Galen Fisher writes:
I am one of many people who have dedicated much effort
and personal resources to the LightHawk sailplane project, and now I
can add a little to Mark Stucky’s flight reports.
The most fun flying for me has been slow speed soaring
in craft that work tiny thermals and give lots of feedback from the
air. When Danny Howell enlisted my friend Steve Lowry’s help with his
foot-launchable composite design, the Apex, I was impressed and flew a
borrowed Fledge to get ready to fly it. But Danny’s sights rose to an
ultralight sailplane with a design on paper that is incredibly
The design promised a glide of 35:1 and an empty weight
that would let it fly with a wing loading of less than three pounds per
square foot. The design sink rate approaching 60 feet per minute
boggled my imagination though we still have to wait to see what the
measured performance will be with a well faired or retractable gear.
As mine has actually turned out it is easily in a class
by itself with an exquisite aerodynamic design combined with a wing
loading of 3.1 pounds per square foot. It looks beautiful in its all
white polyurethane paint and faintly smoke gray canopy. It has a
uniquely proportioned shape with a short fuselage and tall tail with a
very wide, high aspect ratio horizontal. Mine sits very high with the
fixed gear in a position as planned for a retractable gear of similar
The wings sweep gently forward at the quarter chord and
it flies well with me and my light parachute and no tail ballast. This
was unexpected and it does trim a little fast this way, hands off at 40
knots, but the control pressures are very light and authority very good
including for low speed thermalling. There is very much feel and
feedback for thermal centering and it has been little trouble to soar
with limited instrumentation.
Mine turned out to weigh 230 pounds empty, heavier than
advertised of course. Still, with a full 15 meter wingspan and 126
square feet of wing area the low flying weight of 395 pounds expands
the envelope for modern sailplanes. The wing loading doesn’t tell the
whole story because of the super high lift airfoil section. Subsequent
serial numbers should be more refined, lighter and with different
flight controls and glidepath control arrangement. Mine uses upper
surface large span but unbalanced spoilers and large chord landing
flaps, to be superceded by a Schempp-Hirth dive brake system – maybe
mine will be retro-fitted some day.
Mark Stucky has done more maneuvers on the edge of the
envelope than I have except that the flaps can now be deflected down
far enough and the wide spoilers deflected up far enough to get a
measured 1,000 ft/min of descent at a faster descent speed. I plan
modifications to cut in half the cockpit control force for descent path
My accrued time is a little under five hours as I write
this. My flights have been in conditions of tight, weak thermals where
this glider shows its true advantages. I have launched by car tow at El
Mirage but I strongly prefer to launch by aerotow here at Hemet behind
our Callair towplanes. They have 235 horsepower which is overkill of
course but the speed of 60 knots on climb-out has been no problem. The
glider feels solid and is nearly hands-off stable on aerotow.
I have the highest praise for the pitch stability and
control – the pitch response is instant but with great finger-tip
feedback. The side stick has a clunky looking design but in the air the
boxy part of it does not interfere with my leg room and the stick
pressures and range of motion in pitch are as sweet as in a Libelle.
The yaw stability and control were an even more pleasant
surprise considering the short fuselage -- the glider yaws back
straight as an arrow with no overshoot after a wings-level rudder
deflection. It easily enters an over-balanced slip with application of
opposite aileron but recovers easily too. Unfortunately the sink rate
in even the heaviest slip is not enough by itself for descent path
Its stall resistance is extraordinary, a tribute to the
high lift airfoil designed by Danny for this aircraft. It has one mode
of thermalling that interests me very much, in which the speed gets so
slow -- the airspeed differential between the wings so great -- that
the overbanking tendency requires full opposite aileron, leaving yaw
adjustment for additional coupled roll control. With the stick scarily
far back and to the high side the glider shows no tendency to stall and
in this configuration it still has a slow sink rate, continuing to
climb in weak lift doing what I’m sure is the tightest circle I have
ever done in a three axis control aircraft. In this characteristic the
glider reminds me of my Sensors which required high siding but rewarded
me with coring ability.
The glide is clearly very good – I’m sure it’s in the
30’s with the fixed gear hanging out and should get better with a
retractable gear, which I hope to develop and install with the help of
a gliding friend and engineer. I concede that the upwind performance
will suffer with the light wing loading, but it’s all in what you
compare it to and this glider is not your father’s ASW 20. Sure, the
’20 will thrash around a course at 100 knots cruise, but the LightHawk
will take a tow from a Dragonfly and hopefully do rolling starts, which
have been done very seldom in a sailplane but regularly by Mike
Sandlin’s BUG. And when the going gets marginal I have been able to
thermal at 500 feet in light thermals and enjoy the view instead of
This ability to climb in tight spots and the very low
sink rate in level flight will open up some new soaring opportunities.
There will be ridge soaring sites with a lesser slope, or a smaller
face, or that work in lighter wind than for hang gliders or for
conventional sailplanes. It will soar in wave lift on days with weaker
wind, and in more restricted spots or downwind of the smallest terrain
features -- call it “micro-wave” soaring. Weak entrained air may lift
the LightHawk up beside and over cumulus cloudstreets.
