As a kid, I always wanted to learn to fly. I don't know why. But I never gave up wanting to learn.
- Take a Soaring License
- Obtain a soaring license
- Obtain flying license
- Purchase a share of an airplane
To fly as the hawk and eagle has been mankind's dream for centuries. Modern sailplanes make soaring flight possible, and with them humans can fly higher, faster, and farther than the greatest of birds, using only an invisible force of nature to stay aloft.
The sport is called "soaring" and to pilot as well as spectator, it has universal appeal. The terms gliding and soaring are used interchangeably. There are many soaring sites in the United States. Visit one and you are likely to find the pilots are men, women, and young people whose experience in sailplane flying may vary greatly, but who share a common bond in being participants in one of the world's most satisfying and exhilarating sports. How else, within an hour or so of your home, can you become Columbus or Magellan, exploring the unknown?
Soaring offers a sense of freedom unique in sports. As a soaring pilot you are no longer earthbound; as your pilot skills increase, you will learn to venture away from the airport in a sailplane, relying on your own skills and judgment in analyzing the terrain and weather. Instead of passively enjoying the countryside or the sky, you will actively look for lift clues in the air, such as birds and the maturity of cumulus clouds; and you'll gain respect for areas on the ground that can help or hinder you in meeting the continuing challenge of staying aloft.
The intellectual challenge of soaring is its main appeal to many glider pilots. Gravity tells you that you and your machine, which together may weigh 500 to 2000 pounds, have no business staying aloft and that your place is on the ground since you have no engine to stay airborne. You know that the sun and the wind are providing an invisible force frequently far stronger than the force of gravity, but it's up to you to make the most of that force through your interpretation of it and of your own pilot skills. The best combination brings the longest flight, the highest altitude gain, or the fastest speed in a contest.
For sheer beauty, the sport of soaring is unsurpassed. Sailplanes may vary widely in design but they are all graceful - especially when moving through the sky.
Seeing the familiar earth drop away and become ever smaller creates a profound feeling of awe as your sailplane climbs toward the clouds. And the clouds themselves take on new meaning and importance as the earth becomes divided into friendly areas of lift or unfriendly areas of sink.
The pilot can enjoy a special kind of relaxation, too. Aside from the swish of wind over the wings, there's the meditative silence that can have a refreshing unwinding effect. The gain in altitude seems to leave mundane cares on the surface of the earth far below.
Learning to fly Gliders - Earning your Glider Rating
Your first step is to take an introductory flight in a sailplane. That flight will introduce you to a world you have never known. And it is so exciting that you will want to explore it, to learn more about it and to become part of it. Accept that challenge and you are on your way to becoming a part of the world of glider pilots.
As with any course of study, the more material you read on your own, the faster you'll learn and the more competent you'll be. The Soaring Society of America Online Store, commercial glider schools and book dealers listed in Soaring Magazine can provide textbooks containing all the theory and essentials of flight, soaring techniques, safety, navigation and meteorology, as well as the Federal Aviation Regulations you will need to know to pass the FAA written examination. You will be studying this material while you are taking your flying lessons. After you have passed your FAA written examination, your instructor will recommend you to take the Private Pilot Glider oral and flight test. Passing this test will entitle you to take passengers for rides.
Lessons can be scheduled at your convenience. The closer together the lessons are, the easier it is to build on the knowledge gained from previous lessons, and the faster you will learn. Most people try to fly at least once a week, and most prefer to take more than one flight during each lesson.
