I’m not certain what peaked my interest in gliders, but I’m thinking it was a flight simulator. I’m fascinated by the simplicity of it. Not that it’s easy. Or simple, actually. Being a great glider pilot takes a lot of work. But the systems in the glider are very simple, and in flight, having no engine means a quiet experience described as being as close to a bird as it gets. I’ve always wanted to get my glider rating, and I’ve looked into it more than once. Until that day comes, I’ve resorted to studying what I can on the topic and using the flight simulator as a fun outlet to explore a bit of gliding. Here’s the why and the how to get into gliding.
It’s The Journey, Not The Destination
I’m not on a track to fly for the airlines. I have absolutely nothing against it, but it hasn’t been a goal of mine. For some, the idea of piloting a Boeing 787 drives them through their training, but for me, I can’t wait to be a flight instructor. What that means for my flying is that I intend to explore different facets of flying along the way, gleaning from each experience what I can. I hope pick up various ratings and try out flying adventures like Jason Miller of The Finer Points hosts. I like to spend some of my time training and some of my time flying the family around. I’ll bring you what I learn from these explorations in this bucket list series.
Gliders are usually pulled aloft by a towplane or by a winch.
To the unenlightened, gliding is simply getting into an airplane without an engine. It sounds hard to get anywhere without an engine and pretty unpredictable – scary even. But digging into the world of gliding, I’ve found that there are gliders that can stay aloft longer than I have fuel in my powered airplane. The same basic forces of flight are at work, but there are a few key differences that make the concept of gliding so appealing.
You don’t really use a glider as a mode of transportation, but rather to truly enjoy getting there.
The major difference in how a glider is designed to fly is the glide ratio. If you cut off the engine of a common trainer like a Cessna 172 (like I do in this X-Plane video), you’ll have somewhere around a 9:1 glide ratio. This means that when flown at the best glide airspeed, the airplane will travel roughly 9 feet forward for every 1 foot of altitude lost. Stated in terms of altitude, this means that if you were flying at 5000 feet, you could glide over 7 miles. In a glider like the SK21, the glide ratio moves to something like 34:1. From the same 5000 foot altitude, you could get closer to 27 miles.
This chart from the Pilot’s Operating Handbook shows the glide range of the Cessna 172S.
Thermal Under Where?
It’s not all about glide distance, though. The reason gliders can stay aloft so long (under the right conditions) is thermals. As the Earth heats, rising columns of air create lift that can be used to gain altitude in a glider. There is also ridge lift near the mountains. Wind blowing into a mountain lifts up and over the top – also a good source for lift. A good glider pilot uses thermals and ridge lift to get much higher than they were towed for much longer than you might expect.
A variometer shows you when you are in rising or sinking air.
What To Learn
There are some good resources to check out if you want to dig a little deeper into the world of gliding. The FAA’s Gliding Handbook is free online and worth the read. If you want to dig into a glider manual or learn more about the ASK21 on the X-Plane flight simulator, check out this pilot briefing document or the actual ASK21 manual. This also sounds like a great time to tell you about a gliding video I have of the basics of the ASK21 in X-Plane11. Here you go!
Where To Go
There are lots of places to learn to fly gliders. Most will offer a single flight or series of flights, which make for a great gift or weekend trip (I hope my wife is reading this). Some gliderports will offer ab initio training, meaning that you don’t have to already have any previous airplane experience, but others only offer the glider rating as an add on to your Private Pilot Certificate or after you have soloed a glider elsewhere. Check out the Soaring Society of America for a great place to start searching for a place near you. I have the Middle Georgia Soaring Association near me, which is a great club to join, but I also have my sights set on the Chilhowee Gliderport a few hours away in Tennessee for a day or two of gliding in the mountains.
Areas with lots of gliding activity are marked on sectional charts with this little glider symbol, like the one here at Chilhowee Gliderport in Tennessee (92A).
Is a glider rating necessary? Not at all. It isn’t on the traditional path to a job as a commercial pilot, but man it seems like fun. I could hope that learning to fly gliders would increase my stick and rudder skills, or my energy management, or any number of other takeaways, but I don’t need a reason to want to stretch my wings and enjoy the different facets of aviation. Do you have any gliding stories to share or great places to go gliding? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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