Gliding In Sail Planes
I used to think I was scared of heights but it turns out that this is not true, I’m scared of edges. I’m scared to the point of vertigo and the compulsion to jump just to get it over with. I can jump out of a plane (with a parachute of course), I can para-glide off of hills and I can happily get in any plane or helicopter. Put me on a cliff top and I’m a wreck.
I could write a ton about this subject but I can’t really write a book here so I might do an article on this now and again. For today I hope this will give you a flavour of this incredible, unique and much undervalued sport. Sometimes a little scary, sometimes incredibly beautiful and always a privilege to be in an environment we are not really meant to be in.
I started gliding in the same way that I did when I started playing the drums. My friend Max in work said one day “I’m going gliding on the weekend, want to come?” I said ok then and we went. I had always wanted to do it and this was effectively just the trigger. This was in 1992.
We were both living in Cheltenham at the time and went to the nearest gliding club which was The Bristol & Gloucestershire Gliding Club at a place called Nympsfield near a town called Stroud. It was and still is a grass airfield about 1 kilometre long at the top of the Cotswolds escarpment 700 feet above the valley.
Max went a few times and then quit out but I kept on going. It’s not that I thought, this is amazing although it was pretty good but I liked it and my obsessive streak took over. I was going to learn to do this and go solo. So, I read the books, went to the training courses, flew on the weekends and evenings when I could and when the weather permitted it. At that time gliding was popular so there was a lot of hanging around waiting for your turn to get some instructional flights. On my 73rd flight I went solo … Hurrahhhh!
Gliding Is An Amateur Sport
Gliding is an amateur sport and is learnt in a club environment. There was no fast track unless you turned up a lot or took a week day paid for course. There were no appointments, you turned up, put your name on the list, awaited your turn, went for two or three flights, put your name on the list and waited again. On a good weekend when many people came you might have to wait the whole day and still not get a flight when you were learning. Once you went solo things start to get easier. These days there seem to be less people learning so getting instructional flights is much easier.
Having said this I did enjoy learning to fly and the social side of it was a big part of it.
Gliding in Britain is overseen by the British Gliding Association. There is no official license only certificated levels of attainment. Safety standards are high, well they were at our club.
The BGGC is/was one of the bigger gliding clubs, one where instructors were trained and even instructors of instructors. It was well know for it’s cross country endeavours, competitions and the home club of one of the most famous cross country world champions Andy Davies. You probably haven’t heard of him but in gliding circles he’s very well known.
Wos It Like Then?
I wanted to learn to glide because I had seen pictures of sleek glass fibre gliders with the teardrop shaped cockpits and it looked really cool swishing along at high speed. The whole thing looked pretty cool and it is! It also looked serene and peaceful which it is … sometimes. Other times it’s really busy and a bit of a fairground ride. It depends on the weather, how easy or hard the conditions are. On a beautiful summers day with lots of puffy white clouds and a nice breeze gliding is serene, peaceful and fairly easy. When the wind is blowing hard across the airfield over the top of the hill it’s a different matter altogether and it gets exciting.
Some of you are not going to believe how far you can go in such a small aircraft without an engine but amazing things are possible. Just think about the albatross which spends day after day on the wing with as little flapping as possible.
The highest a glider has ever been – 15,460 metres = 50,721 feet (with the aid of a pressure suit no doubt)
The greatest distance in one flight – 2,643 kilometres = 1,642 miles
An average days gliding on a day of good gliding weather will see a good pilot fly 300 kilometres and be able to stay aloft for 5 hours or so.
How Far Did I Get
Over the years I went solo, got my bronze and silver certificates. I got my gold distance (300 kilometres out and return around a triangle). I learnt to go cross country and fly aerobatics. I became a basic instructor giving trial flights and then an assistant instructor training people to go solo and beyond.
I never had an accident and apart from ripping off some little undercarriage doors and breaking some bearings I never did much damage to a glider. I did however have a few heart stopping moments but I wouldn’t have missed them for anything.
I flew around England from different clubs and had a few trips to the Alps flying around the mountains. I flew in a few competitions for fun.
If you like riding a motorbike then your gonna absolutely love this. Somehow, it seems safer than riding a motorbike even though the sensations are greater.
