It’s never too late for……Gliding

Gliding is many different things to many different people. For some, it’s just a casual hobby, and a way to meet new people. For others, it’s an inexpensive way to get airborne. For many, it’s even the cutting edge sport of either racing or aerobatics

For the UK’s 77,000 gliding participants though, it ‘s a silent and graceful way of flying without an engine. Of course, without an engine, you may wonder how you get airborne, and how you stay up. Read on!


Gliders come in many shapes and sizes. They can also be cheap or expensive! Fortunately, you don’t need to buy your own glider - clubs will generally all have two-seaters for instructional purposes, and most also have single-seaters which you move onto once you are sent solo. If you do buy your own glider, you can keep the cost down by joining a syndicate


In order to launch, you do need a little assistance. There are several ways of doing this. The aerotow launch is very docile, and involves being pulled up by a light aircraft with a strong rope in between. When the glider gets to the required height, the glider releases the cable, and the glider is free! Winch launching is probably the most common. This involves being attached to a winch with a long reel of wire. When the wire gets pulled in, the glider gets the speed to fly into the air like a kite. When you are almost overhead the winch, again you can release the cable. Bungy launching is not very common these days. For this, you need a hill with a strong wind blowing against it. The glider will be attached to the bungy, and held back by several people. Some more people will pull on the other end of the bungy, and walk down the hill to stretch the bungy. Once tight enough, the glider is released, and quickly becomes airborne and you can stay aloft using the ‘hill lift’

Staying Up

Once you’re airborne, how do you stay up? Well, this depends on finding air that is rising. There are three forms of this ‘lift’ that help us stay up - thermals, ridge (or hill) lift and wave:


On a summer’s day, you can see birds circle upwards without flapping their wings. They are “thermalling”. A thermal is a volume of air that has been heated by the sun more than the surrounding air - imagine if you were standing on some sunlit concrete, you would feel warm! As you know, hot air rises, and it is circling within this air that allows birds - and gliders - to go upwards. Next you may ask “so how do you know where the thermals are?”. Well, sometimes this is educated guess work, based on how you imagine ground features below you are warming up. However, often cumulus (cotton-wool type) clouds form at the top of the thermal, marking where the thermals are

 Thermals are used in cross-country flying - you climb in a thermal to gain the height to move forwards to the next thermal on track (or thereabouts). The longest flight in the UK was done like this. Just over 1000 kilometres were covered in the flight which took about 12 hours

Ridge Lift

Another way of staying up requires a hill (ridge), and the wind to blow against the face of it. Try to imagine this scenario - when the wind hits the hill, it gets forced upwards. Again, it is this upward movement of air that allows gliders to stay airborne. With a long ridge, it’s possible to do large distances without turning, generally flying fast and low to stay in the best ‘lift’ close to the ridge

Wave Lift

Similar to ridge lift is a phenomenon called ‘wave lift’. This is a little harder to imagine. It arises from the wind blowing against a hill again, but this time the air comes back down (on the far side of the hill) and ‘bounces’ off the ground and goes back up again creating a very smooth upwards flow of air. Often, this form of lift is capped by a cigar shaped ‘lenticular’ cloud

This wave may go back down and up again for several cycles, meaning that you don’t actually have to be close to any hills to use it! The furthest flights in gliders have been done using this lift - the best being 2463 kilometres (1530 miles) which was done along the Andes, all in one flight and one day. Wave lift is also known to go very high - the world height record in a glider is just a little short of 50,000 feet!

Going Places

Now you know you can stay up (given the right conditions!), you can use this to go places or go ‘cross-country’. Normally, this involves using one, or even all three forms of lift to get height, and then using this height to go forward to the next point on our task (or to the next area of lift). A typical task may be a 300 kilometre triangle, with the aim to get back to where you started. It is in this way that you can race - very simply, a task is set and the fastest person round it is the winner!


We’ve all seen powered aircraft do aerobatics, but how does a glider do them? Well, very simply, in very much the same way. Gliders are just as strong and just as maneuverable as most powered aircraft, but with one difference - no engine! This means that an aerobatic flight normally involves taking a high aerotow and then using the height energy to perform the moves. To get the speed to perform these aerial feats, rather than using power, you turn your height into speed. Gliders may be slightly limited in what they can perform without an engine, but the gap is small, and they are silent and graceful in the execution

Just Gliding!

Of course, if you take up gliding, you don’t have to become a racing or an aerobatic pilot. Many people just enjoy seeing the world from a different viewpoint, or even enjoy the thrill of trying to perfect their basic flying skills. A number of glider pilots also carry on to become instructors (most instructors are unpaid, but professional nonetheless!) so that they can pass on the skills they’ve learned

Who Can Glide?

As a general rule, gliding is fairly unrestrictive in who can fly. If you aren’t sure, then the best thing to do is to ask at the club where you wish to fly. You should find the following guidelines helpful:


The only age limit in gliding is that you must be 14 to go solo. However, that’s not to say that you can’t train with an instructor before 14. Indeed, many trainees go solo on their 14th birthday! There is no upper age limit, although after 65, you will need a doctor to sign once a year that you are fit to fly


Generally being small isn’t an issue, as you can often be fitted in with the use of cushions, although if you are less than 5 foot, you may find reaching some of the controls difficult. If you are over 6 foot 4 inches, then you may only be able to fit in certain gliders. Again, ask at the club you wish to fly at. If they don’t have an appropriate glider, they may know a club that does!


As a general rule, if you’re fit enough to drive a car, you’re fit enough to fly a glider. Before you fly, you’ll need to sign a simple medical declaration and, before you fly solo, you’ll need to get your GP to certify that you meet the same standards that you must meet to drive a car. Gliding is also suitable for people with a range of disabilities - for more information, click here


Again, as with fitness if you can drive a car, you can easily fly a glider. The skill level is similar, and some would even say it’s easier to fly!

Where can I glide?

For gliding clubs in the UK click here. In the USA click here

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February 19, 2013

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