Pete Stratten, CEO of the British Gliding Association, explains just how harnessing the power of nature to soar miles across open countryside at speeds of more than 100mph, makes gliding an fantastic adventure sport…
4 May 2023
Gliding has always been a great way to get into flying. And for many experienced pilots in other forms of aviation, getting involved with gliding opens an additional world of pure aviation that can be as exciting and challenging as you want.
Once a pilot has got to grips with the basics, or if converting from power has remembered what rudder pedals are for and established the different operating mindset needed, gliding gets really interesting as it involves staying airborne utilising the same naturally occurring currents of air that birds use to fly.
From flying close to the local airfield to cross-country, long-distance and mountain wave flying, and even onto competitions, aerobatics and vintage aircraft, there’s a huge variety of challenges and interests.
■ Thermals Columns of rising air produced when the sun heats the atmosphere
■ Ridge or hill lift Air pushed upwards when it blows against the edge of a slope
■ Mountain wave Currents of air that rise to get over hills/mountains, then flow and rebound, creating a wave-like motion that can go on for hundreds of miles.
How far and how high are gliders flown? Cross-country flights or races of 300km returning to the starting point are routine in the UK. The current UK distance record is over 1,100km, and altitudes of over 35,000ft have been achieved in lee waves in Scotland.
The Airbus Perlan project involved a specially built pressurised glider reaching a world record 76,000ft in lee waves over the Andes! The farthest gliding flight of 3,008km was flown in the same part of the world.
With a minimum solo age of 14, the opportunity for having fun and relatively low costs mean that there is a vibrant junior gliding community which organises its own competitions, expeditions and social events.
At the other end of the age spectrum, as long as they can meet fitness levels which are essentially the same as those needed to drive a car, pilots can keep flying into their seventies and eighties.
For many, gliding is a great first step into aviation. Flight Lieutenant James Sainty, the current RAF Typhoon display pilot, started his flying career in gliders. BA senior first officer, B777 trainer, and gliding instructor Andy Perkins notes, ‘gliding teaches you accurate handling, better understanding of weather, and develops the essential pilot competencies of leadership, teamwork, situational awareness and effective communication’.
What is it about gliding that attracts pilots with broader flying experience, including fast jet and airline pilots? Tim Brunskill, a former RAF Lightning pilot, commercial pilot, paraglider pilot and now glider pilot enjoys the challenges, which he describes ‘as similar to those associated with punching holes in the sky in a fast jet, and in many ways more so’!
Many active and retired airline pilots fly gliders in their spare time because of the freedom and different flying challenges. Experienced GA pilots who have discovered the joys of soaring cross-country in high performance sailplanes are usually very pleasantly surprised by the possibilities. Even astronaut Tim Peake occasionally defies gravity in a glider!
Flight training occurs throughout the year, weather permitting. Many gliding clubs provide instruction on weekends only, but others arrange midweek training and courses. The first step is to try a club, and if it works for you, join the club and get involved.
At most gliding clubs, you can expect to pay around £30 per hour to hire a glider, £30 for an aerotow launch or £8 for a winch launch. Expect to pay less than £100/hour for TMG flying. Some gliding clubs also have powered aircraft onsite. The mix of operations works well, as care is taken and suitable briefings are held for all – when it comes to gliding, launch cables and ground movements need thinking about. Of course, powered aircraft should only fly into a gliding site with prior permission.
With gliding sites throughout the UK, from the Highlands of Scotland to the south-west tip of England, you’re never far from a club. All of them welcome visitors, so please pop along and find out what our sport is about. Find your nearest club on our website, www.gliding.co.uk, and if you’re driving past one, please just drop in and ask if you can have a look around.