Winch Launch Failure Introduction

Winches are generally very reliable, but launches will occasionally fail in a variety of ways. The weak link may fail, the cable can break, or the winch can cough and stutter. You need to be well prepared for these eventualities. Aside from the circumstances of the failure, your recovery options will also depend on the airfield from which you are launching. Local guidance is therefore essential. Recovery options vary as you progress through the launch, so there are multiple lessons, to address these separately..

Time to make decisions – Have I reached the approach speed? Can I land ahead?

Learning Points

Successful recovery from a winch launch failure depends on making the correct decisions, quickly, and executing them well. You will need lots of practise to perfect something you will rarely do for real – my estimate is that recovery action of some sort is needed in one to two percent of launches. When it does happen, your only goal is to land safely.

Type of Failure and Recovery

Launch failures come in many forms. You may commence a ground run but not get off the ground. This could be especially problematical if your launch area or the ground in front has any downhill element to it. Once off the the ground, you may find that you’re just not flying fast enough to rotate into the climb. The winch may start rapidly, but slow down while you are in the climb (some are prone to icing up and will do just this). The cable or weak link may break. This is most likely to happen if you’ve pulled back too much – and are now rather too ‘nose high’. Turbulent conditions throw in a wild card as well. Winch drivers need to learn, and may initially have difficulty calibrating the power. Launches can also be too fast, causing you to pull-off low and fast. The following lessons address these scenarios, although not all can be simulated in Condor yet.

How do you know the launch is failing?

With luck you will have experienced many successful launches and got a feel for how they progress. If a launch deviates from the norm, be very alert. It should be obvious if you don’t get off the ground. Monitoring the ASI will alert you to too slow and too fast. Beware that too slow can creep up on you. Also note that while on the wire, you will not feel any speed-related G-forces or easily notice any external signs of changes in speed. You may feel some G as a result of gusts, so don’t immediately assume a launch failure. If the weak link or cable breaks, you may feel a ‘twang’ or jolt as the glider is suddenly released from tension. A jerky launch from an oft repaired cable may suddenly become smooth, whereas dyneema is smooth throughout. It is usual to feel something through the seat of your pants, but don’t rely on it. In all cases of a breakage, speed will decline suddenly and rapidly. This is dangerous if the break occurs while you are in the steep climb, nose high, or even in a more normal attitude close to the ground.

Immediate Actions

The various scenarios are dealt with in their own lessons. In all cases, the actions can be summarised as follows (quoted from the BGA Instructors’ Manual):

  • Recover to the appropriate recovery attitude, while checking the airspeed.
  • Wait to regain the approach speed nominated in your Eventualities.
  • Assess the situation.
  • Plan a safe approach and landing.
  • Release the wire.
  • Check the airspeed again.
  • Continue to monitor it.
  • Fly the approach and landing or a circuit variation to it.

These actions are expanded upon in the following lessons.

Scenario and Demonstration

Demonstrations are available for each scenario in the lessons that follow.

A Note About The Demonstration

Once hooked on, the pilot should keep their left hand on the release knob until they have released the cable. It isn’t possible to show this in Condor, so please use your imagination to visualise this.

No getting off the ground yet

The video is best viewed in YouTube in Full Screen mode, to easily see the on-screen messages during the demonstration. Use view, pause and rewind as needed to grasp the content and timing of the messages displayed, then focus on the action.

Performing the Exercise

Condor shows the pilot pulling the cable release in the demonstrations, whereas in fact that was the point where the winch had failed (cable break). Your first action in any winch failure is to get into the appropriate recovery attitude, and only then deal with the cable release.

Condor is generous towards gliders in ground effect – they will float for miles. Seek instruction on whether you should use airbrakes in the eventuality of a very low level break. Condor requires it, but in the real world, airbrakes must be used with enormous caution at low level.

Further Reading and References


The lessons were developed for Condor2. They will be updated from time to time. Visit the Downloads page for news of updates, and to request the latest version.

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