Gliding as a Sport

Gliding may not be as overhyped as any other extreme sport, but it is an equally exhilarating form of competition. Aside from it being an air sport, gliding is also a unique recreational activity for some people who wanted to experience riding the winds. People can do so much while sailing mid-air, performing tricks and aerobatics as if they’re air benders.

Interestingly, gliding (or, for some people, soaring) does not use any form of artificial power to allow you to climb and zoom, which means that it does not depend on any engine. Pilots use unpowered aircraft called gliders or sailplanes to navigate high-altitude spaces. Using these engineless aircraft, gliding enthusiasts learn to harness the natural forces (such as gravity) and began to move as freely as the wind.

Gliding Mechanics

Gliders stay in in-flight and maneuver their sailplane by understanding and harnessing the dynamics of the forces involved in flight. For example, the pilots can gain potential energy from flying through the wind ascending as fast as (or even faster) than the descending glider’s speed. Several forces also help the aircraft climb. They are

  1. Thermals– these are updrafts of warm air.
  2. Ridge Lift– it is a phenomenon where the wind blows against the face of a hill, forcing it to rise.
  3. Wave Lift– these are standing waves in the atmosphere.

These three forces allow the aircraft to propel itself in flight, maintain, and even achieve higher altitudes. The region’s terrain, weather, and climate ultimately determine how high a glider can go, as these influence the abovementioned forces.

a glider-sail plane hovering over a meadow

Glider Launching Methods

People employ methods to allow the aircraft to take off due to the lack of engines to power the gliders or sailplanes. Launching is the first step in allowing the aircraft to fly, so it must be seamless. Pilots should carefully practice gliding using the same launching method, as each technique can be different from the other.

  1. Aerotowing– in this method, a powered aircraft carries the glider using a tow rope. When the tow plane achieves the ideal height, the glider may release the attached tow rope on his end and begin gliding.
  2. Winch Launching– this method requires a stationary ground-based winch mounted on a heavy vehicle.
  3. Auto-tow – using this method, a hard surface, and a powerful vehicle is attached to the glider with a long steel cable. When the car accelerates, it forces the glider to rise rapidly to the point where the glider may disconnect the cable.
  4. Bungee Launch– this launching method requires a substantial multi-stranded rubber band or ‘bungee’ to assist the glider launching atop a slightly sloping hill into a strong breeze of rising air.
  5. Gravity Launch– this method only requires gravity, in which the glider pushes down a slope and waits for the gravity to give it enough speed to take off.

Gliding: Where It All Began

The air sport can credit its origins to the genius of the German Otto Lilienthal (1848–1896), who was the first person to achieve predictable and controlled flight using gliders. Further developments on the sport involve the British pilot Percy Pilcher (1866–1899) and the Americans Octave Chanute and the Wright brothers. 

After World War I, the Germans developed the sailplanes (the engineless aircraft used in the sport) as a loophole to the Treaty of Versailles that prevented them from developing powered airplanes. They were also the first to utilize gliders and turn them into a sport in 1910. By 1922, the sport reached an international audience, and competitions began in the same year. The sport became prominent in Europe and the United States during the 1930s, not more than a decade.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) became the sport’s governing body since 1937. Several nations such as the US, Britain, and Germany soon utilized gliders at the onset of World War II. By the end of World War II, sports began to soar again, extending their popularity throughout the continents.

Winch-launch of glider ASK 13

Gliding in the Olympics

With its continued rise to popularity in the 1930s, gliding made its way to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. As a demonstration sport, it carved its path as a full Olympic Sport for the 1940 Games. However, the ensuing second world war halted this momentum and suspended most of the gliding sports events in Europe. 

Unfortunately, when the war ended, gliding failed to return to the Olympics. There were two significant reasons. The first is due to a shortage of sailplanes. The other one is due to the disagreement on a single glider model to use in the competition. Despite the FAI’s constant pitching to reintroduce air sports to the Olympics, it failed to convince the big bosses because the sport lack enough public interest. 

But, this exclusion did not hinder several trained pilots and aeronautics engineers from discontinuing their passion for soaring. They formed clubs and organizations like the Soaring Society of America to manufacture and maintain gliders.

Gliding Competitions Outside Olympics

Outside Olympics, gliding competitions become an arena for gliding enthusiasts to show their aerobatics and flight maneuvering skills. The earliest form of gliding competition involves staying airborne for as long as possible. It led pilots to spend days to finish and win the contest. By 1939, enthusiasts abandoned form after pilots got themselves killed for falling asleep during said long flights. 

Several forms of gliding competition emerged over the years, opening venues for both sexes to showcase their gliding prowess. The World Gliding Championship (WGC) and the European Gliding Championships were the most prominent examples of such competition. These competitions were to test pilots’ ability to harness the dynamics of forces at play and use it to their advantage.

The FAI Gliding Commission holds the WGC every two years. Since air sport is not included in the Olympics, the WGC became the highest level in the air sport. The dates of the events were not necessarily the same because competitions are sometimes held in the summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Currently, the competition involves seven glider classes as recognized by the governing body, FAI. They are

  1. Open Class
  2. Standard Class
  3. 15 meter Class
  4. 18 meter Class
  5. 20-meter Two-Seater Class
  6. Club Class
  7. 13.5 meter

The FAI determined these gliding competition classes to ensure the fairness of the completion. Other gliding competitions include World Grand Prix Gliding Championships, Women’s World Gliding Championships, Junior World Gliding Championships, and the FAI World Glider Aerobatic Championships.