The sailplane you will fly has dual flight controls, and your instructor will sit behind you. Your instructor has all the directional controls that you have and will show you the control motions or follow along with you as you are learning to guide the sailplane. If you have not flown before, some of the maneuvers and coordination may seem a bit difficult at first. After a few flights, however, you will be making the sailplane do what you want it to do, and you will wonder why you ever felt so clumsy on your initial flights. You will learn that a sailplane is a docile yet responsive machine that answers to gentle, coordinated pressures on its controls. You'll learn to fly the sailplane straight-and-level, to turn it in varying degrees of bank, and to recognize and recover from stalls. You will practice flight courtesy and safety, and will glide down to enter the airport traffic pattern at a predetermined altitude. You will fly your approach precisely, land your craft with its wings level, and stop where you want to stop. You will learn emergency techniques so there will be no unexpected surprises for you when you become a licensed pilot.
How long it takes you to solo depends on a number of factors. These might include any previous pilot experience you have had, how open you are to your instructor's guidance, and how relaxed you are. Other factors include the type of sailplane you are flying, the weather during your training, and the degree of experience and proficiency your particular program of training requires before permitting you to solo. The requirement for an airport located on an uninterrupted plain in Kansas might well be different from the requirement for an airport cut out of a forest of Joshua trees.
You can solo if you are 14-years old or older. Most instructors feel that 30 to 35 flights are the minimum needed for most people with no previous flight experience. An experienced power (airplane) pilot can generally solo a sailplane in less than 10 flights.Gliders and glider pilots are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who set the minimum requirements for pilot certificates.
Cost of training from beginning through solo at a commercial gliderport will vary depending upon where it is and how rapidly you progress. After you have soloed, you will continue to fly with an instructor from time to time to see that you are maintaining good flying habits and developing your judgment and flying skills.
Learning to fly a sailplane safely is easy. The instructor can teach you the mechanics of flying the glider in just a few lessons. But don't be led too quickly into thinking that you have learned all there is to know. Learning to soar is a series of steps and plateaus. How high on that ladder you wish to climb is up to you. Some pilots are content to soar around an airport. Others find exhilaration and satisfaction in cross-country flight and ultimately in competing with other pilots. Learning while flying is fun; a fine balance of determination, flexibility, and practice is necessary to gain the proficiency you will need to get the most out of your sailplane.
Aero tow launches are the most widely used method of getting a glider airborne in the U.S. today. The sailplane is pulled aloft by a 200 foot nylon or polypropylene rope secured by a special hook to the tow plane. The sailplane pilot can release the tow rope at any altitude desired. In the unlikely event of a sailplane release mechanism malfunction, the tow plane pilot can release the tow line.
Auto launches are sometimes used. A 1000 foot rope connects the sailplane to a special hook on the towing automobile. When the signal is given, the tow vehicle drives down the launch runway and the glider pilot flies the glider up to an altitude of 800 feet or so, then releases the tow line which falls gently to earth.
Winch launches can achieve altitudes of 500-2000 feet before release, depending on the length of the winch line and the wind strength.
Auto and winch launches are less expensive than aerotows; however, to conduct them safely, they do require a several member crew.
It's easy for the slender sailplane to stay aloft without an engine, since it is aerodynamically designed to glide efficiently through the air. Gravity slowly draws it toward the earth's surface. Generally, a 20-25 minute flight will result after the sailplane releases from a 3000 foot aero tow, when no rising air currents are found to extend the flight.
The pilot in the sailplane can achieve a longer flight if the air mass in which he is flying is rising at a faster rate than the sailplane is gliding downward. When this happens, the real thrill of flying without an engine begins! The most common sources of lift are thermal lift, ridge or slope lift, and wave lift.
Thermal lift is dependent upon solar energy. The earth, when heated by the sun, warms the air next to it, causing it to expand and rise just like steam coming from a boiling kettle. Bubbles of warm, rising air form into columns called thermals. Some terrain absorbs heat from the sun more rapidly than the surrounding earth. Dark plowed fields, asphalt parking lots and rocky terrain absorb the sun's heat quickly and provide excellent sources of lift. Open countryside and desert lands are also known for their strong thermals. In some areas of the United States, sailplanes have ridden thermals up to altitudes of 25,000 feet!
