So you're into hang gliding / paragliding?
No, although the principle is the same in that we utilise the natural conditions to stay airborne. A glider (sometimes known as a sailplane) resembles a traditional aeroplane but with longer wings; we are protected from the elements inside a closed cockpit, we fly with a stick and rudder, and have similar instruments such as an altimeter and radio. We can generally fly higher, further and faster than our hang/paragliding cousins, but we also need more infastructure such as a runway, and winch or tug plane to help us get airborne.
How can you fly without an engine?
All fixed wing aircraft are capable of gliding - even an airliner! The design of the wings generate lift to counteract the weight of the aircraft, but they can only do that when air is flowing over them. A powered aircraft will use its engine(s) to propel itself forward, whereas a glider will maintain a shallow rate of descent. In still air, a glider cannot climb - but there is a lot of energy in the atmosphere, and gliders are light enough to be carried upwards by rising air. Much of the skill is in the pilot reading the weather, and finding that energy!
The most famous example of a glider is the space shuttle; which used the same principles - and not its engines - on its return to Earth.
How high do gliders go?
You will most often find gliders as high as the base of the clouds; in the UK in summer, "cloudbase" is typically around 4,000-6,000ft. This is because most of the time, gliders fly in lift generated by thermals which are associated with cumulus clouds. In different types of lift, such as "lee wave" it is possible to climb much higher, the Yorkshire Gliding Club record is around 34,000ft although modern airspace now generally restricts climbs to around 19,500ft.
How far do gliders go?
When flying cross country, gliders can travel great distances - in the UK, flights of over 1,000km (620 miles) have been recorded. It is not altogether unusual for experienced pilots to cover 500km (310 miles). Pilots will attempt to fly their 'task' as fast as possible, and arrive back at their home airfield - but it doesn't always work out and the glider may land out at another airfield or sometimes in a farmer's field!
How fast do gliders go?
Most gliders will cruise between around 40-60 knots (nautical miles per hour) which is about 45-70mph. This is when they are most efficient, travelling the furthest possible distance for the minimum loss of height. When racing in good weather conditions, pilots may fly anywhere up to the gliders maximum allowed speed - which usually ranges from around 135-155 knots (155-180mph) for a modern (post 1970) fibre glass glider.
How long do you fly for?
Beginner pilots ("Ab-Initios") will generally have flights of 20-45 minutes at a time, in a two-seat glider whilst they learn and progress towards solo. From there, it is a matter of how long you would like to fly, if conditions allow. Flights of up to six hours are common, and flights of up to twelve hours have been recorded. Gliders can legally fly until thirty minutes after the sun sets.
How much does it cost to learn to fly?
The cost of learning to fly a glider is different for everyone, depending on how often they fly and how quickly they grasp the concepts. Students pay for the launch of the glider (at Yorkshire Gliding Club, this is generally an 'aerotow' behind a tug plane) and per minute of rental of the aircraft they choose to fly - the instructors do not charge for their time at all.
Does it need to be windy?
It does not; gliders can fly on completely calm days, or in reasonably strong winds. In fact, at Yorkshire Gliding Club, the prevailing westerly winds, if strong enough, can produce local 'ridge lift' allowing gliders to remain airborne indefinitely on air deflected up a slope - or they can produce wave lift, which allows gliders to soar to many thousands of feet.
We will not fly if conditions are too windy/gusty, if it is raining constantly (showers are OK), or if mist or low cloud restricts visibility.
What weather makes a good gliding day?
Most people associate a good gliding day with thermal lift; and so the best days are those where blue sky is evident, but dotted with cumulus clouds (which mark areas of rising air) where they are at least a couple of thousand feet high.
We fly on completely 'blue' (cloudless) days although the lack of thermal markers and cloud shadows often makes this type of day hot and challenging. We also fly on completely overcast days as long as the overcast is high enough.
The hardy pilots of Yorkshire Gliding Club will fly on any day that it's flyable - 364 days a year.
I'd like to have a go, but I'm afraid of heights...
A surprising number of our pilots claim to be afraid of heights - but the feeling of being on a ladder or rollercoaster and connected to the ground is completely different to that of being in a glider; the sensation of height is not the same, and the stunning views usually take the mind off it!