The Air Force Academy has great reason to be proud of its cadets. Late last year they won their eighth straight national glider championship during the Soaring Society of America's annual contest -- their 14th win in the last 18 years.
In doing so they posted a staggering 30,700 miles flying these engineless planes, twice the number of miles they flew in their previous victory. Some individual flights went as long as 320 miles with nothing more than the air and wind to propel them along. They also broke their record for longest flight by soaring for seven straight hours.
So gliding is clearly a hot sport among young fliers, who are going longer and farther than ever before. Unfortunately, that also means the skies are getting less safe -- and will be ever more dangerous if the federal government keeps ignoring expert recommendations and shirking its duty.
Most aircraft carry transponder devices that alert planes and air traffic controllers to other planes in the vicinity. These are vital to preventing midair collisions. Yet gliders are not required by the Federal Aviation Administration to carry this technology or any of the more modern devices that provide the same crucial function. This despite the fact that gliders are much more invisible than others because they move silently.
Until recently, most transponders were heavy devices that required substantial electricity to power. Glider enthusiasts argued that they limited their ability to fly. That's no longer the case. New, miniaturized devices are available. One developed by the McLean-based Mitre Corp., is cheap, lightweight and can run on four regular AA batteries. The devices can alert other aircraft of a glider's presence from a distance of up to 80 miles.
Another glider-designed collision avoidance device called FLARM, which uses radio and GPS, is in widespread use throughout Europe.
The FAA has a compelling reason to require gliders to carry these new devices: Collisions involving nonmotorized aircraft like gliders and commercial planes have killed nine people and injured dozens more in recent years, according to federal data. Most glider pilots do not survive them.
To be sure, this would be an expansion of federal regulations, but it is a modest, sensible one involving technology already required on most civil airplanes. Indeed, the National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly urged the FAA to mandate the devices on gliders, most recently in 2008.
Many glider pilots agree. "I have suggested to the NTSB (in writing) that these (FLARM) devices should be recommended, if not mandatory," Soaring Society of America lobbyist Stephen Northcraft told The Washington Examiner in an email, adding: "[T]hese devices only detect the presence of another such device close by, so the more aircraft equipped with them the more effective they are."
Yet the FAA seems to only operate at only one pace: glacial. It has never acted on the NTSB's or SSA's recommendations. In 2010, a federal spokesman told The
Examiner that gliders were exempted because they operated in "remote areas." Think about that the next time you are crossing a "flyover state."
The FAA is currently overhauling its old radar-based air traffic control system with the "Next Gen" satellite-based global positioning system. There is no excuse not to use this opportunity to address glider safety as well.