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Altair/UP Saturn 167 – a review by Morgan Hall
While many of us fly the latest high-performance wings and use every piece of available technology to improve performance, we forget about the basics and the root of our enjoyment. The thrill of something new, our first soaring flight, thermal, cross-country or perfect no wind landing. The future of hang gliding exists not only in the next generation of blade wings, but in the next generation of pilots. Those individuals on the training hill right now. The people about to experience the thrill of flight for the very first time. What awaits them as they move forward in their flying careers? How can we assure that our sport continues to grow in the face of all the pressures against it? Simple, bring the fun back to flying. Make our gliders lighter, safer, better handling, easier to set up and less expensive.
For many pilots a good flight is one that consists of a good launch and a good landing. What happens in between is icing on the cake, although nobody likes to sit in the LZ while everyone else is climbing out. With these basics in mind, John Heiney and the crew at Altair undertook the task of building a glider for the masses. Their objective, to build a novice/intermediate glider with excellent handling and performance. Priority one, however, the glider needed to track well. Altair president Peter Radman, an intermediate pilot, described his first novice glider and the motivation behind their latest venture. "My first novice level glider had a tendency to oscillate which I found quite disconcerting. New pilots need a glider that is easy to fly through a broad speed range. I wanted the Saturn to be such a glider." With the growing popularity of towing, the ability to track straight and true adds to the margin of safety we all desire. Keeping this early experience and alternative launch methods in mind, the Altair team began to design their new wing. Known for their composite airframe Predator, Altair began work on the aluminum airframe Saturn 167 in 1997 at their facility in Draper Utah, a short glide from the famous Point of the Mountain Flight Park.
Altair occupies a large industrial building, yet the production area is immaculate. Carpet covers the floor where glider assembly takes place and a clean-room attitude prevails about this area with signs requesting No Shoes. A huge banner hangs on the back wall professing "Quality Is Everything!" The factory organization facilitates smooth, consistent production with tubing racked in one area, hardware fittings along the wall, and the production area in the center. Cables and reflex bridles are made in house as are most pads and bags for the gliders. Sails for the Saturn come from the sail loft of master sailmaker Dick Cheney, a short drive away in Kaysville. The attention paid to the design and maintenance of the production facility translates directly to the gliders produced there.
Well thought out hardware sets the Saturn apart from the crowd. Using hardware proven on the Predator, the Saturn shares many basic components. The corner fittings are CNC machined 6061-T6 aluminum alloy and allow for simple setup while virtually eliminating wire kinks. Pins holding the lower wires to the corner fitting are easily inspected during preflight, and in the case of the side wires are redundantly secured by the downtubes. Should you need to change a downtube, replacement requires no tools and takes less than five minutes. The base tube is bolted to the corner fitting on one side and fits in to a machined slot on the other, secured with a pip pin inserted from the front. This arrangement allows for quick setup with little effort required to align the fittings.
The VG (an option I recommend) locks off via a simple jam cleat mounted on top of the base tube. The location and action may require a little getting used to, but it is effective and reduces wear on the VG cord over other designs. Internally the VG uses high-quality Harken pulleys, known as the best available, with proven reliability on thousands of sailboats worldwide under some of the harshest conditions imaginable. The result is an easy and short pull to actuate the VG. The rear haulback, integrated with the VG system, uses a single restraint point, with a very trick safety pin.
Hang straps are girth hitched around the keel with the main strap having a Velcro tab to secure it from moving on the added traction patch. This arrangement allows for simple adjustment of the CG when required, while virtually eliminating any unintentional movement. The Saturn comes stock with the international standard 1.2-meter (47.2-inch) distance between hang straps and basetube, although custom heights are available.
Additional amenities include a convenient ‘kickstand’ stinger on the keel, Altair’s exclusive ‘auto kingpost’ system, and a durable bag. For convenience, the stinger on the keel is retained with a spring-loaded ball clip and shock cord, which allows you to remove it and prop the glider up for more convenient setup in light winds. Once set up, you simply slide the stinger back into place and allow the clip to pop back through the retaining hole. The ‘auto kingpost’ is a feature inherited from the Predator. The top nose wire routes from the kingpost through a pulley at the front of the keel and then down to the haulback. When you pull the haulback the kingpost rises along with the permanently attached top rigging and reflex bridles. For when the glider isn’t set up, the stock bag is heavy-duty polyester, lined with polyurethane to make it nearly waterproof protection for the glider.
As an advanced pilot used to flying on modern equipment, I am quite accustomed to the routine of stuffing ten or twelve battens per side in a process that generally takes about a half hour. The first time I set the Saturn up was with John Heiney, in a rush to fly a small dune before the sun set. With two of us, I was hooking in seven minutes after unzipping the bag (I timed it!). Realistically, I found myself able to set the glider up, stow the bags, and preflight in the time it takes a paraglider pilot to check conditions, don a flight suit and lay out their wing.
