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Lesser Evils

Copyright Dixon White October 16th, 2003

To use “big ears” or not to use “big ears”? To use “b-stalls” or not. These are important questions, and it’s often the quizzical buzz in many conversations. Here at Airplay we teach our new students to do symmetrical folds, a.k.a. big ears, within the first couple days of high flights. We see big ears as an important tool to have at the ready. We used to teach b-stalls on high flights, but have now passed this on to the “over the water” a.k.a. S.I.V. clinic operators since these clinics have become so prevalent. We’ve handed off the instruction of this maneuver because of the couple of reports that b-stalls have gone wrong. I’ll address this issue in a moment.

Between all of the Airplay staff we’ve supervised, and this is a matter of record, over 55,000 student flights. We haven’t ever seen one event as a result of big ears or b-stalls, nor have any of our affliated instructors reported a problem. Yet, we’ve seen these techniques come to the rescue frequently and think they should be familiar tools in every pilot’s box.

A blip of concern recently cropped up about big ears. In review of forum discussions about big ears I’m left thinking that a couple of specific gliders, one tandem glider in particular, may be prone to the problem and that there may be a correlation between gliders that are old, porous, lightly loaded, or with brake lines that are so short they are “on” while big ears is installed. It may be wise, if there is any concern, and you are planning on keeping big ears in place for a lengthy period of time, to depress your speedbar after installing big ears. Having the speed bar on while holding big ears will further increase your descent rate, increase your forward speed and keep the angle of attack in a “safer” zone. I think having big ears in place and then adding the speed bar is your best bet. Pulling big ears while the speed bar is already engaged may fold more of the leading edge than you expect.

One famous pilot used to habitually bad-mouth big ears, yet was later witnessed using big ears to get down safely when he was attacked by a gust front. There’s no doubt that we teachers are a little concerned that a nave pilot may look at big ears as the perfect safety valve and then choose to fly in inappropriate conditions. Don’t let big ears substitute for thoughtfulness in regards to other choices. Big ears should simply remain a tool that may occasionally save the day.

Chuck Smith, probably the most experienced full-time 17-year pilot in the United States says, “I’ve heard that some gliders can have problems with big ears, or b-stalls but I’ve never seen a problem. It may have been more of a problem many years ago.” Chris Santacroce, Lord of Acro, says, “I love big ears! There’s nothing better for a steep approach into a restricted landing area when there’s no turbulence, a pilot who doesn’t know how to “feel” a glider and who’s stuck in turbulence, any pilot who’s nice and high and wants a mellow way to increase his sink rate AND there’s nothing worse for a pilot who’s knows how to “feel” a glider and who is making an approach/landing in turbulence.”

Symmetrical tip folds increase your sink rate by about 300 ft per minute, stabilize your glider within turbulence, and allow a more direct approach into a restricted landing field. They should be practiced under the supervision of an instructor to the point of perfection. The initiation needs to be exacting so that the pilot uses the correct lines and is able to induce the maneuver quickly. It is of concern that a pilot is in “limbo” while reaching up to pull big ears. Active piloting on the brakes is given up, so it’s important to activate big ears within potentially turbulent air with at least 100 feet of ground clearance. Weight-shift turns allow the pilot maneuverability for avoiding other pilots and for setting down accurately. We have watched pilots pull the wrong lines while attempting big ears, or try to pull big ears while in turbulence close to the ground – neither of these is a very healthy approach to the tool and could result in an injury. There’s potential that with decreased surface area creating lift that in a violent shear a paraglider in big ears might stall, but we haven’t seen this type of incident.

As an alternative to big ears, if in need to nail a landing, close to the ground, and at risk of turbulence, we use an asymmetric fold to descend the last 30 feet to the ground. This is a skill that should be practiced in an S. I.V. clinic. If you are going to use big ears as a safety valve then hold it to the point that you are close enough to the ground to begin the flair. Realize that the release of the ears will probably result in you gliding across the ground a little further than anticipated, so aim slightly short. Use of big ears will reduce your speed thus your glide and you won’t fly as far, plan ahead with a 50% reduction in glide as a consideration.

Let’s face it, being an educated pilot who avoids uncomfortable situations that are so demanding that big ears is necessary or being skilled enough with active piloting is always a better idea. Experience shows us that recreational pilots don’t always find themselves in easy conditions nor with the active piloting skills that are best for managing their gliders – big ears can save the day.

B-stalls get caught up in controversy because there have been some gliders that don’t seem to like this configuration. It’s a shame to not have a glider that can perform b-stalls uneventfully. Review your owner’s manual or the DHV website about your glider to make sure there aren’t issues with this maneuver. This tool gets you out of the air at about 1,500 ft per minute, and it does this without making you dizzy. You’ll give up forward penetration, so account for this when using it to move through the sky. It can take some pretty good arm strength to activate and it needs to be performed smoothly, symmetrically, and with about 2 feet in pull. It needs to be released quickly, symmetrically, and fully. It’s generally suggested that you should exit b-stalls at 500 feet AGL. Although we’ve never seen a problem with b-stalls executed within the correct guidelines, we do know that if they are pulled asymmetrically or too little or too far, or are released asymmetrically, the maneuver can get sloppy, although still very likely to straighten out uneventfully. We suggest that prior to activating the b-stall the pilot makes sure his feet are squarely on the speed bar, a.k.a. the accelerator, so that it can be used to help the glider dive out of the b-stall if it doesn’t seem to be returning to normal flight. I’ve never seen this safety valve needed or used. “Security in Flight” suggested making a turn out of a non- recovering b-stall or deep stall but I don’t know anyone who would agree – this kind of move could easily result in a spin.

Keep flying within friendly atmosphere, don’t put yourself in demanding conditions, and try to surround yourself with other thoughtful helpful pilots and you’ll rarely have to rely on safety valves. BUT, if you need the safety valve that big ears, an asymmetric descent, or a b-stall can offer – you’ll want to know how to use the maneuver appropriate to the situation with confidence. Despite our best efforts, we do occasionally find ourselves in unforeseen conditions and situations. It’s foolish optimism to think otherwise.