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So I was looking at the description of a ASW 27 B glider and ran across this statement:

Two water tanks in the wing plus a further 35 liter tank in the fuselage enable the ASW 27 B to carry more water ballast than any other 15 m glider and also give it the widest range of wing loadings

If a glider is trying to stay aloft as long as possible, wouldn't it be better to be light? Why would you add ballast and be able to dump it?

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    $\begingroup$ Apart from all the speed benefits, dumping ballast shortly before landing makes for great photos. Occasionally it has also been used to irritate competitors (^_-) $\endgroup$ – yankeekilo Jan 7 '14 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @yankeekilo: Haha, good points! $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Jan 7 '14 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ You are also trying to fly far and fast, which requires energy. And weight+gravity is a great way to store energy. $\endgroup$ – user3528438 Mar 13 at 15:01
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Mass doesn't affect the maximum distance, only the maximum endurance.

For example, image two identical planes A and B: A weights 50kg less than B. Assuming no wind (horizontal / vertical) and speed of best glide, both gliders will land at the exact same spot.

The lighter airplane A however will arrive later than B, as the speed of best glide is less than for B. In conclusion you can say, that additional mass only increases cruise speed, but not the travel distance.

Glider competitions are most of the time a route you have to fly in the shortest time possible. So that means, if you have a higher speed of best glide, you can fly faster in competitions.

The only downside to having a higher weight is, that your liftrate in thermals will be decreased and due to the higher speed it is harder to center the thermals.

It is to some extend also possible to shift the Centre of Gravity (CG) with the added load. The further it is to the aft limit, the higher your maximum distance is. This is because you will have less down-force from the stabilizer required. (If the CG is at the front limit, you will need to pull the control stick in order to fly level, therefore you have more drag). However I think this is rather a positive side effect and most of the time the water is used for flying faster.

Source: I am a glider pilot and currently doing my ATPL training.

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    $\begingroup$ Another downside/caveat of higher loading is higher stall speed. $\endgroup$ – yankeekilo Jan 7 '14 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I kind of implied that with "higher speed it is harder to center the thermals", but you are absolutely right. Most of the time you center thermals just above the stall speed. $\endgroup$ – Force Jan 10 '14 at 3:24
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf Do you have a source for that? $\endgroup$ – Force Apr 19 '14 at 11:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Force: Reynolds number increases with speed, and the friction drag coefficient goes down. Flying at a higher wing loading means flying at a higher speed regime and at a lower friction drag coefficient, thus better L/D than at the same polar point at lower speed. This is basic aerodynamics - what source do you need? $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 2 '17 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Force … yes, which means that one flies faster because it has a higher wing loading. You say as much in your answer. If one arrives earlier at the same spot, it must have flown faster. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 8 '17 at 19:57
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In addition to the other answers, let´s look at this L/D(=E) diagram of the enticing DG-1000 from DG Flugzeugbau (but fear not, 'tis true for all gliders) :

enter image description here

The best L/D ratio is equal for different wing loadings, but is occuring at different speeds - the higher the load, the higher speed. You can also see that the minimum/stall speed is also higher for higher loads.

The next diagram shows the polar curve: enter image description here

You can see that the minimum sink rate occurs at lightest load. The heavier the load, the longer you will have to circle in the same thermal for a given height gain.

The loading is a tradeoff between higher average speed and less efficient climbing. In case of strong thermals and/or long glide intervals, the optimum moves toward more, in weak conditions towards less or no ballast. The good thing is that you can dump water rather quickly (also partially), so that in a competition you usually tend to fill up (and dump in case) rather than start light (the Quintus e.g can take up to 250 liters!)

Aft ballast in the vertical tailplane is sometimes used to balance a forward CG caused by water in the wings - depending on your ship, partial dumping can be problematic.

Of course there are many philosophies and tactical debates concerning the "water or no water" dispute, but once you´ve overtaken an identical, lighter ship with full wings and no height loss, you get to see how much fun ballast can be (until the next thermal, that is).

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I'm tuning in more than 3 years late because I'm not fully satisfied with the answers here. Yes, Lnafziger, when you want to stay up as long as possible, the plane should be as light as possible. But sometimes you need to get down fast: This is when water ballast is added.

Force is right: Water ballast speeds everything up. But there is more to it.

Also StallSpin has a good point: Higher wing loading equals less disturbance by gusts.