My last flight was the longest at two hours. I towed up
on a cloudless Monday January 5th, at 750 feet per minute behind our
weakest Callair. I took a high tow to 4,500 feet AGL to see if the
off-shore flow was producing any wave north of the airport, but my GPS
showed that the wind was changing too much with altitude and I found no
pattern of lift or sink. There was too much disturbance to try to
measure sink rate versus airspeed. The GPS at least confirmed the
installation of my little airspeed indicator.
The glider drifted down until at 2,500 feet AGL I could
sustain in weak lift. As I had at El Mirage I would climb up then see
how far I could search in one direction before being chased back to my
starting point. I was over terrain that I know so well but the new
machine made the day an interesting challenge.
It was working on so-called Hang Glider Hill – also
known as Galen’s Gorge because I “bought a piece of the rock” on it
once on an old Olympus – and some crows and red-tails were using it
too. From here I could strike out to the south face of the Mesa, or to
the east end of Double Butte, or to the overlook at the north end of
the west dam of Diamond Valley Lake. I would get back to the hill at
900 feet to 1,200 feet AGL or so and work back up in a 50 to 250 foot
per minute thermal while drifting slowly east.
The birds were a special treat. You can match
thermalling speeds with them better with a hang glider, but you can
only climb with them if they want to keep you company. The LightHawk
out-sinks them with only a little more speed. We have migratory
pelicans pass through which fly in amazing formations and I have
watched in awe as they have climbed through me in different sailplanes
over the years. I can only hope to join up with them in the LightHawk
sometime in the future.
As I had help for de-rigging in the form of Richard and
Robert who had climbed part way up the hill to watch, I headed back to
the airport when I realized that if I held on five more minutes it
would make two hours even. I have shot my mouth off saying to anyone
who would listen that just about any day should be soarable for this
machine so now I was down to 700 or 800 feet AGL and decided to hang
on. The glider port was closed so I worked a disappearingly small and
weak lift area with some swallows darting about to help mark the lift
at just 500 feet.
Paul MacCready described the ultimate goal for soaring
flight as a glider with one foot per second sink rate, and maybe the
LightHawk will develop to meet this ideal.
My background in aviation began with a few hours of
airplane lessons at age 14. The lessons were a gift from my father but
when he figured out that I’d be getting dual for almost two years
before I could go solo he treated me to sailplane training at my home
field, Hemet-Ryan airport, in 1973. I flew for fun while I started at
the University of California but when I qualified for CFIG in 1979 I
quit school and have instructed here for my primary source of income
through the present at Sailplane Enterprises.
In 1979, before I could find money for a beautiful
sailplane I started hang gliding and flew one after another of now
classic gliders. I loved my Sensor 510's. Going straight out cross
country in the Sierras and Whites with a willing crew, drifting at low
altitude past Big Ears or climbing to high altitude over spectacular
scenery has set a high standard for riveting soaring that sailplane
flying has seldom matched for me.
Nonetheless in 1984 an ad for a Sisu 1A showed up in
Soaring magazine and my longest and best sailplane flights have been in
this classic sailplane, a dream machine for me at the time.
I watched with fascination as a Midget Mustang came
together at Hemet, built by Ernie Oberheim in a county hangar. The
project was finished by another pilot and when it came up for sale I
couldn’t resist. I had become a collector of inspiring aircraft, as
well as unusual ones.
Even as I have pursued fun flying, my career has been
dedicated to sailplane flying as a commercial endeavor. I have been
lucky to fly with – and to have trained – pilots in beautiful
sailplanes and motorgliders from all over the world. I have always been
bold to ask for flights in other peoples’ aircraft, and have been asked
to take test hops in many where the new owner wanted tips on flying it
or when the owner was justifiably proud of his acquisition.
Flying something new to me has remained most rewarding.
It became a competition briefly with my friend Steve Lowry to see who
could fly the most models of sailplanes or motorgliders. Now I think of
them in overlapping subgroups; the ones that I think were the scariest;
the highest performance; there’s the most spectacular flight on a
borrowed glider as opposed to my own; there are crossover aircraft that
I flew as motorgliders that double as powered ultralights – the
glider-registered trikes are a good example, and the VJ 22. There are
the subgroups like self-launching; sidestick controlled; one-of-a-kind
homebuilts; ultralight types; weight shift controlled; wood primary
structure; retractable with and without flaps; v-tails; flap-only for
glidepath control; of course with many overlapping – it’s quite
entertaining for me to get to fly a new model, the more classic or
idiosyncratic the better. I envy Hans Disma and the late Dave Hughes
for having flown 95 or 100 models of glider.
In short, as a full time glider pilot I had reached the
point where seeing a great soaring day didn’t spark my imagination
anymore, but the LightHawk has changed that. Now I look forward to the
challenge of learning to fly this new aircraft and to enjoy a new type
of soaring. It’s been an awfully long wait, but thank you Danny,
Anthony, Bill, Bob, Dave, Floyd, Jason, Jeff, Mike, Monty, Richard,
Rick, Robert, and the many other individuals and firms whose
contributions are essential to the continuing project.