Ridge lift, also called slope lift, is dependent upon wind. When the wind blows against a mountain, hill, cliff, or ridge line, the air flow is deflected upward and depending on the strength of the wind can rise hundreds of feet above the top of the ridge. Sailplanes can fly back and forth for hours on the narrow band of rising air on the upwind side of the ridge. Flights of more than 1,000 miles have been made using the ridge lift along mountain chains.
Mountain wave flying is especially exciting to many glider pilots. This meteorological phenomenon occurs when strong winds (more than 25 mph) blow perpendicular to a mountain or ridge. The wind flows over the top of the obstruction and down the opposite side, where it bounces off a layer of stable air near the ground and is deflected upward many thousands of feet to stable air where it bounces downward again. This wave action can occur many times in succession and is very similar to what you see when water flows over a submerged log in a stream. Sailplanes can rise at 2,000 feet per minute or more in the rising air on the upwind side of each wave. Wave flights can reach altitudes of 35,000 feet or more. At these altitudes, supplemental breathing oxygen and other precautions are necessary.
Sailplane construction and cost
Sailplanes are made of carbon composites, fiberglass, aluminum, wood, special fabric stretched over steel tubing, or any combination of these materials. Wingspans vary in size from under 40 feet to nearly 90 feet. Fuselage lengths range from 20 to 30 feet. And the empty weight of the glider may be as little as 150 pounds, or nearly 1000 pounds for a glider that can carry three people.
New, factory-built sailplanes can be purchased at prices from under $30,000 to $70,000 or more depending on performance, construction, and equipment. Excellent kits for homebuilding are on the market, enabling enthusiasts to produce a sailplane at a cost of one-third to two-thirds that of a factory built machine.
For those who can neither afford a new sailplane nor want to build a sailplane, the second-hand market of gliders provides a wide variety of relatively inexpensive alternatives. Older models of factory-built gliders, as well as used home-built gliders, are often quite economical to buy and to own. There is virtually nothing to wear out on most sailplanes, and they have proven to be excellent investments because they hold their value well and often appreciate in value.
Many pilots prefer to rent gliders from a commercial gliderport rather than buy a glider. Many other pilots enjoy relatively low-cost soaring through membership in the more than 200 soaring clubs in the United States. By joining a club, partnership, or syndicate, glider pilots can fly in sailplanes that otherwise might not be affordable. Shared expenses and greater utilization of equipment means lower costs for each member. Clubs also offer opportunities to participate in local contests, fly-ins, cross-country camps, and other enjoyable social events.
Some sailplanes have engine-drive propellers mounted in the nose or retractable mounts projecting above the fuselage. The power plants are small, lightweight, low horsepower engines mounted in the shell of the glider. Motorgliders are gaining in popularity in the United States because they offer the pilot the freedom of self-launching out of any airport.
When you have earned your private pilot glider certificate, you'll find the best is yet to come. As your skills and confidence improve, you will learn to leave your home field, head out on cross-country flights, work for proficiency badges, and perhaps enter soaring contests. Numerous fly-ins and badge and wave camps offer soaring pilots and their families and friends a chance to vacation and fly in some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
The accomplishment of flying from one airfield to the next, leaving the comfort of known thermal sources and home field familiarity, is a thrill unequaled in any other sport. The pilot must draw on his accumulated knowledge of the ground and the air mass, navigation, and flying skills plus a dash of adrenalin. Even the most experienced pilots never lose the exhilaration of "heading out on course."
To fly cross-country, the pilot circles up within a "bubble" of rising air, then leaves it to head out on course and find a new source of lift. If cumulus clouds are present, the pilot assesses them constantly, looking for growing young clouds that have a high probability of providing rapid climb. Climb and glide, climb and glide... the rhythm of the flight develops as the cross-country adventure unfolds. No two cross-country flights are ever the same.
