By Chris Santacroce, co-chair, Accident Review Committee
Originally published in USHPA Pilot, March/April 2020
It's been some time since we have heard of malfunctions associated with using big ears. However, we have two recent accident report submissions in which big ears were a common cause. This points to the hidden risks associated with big ears and deep stall. Often considered a safe maneuver, big ears have a number of safety considerations that aren't always addressed but which are outlined in the following incidents.
While flying at an inland mountain site, a P3 pilot pulled big ears to help expedite the descent. The glider had been flown extensively. On pulling big ears, the glider entered deep stall, also known as parachutal stall. The glider did not have time to recover before the pilot lost several hundred feet and met with the ground. Thankfully, the pilot was uninjured.
In another incident, a P3 pilot was flying at a mountain site on a recently inspected and trimmed B-level glider when they decided to pull big ears. On releasing them, the ears were difficult to clear, so the pilot pulled more brake than usual, resulting in a deep stall. The pilot aggravated the deep stall by applying the brakes which brought the glider into a full stall configuration that many would call backfly. As pilots tend to do in an inadvertent stall, one arm went out and there was a rapid onset riser twist. The pilot deployed the reserve quickly and had a nice landing on the side of a steep hill, with only a few bumps and bruises.
It is important to remember that even though it's a relatively simple maneuver, big ears should still be approached with caution. On their first flight with a particular glider, pilots are advised to pull big ears under radio supervision and with plenty of altitude. Some suggest pulling a big ear on one side to confirm that the correct line is being used. Some instructors will mark the big ear riser for easy identification. It is increasingly common for pilots to have their feet resting on the speed bar while pulling ears and once the ears are in, some small percentage of speed system can be applied.
Finally, on clearing the ears, if there is any indication that the glider is not back underway (is at risk of being in deep stall), the pilot can push some speed bar to prevent deep stall before it starts or expedite a quick recovery if deep stall has already manifested. Pilots should strongly consider clearing the ears one at a time if they are having difficulty getting them to open. This works to avoid the big symmetrical brake input that can cause deep stall on some gliders.
Overall, this simple maneuver should be respected and used selectively, and pilots should be ready to deploy the reserve as the pilot did in the example above.