I was fortunate to have discovered the joy of soaring at an early age having gone solo in a glider as teenager. It was a case of love at first flight. Since then I have accumulated over 3000 hours in over 40 years, (17 years as an instructor). Although I have flown many hours of power, gliding must be without doubt the most challenging and rewarding of aviation sports while debatably requiring the most precision and skill.
Imagine for a moment climbing into the sleek and modern hull of a high performance, carbon fibre glider, reclining back in the cockpit before being towed to 1500 feet by a tug plane, then releasing the tow rope. Now, free as a bird and using nothing but thermal energy provided by nature, you swiftly climb to 20,000 feet AGL in lift registering 7mps on your variometer. Exceptional conditions maybe, but often experienced in South Africa. You are now obviously on oxygen. Then picture setting off, on a 750km cross country with no engine at a cruise speed of 160kph and an outside air temperature well below freezing. Suddenly to your right you observe a massive eagle in formation with you, no oxygen mask, and no canopy to protect him from the cold, no warm flying suit, and not even flapping his wings to keep up with you in this freezing air. How does he achieve this and why is he there? I can only say I am one of a privileged few to have experienced this phenomenon. I have soared with eagles, vultures and other birds of prey and these are just some of the experiences I will never forget.
Modern gliders have evolved to a performance level that was science fiction when I started flying. You can even have various self launching options now. Some of these are very sophisticated offering immediate access to power when needed without any disadvantages caused by drag when the engine is shut down and not in use and when you want to use the aircraft as a “pure” glider. Such sailplanes are normally fitted with a generous array of the most modern avionics. At the end of the day it really depends on your pocket. One top end of the range self launcher, is the Stemme S10VT for example, with fully retractable twin undercarriage and a propeller which folds away like a penknife into the nose cone, and could set you back R2.5 million to import even before you added all the optional avionics. However, if you want one of the best I guess you have got to be prepared to pay the price. This slippery ship has a VNE, (velocity never to exceed), speed of 270kph, a wingspan of 23m, a climb rate under power of 4mps, a cruise speed at altitude of 245kph a positive “G” rating of + 5.3, and side by side seating configuration. When the wheels are up and the propeller is folded away in the nose compartment, this machine is transformed in seconds into an aerodynamic glider with an aspect ratio as high as 29.29 and a glide ratio 1/50 making it capable of long distances at very high speeds. Agreed there may be gliders with a higher a glide ratio but this must be top of the list for versatility and brilliant design and 1/50 is not too shabby anyway considering the very first glider I flew had a ratio of 1/28.
Even 15m gliders without power have been known to cover 2000km during daylight and some have achieved speeds of 320kph. The world altitude record is over 50,000 feet, obviously with the pilot being in a pressure suit. Not bad for something that is totally reliant on natural energy.
While some of the best South African gliding conditions are often found over central Free State possibly one of the most dramatic venues has got to be the Drakensburg with its breath taking scenery. Also the lift off the mountains can take you to over 30,000 feet. I once flew with another pilot from Magaliesburg to the Drakensburg in a Nimbus 3DM leaving at 11am. We arrived at Champagne Castle by 1.30pm then went onto Maseru then back to Parys then to Ventersdorp before returning to Magaliesburg by 1745 and all done without any power at all but for the initial launch to 1500 feet and at a speed of around 180kph between thermals. Science fiction, unbelievable, well believe it.
Picture another scenario. At 3.30pm you are at 18,000 feet over the PK Le Roux Dam in the Free State participating in a 750km cross country competition. By 5.15pm you are only 75km from home but down to 1000 feet AGL having not seen a thermal in the last 45 minutes. You have picked out a suitable landing site as the inevitable approaches. Then suddenly you find a 3mps thermal, bank sharply to centre on the lift and rapidly climb back to 7000 feet. Using this height you are able to make it home completing the task. What could be a more exciting and challenging form of flying than this?
I rest my case.