First Day at the Airfield

What is Gliding?

Gliding is the hobby and sport of flying unpowered aircraft. Gliding as a sport is almost as old as manned flight. Today glider pilots regularly fly hundreds of kilometers on a single day by exploting upwards moving air called thermals.

The Glider - From The Outside






Before you get in the glider for the first time, take a look around it. You'll probably have noticed the wings and the tailplane (the horizontal and vertical wings at the back of the fuselage). Built into these are movable surfaces that allow the plane to be controlled in the air.

The ailerons in each wing move up and down opposite to one another, deflecting air upwards on one side and down on the other to make the plane bank to one side.


The rudder in the vertical section of the tail moves from side to side to swing the back of the plane with respect to the diretion of travel. Used in combination, these two allow the plane to turn.

The elevators in the horizontal section of the tailplane move together on either side and push the tail up or down, changing the attitude of the aircraft. Pushing the nose down will allow the plane to run 'downhill', increasing in speed and descending quickly. Pulling up has the opposite effect and the plane will climb and lose airspeed.

You should also be able to see rectangular sections in the top of the wings that can rise up to cause extra drag and reduce the lift produced by the wings. When coming in to land, the pilot uses these airbrakes to control the aircraft's rate of descent and allow accurate positioning of the landing. In addition, a wheel brake helps the plane come to a stop once on the ground.

Either on the tip of the nose, or somewhere a little below, is the latch mechanism that attaches the cable for launching by tug plane. A similar latch below the plane (usually marked by an arrow on the side of the fuselage) is the attachment point for winch launches.

The Plane - From The Inside

It will come as no surprise that all the control surfaces are connected back to the cockpit so that the pilot can control the plane in flight. The controls are duplicated in the two seats of a two-seat glider.

The control column, or joystick, that sits between your legs controls the elevators (pushing forwards pushes the nose down and pulling back pulls the nose up) and the ailerons (push left to bank left and push right to bank right), while foot pedals control the rudder (left foot forward to turn left, and vice-versa). Levers on the left control the airbrakes and trim, which allows the neutral position of the stick to be adjusted so the plane will fly with the desired attitude and speed without input from the pilot.

The other prominent feature of the inside of the plane is the instrument panel. The A.S.I. or air speed indicator does exactly that, measuring the speed of the aircraft with respect to the air through which it is passing, and the altimeter measures the plane's height above the ground (well, it does if you zero it before taking off). The variometer, or vario, measures the rate of climb of the plane, when soaring for instance. In addition, there is a compass to indicate your heading and other instruments may be fitted depending on the plane. Attached to the outside of the canopy is a small piece of string, which indicates the direction of airflow over the canopy, and hence the angle that the plane is flying into the air - not always what you'd think from looking at the ground.

Safety is the watchword in all things gliding, and although at first the instructor will handle all the necessary checks, as you progress you'll become more responsible for the safety of the flight. If you look around the cockpit, you'll probably see a label with the mnemonic 'CB SIFT CBE' - not very catchy, but ensures all the necessary points are covered before taking off.

Getting Airborne

As you've probably worked out by now, a glider is an aeroplane that doesn't have an engine. Some early glider pilots used to launch by simply pushing the plane down a hill, and although this works fine if you have a convenient hill, the best way to get a glider off the ground is to borrow an engine from somewhere.

The glamourous way to get airborne is to have a tug plane tow the glider into the air. This has the advantage that you can go as high as you like and as far from the airfield as you need if you're trying to get into lift, but it's very expensive so students tend to opt for the cheap-and-easy winch launching method.

Winch launching is like flying a kite on a still day by running ahead of it with the strings. A long cable is attached to the glider at one end and a winch at the other. The forward pull of the cable gives the glider the speed to get airborne, and the lift from the wings balances the cable's downward pull so the plane climbs. Launches to over 2000' are not uncommon, and all with the engine left safely on the ground!

Once the cable is securely attached, and with someone outside holding the wings level, a radio is used to communicate with the winch driver that the plane is ready to launch. Calling "take up slack" repeatedly down the radio tells the winch driver to reel the cable in slowly until it goes tight, when the call changes to "all out" and the cable and glider accelerate down the field.


Once the plane has sufficient speed, it rises off the ground naturally and rotates into a climb. The pilot then holds the plane in the climb by pulling back on the stick against the downward pull of the cable until the top of the launch, where the cable will either release automatically if the cable pulls backwards on the fixing (a back-release), or will be released manually by the pilot. Then you're flying...

In The Air

Take a look around. The view can be pretty spectacular, but it's important as well to be aware of any other planes in the vicinity. East Anglia is a pretty popular place for airfields, so there are likely to be light aircraft and maybe the odd military plane lurking around, as well as any other gliders that are in the air. Try to note any landmarks so you can keep your bearings and know your way back to the airfield!

Even on your first flight, your instructor will probably let you take control of the plane. It takes a while to get a feeling for how the plane responds to input from the controls, but pretty soon you'll start to get the hang of it.

A winch-launched flight, when conditions aren't soarable, will allow time for a few turns before settling into a landing circuit. The runway will always be set up to launch and land into the wind (this gives more height on the launches and minimises the plane's ground speed when touching down), so initially the pilot will fly the plane downwind, roughly parallel to the runway and off to one side. Once the plane is the correct distance downwind of the runway, the plane turns in to fly across the line of the runway, before a final turn to come into the wind directly in line with the runway. An ideal approach is one that would initially overrun the landing point, and the pilot uses the airbrakes to then control the rate of descent to touch down in the right spot, flaring (lifting the nose) just before landing in order to bleed off airspeed and come in nice and gently.

However, if you do find some lift then the fun really starts. The vario will tell you if you're climbing or sinking, but it's easy to feel the force of rising air under the wings. Thermal lift is caused by the sun's heat on the ground producing rising columns of air, so in order to stay in these columns it's necessary to turn continually and spiral upwards, much like birds of prey. There are other ways of getting lift, such as where wind is deflected over hills and it's possible to ride an upward breeze over the ridge, and the club makes trips away to locations better suited to this sort of flying. On a good enough day, it's possible to fly long distances by continually regaining lost height, and there are awards for various milestones of distance and height. Then there are things like navigation, but I think I'll save that for the instructors to tell you about...


On The Ground

You should treat the airfield as a potentially dangerous place. With high speed winch cables and powered tug planes as well as the gliders themselves, it's important to keep a good lookout and do as you are instructed by those in charge. Given the choice, it's best to walk or drive behind a stationary glider - it's less likely to move that way! Check around the sky for any planes coming in to land before crossing a runway, and always make sure it's safe before handling cables.

If you're maneuvering a glider, one person should always have responsibiliy for holding the wing level and when moving in tight spaces it's best to have a lookout on either wing to avoid bumps and scrapes. In high winds tyres are used to hold the wings down and planes are positioned such that they are least likely to take off unexpectedly.

Lastly, always be ready to help out at the launch point. Gransden Lodge runs with the help of a lot of volunteers so it's important to get involved, plus the more efficiently the launch point is run the more flying you'll get in.