Possibly you have seen them or heard of them, and thought that would be cool to do. What is it? Going in a glider. Riding in a sailplane (or glider, if you prefer) is the purest form of flying there is.

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A sailplane or glider is a type of glider aircraft used in the sport of gliding. Sailplanes are aerodynamically streamlined and are capable of gaining altitude when flown in rising air.

Sailplanes are aerodynamically streamlined and are capable of gaining altitude when flown in rising air.

Sailplanes benefit from producing the least drag for any given amount of lift, and this is best achieved with long, thin wings, a fully faired narrow cockpit and a slender fuselage. Aircraft with these features can climb efficiently in rising air produced by thermals or hills. In still air, sailplanes can glide long distances at high speed with a minimum loss of height in between.


Gliders have rigid wings and either skids or undercarriage. In contrast hang gliders and paragliders use the pilot’s feet for the start of the launch and for the landing. These latter types are described in separate articles, though their differences from sailplanes are covered below. Gliders are usually launched by winch or aerotow, though other methods: auto tow and bungee, are occasionally used.


All sailplanes soar, but some gliders do not soar and are simply engineless aircraft towed by another aircraft to a desired destination and then cast off for landing. Military gliders (such as those used on D-Day) are single-use only, and are abandoned after landing, having served their purpose.

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Usually, an airplane tows the glider aloft, although the glider may also be launched like a kite, using a winch or even an automobile to pull it into the air. At the desired altitude, the glider pilot releases the towline, and begins to glide.

To learn to fly a glider, you must take lessons from a Certified Flight Instructor in Gliders (CFIG) until you meet the requirements for a Private Pilot Certificate. The Federal Aviation Administration certifies instructors and private pilots. You can solo a glider at age 14, and can obtain your private pilot certificate in gliders at age 16. As long as you are able to safely fly the glider, there are no medical certificate requirements in gliders as there are in airplanes.

If the air is still, the glider slowly descends to a landing. However, the air is rarely completely still. Often updrafts, or “lift”, exist which a skilled pilot can use to gain altitude.

The most common type of lift that a glider pilot uses is called a thermal. A thermal is a bubble or column of warm air that is rising. Warm air rises because it is less dense than cool air. Often a cumulus cloud will form at the top of the thermal, marking the area of lift.

By flying in circles in a thermal, a glider pilot can climb thousands of feet into the air, and stay aloft as long as the lift persists. Most people have seen hawks, eagles, and vultures use this same technique to gain altitude without flapping.

By repeatedly climbing and then gliding, a pilot can cover hundreds of miles in a single flight. This is referred to as cross-country soaring.

The key to safely flying long distances is to always have enough altitude to be able to glide to an airport, or at least a safe place to land. Safe places to land may include farmland, fields and pastures.


In a sailplane race, a course is set around one or more turn points, with a finish line at or near the starting airport. Typically, a sailplane contest lasts several days, with one race being held on each day.

Before the race starts, all the sailplanes are lined up on the runway. Once the lift is strong enough, the gliders are towed aloft to an altitude of 2,000′ above the ground. After all of the gliders have been launched, the race is started. The pilots must then fly from the start, around the turnpoint(s), and back to the finish line. Global Positioning System (GPS) data is used to verify that the sailplanes flew around the turnpoints.

The winner of a race is awarded 1000 points, with each finisher (i.e. pilots who made it all the way around the course) receiving a fraction of 1000 points determine by the ratio of their speed to the winner’s speed. Non-finishers (pilots who did NOT make it around the course) are awarded points based on how far they made it around the course, but they always receive fewer points than the slowest finisher. The winner is the pilot who accumulates the most points at the end of the contest.


Many gliders are capable of loops, rolls, and even inverted flight. After getting their license, some pilots choose to increase their skills by taking aerobatic instruction.

Is it safe?

Gliders are as safe as just about anything in the air. It is extremely safe since the sailplane carries no fuel or heavy engine, and is designed to land slowly in unimproved fields. Also, the sailplane is built stronger than most small aircraft! Slow speeds, short landings, nothing volatile and strength make this sport one of the safest.

What happens if the wind quits?

As long as there is air and gravity the sailplane can safely fly! By using their long, graceful wings, the sailplane typically descends at approximately 100 to 300 feet every minute. By utilizing the weather, the glider can stay up for very long periods of time and fly great distances, all without using gas or oil, sailplanes use solar power. Even though it is called a sailplane, it does not have a sail.

How long can sailplanes stay up in the air?

The limiting factor is your bladder! By using the weather, sailplanes have flown over 1,500 miles and climbed to almost 50,000 feet.

How much do sailplanes cost?

Like cars, the range is great and depends on the age and condition of the vehicle. There are many great, fun sailplanes available from under $10,000. New, competitive ships are over $300,000.

Is flying in a sailplane scary?

Flying a glider is an amazing, challenging and exhilarating experience that doesn’t need to involve fear at all.  The key is to fly within your personal limits.  This goes for weather, the aircraft and your flight plan.  Preparation and understanding weather and your surroundings goes to greatly reducing risk in any form of aviation, gliders aren’t any different. Turbulence can be caused by many things.  Strong winds flowing around mountains, powerful thermals and convection or winds working against each other.  Unlike power planes that push through turbulence along a predetermined course, glider pilots are often well aware of the source of the turbulence and how to use it to their advantage.  What might be a turbulent flight in an airliner can be an indicator of good conditions for soaring.  

Soaring Society of America is the largest collection of information in the world about soaring, also known as gliding. This site can help you find locations to take your first glider ride.


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