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MacCready speed to fly ring for a variometer. The outer ring show various airspeeds, while the variometer shows climb rate.

Speed to fly is a principle used by soaring pilots when flying between sources of lift, usually thermals, ridge lift and wave. The aim is to maximize the average cross-country speed by optimizing the airspeed in both rising and sinking air. The optimal airspeed is independent of the wind speed, because the fastest average speed achievable through the airmass corresponds to the fastest achievable average groundspeed.[1]

Most speed to fly setups use units of either airspeed in kilometers per hour (km/h) and climb rate in meters per second (m/s), or airspeed in knots (kn) and climb rate in feet per minute (ft/min).


The idea is usually attributed to Paul MacCready, although an early version of the theory was first described by Wolfgang Späte in 1938.[2] However Späte may not have considered sinking air between thermals, and there is no mention of this until 1947 when Ernest Dewing and George Pirie independently included this aspect.[3] Paul MacCready, however, certainly invented the "ring", which allowed an easy indication of the optimal speed to fly.


The minimal instrumentation required is an airspeed indicator and a variometer. The pilot will use the polar curve information for the particular glider to derive the exact speeds to fly depending on the lift and sink conditions in which the glider is flying. This is commonly done using a speed to fly ring (known as a 'MacCready Ring') which is fitted around the aircraft's variometer. The ring is usually calibrated in either knots or meters per second and its markings are based on the aircraft's polar curve.[4] During the glide between thermals, the index arrow is set at the rate of climb expected in the next thermal. On the speed ring, the variometer needle points to the optimum speed to fly between thermals.[5]

Electronic versions of the MacCready Ring are built into glide computers that will give audible warnings to the pilot to speed up or slow down. Similar facilities can also be built into a PDA. The computer is connected to sensors that detect the aircraft's airspeed and rate of sink. If linked to a GPS, and using a computed or manual estimate of the windspeed, the glide computer can also calculate the speed and altitude necessary to glide to a particular destination. This glide is known as the final glide because no further lift should be necessary to reach the goal. During this glide, speed to fly information is needed to ensure that the remaining height is used efficiently.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Modern Elementary Gliding, British Gliding Association, n.d. Appendix D: "Making the Most of it".
  2. ^ Pettersson, Åke (October–November 2006). "Letters". Sailplane & Gliding. British Gliding Association. 57 (5): 6.
  3. ^ Edwards, Anthony (December 2006 – January 2007). "Letters". Sailplane & Gliding. British Gliding Association. 57 (6): 7.
  4. ^ 1 meter per second = approximately 2 knots (more precisely 1.944 knots).
  5. ^ Glider Flying Handbook. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.: U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. 2003. pp. 4–8. FAA-8083-15.

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