For flights of any significant distance, pilots may enlist the support of a one or two-person ground crew, whose job it is to see that the pilot is retrieved at the end of the flight (if the pilot does not return to the home gliderport). The crew helps prepare the pilot and glider for departure, and then monitors the flight's progress via two-way radio. For most flights of any great distance, this is usually done as the crew drives along the pilot's intended course. In this way, the crew always knows where the pilot is and can rendezvous quickly if a landing is made.
If it is not possible for the pilot to land on an airport, an off-field landing is required. Because of the sailplane's sturdy single wheel safe landings can be made on relatively rough ground, such as plowed fields. Sailplanes can be landed in relatively short areas, so there are usually many acceptable landing sites from which to choose. Once the crew car has arrived, it's time to disassemble the glider and load it onto its special trailer. During the drive back to the home field, the pilot unwinds, chatting about the adventure just completed and slowly returns to the land of ordinary mortals.
It is often said that the most dangerous part of soaring is the drive to the airport. The sport is considered so safe, in fact, that the Federal Aviation Administration will allow 14-year-olds to fly gliders solo, while in most states they must wait until they are 16 to drive automobiles.
Beneath their sleek exteriors, gliders are engineered for strength and safety. Gliders are very sturdy aircraft, and because they land at such low speeds, the risk of physical injury is very slight, even on the rare landing so grossly miscalculated that it damages the glider.
Pilots learn to fly sailplanes knowing the limitations of their craft and their own personal flying ability, and plan their flights accordingly. Good pilots always keep a safe landing site within gliding distance. Take a good training program, add a dash of self-discipline, and you have the recipe for safe, lifelong participation in a glorious sport.
Fly A Sailplane Today! FAST
What is the FAST program?
The FAST program gives you the opportunity to get a taste of what soaring is all about. It is a program that offers you an introductory lesson in flying a glider, during which you will handle the controls of the aircraft under the guidance of an FAA certificated glider flight instructor.
Who is this for?
The FAST program is geared towards you! If you've ever watched a hawk gliding effortlessly in the sky and wondered what that experience must be like then now is the time to try soaring! This is a sport that attracts individuals from all walks of life and of all ages, and is a great activity for the whole family. The FAST program experience also makes a great gift.
How does the FAST program work?
It's easy and fast! To buy a FAST program lesson voucher at the SSA online store click here. Then call a participating soaring operation to schedule your lesson. You can also order your FAST package by calling 1-505-392-1177 during normal business hours to receive your voucher by fax.
How much does it cost and what do I get?
The FAST package is a great value at $99. With your purchase you will receive:
- An introductory lesson consisting of a minimum of 30 minutes of ground instruction and approximately 30 minutes of flight time.
- A copy of the Glider Flying Handbook.
- A glider pilot logbook.
- An introductory 3 month membership in the Soaring Society of America, including one copy of the monthly magazine Soaring.
Where can I redeem my FAST program voucher?
You can use your voucher at any participating SSA Chapter or affiliated commercial operator. To find the nearest participating soaring operation click on the map icon to the right (Flash 6 required) or go to the "Where To Fly" page; or just contact the SSA. Once you've selected a soaring operation you should contact them to schedule your lesson, tell them you have a FAST progam voucher. They will tell you everything you need to know and what to bring with you on the day of your lesson.
- FAST vouchers may be redeemed at participating soaring clubs and commercial soaring businesses. Redemption of your FAST certificate may require compliance with any membership rules or conditions applicable to whatever organization provides the flight. Typically, this requires some simple paperwork at the flying site.
- The Soaring Society of America, Inc. acts solely as agent of the entity that provides the introductory lesson and will not, and does not, assume any liability or responsibility for any injury, death, damage or loss arising directly or indirectly in any manner from the instructional flight including while in transit to or from the glider used for such flight.
- Individual FAST providers (affiliated SSA Chapters or commercial operators) may have additional restrictions, please ask when you call to make your FAST lesson reservation.
- Limit one voucher per customer.