended. This relatively light plane flies slowly and easily. Also highly recommended as a great beginner's sailplane is the 100-in-wingspan Olympic II (http://www.nesail.com/olympic2.html).
CRRC has a video ("Soaring from the Ground Up") which shows the construction techniques for a Gnome. Constructing a plane can be a lot of fun, and the skills you learn are valuable when inevitable repairs are needed. Also, you should end up with a better plane than if you buy an all-ready-to-fly ARF sailplane. However if you are uncertain about your building skills or want to get in the air quickly, an ARF glider may be your choice. A good choice for a balsa ARF is the Thunder Tiger Windstar.
In the past few years, an entirely new type of nearly indestructible beginner's glider has arrived on the scene. These sailplanes are made from expanded polypropylene EPP. This type of plastic foam material is widely used in packaging. The key feature is that EPP is resilient or rubbery. If crushed, it springs back to its original form. Planes made of this material bounce when they hit the ground! EPP gliders come out somewhat heavier and fly somewhat faster than balsa gliders of similar size. These disadvantages for a beginner are offset by the tremendous advantage of not worrying about crashing.
EPP planes go together faster than balsa planes. All of the major parts (fuselage, wings and tail surfaces) are precut to almost the final shape. The construction techniques are unusual and the planes don't look as good up close, but who cares?
The best EPP planes for beginners is the 2-meter-wingspan MAD Highlander (http://www.madaircraft.com/) or (http://www.nesail.com/highlander.html). Several people in the club have had great success with this plane. Not only does it fly well, but several unintentional tests have demonstrated that the plane can hit the ground hard without permanent consequences. Build the polyhedral version of this sailplane.
A huge amount of information and advice on RC sailplanes is available on the web. Check out the links under "Learn about RC - Sailplanes and Soaring" as well as those at Carr's web site (link).