The process is basic as with most new wings. Unzip the bag, remove the batten bag, and pull out the downtubes and basetube. Remove the basetube bag and integrated pad. The control frame goes together quickly: slide the basetube into the slotted corner bracket with a little twist to align the holes, insert the pip pin from the front, and you are ready to stand the glider up. The next step is to slide the neoprene sock covering the tip of the keel up a few inches and then spread the wings. With the wings spread a moderate pull on the haulback cable spreads the wing completely and raises the kingpost and bridle lines. Probably the best part about the Saturn setup is its battens. For starters, it has only nineteen battens total, seven top-surface and two bottom-surface per side, and the nose batten. Additionally the nose batten and two root battens may remain in the glider. This leaves just six battens to stuff on each side. The batten pockets are folded nicely to facilitate the process and string tensions are light throughout the glider. Now is a good time to tension the wing with the single, rear haul strap, fitting the keyhole tang over the retaining stud. The retaining safety is an ingenious little clip that slides through the retaining stud and automatically locks in place. To remove it, you simply lift the loop of the pin and slide it out. You attach the nose wire with a simple click into the CNC machined block and spring-loaded safety. Push the nose batten into place and finish out by removing the tip bags and installing the remaining two tip battens, and bottom surface ribs on each side.
During preflight, you notice the large access zippers allowing for easy inspection of the crossbar/leading edge junction as well as the lack of tip fairings. The airfoil tapers nicely and with the truncated tips presents a very small profile for added drag reduction.
Taking a step back and looking at the Saturn as a whole, it continues Altair’s tradition of truncated tips, which give it a unique look, similar to the Predator or TRX. When first viewed from the rear the glider might look a bit awkward to you. Compared to most gliders, the distance between the battens is quite large and the sail is set fairly loose on the airframe. In flight, the sail fills in nicely with a clean profile from behind and surprisingly little twist in the wing. The overall shape of the airfoil is clean without being too thick, which seems to help the gliders speed range and sink rate. The overall finish is very nice, with close attention paid to the minor details. The faired kingpost has a neoprene boot to reduce parasitic drag where it enters the top surface. The nose cone fits easily and cleanly into place. Even the downtubes are canted inward eight degrees to reduce drag. After a thorough preflight and inspection of the glider you are left with one question: How does it fly?
Flying the Saturn
Upon picking up the glider for the first time, you will notice a good static balance without any exhibited nose or tail heaviness. I had the opportunity to launch in a variety of conditions from light wind and a flat slope to high wind and cliff launches. I had little difficulty ground handling the glider, although its large control frame and solid pitch pressure could present difficulty to smaller pilots in higher winds. In high winds, the glider has a narrow window of neutral pitch, but enough of one to make self-launching possible. Once you commence your launch run, the glider requires light input to keep the angle of attack appropriate and with its low stall speed you will commit aviation rather quickly.
In the air, the control frame is roomy and allows for a good deal of motion side to side. Trim position lies comfortably just in front of your shoulders and moves in a bit with the VG on. Pitch pressure is very dependent on the VG setting. VG off provides solid feedback with increased speed without getting excessive in normal speed ranges. With the VG on, the bar pressure decreases significantly throughout the speed range. I made several glides at various airspeeds to get a feel for the gliders cross-country potential on long glides. Using full VG, I easily maintained a 35mph glide with bar pressure light enough to hold back with two fingers and a thumb on one hand. Above 38mph bar pressure builds progressively all the way to VNE at 53mph. At my hook in weight of around 185lbs, I was able to accelerate to within 1mph of VNE by gradually pulling in. Glide is always difficult to measure although I felt that the Saturn gets within a few L/D points of high performance gliders -- a claim backed by a respectable performance at the Morningside glide contest. I was able to make several glides into strong headwinds, which left me feeling confident in the gliders ability to penetrate, especially considering I normally fly at a much higher wing loading.
Going fast or taking long glides bears little significance if you cannot get up to begin with. The Saturn sink rate stands out as a major defining feature of the glider. I found in light conditions that I could maintain when others went looking elsewhere for lift. The combined effect of a great sink rate, low stall speed, and light, responsive handling allows for very tight scratching when required. In stronger conditions I found myself at the top of the stack without much trouble. I found a notable improvement in sink rate with the VG on and routinely gained an extra hundred feet or so in ridge lift.
