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Handlaunch Sailplanes

Handlaunch Sailplanes

Handlaunch sailplanes, Hand-Launch Gliders or "HLG" are smaller sized planes that typically weigh between 6 and 15 ounces, but any plane that you feel comfortable throwing into the air could be classified as a "handlaunch". These sailplanes are launched merely by throwing hard to get altitude, or by using a towing mechanism from the ground such as a long rubber band known as a hi-start or with an electric winch. HLGs also are great on small slopes with minimal wind as they're able to stay aloft with very little lift.

Ryan Thompson, Discus-launching at PoleCat Aero's Pole Cat Challenge While HLGs can be more difficult to construct due to their lighter construction, their ability to teach soaring skills has no equal. HLGs are sometimes entirely built of light balsa, while others can and are built of a composite of carbon fiber, epoxy, balsa and foam; in different combinations. Which is the best construction for an HLG plane? It depends on the design of the plan form and the correct use of the composite technology.

I've personally owned more than 20 planes that you could say were in the handlaunch category. I didn't know these planes I built before 1980 were "handlaunch" at the time (circa 1973-1980), as I had never heard of the term until the early 80's. I scratch built most of them using my own airfoil design (I didn't know who Michael Selig was either). I created the airfoils by drawing them by hand on a piece of thin plywood and sanding the shape until the airfoil seemed about right. Some flew better than others, but I didn't ask why, I just flew them and built more... I rarely built V-Tail designs until years later as there weren't any computer radios out yet and the only way I knew to do a V-Tail was to use a mechanical "mixer" to do it. Now there are many different ways to do V-Tail controls, either by using an electronic mixer or mixing right inside the radio. The same technique used in setting up elevons can be used in a V-Tail configuration as well. And some of the kits offer either a conventional tail or a V-Tail in the same kit. Personally, I prefer conventional tail configurations as you sometimes get strange flying effects when turning sharply with some V-Tail designs - your mileage (and opinions) may vary!

Here are some tidbits to carry around in your mind as you dream of flying your HLG:

  • An HLG is usually flown close to you, therefore you can see it better. And you will learn how to read the air better.
  • An HLG can be very responsive to lift and sink (absence of or negative lift). Again, you will learn quickly to read the air determining whether or not your plane is in lift or sink.
  • Thermals near the ground are smaller and more defined. Close to the ground, it is harder to locate and stay in a lifting thermal, and you will have to learn to find and stay with a thermal by skill; unless you have infrared vision!
  • Instant feedback: short flights teach you where and how not to fly. There is a big difference between a 15 second flight and a 40 second flight.
  • HLGs are classy. It takes a real pilot to keep an HLG glider aloft. [Just kidding!]

If you can throw a baseball across a backyard, you can throw a Handlaunch Sailplane. The secret isn't always how hard you throw or which direction you throw in, rather it is the technique used in the throw. If you throw your plane the same way you throw a baseball, overhand, across a yard you will most likely hurt your arm or elbow after only a few throws. The motion needed is more like throwing a dart, or even better, a javelin. It is best to keep your arm straight and use your body motion to add more energy to the throw. I've found that I do better with a quick sprint to add a bit more energy to the plane rather than "winding up" for the throw. I've been able to get 50 feet with some throws and as little as 10 with others. It helps to throw into a bit of wind as well (too much wind is bad, as an HLG just gets thrown around by the wind due to the lightness of the airframe). Myself and others I know have been able to catch a thermal beginning with as little as eye-level altitude, so don't be discouraged about every throw, just keep practicing.

I've found that, in smaller parks or fields especially, that if you feel that the wind or breeze suddenly stops dead calm, it is likely that you're in a thermal, akin to being in the eye of a hurricane. I usually wait a few seconds and start running into where the wind was coming from originally, fire off the HLG into the wind and turn back towards myself (downwind). If there was a thermal, I'll catch it then.

Additionally, there's a newer form of HLGs known as Discus Handlaunch or DLGs. These DLGs are launched as if throwing a discus or frisbee. Some of these planes have a pin glued securely near the tip of one of the wings. This pin is where you hook your fingers around and "whip" the plane into the air with a quick motion. (Is it all in the wrist?) Click DLG Techniques for information about construction techniques and other info written by Jay Decker. Additionally, there are DVD videos available from Bruce Davidson & Paul Naton that describe other clever and instructional methods for building DLG and HLG models.

Here's a partial list of, well known, tried, and/or tested handlaunch and discus-style handlaunch sailplanes that I've found: