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A Glimpse Into the World of Competitive Gliding

By Andrew Burgon / phoenix@projectfellowship.com
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November 13, 2013

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Competitive Gliding: Soaring Like an Eagle

The G103 Twin II is a two-seater sailplane made by Grob Aircraft.

Imagine the exhilarating experience of flying above beautiful scenery using just the invisible force of nature to stay aloft. To fly into a rising warm air current and use it to soar 400ft higher per minute! To be a part of a vastly different world. Gliding offers such experiences to those who wish to take to the skies. There are hundreds of clubs around the world where you can participate in the sport and meet-up with it’s devotees.

The Use of Modern Gliders in Competitive Gliding

If you think gliders (sailplanes) are still quaint wood and fabric-covered creations that are at the complete mercy of the wind think again. Modern gliders implement some of the latest technology to improve performance and proficiency.

They may be made from metal frames or may have a complete fuselage and wings made from fibreglass and carbon fibre. The latest modern gliders gracing the sky are high tech creations implementing state-of-the-art construction materials, propulsion technology and avionic systems.

The solar powered glider Sunseeker was the first solar powered airplane to cross the United States.

While we think of gliders as comparatively light to their other brethren some of them weigh almost a ton. Some gliders have up to 55 gallons of water on board that helps improve the plane’s performance. This is to help the plane go faster though it does decrease the glider’s climb rate. Pilots will probably only use the ballasts when the weather is good as the strong thermal activity will help counter it.

The Stemme S10 is a self-launching sailplane produced by Stemme AG. The plane features a folding propeller. When not in use it stows away inside the aircraft’s nose-cone.

The Sport of Competitive Gliding

The Soaring Society of America sanctions the regional and national championships that take place in the spring and summer of each year. A total of 35 scheduled competitions. Unlike other sports there is no prize money to speak of.

In competitive soaring as it’s called the supreme challenge is to master the elements and get the most out of the technological tour de force that embodies modern gliders today. It’s all about who can go the distance the fastest.

The challenge is straightforward enough. Reach a turnpoint and head back to the home field. Easy, right? Not quite. Competitors have to seek out invisible columns of rising warm air that will enable them to gain altitude. Fortunately, one of the telltale signs of a thermal is a fluffy cumulus cloud. Once entering the thermal the pilots will circle tightly till they gain the desired altitude.

Then, of course, there is the tricky final glide where pilots may slowly start to descend as far as 50 miles from the home field so they can land at a designated spot.

At the end of the day the fastest pilot scores the most points and all scores are tallied after days of competing to determine the champion.

Regional competitions usually last 5 to 7 days and involved 25-50 gliders spread across several competition classes. National Championships go for about 10 days and may have 50-60 pilots taking part.

Competitive Gliding: Classes of Competition

There are several classes of competition.

* In Open, anything goes and you might see gliders making an appearance with a wingspan of 90 feet.

* In 18-Meter only planes with 18 meter wingspans can enter.

* There are two classes for planes with 15 meter wingspans. The 15-meter and Standard Class. The former sailplanes use flaps and interconnecting control surfaces, water ballast, retractable landing gear and other things to increase performance. The latter class have no interconnecting control surfaces or flaps.

* World Class restricts all planes to one design.

* Sports Class uses handicapping to promote fair competition among sailplanes that are older and don’t perform as well.

* Junior is for pilots under the age of 26.

* Feminine class is open to all female pilots.

Pilots & Clubs

Currently there are about 150,000 sailplane pilots around the world. In America alone there are about 180 active clubs and 38,000 licensed glider pilots.

Costs

At the Southern California Soaring Academy , a qualified pilot will take you for a 30 minute joy ride for  $149. An introductory lesson will set you back $199. For that you get instruction on aerodynamics, the rules of gliding and hands on control of a glider. If you get serious about being a qualified pilot it will probably cost you around $4500 to get your license.

Below are some links to sites you may like to visit.

Soaring Society of America

Soaring Association of Canada

British Gliding Association

Gliding Federation of Australia

Gliding New Zealand

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