Things to consider before buying a glider
If you’ve got to the stage of competent solo, perhaps have completed your Bronze certificate and maybe even part of your Silver Badge, thoughts may start to wander towards owning your own glider. For most people their first glider will be very secondhand and will usually be bought as part of a syndicate. That was certainly the case for me this year and I thought that it might be interesting for me to put into words a few things about my experience that others might find useful if heading down the same path. I bought a share in a single seat Astir CS; it cost me a relatively small amount of money (one of my neighbours has a racing bike that cost pretty much the same money!) and I keep it in a trailer at my local club, rigging/de-rigging every day that I fly.
Do your homework
One of the first things to think about is what sort of glider you want. At this end of the market beggars can’t be choosers but you do need to give some thought to what you think might suit you best. Even if you can afford it an exotic, rare, flapped glider is unlikely to be a sensible choice but you probably do want to be thinking about one that you can ‘grow into’ in the sense that you won’t be bored with it within a year and be driven mad by its lack of performance.
After a little self reflection go and speak to our CFI. Chances are that your club rules will require you to discuss a glider purchase with him (or her) at some point so better to do it before you buy rather than after…! The CFI will (should) have an idea about you as a pilot, will also know what sort of gliders will suit your pocket and capability and will be able to provide guidance on where to look. They may even know someone who is selling something suitable.
Another person to talk to is a maintainer. If your club is lucky enough to have a maintenance facility then buy the engineer a coffee and get their thoughts on the pros and cons of different makes when it comes to maintenance routines and costs. If there isn’t a maintainer on site then see if you can find the UK agent (or similar) for the type and chat with them (keeping in mind, of course, that they will probably be bias towards their products).
Also, talk to other owners of the glider type/make and ask for their feedback on maintenance costs, availability of spares, airworthiness directives etc. Also ask about how easy the glider is to rig, comfort, things to look out for when buying. For this stage of the process be ready for some long discussions and some very divergent opinions! You will know those in your club who are prone to embellishment of the truth so by all means talk to them but keep that pinch of salt handy.
The army use a phrase – “time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted” and that really applies to this stage of the process.
It’s not just about the glider
Most new glider owners will (like me) join a syndicate and one valuable piece of advice I was given at the start of my search was “the syndicate partner is as important (if not more so) than the glider itself”. (To that I would also add that the trailer is the third partner in this strange marriage but more of that later!).
I was quite lucky to find a share in a glider owned by someone who I already knew well so this wasn’t too difficult for me but for most people the chances are you may have seen them around the club but might not be aware of their character. Speaking to the CFI privately can, again, be useful here. It’s likely to lead to tears if you’re a perfectionist and the rest of the syndicate consider bugs on the wings and mud on the fuselage as badges of honour!
How many already in the syndicate? There are pros and cons to large and small syndicates and you may have to compromise so keep an open mind on this one. I share my glider with one syndicate partner and that suits us both. My syndicate partner also has a share in a two seater syndicate which has 13 members so he’s happy to play at both ends of the spectrum!
In a small syndicate you will usually get more opportunity to fly (we split use to odd days and even days) but then you have a larger share of the maintenance and upkeep to pay. In a large syndicate the rota and rules for flying can be very complex but you only pay a fraction of the costs which makes ownership really cheap. Two seater syndicates tend to be larger than single seater ones but then very often two syndicate members will fly at the same time so things even out. For a single seater syndicate I would personally think that three is the maximum, unless there are special circumstances (such as other members only fly during the week, leaving it free for you at weekends).
I mentioned trailers earlier. Earlier this year I volunteered to act as retrieve crew for a chap heading off for his first cross country. He had bought his own glider outright and on a pretty small budget; his glider looked a little tired and that really ought to have got me thinking about the state of his trailer.
Sure enough the call came through; he was 20 miles down the road and could we go and get him. Only then did I see his trailer…! It was a patchwork of dodgy plywood, held together with some very amateur fibre glass repairs and peeling paint. I was genuinely surprised to find that the electrics actually worked; if they hadn’t I would have refused to put my driving license in jeopardy to pick him up out of the field. If you plan on going cross country and want people to volunteer (more than once!) to pick you up then make sure that you have a good trailer.
Another aspect of trailers to think about it how the glider packs into it and the ancillary equipment that comes with it; this is especially important if you plan to keep the glider in the trailer rather than the club hanger. If the process for getting the glider in and out looks like it was designed by Heath Robinson – requiring multiple steps to get around poor design – then you will get tired of it all very quickly and probably end up not rigging because it all becomes ‘too difficult’. Also, you will probably find other people suddenly become scarce when they realise you’re looking for a hand.
Who does what?
Does the syndicate have someone who does all the management? Most successful syndicates have one single point of contact for administration as this helps to ensure everything is done and nothing is missed. That’s not to say that others don’t help when required but having one person who deals with the bank, the insurance people, CAA, maintenance company and your club on your behalf is a real boon.
So now we get to the exciting bit – the glider itself
This is the bit you’ve probably been looking forward to and are probably most knowledgeable about. Even as a relatively inexperienced pilot you will be able to tell a well-maintained aircraft from one that has been neglected but even if it looks good make sure that you look closely into every nook and cranny – and the paperwork.
Another thing to look into is why the present owner is selling his/her share, or why the syndicate is creating another share. This should help to give you an idea of any internal politics or issues amongst the present owners.
In addition to the state of the airframe how are the equipment levels? What state are the instruments in? How old is the radio? Is there a logger? PDA? GPS? How neat does all the wiring look – professionally fitted or bodged together over a number of years by enthusiastic syndicate members?
One key piece of equipment to look at carefully is the parachute. Re-packs are a regular maintenance requirement and aren’t too expensive but each parachute also has a finite life and new ones can cost up to £1500. How much life is left in the syndicate parachute?
I’ve found that comfort in gliders is an individual thing and can vary from aircraft to aircraft – one of our club single seaters causes me no problems after 2-3 hours, another of the same type gives me back ache within an hour. If at all possible get a few flights in the aircraft before buying; you may have to pay a small insurance premium to achieve this but a little bit of money now could save you a lot of heart ache (or bum ache!) later. We have a seat of high density crash foam in our glider and it’s brilliant (as well as being a safety feature). It starts off quite hard but moulds to your shape as it warms up. I’ve got out of our glider after a 5 hour flight feeling as ache-free as I was when I got in.
In many senses the glider is actually a minor part of the process of joining a syndicate or buying a glider outright. If you’re like me you will be focused on the aircraft at the start of the process but hopefully this article (and advice you get from your CFI and other trusted club members) will open your eyes to realising that there are a lot more things to consider if the process is to be a success.