Soaring is the art and science of using the natural movement of the atmosphere to stay aloft, climb, and travel long distances in a motor-less aircraft.
A glider, or sailplane, is a type of aircraft that does not have an engine. Usually an airplane tows the glider aloft, although the glider may also be launched like a kite, using a winch or even an automobile to pull it into the air. At the desired altitude, the glider pilot releases the towline, and begins to glide.
To learn to fly a glider, you must take lessons from a Certified Flight Instructor in Gliders (CFIG) until you meet the requirements for a Private Pilot Certificate. The Federal Aviation Administration certifies instructors and private pilots. You can solo a glider at age 14, and can obtain your private pilot certificate in gliders at age 16. As long as you are able to safely fly the glider, there are no medical certificate requirements in gliders like there are in airplanes.
If the air is still, the glider slowly descends to a landing. However the air is rarely completely still. Often updrafts, or “lift” exist, which a skilled pilot can use to gain altitude.
The most common type of lift that a glider pilot uses is called a thermal. A thermal is a bubble or column of warm air that is rising. Warm air rises because it is less dense than cool air. Often a cumulus cloud will form at the top of the thermal, marking the area of lift.
By flying in circles in a thermal, a glider pilot can climb thousands of feet into the air, and stay aloft as long as the lift persists. Most people have seen hawks, eagles, and vultures use this same technique to gain altitude without flapping.
By repeatedly climbing and then gliding, a pilot can cover hundreds and hundreds of miles in a single flight. This is referred to as cross-country soaring.
The key to safely flying long distances it to always have enough altitude to be able to glide to an airport, or at least a safe place to land. Safe places to land may include farmland, fields and pastures.
In a sailplane race, a course is set around one or more turnpoints, with a finish line at or near the starting airport. Typically, a sailplane contest lasts several days, with one race being held on each day.
Before the race starts, all the sailplanes are lined up on the runway. Once the lift is strong enough, the gliders are towed in the air to an altitude of 2,000’ above the ground. After all of the gliders have been launched, the race is started. The pilots must then fly from the start, around the turnpoint(s), and back to the finish line. Global Positioning System (GPS) data is used to verify that the sailplanes flew around the turnpoints.
Several factors determine how long it takes the sailplane to fly around the course. These include how fast the pilot can climb in the thermals, how fast the pilot flies between thermals, and how much “sink” the pilot encounters while gliding. Often, a pilot will pass up a weak thermal and instead continue gliding in search of a stronger one. Of course, if the pilot is getting low and is in danger of “landing out”, any lift, no matter how weak, will suffice!
Many gliders are capable of loops, rolls, and even inverted flight. After getting their license, some pilots choose to increase their skills by taking aerobatic instruction.