But there are two points which should be considered as well:

  1. Higher speed means higher Reynolds number. Since this number shows the ratio of inertial to viscous forces, it means that friction drag is relatively lower. The consequence is that the glider with the higher wing loading really flies a little further than the light glider when both fly at their best L/D speed. The difference is not huge but gives the heavier ship another speed advantage when it can leave the last thermal one turn earlier than the lighter glider.

    But the higher Reynolds number makes an even bigger difference at low speed: Roll control is much improved with water ballast. At the Reynolds number range typical for the outer wing of a glider at low speed (much less than one million) the speed increase improves stall resistance and control power markedly.

Friction drag coefficient of a flat plate over Reynolds number
Friction drag coefficient of a flat plate over Reynolds number (picture source). The curve for a glider is between the fully laminar and the fully turbulent ones. Note the double logarithmic axes.

  1. Tactics: Water ballast is used mostly in competitions, and when several aircraft share one thermal, every pilot waits for the others to fly off to the next thermal. Watching the others tells her/him where the best route for minimum altitude loss is. This even makes the highest pilots in the thermal open their speed brakes, just to avoid leaving the thermal first. With water ballast the climb speed is reduced (higher sink plus bigger turning radius conspire to reduce the climb rate of the glider significantly), so the pilot with water ballast will even have a tactical advantage in the climb phase by flying a heavier ship.
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  • $\begingroup$ very interesting details, one question: in airliners, the heavier the plane, the shallower the rate of descent -- how does the ballast help with going down fast in this scenario? $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Mar 8 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb1: No, heavier planes fly faster and descent faster, too. It does not make sense to add ballast in a powered airplane unless you need to correct the cg location. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 8 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry I think my question was not clear. Due to the comments limitation, I've asked a new question. $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Mar 9 at 8:12
  • $\begingroup$ Although it is very clear that you are speaking of a general "need for speed", your specific comment "But sometimes you need to get down fast: This is when water ballast is added." seems to have caused some confusion. (See for example aviation.stackexchange.com/q/75181/34686 ). You might possibly consider changing to something to the effect of "But sometimes you need to fly fast. This is when water ballast is added." $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Mar 13 at 19:59
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Force's answer is pretty much the answer, but also consider that mass = inertia. If you weigh more, you are less likely to be disturbed by any given outside force (turbulence). A lighter plane is more maneuverable but it will also bounce around a lot.

I cannot comment on how much of an effect the ballasts in question have on this for a glider, though.

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  • $\begingroup$ Probably a lot, given that gliders are generally much much lighter than internally-powered aircraft of the same size. $\endgroup$ – Sean Mar 23 '19 at 3:09
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Force's answer is very good. But the statement "additional mass only increases cruise speed, but not the travel distance", true for any one glide, doesn't take account of the fact that conditions suitable for soaring typically exist for a limited time each day - so increasing cruise speed definitely does increase distance.

StallSpin's point about reduced effect of turbulence on a ballasted glider is significant. This is best seen when flying a ridge, which in strong wind can be very rough. The ballasted glider, suffering less acceleration imposed by the rough air, can fly faster and lower, where the horizontal wind component is less, requiring a smaller crab angle.

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Another factor the existing answers don't mention: if you are flying a two-seater glider alone, you might want to add ballast to correct your center of gravity.

Gliders are light, so a missing person can have a significant effect on the center of gravity. Two-seaters are optimized for flying with two people aboard. I've even seen lead ballast being used in the nose of a glider when a very thin and small trainee was flying with a heavy-set instructor in the back seat.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's why I own over 50 pounds of lead shot, sewed up into cloth bags. I sit on it while flying a glider. Other, heavier, pilots sit on something else. Actually, in all seriousness, this answer could be improved a bit by expanding it to cover single-seat gliders. In virtually all single-seat gliders the pilot sits well ahead of the CG, and so a light pilot very often must carry ballast at the pilot location to keep the CG within the allowable envelope. Not really what the original question was asking about though. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Mar 13 at 17:28
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In addition to all the good content in all the other good answers, one more point should be made: when the airmass is moving horizontally and/ or vertically, the glide ratio over the ground is different than the glide ratio through the airmass, and therefore the glide ratio over the ground is different than the L/D ratio.

