Sailplane Launches Itself With Retractable Jet

A creative bunch of tinkerers think the recent trend of self-launching gliders needs a bit of a boost. So instead of outfitting their high performance sailplane with an electric or small piston motor, they've attached a jet engine that folds neatly into the fuselage.

Traditional sailplanes have no motor. They're typically towed to altitude by an aeroplane or a very big winch. Once high enough, the pilot detaches from the towline to begin the search for the rising columns of air, known as thermals, that can keep the sailplane aloft for hours.

But having to coordinate with a tow plane can be a hassle on a busy day. And then there is always the problem of "landing out". Often a pilot will push his or her luck in the elusive search for invisible lift and find they are too low and too far from a proper runway. That means landing in a field somewhere and getting the sailplane back to the airport.

Over the past few decades self-launching sailplanes have become popular with pilots who want the ability to reach soaring altitude on their own or have the ability to save themselves from landing out if they push their luck on a cross country flight. Now they can save themselves with a bit more thrust than the competition.

While tiny gasoline engines and small electric motors are common, a few pilots are upping the ante with jet power. Several people have experimented with jet engines on sailplane, but a small New Mexico company plans to start selling them soon. Desert Aerospace is building an alternative to the expensive self-launch gliders made in Germany by combing a high performance glider and a jet engine designed for use in unmanned aerial vehicles, both made in the Czech Republic.

The PBS TJ-100 weighs only 20kg and produces 109kg of thrust. Desert Aerospace has modified the two-seat TST-14J sailplane to accept the tiny jet engine. For take off the jet engine sits directly behind the cockpit and allows the glider to climb at more than 274m per minute. Once at soaring altitude, it folds down inside of the fuselage and retractable doors provide an aerodynamic covering leaving the sailplane looking like any other glider.

Desert Aerospace is still testing the prototype which made its first flight earlier this spring. There aren't a lot of performance details or a price yet. But the company says it will be much less than existing self-launch gliders from the more expensive German manufacturers.

The jet engine does burn more than 75 litres per hour, but with such impressive performance, a good soaring pilot will only need to run the engine for a few minutes to get to sufficient altitude. And of course there's always the option to just light the fire for a little fun at the end of the day as well.

Photos: Desert Aerospace / Jason Paur – has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.

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