Having first gone solo in a glider as a teenager and now with some 3000 hours under my belt in over 40 years, 17 of which were as an instructor, it saddens me to see this wonderful aviation sport slowly dying. This is even more disturbing when we live in a country like South Africa where we have some of the best soaring conditions in the world. New blood is just not getting replaced as fast as old codgers like me die off. Why is this?
I think the main reason for the lack of growth in this fantastic sport is a lack of media exposure and thus a lack of knowledge about gliding. The few articles written about gliding seldom do justice to the sport and are often the product of a journalist who has only a limited knowledge gleaned from a short interview with a glider pilot. Hence, the passion is missing, the accuracy is missing and the appreciation for the sport is lacking in the article being produced.
Rugby and other sports are given unrealistic and justified amounts of exposure as to suggest every single person on the planet is so narrow minded that is all they can think about. However, just a glance inside any restaurant with the obligatory flat screens on the walls displaying endless rugby matches will dispel this theory. Rarely do you even see anyone glance at these screens as like me they have become totally bored with it. However, the following facts about gliding might entice more people to check it out in favour of rugby. Trust me you do not need to watch rugby to be a man.
Basically there are two types of gliders.
1) Self launching gliders that have their own power source that can be turned off when soaring and,
2) For the purists as they are called, gliders that need to be launched behind either a tug plane or need to be pulled up by a winch.
Let us look at a pure glider and some achievements over the years. It may surprise many to know that some gliders have flown as far as 2000km nonstop in a single day during daylight hours and that very high performance gliders can cruise at high altitude at speeds of up to 245kph and that some gliders have a VNE, (velocity never exceed speed), of 275kph. Not too shabby for something with no power. Gliders frequently climb to over 20,000 feet AGL which is why most are fitted with oxygen. The altitude record is well over 50,000 feet obviously with the pilot wearing a pressure suit as they do not come with pressurised cockpits yet. Some high performance gliders can boast a glide ratio of close to 1/60. This means it could fly well almost 60km without needing any lift from an altitude of 1km up at what is known as best glide speed. Gliders use a host of different types of lift in order to gain altitude. The most common form of lift used is thermal energy. A thermal is hot air caused by the sun’s rays reflecting off the earth’s surface and rising up in a spiral column.
As the thermal climbs the diameter increases. The strength of a thermal varies but can reach 7m per second or even more on a good day in summer. This means when in the thermal your Glider will climb at 7m per second. Many light aircraft cannot climb this fast or fly at 270kph either.
Another type of lift used by glider pilots is called ridge lift. This is lift caused by strong winds blowing up against a mountain or ridge but is obviously limited as this could seldom be relied upon for cross country flights. The third type of lift used is called wave and is generally encountered at very high altitude and can normally be recognised by long thin clouds lenticular in shape. The art of gliding is to be able to recognise the various conditions and have the flying skills to be able to take advantage of them. No other form of flying can be as challenging and rewarding or require such precision and accuracy.
Take for example a landing. Each approach and landing must be 100% perfect or you will either under or over shoot, unlike a power aircraft where you can throttle back or power up and go around again a glider is not as forgiving. Under shoot in a glider and you crash, over shoot in a glider and you crash. Then there is the air tow where you are towed up behind a tug plane. Now this is a real balancing act. You must keep the rope tight or it can even loop over your wing ending in disaster. Any form of sloppy flying on the tow will give the tug pilot a rough time and can even damage his aircraft or worse still cause him to crash. When banking behind the tug you have to ensure you do not turn inside the tug thus making the rope slack or later than the tug causing it to drag you round by the nose. Accuracy is imperative. While all this is going on you have to negotiate turbulence and also keep out of the tugs slipstream.
This type of flying is not for the faint hearted and requires precision accuracy.
Now when all the elements fail you an out-landing becomes necessary and you do not get to choose where or when this happens. Hence, you often have to land under difficult circumstances looking out for power lines trees and other obstructions you would normally not need to worry about back at your home airfield.
Finally the tow to behind the tug to get you airborne calls for total concentration and accuracy and is particularly difficult in turbulence. The slightest error can be fatal for both the tug pilot and the glider pilot and a bad situation can develop incredibly fast.
Gliding calls for absolute precision flying.