When gliding into a headwind, the maximum obtainable glide ratio relative to the ground is higher when the glider is heavy than when it is light. You easily verify this for yourself: starting with the second diagram in this related answer, extend the horizontal axis left far enough to include the origin of the graph. Now put your pencil on the point (x=50 kph, y=0). Starting from this point (x= 50 kph, y=0), the slope of a line drawn tangent to the airspeed-versus-sink-rate curve is the highest obtainable glide ratio in a 50 kph headwind in air that is neither rising nor sinking. You can see that the line drawn tangent to the ballasted curve is flatter (i.e. has less slope) than the line drawn tangent to the unballasted curve.

When we consider that when a glider flies a task that returns to the starting point on a windy day, it invariably spends more time flying with a headwind component than with a tailwind component, this is not a trivial point.

Naturally, this effect is even more pronounced if we draw our tangent line from (x=100 kph, y=0), representing the best achievable glide ratio when flying against a 100 kph headwind.

When slope-soaring a radio-controlled miniature glider in strong wind, it is not uncommon to encounter conditions where a lightly-loaded glider has difficulty making any forward progress at all and just sinks almost vertically down to the ground, while a heavily-loaded version of the same aircraft can be flown much closer to the max L/D angle-of-attack and thus can race forward at high speed while maintaining altitude or climbing.

Similarly, if we take the graph discussed above and extend the y axis upward so that extends into positive values for y, and start drawing our tangent line from the point (x=0, y=.2 m/s), we can find the highest obtainable glide ratio relative to the ground in the presence of a .2 m/s downdraft and zero headwind/ tailwind. Again the line drawn tangent to the ballasted curve is flatter (i.e. has less slope) than the line drawn tangent to the unballasted curve. In a downdraft, the maximum obtainable glide ratio relative to the ground is higher when the glider is heavy than when it is light. Since the air between thermals is often sinking to some degree, this is not a trivial point either. One instance where a glider pilot is most likely to be interested in maximizing his or her glide ratio over the ground is when he or she is flying in sinking air, and in this situation ballast helps.

The same method can used to find the maximum obtainable glide ratio relative to the ground in air that is sinking and includes a headwind component. In this case ballast really helps a lot-- the maximum obtainable glide ratio relative to the ground will be much higher in the ballasted glider than in the unballasted glider.

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  • $\begingroup$ Obviously this answer could be improved by actually providing figures with the relevant lines drawn on them, or links to another website that independently illustrates the same process-- I'll save that for some other day. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Mar 13 at 16:02
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One point not explicitly mentioned in other answers is that on a strong soaring day, no one flies at best L/D. Suppose the lift is strong and climbing is no problem. Ballast up to max gross. Cruise between thermals at 100 knots. The sink rate at the same airspeed will be much higher if no ballast is carried.

You can easily see this by checking the polar diagrams provided in this related answer. Look at the second diagram-- the graph of sink rate versus airspeed for three different wing loadings. 100 knots is about 180 kph. At the heaviest loading, the sink rate at this airspeed is 1.8 m/sec, and at the lightest loading the sink rate at this airspeed is 3 m/sec. That is a 66% higher sink rate.

When flying at some given airspeed that is well above best L/D speed, ballast does in fact increase the distance made good for the same loss of altitude.

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    $\begingroup$ "Check the ploar diagram for 100 knots at max gross", that would be nice if you could include this document, because that's a strange thing that the range can be increased just by adding weight... if it was true, commercial aircraft would carry more passenger on a greater distance for a lower cost. $\endgroup$ – mins Mar 2 '17 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ For me to believe this answer you'll need a very good source to back it up. $\endgroup$ – Notts90 supports Monica Mar 2 '17 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, lots of downvotes for this very true statement? Guess downvotes are a badge of accuracy on this site. No wonder he gave up after just one answer. Plus it is obvious the statement is true just by looking at the second diagram on this related answer aviation.stackexchange.com/a/698/34686 . $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Mar 13 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ @mins -- the last line of your comment above is addressed by the last two paragraphs of my related answer here aviation.stackexchange.com/a/75217/34686 $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Mar 13 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ @quietflyer: "Wow, lots of downvotes for this very true statement?", the downvotes are likely not because this is true or false, but because the strange point (the heavier the aircraft, the longer the range) is not demonstrated and therefore "the answer is not useful" which is the current meaning of a downvote (it was different in the past I think). Compare with Peter's answer which is argued. Maybe you can improve the post. $\endgroup$ – mins Mar 13 at 11:03

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