Flying A Glider... Easy Right?

Gliding can be great fun!

But for those not too familiar with the sport, I should explain that gliding entails climbing into a small aircraft, (not equipped with an engine!), being towed by one of several means to a height of about two thousand feet, and then staying up there for as long as possible, making use of various weather features and your own skill…

Of course all of this as I said can be great fun and also a great satisfaction, especially if you manage to stay up for a fairly long period of time. (My personal longest flight was one of five and a half hours, but this is by no means a record!).

It’s a wonderful feeling, to be up there, perhaps six or seven thousand feet above the ground, completely alone and with a vast area of beautiful countryside spread out below you.

You can head in any direction you want to, apart from one important requirement; that is, you need to make use of thermals, if there are any, to avoid having to land.

Thermals are basically ‘bubbles’ of warm air which accumulate on the ground, usually over ploughed fields or large areas of open rock or concrete. The temperature of these ‘bubbles’ gradually builds up in the sunshine until they reach a temperature where they break loose from the ground and start to rise, following one of the basic laws of physics, (hot air balloons use the same law, but balloonists create their own thermals by the use of a gas flame).

A good thermal can take a well flown glider to heights of ten thousand feet or even more, if you’re lucky enough to find one, and usually that isn’t too hard a job, because they normally have a cumulus cloud at the top of them, where the moisture in the rising hot air condenses, in the cooler air around them.

It’s great fun, and involves a certain amount of skill, to stay in a thermal as it rises, that cloud above you is your only visible reference, plus instruments in the aircraft which tell if you are rising - or falling to the ground below you.

Having mentioned what great fun it all is, I should admit that it can sometimes get very ‘exciting’!...

For instance, during a launch by a ground positioned cable, it can snap, when you’re a critical height above the ground and you have to decide, in an instant, whether there is enough room in the field in front of you for a safe landing, or do you have enough height to complete a very short circuit back to the launch point before you reach ground level!

Unlike a powered aircraft, you only get one chance in a glider, you have to be right – always!

Another dicey situation occurs when the thermals suddenly ‘dry-up’, far from your home base and you just have to land. Several worrisome minutes can be spent trying to decide which of the fields below will be safe to land in.

Don’t land where you can see cattle – they’re inclined to eat the glider.

Don’t land where you see waves flowing across the grass in a field – this indicates tall grass which can easily, at the speed a glider flies, rip the wings right off the aircraft, resulting in considerable expense for repairs.

And don’t land where you can make our areas of rock jutting out of the ground, for obvious reasons!

Don’t fly into clouds until you have had considerable instruction in what to do in such a situation – in cloud never look outside the plane, but keep your eyes firmly fixed on  the instruments before you.

They give you all the information you need to keep flying properly, but even a very quick glance outside can immediately destroy that knowledge and before you know it almost anything can be happening to the plane because flying in one direction can feel just like flying in another due to the centrifugal forces applied to your body.

Brian Lee with his glider!I ‘lost it’ once doing exactly what I shouldn’t, so in the end I simply let go of all the controls and let the glider look after itself. I eventually came out into clear air, to find I was actually flying upside-down, with the ground above me!

Another way of unexpectedly flipping the glider over is to hit a very powerful thermal with one wing! This can happen without warning, usually when you fly past the edge of the offending thermal.

Imagine the thermal as basically circular in form and one of your wings dips into the edge of that circle; normally no big deal, in fact quite pleasant usually, because you can then turn sharply towards the wing that lifts, and get your whole glider into the thermal and gain height, just what you’re looking for.

But dip that one wing into a rogue thermal and you can, once again, suddenly find yourself flying upside down! Quite disconcerting.

Another problem comparatively new pilots can experience is flying too slowly!

To fly, all aircraft have to move at a certain speed through the air, depending on the aerodynamics of the plane – if the plane is flown too slowly it can, suddenly and disconcertingly stall, or even worse, go into a spin.

The nose drops, quite fiercely, and the aircraft starts to fly in a tight circle, around the wing on the inside of the circle, while the other wing tries to fly normally around the stalled one – this is a spin! It’s quite easy to get out of, as long as you have been taught how, but it can be a bit frightening, the first time it happens to you.

Luckily, this is one of the first basic skills you are taught when you start your flying course.

I hasten to add, if you have been properly trained, none of these experiences will worry you, they are all normal parts of flying a small aircraft – or even a large aircraft; even a 747 flies under the same set of rules as a little, one-seat glider, but they tend to have a lot more instruments to avoid any of it happening – but where’s the fun in that?


Original Artwork, Photo & Story (c)2021 Brian Lee 

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