Continuing Landing Debate-
Novice/Intermediate Pilot, after many successful flights with prone-to -upright transitions from 200+ feet decides to try the more "advanced" (note the quotes) technique of flying the basetube almost to the ground. Previous flights made in the new manner lacked sufficient airspeed more commonly found on advanced landings, and had some scary, low to the ground slow turns.
Pilot sets up a lazy aircraft, or 3-leg, approach, into a large field. He completes his downwind, turns to base, and finally to final. Conditions are a bit bumpy, and at 40 feet, pilot decides to bring left arm up to downtube. Glider turns left. Pilot then responds by removing right arm from basetube and attempts to grab right downtube to correct his turn. Pilot misses downtube, and eventually gets a good grip on it.
The pilot then induces a right turn, but does not complete it before he impacts the top of an outbuilding. Pilot sustains nasty cut on his hand from the tin roof of the building, damaged ego, and rather severe glider damage. (Torn sail, broken keel, basetube, downtube, etc.)
This particular pilot got a fairly cheap lesson, if you count only body damage. The main cause of this accident is three-fold. One, the pilot was not yet comfortable with prone-to-upright transitions in turbulence, low to the ground, two, the pilot was not very familiar with the one-up/one-down, flying technique, and three, the pilot was resistant to instructor input, signaling complacency, or perhaps also self-criticism.
Prior to this accident, the pilot, who was not under formal instruction, was spoken with regarding slow landing approaches and late transitions by an instructor. The pilot's response to the recommendations was somewhat reluctant. The instructor questioned why he wanted to change his tried-and-true practice from 200 foot + transitions to "on-the-deck" transitions. His response was he felt he would have more control, and that he'd read about the ongoing debate in the USHGA magazine and figured he'd try prone.
The instructor's response was as follows: First, if any impact is possible, one is far safer being upright than prone. Second, proper airspeed on approach will afford the pilot more control. Third, the one hand on basetube, one hand on downtube position is a very excellent compromise for both safety and control. (The instructor was a 105 lb pilot who is very familiar with light wing loadings and lack of control). It was HIGHLY recommended that this pilot practice "one-up/one-down" from 2000'+ to gain familiarity with it before it was needed in critical last-second landing scenarios, and to just land like he always had until he was very comfortable with such techniques.
A few problems occurred here. When it was suggested to try the one-up/one-down technique from high up, before it was critical, the pilot responded with "Every time I've tried something weird or different up in the air, people ask me what the heck I was doing up there!" The instructor's response was shock! Why would a pilot who is practicing something with safe altitude for his own safety's sake CARE what anyone on the ground thought (except his instructor)?! Secondly, why is our sport so full of criticism that this pilot figured everyone was watching him?? Where's the positive peer pressure? Who were these pilots whom he said were criticizing him? If I see a pilot at 2000' feet going from upright to prone to upright, or flying with one hand up and one down, I applaud that pilot for the common sense that he is exhibiting by PRACTICING this stuff before the need is critical!!
Also, since the pilot was NOT familiar with where he found himself in that low transition (one-up/one-down), rather than correct the glider immediately to the right, he chose to try and get into a more familiar flight mode of both hands on the downtubes. Since he missed the transition with his right hand, it cost him some valuable control time in which he probably could have corrected the glider's left turn in time to miss the outbuilding. And of course, this blown transition resulted in losing airspeed necessary to make a fast turn.
And finally, why was the pilot even set up remotely close to this outbuilding and tree line when there was a half mile of open field in front of him? The answer to that one is only that the pilot launched from tow at that end of the field, and wanted to land closer to launch so as not to carry the glider very far. Safety vs. convenience?
Many novice pilots have been injured and a few more killed due to unfamiliarity with prone flight. Enough so that USHGA modified the Hang II requirements to include prone flight and smooth transitions, along with airspeed recognition in both forms of flight. Still however is the problem of teaching transitions safely. Very few pilots that I have met have ever practiced this stuff up high. Usually, a pilot's first attempt at landing with one hand up and one hand down happens on a landing. I don't feel that landing is a very appropriate time to try something new. We don't get injured in the air (mid-airs aside), but rather in unplanned contact with the ground. So any new landing techniques can and SHOULD be practiced up high, or in a simulator. At 1000'+ a pilot has plenty of time to fly with different hand positions at different airspeeds, and do some turns with the new techniques, and then come in and land as they always have. Try thermalling with one hand up and see if you get any negative comments! With a few flights, the one-up/one-down technique can then be incorporated into a real landing approach. Any advanced or more experienced pilots should applaud rather than criticize such a safe practice, and remember when they were flailing about trying to land in new circumstances.
Also, the actual transitions can be practiced in a few flights to insure that no pilot induced turns will happen when one hand is removed from the control frame. For prone to one-up, I and many other instructors recommend that the pilot slide both hands to the middle of the bar, with proper airspeed already obtained, and then bring one hand up. This technique reduces almost any chance of the pilot inadvertently turning the glider, even at faster, more advanced, landing speeds. It is also very useful as a tow-release technique so the pilot releases without a turn in his glider. A glider can very safely be flown clear to the ground with one-up and one-down, and as the glider slows in the roundout to trim, the pilot can then effortlessly place the other hand up for flaring.
Relating to Other Events
Finally, the issue of prone landing approaches is appropriate when the pilot intends to land on his wheels. Unfortunately, many pilots still view wheels as training devices rather than safety devices. I know of a few broken arms that could have been prevented by the use of wheels. Many years ago, helmets were not considered standard equipment for flying. As the sport progressed, helmets became more and more widespread, so that now we actually have helmets designed just for flying. My hope is that someday, we will all use wheels just as nonchalantly. I understand the two main arguments against wheels. One is actually valid, where the other is just plain ego. Since so many view wheels as training wheels, they can't wait to outgrow them. Any pilot who criticizes another for choosing to fly with wheels is as ridiculous as criticizing one for flying with a helmet.
The second, and more justifiable reason I hear for not flying with wheels is that the glider is so difficult to ground handle on most mountain launches. I agree 100 percent with that argument, but feel that rather than take off the wheels, let's make the wheels lockable so that they don't roll! That way, one can launch, get into the harness, and then safely unlock the wheels in flight. Even immobile wheels will "roll" better than a basetube (in the case of a blown launch, for example). Some European gliders actually have "skids" on the corner brackets of the basetube, shaped like half wheels!
Let's continue to enjoy safety improvements in the sport, and also self-regulation, by speaking up when you see something that needs improvement. And if you are on the receiving end of advice, and find yourself getting a bit hostile, ask yourself why you would be angry with someone who is only trying to help you keep flying for many, many years to come.
Fly high and practice landing approaches at 2000' + !! Get a set of 7" or 10" air-filled rubber wheels and practice landing on them (if your flying site affords a somewhat smooth LZ)!! (Takes a fair bit of guts to land solely on the wheels). And please, if you feel you must fly prone all the way to the deck, at least do it with wheels, so that if you impact the ground, you roll. Also, practice up high, control inputs with the bar stuffed until you can dampen any PIOs (pilot induced oscillations.) Down low, turbulence can cause incredible oscillations, and unless you have had practice up high, you just might be hitting that ground head first. Statistics suck.