Glider flying, especially long-distance cross-country glider flying, is unlike any other form of aviation. Instead of a takeoff followed by hours of boring holes through the sky in a straight line, a cross-country glider flight is a minute-by-minute, second-by-second adrenaline junkie’s dream. With no engine, it is the pilot’s skill, ingenuity, and daring that powers the glider through the sky in an intimate dance with Mother Nature. Learning to fly a glider is much simpler than learning to fly powered aircraft (minimum age for gliders is 14 for solo, 16 for private license), and is a great way to transition into powered flying. On the other hand, learning to fly a glider well enough to go hundreds of miles without an engine is a great way to sharpen basic flying skills that may not get exercised very well in powered flying.
In the Beginning
Before the Wright Brothers first severed humanity’s bonds to Mother Earth in 1903, all the aerodynamics for that first powered flight had been worked out beforehand during three years of experimental glider flights. At the beginning of each year’s testing program at Kitty Hawk, they first had to assemble their machines from parts made in their bicycle shop—making them among the first-ever kit-built aircraft.
Since that first powered flight, most of the world’s attention, energy, and time have gone into ever better, faster, and more efficient powered aircraft. People forget that, for the most part, it all started with gliders. However, a small parallel culture of plans-built and kit-built gliders persisted, culminating in the highly evolved and efficient racing machines we have today. Glider design and evolution got a big boost in the 1920s and 30s, when German pilots were forbidden by the WW-I armistice treaty from building or flying powered aircraft. As a way of circumventing the restrictions, Germany concentrated on gliding and gliders to the extent that almost all modern racing gliders are now designed and manufactured in Germany.
Cross-country soaring is a game of finding thermals to lift the sailplane high enough to set out in search of another thermal. This is repeated as many times as necessary to complete a course or reach a goal.
Comparing a modern racing glider to a typical general-aviation four-place plane is like comparing a Ford F-150 to a sleek Jaguar XKE sports car—they both get the job done, but it is clear that the F-150 is mostly for work and the XKE is mostly for play. Modern gliders—or, more formally, sailplanes—stay aloft by exploiting natural rising air columns or thermals in much the same way as hawks, eagles, and other soaring birds. If the air in the thermal goes high enough, the entrained moisture condenses and forms a visible cumulus fair-weather cloud, marking the thermal for knowledgeable glider pilots. On a good day with lots of white puffy cumulus clouds, It is not unusual at all for an expert glider pilot to take off (gliders are typically towed up to about 2000 feet agl by a towplane) at mid-day and not return until nearly dark, covering hundreds of miles without landing in the process. Modern gliders have glide ratios in the 40s and 50s, meaning that from 5000 feet agl, they can glide 40 to 50 miles between thermals. By contrast, a typical powered plane’s glide ratio is more like 10:1.
Competition Sharpens the Species
As glider technology and pilot skill improved over the last three or four decades, competitions naturally evolved to determine the best pilot with the best glider. Initially these competitions were focused on who could stay aloft the longest, but that quickly became impractical as glider technology allowed almost anyone to stay aloft all day and into the evening hours. Then the focus shifted to who could cover the most distance in a day, and even that became impractical as pilots started landing so far away that they couldn’t make it back to the contest site in time for the next day’s race. Now in modern races, the focus is on who can go around a prescribed course (typically triangular with the start and finish at the same airport) in the shortest time, i.e. with the highest average speed. In good weather it isn’t unusual at all for the winning average speed to be 60 or even 70 mph, and some western desert sites, with lots of sun and huge thermals, can support average speeds over 100 mph! A 100 mph average speed means the pilot has to fly significantly faster than 100 mph between thermals, in order to make up for the time lost gaining altitude in thermals where the glider is essentially stationary.
At a typical regional soaring contest, 30–60 pilots congregate at a soaring center (gliderport in the vernacular) or public airport for a week-long competition. Each day, pilots remove their gliders from custom-built trailers and assemble them, a process that takes about 30–60 minutes depending on the glider type and the pilot’s experience. (Experts have been known to cut this to 10 minutes.) Then the gliders are moved out on the runway and staged for takeoff in a grid, where each pilot has a specific spot that is rotated each day, so no one pilot is always first or last in the launch sequence. When the sun has been up long enough to generate sufficient thermal activity, all gliders are launched in sequence using older generation modified crop-dusters like the venerable Piper Pawnee. After all gliders are aloft, the contest director starts the race with a radio call, and gliders stream out on course, attempting to exploit available lift sources as efficiently and quickly as possible. After flying the day’s task of several hundred miles in 3–5 hours, gliders start streaming across the finish line in the late afternoon and evening. After dinner and beer, complete with lots of stories, the gliders are disassembled and put back in their trailers to await the next day’s adventures. A few unlucky (or unskilled) pilots who don’t make it around the course might find themselves in a farmer’s field or at another airport. Outlandings, as they are called, are an integral and unavoidable part of cross-country soaring; if you fly cross-country long enough, you will find yourself in a farmer’s field at one point or another. When this happens, the pilot calls back to the home airport with location information and someone brings the trailer out to the field where the glider is disassembled and returned in time to be ready the next day. I have had the dubious pleasure of talking to farmers all over the country at one time or another, and it is almost always a pleasurable experience, once you get past the embarrassment of being on the ground instead of up in the air.
Competitions and record attempts in the U.S. are regulated and sanctioned by the Soaring Society of America (www.ssa.org), and international gliding activities come under the purview of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the same organization that governs all aviation-related matters. The FAI delegates most international gliding record and competition matters to the International Gliding Committee, the IGC. International gliding championships are extremely popular events in Europe and the rest of the world, often drawing hundreds of the top soaring pilots from all over the world. The top European racers are national celebrities, but the sport is much less well known in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. just hosted a World Gliding Championship this last summer in Uvalde, Texas (a very small town, but well known all over the world for its superb soaring conditions). The WGC was hugely popular in Europe, but garnered almost no media coverage outside some local Texas outlets.
For the Fun of It
Soaring is both a relaxing and exciting form of aviation and, with a multitude of kits and plans for both gliders and motorgliders available, one in which committed homebuilders can easily get involved. It is an alternative to the Light Sport category for those who don’t want to maintain an FAA medical, and motorgliders provide a surprisingly efficient way to fly. Learning to soar will make anyone a better pilot (just as learning any new skill keeps the mind and body sharp) and nothing beats the experience of sailing through the air with the same sense as a bird—nibbling for lift and enjoying the pure sensation of flight.
Where to learn more
For more information about gliding in general and where to fly in your area, see the Soaring Society of America’s web site at www.ssa.org. For additional information about the Condor Soaring Simulator, see www.condorsoaring.com. For a short but exciting look at a real-life cross-country glider competition, see Sean Fidler’s video taken at a regional championship held near Gettysburg, PA (http://vimeo.com/52396659).