Gliders – also known as sailplanes – fly the same way aeroplanes do; air flowing over the wings creates lift. But without engines to drive them and create that airflow, they rely on gravity. Using currents of rising air caused by the wind over hills or surface heating, gliders can stay airborne for as long as they can find these sources of lift. But without an engine, glider pilots have to find a way to get airborne to start with. Usually they are towed aloft by an aeroplane or hoisted into the sky using a ground-based winch. Some have small motors that they shut off once airborne.
The Wright brothers experimented with gliders prior to flying their first powered aircraft and gliding became a popular sport in Germany in the ‘20s and ‘30s. During World War 2 gliders were used by both sides to deploy airborne troops, but after the way gliding again became predominantly a sport. As designs evolved from wood and fabric to high-tech composites, performance dramatically increased. Today, gliders are once again at the forefront of aerospace technology, being used to experiment in high-altitude aircraft performance. In 2018, the Airbus Perlan II climbed unpowered to over 74,000 feet in a record-breaking flight that used air currents caused by the Andes mountains.
Gliders are able to soar up to tremendous heights or stay aloft for long periods, but their performance is highly dependent on the weather. Almost all gliding is sport or leisure flying, some pilots being content to fly for their own enjoyment and relaxation, as it is a very quiet and peaceful way to enjoy the sky. As gliders share the same flight control methods as powered aircraft, gliding is a very accessible way to learn the fundamentals of flying.
Competitions are usually organised around declared ‘tasks’, in which competitors must race around certain turning points on a large cross-country circuit; usually a triangle. Pilots used to have to take photographs of these turning points, but now use specially certified GPS loggers to prove that they reached the necessary locations. Gliders are also capable of flying aerobatics, and there are several competitions and a world championship for glider aerobatics.
In the UK, most gliding is carried out by clubs, regulated by the British Gliding Association. Trial flights are available at most, and you can find your nearest club here. These trial flights often include a limited membership of the club. As you continue your training, you will learn the basic controls, then how to take off and land. Once you’re ready you will fly on your own, and after that you will be able to broaden your skillset and develop your flying ability. You can fly a glider at any age, and fly solo once you’re 14 years old.
Once you are a fully qualified soaring pilot, there are various courses and additional qualifications that you can obtain. You may wish to try aerobatics, or take part in the regular expeditions to other clubs worldwide. It is very likely that you will wish to improve your cross-country soaring capability, and there are a series of badges from Bronze to Diamond that are awarded as you progress in competency. You may also wish to take part in competitions, which are held nationally and internationally.
There are few professional careers in gliding. The national structure for gliding in the UK is club-based and so depends on enthusiastic volunteers. Unless you are able to build a competition reputation that allows sponsorship, or qualify for one of the few paid posts as a senior instructor, gliding will likely reward you through the experience you have, rather than money you earn.
Gliding is the least expensive way to experience flight in an aircraft. An introductory flight will cost around £50, depending on launch method, and depending on flying rate and your ability you may be able to fly solo (on your own) for around £1000. Prices remain relatively low once you are qualified, although the cost of club memberships vary.
Interested in taking your first flight in a glider?
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