Why did I give up? Gliding takes up a lot of time and you have to stay current especially if you are an instructor. After I got married I just didn’t have the time, not with being married, working and playing in a band so something had to give. Shame though. Maybe I will get back to it yet.
How Do You Get In The Air?
There are 4 ways of launching:
This is one of the two most popular ways of getting into the air and it’s the cheapest of the two. Basically a large winch with one or two large drums attached to a large engine stands at one end of the field. A steel cable is pulled out to the other end of the field and attached to a self releasing hook on the belly of the glider. You also have a cable release in the glider. When ready a glider wing is held up by a helper and the winch starts winding you in. The acceleration can be pretty good, it’s like putting your foot to the floor in a Ferrari. The faster you are in the air the better. You are launched like a kite and can attain anything between 900 and 2,000 feet depending on the conditions. I heard that someone at our club with the help of a skilled winch driver attained 3,000 feet one day.
I loved winch launches.
I also use to drive the winch quite a bit which was fun. From the winch end you have to control the application of power to the drums depending on the wind speed, direction of wind, what the glider is doing and observe for any signals from the glider to back off the power if necessary. If a glider pilot gets in a mess or drifts off track too much you can dump it off by backing the power off and creating a bow in the cable so that the hook self releases from the glider. When a cable is released at any point you have to initially apply full power so the little parachute on the end of cable would open up and you could reel the rest in in a controlled way.
Sometimes you would have to mend broken cables by compressing two copper collars on to the cable with a hydraulic press.
Each cable has a weak link attached to it so that if the launch is too powerful for the glider the link will break and release the glider automatically.
This is much more gentle … usually. A rope is attached to a hook at the front or near the front of the glider (different to the hook used for winch launching). The other end is attached to the rear of a fairly powerful aircraft known as the “tug”. You take off together and are towed up to the desired height at which the glider releases the cable.
Apart from being gentler and nominating your height of release you can instruct the tug pilot to take you to a preferred area for release.
This is a bit mad and needs the right conditions. Not done very often these days and I have never had one. You need a smooth hill like the one below and for the wind to be blowing up the hill. A long elasticated rope is used. The rope is hooked onto the winch hook of the glider and several people on each side of the rope run down the hill whilst others hold the glider back. At a suitable point the glider is released and catapulted into the wind which then carries it aloft like a ping pong ball in a bingo machine.
With An Engine
Some gliders have engines. Some look like a light aircraft with the engine simply turned off when gliding and the propellers turned so they don’t cause wind resistance. Others have the engines folded away in a compartment behind the cockpit. It’s then raised to either launch the glider or to regain height when necessary. Some engines of this sort will only have enough power to climb and are not capable of launching the glider.
How Do You Stay Up
Even when you are going up you are coming down! The only way you can gain height is if the body of air around you is going up faster than you are coming down. I’ll give you an example, lets say a glider traveling at a speed of 50mph is going down at a speed of 2 miles an hour but the body of air you are in is going up at 4mph. This means you are gaining height at 2mph. Similarly if you are in body of air going down at 2mph then you will lose height at 4mph.
Just confuse things a little we measure flying speed in knots where a knot is a bit more than a mile. Knots correlate to feet so 1 knot per hour is the same as 100 feet per minute. Apply this and going up at 2 knots means going up at 200 feet per minute which makes more sense when you are gaining or losing height during your flight.
I’m not going to include engines or other obscure and uncommon methods of gaining height. These are the big three!
The most common form. The sun hits the ground and warms one area up more than another. When the air is warm enough it breaks away from the ground forming a column of warm rising air. You fly into it, turn circles to stay in it and go up with the thermal.
When wind of sufficient speed blows up a hill side it creates lift which follows the hill. If you have ridges as in a series of long hills then you can fly on top of this lift. If the hill is for example 1,000 feet high then you might be able to fly 1,000 feet or so above the top of the hill. It also means you can fly very fast at lower heights without losing height and just pull up when you want to gain height back again. Enormous fun!
The source of this is not dissimilar to ridge lift but the effect is different. When the wind blows uniformly over a series of hills (or even one hill) it can get deflected to around 10 times the height of that hill. For example, if the wind is deflected by a 1,000 foot hill it might create smooth lift of several knots to maybe 10,000 feet. This is how huge height gains are made, if a mountain 5,000 feet high is deflecting the wind then heights of 20,000 or 30,000 feet are attainable.