Testing a glider in mid-winter has its drawbacks. I honestly can’t report how this glider behaves in a ripping thousand-up core or the way it feels when you fall out the back of a strong tilted thermal. I can say that in the light stuff, the make or break point of most flights, this glider excelled. The Saturn thermals very easily without any strong tendency to wind in or tilt out. For the most part, once you find the core and set your bank angle, only minor roll modifications are required to keep the glider set in the thermal. This glider does respond well to pitch input in thermals, allowing you to grab that extra bit of lift that you fly into without the worry of stalling the tip and slipping out of the core. In tighter cores I found myself more efficient with the VG off, keeping the tip at a lower relative angle of attack. In larger smooth thermals the sink rate advantage with the VG on worked out better and cost little in handling.
A major consideration in the design of any glider is handling, especially so in a novice/intermediate wing where stability and responsiveness help out where experience may fall short. My first flight on the Saturn put its handling to an immediate test. After chasing the wind all day, John Heiney and I decided to fly a small fifteen-foot high coastal dune in steady 15-18mph conditions. After a record set up time I launched and with the first turn a smile broke across my face. I normally fly a 142 sq. ft. glider and have always had an aversion to larger gliders and their tendency to feel overpowering. The Saturn responds quickly and predictably with little to no yaw and feels like cruising around with power steering. I did notice at slower speeds in ridge lift, especially with the VG on, a bit of hesitance to roll back into the wind. A little bump out on the basetube when initiating roll will bring the glider right into a turn. I never felt uncomfortable even when scratching close to the terrain.
In an attempt to ferret out any hidden characteristics, I took every opportunity to challenge its stability. In straight and level flight the glider exhibits a very gentle stall. I found I could slowly ease the bar out to full arm extension with the glider slowing to a mush, yet remaining directionally controllable. Even in more rapid and forced stalls, the nose simply lowers and rebuilds flying speed without any drastic rotation. Mild stalls while turning result in the nose dropping and a slight increase in bank angle, more vigorously forced stalls merely bring about a more abrupt, yet manageable drop. I tried to spin the glider both from the basetube and from the downtubes, yet was unable to initiate a spin even once, with the glider recovering from every attempt in a moderate diving turn.
With tracking playing an important part in the design consideration of this glider, I tried everything to derail it. I varied airspeed from slow to fast, linked high-speed turns, flew fast in turbulence, slipped turns into a dive and always I got the same result. Straight and true flight, I just could not induce any oscillations. Even performing mild aerobatics with rapid attitude, speed, and direction changes resulted in the same predictable behavior. I did not have the opportunity to tow in this glider although I witnessed several novice pilots aerotowing with picture perfect form. Given its inherent stability I imagine it tows well from ground based vehicles as well.
Finally, we arrive at the LZ. Coming in to land, you want to be aware of the size of the control frame. The same span that gives so much room to move around in when flying means a slightly wider grip when reaching for the downtube on approach. With a little bit of speed the glider floats in ground effect and offers a little back pressure when it is time to flare. If you flare a bit early and hold it, be prepared for a mild parachute in. If you are late, just hit your flare hard and fast and the glider rotates through with ease. Overall the flare window is very long and forgiving and the glider responds well to a gentle yet determined flare, giving the pilot many opportunities to adjust for conditions. Landing speeds are slow enough that even without flaring you could probably run it out. Most of my landings were into the wind although I managed to get one cross/downwind uphill in light conditions without taking a step. Slightly cross and shallow turn landings are easily forgiven and the glider tends to weathervane into the wind in most cases making questionable conditions feel easy.
Being asked to write a review of a glider is a bit flattering. It also leaves you feeling as though pitfalls exist if you don’t like the glider. Thankfully, there are very few bad gliders made, if any. If a new glider is on your wish list, you should take the opportunity to fly before you buy, if possible. I hoped to provide an accurate depiction of the Saturn’s objective qualities while allowing subjective perceptions to come through where appropriate. My own wing of choice for the past few years is a Predator 142 which admittedly makes me somewhat biased in favor of the Saturn, since I am familiar with much of its hardware and its manufacturer. We all carry bias in some way concerning what we choose to fly and I made every attempt to set them aside for this glider.
Initially I had my doubts about how the Saturn would suit me. I suffer a bit of prejudice against large wings and prefer the handling and feel of a smaller wing. After many hours of flying the Saturn, I now feel different about this big glider. I absolutely loved my time with it. I was always first off the hill, could stay up when others could not and really had fun whenever I flew, regardless of conditions. Part of what makes this glider so special is what it does not come with. The extra battens, shear-ribs, added weight, faster sink rate, high price or unneeded complexity.
From the newer pilot looking to step-up in performance or begin flying XC, to the experienced pilot looking for an easy, fun glider to make them King or Queen of the Boat and Gloat*, the Saturn 167 has a lot to offer for a suggested retail of only $4275 U.S. If the Altair demo van rolls into your town, hop on a Saturn and take a flight. You will not be disappointed.
* Boat and Gloat: A common activity around flying sites whereupon pilots recap the events of the day. Comparing thermals,
"There I was, thought I was gonna die" stories, and generally rib each other about performance and ability.