You may have seen those long cigar shaped clouds called lenticular’s. These are the clouds at the crests of the waves and you might see series of them marking the oscillations of the wave.
Is It Expensive
Not for flying it’s not, compared to golf it’s not much and a heck of a lot more exciting.
Instruction – usually FREE!
A years membership costs around £400.
A winch launch costs around £9.
An aero tow to 2,000 feet costs around £20.
Flying in club aircraft under instruction or not is 27p per minute for example
Apart from the membership 30 minutes from a winch launch would cost about £17.
One hour in a powered plane probably £100 so quite low cost really!
I am sitting in the cockpit of my glider and have just gone through some pre-flight checks to make sure all is safe for me to fly. I am wearing a parachute which I have never used but it’s nice to know it’s there if I ever need it. The canopy can be completely released if necessary so I can get out more easily. I also have some memory foam to sit on which will absorb the shock should I land a little heavy for any reason. I have never landed that hard but again it’s nice to know it’s there.
I’m ready to go and a cable is available for me to launch with. My glider takes a blue weak link so I make sure they use that one. I close the canopy and make sure it’s firmly shut. I ask for the cable to be hooked on.
Someone holds the wings level and will run along with the glider until it gets enough speed for me to gain control of the ailerons, this will take about 10 feet of running. The wing holder signals and shouts “take up slack”. The winch driver slowly reels in the cable until the launch controller sees that the slack has been taken up then signals and shouts all out. The winch driver pours on the power and I am launched forward with quite impressive acceleration. I keep the wings level and the glider aimed at the winch. The glider quickly leaves the ground, in a few more seconds the glider rotates into approximately a 45 degree climb. The G (Gravity) comes on and I am pressed into the seat a little. The wings bend a little. Wind noise is quite loud. I look out the side to make sure I am holding about the right angle of climb and not straying off too much in any one direction.
At about 1,300 feet the climb has significantly slowed down so I dip the nose a little and release the cable. Everything goes nice and quiet.
I see in front of me other gliders circling in a thermal under a white cloud so I go to join them. After a little experimentation I find the column of rising air and turn in it to climb with the others.
The day is fine and there are plenty of thermals so I eventually climb to cloud base at about 5,000 feet above the airfield height. The air is cool and buzzing with negative ions generated by the cloud which is always quite invigorating. I am up for a couple of hours local flying, weather permitting, so I shan’t go that far today. I decide to go to Gloucester which is just 15 miles away as the crow flies. From 5,000 feet that’s easy and I just lose a couple of thousand feet getting there what with some air sinking as well. On the way I can admire the river Severn glinting in the sun and Welsh hills in the distance.
I am also ever scanning for other aircraft such as other gliders, microlite’s, helicopters, other fixed wing aircraft etc.
There is a whole series of clouds lined up in the Gloucester area so I can just pick up the lift in those clouds whilst moving on to Cheltenham, circling in good lift every now and then to gain height more rapidly. Cheltenham is only about 7 miles away and sits nestled at the bottom of the largest hill in the Cotswolds.
I have time to go to Cirencester which is about 16 miles away but the clouds are not quite as good on the way and nor is the lift so I get down to about 2,000 feet by the time I get there. If I can’t find any lift I can always land in a field or there are a couple of other airfields only a few miles away. I spot a cloud forming close by and head over to to see if it’s generating lift, it is so I climb back up to 5,000 feet and glide back to Nympsfield at speed. I still have some height left so I practice some stalls and a short spin to lose height.
At about 800 feet and close to the airfield I start a circuit a land parallel with my trailer on the airfield after a few hours pleasant flying and a round trip of around 50 miles.
Are You Inspired
Maybe you thought “oh no, that’s not for me” but if you thought “heeeey, that’s cool” then why not try it out, I bet there’s a gliding club not that far away and for a modest sum, for such an experience, you can book a trial flight/lesson and give it a go. Even if you don’t want to pursue it, it will be a unique and wonderful experience.
So, the next time you are out on a nice summers day anywhere in the vicinity of a gliding club, look to the skies. You might just spot a glider flying above you, in fact they have probably been passing over the top of you for years without you ever noticing them.