General Soaring Questions
Questions About Sandhill
Questions About Glider Rides
Some Soaring Facts and Misconceptions
Note: These answers are offered free of charge, you get what you paid for...and hopefully Wikipedia does not use us as a reference.
Ok, which is it: "gliding" or "soaring"? And what IS soaring?
The preferred term is "soaring," since this is what all sailplane pilots seek to do. Technically, soaring is the act of maintaining or gaining altitude in unpowered flight (aided by rising currents of air). It's interesting to note that gliding is always occurring even while soaring the pilot is going up in air rising faster than the plane is gliding down.
For the aircraft themselves, the situation is somewhat reversed. The common term is "glider" (even for sailplanes, which are considered the higher-performance end of the spectrum).
How does a glider fly?
Paradoxically, by using gravity.
From an aerodynamic standpoint a glider flies exactly the same way all heavier-than-air aircraft do. The wings of a glider turn (deflect) the air through which they're moving, producing the reactive force of lift which supports the glider. (Huh? It's not like that, you say? Actually it is…and many popular theories about lift are incorrect. But the devil is in the details, and exactly how turning occurs is a contentious subject even today.)
The paradox is that the glider needs to keep moving to produce lift, and this movement is provided by gravity. In effect the glider is continually "falling" forward; this falling creates airflow over the wings which produce lift, and the glider stays airborne. It's an irony of soaring that the same force pulling the glider down is also responsible for keeping it aloft.
So how does a glider stay up without an engine?
By using rising currents of air in the atmosphere, called lift (not to be confused with the lift produced by a glider's wings). These invisible currents are typically generated by three mechanisms:
Thermal lift ~ Solar heating of the ground warms the air above it, which then rises in bubbles or columns called thermals. The tops of thermals are often marked by puffy cumulus clouds, a reliable sign to the glider pilot that lift is active.
Ridge lift ~ Wind blowing perpendicular to a slope is deflected upward, which the glider can use to stay aloft. Flights of hundreds of miles along the Appalachians are made in this manner.
Wave lift ~ Wind blowing over mountains sometimes results in "ripples" in the atmosphere, as the wind compresses and rebounds after passing over them. These ripples, or waves, can extend high into the atmosphere. Flights over 20,000 feet in wave lift are not uncommon.
Thermals are the most ubiquitous type of lift, and make soaring possible almost anywhere in the world. This is the type of soaring done in Michigan.
How does a glider get up in the air in the first place?
The same way every other airplane does — it flies off the ground! The difference, of course, is how this is achieved:
Aero tow ~ The glider is towed into the air behind another airplane. This is the most common method of launch (in the USA), and is the type used most often at Sandhill. (Aero tow is also formation flying, giving "bragging rights" to the sailplane pilot so inclined.)
Winch launch ~ The glider is rapidly pulled into the air on a long cable by a winch. Not as common as aero tow in the US, but widely used in other countries due to lower costs.
Self-launch ~ For sailplanes with an auxiliary engine (a.k.a. motorgliders) it doesn't get any easier. This class of soaring aircraft is becoming increasingly popular for just this reason.
There are other methods for getting a glider airborne (towing behind a vehicle, for example, once a standard method of training pilots), but these are rarely seen today.
What kinds of gliders are there?
About as many varieties as there are people who design them. A glider is technically defined as an aircraft that does not depend principally on an engine; in practice, a glider is also defined by its high glide ratio (the ability to travel forward a relatively long distance for an amount of altitude lost). Within that framework categorization depends on the features of interest, but for someone new to the sport, some useful definitions might be:
Recreational/training gliders ~ The ability to fly predictably and at slower speeds make these excellent for recreational soaring. May have one or two seats and be constructed from a variety of materials.
Sailplanes ~ The "high performance" class of glider. Typically single-seat and manufactured from composite materials. Wings are long, thin and use an advanced airfoil design.
Open Class ~ Actually a class defined for competition by the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale), this can be read as "anything goes." The most advanced sailplanes fall in this category, with glide ratios approaching 60:1, and are not likely to be seen at your local airport. (The eta is a prime example.)
Motorgliders ~ The exception to the rule. As the name suggests, these gliders carry a small engine which can be used for takeoff (a.k.a. self-launch) or prolonging flight in minimal lift.
Where is the best place to fly?
It depends. Are you interested in thermal soaring? Then head to the southwest, where sunny days and warm temperatures create thermals that can top out at 15,000 feet. Has ridge soaring captured your interest? Pennsylvania and the Appalachians are a mecca for the modern breed of "ridge runner." Or perhaps wave soaring, with visions of jetliners passing far below? The mountain states are your goal, with future visits to New Zealand and South America.
For the rest us with job and family responsibilities, however, the best place to fly is "at home." Soaring is done in all 50 states; most individuals can find a club or organization to join within an easy drive. And don't think you're missing out by staying in your backyard — the challenges to be found 20 miles from home can be greater than those 2,000 miles away! (And we'd be remiss if we didn't suggest Sandhill as the best place to fly, either.)
Is soaring only done in the summer?
No, it's a year-round activity. For some types of soaring (wave in particular), conditions actually improve in the winter. That being said, you're far more likely to see activity during the summer in the northern half of the country. Thermals are much stronger due to longer days and higher sun angles, and good flying weather is much more frequent. (Pilots also appreciate the ability to wear Panamas instead of parkas.)
Can a sailplane do aerobatics?
With proper training and using a glider certified for this type of flying (and further not confusing can with should), yes, aerobatics are entirely possible in a sailplane. Many commercial operations offer this type of instruction.
As an interesting footnote: gliders are typically stronger than other types of aircraft. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) recognizes three ascending strength categories for aircraft of "Normal," "Utility" and "Aerobatic." All gliders are at least Utility — without an engine and related components, it's easier to create a stronger airframe.
What happens if you can't make it back to the airport?
The old saw of "what goes up must come down" applies equally well to gliders. Eventually the flight must end…sometimes when you don't want it to! While not a problem for students and sightseeing rides that stay close to the airport, every experienced sailplane pilot has "landed out" at some point.
Luckily, gliders are designed with just this event in mind. Light, strong and able to fly slowly, almost any open field will serve as a landing strip when the lift just up and quits. Wings are designed to be removed with just a few bolts and pins, and the glider can be carried home on a trailer behind even a small car. The biggest problem for the pilot is usually how to fill his time waiting for the retrieval crew.
Is soaring safe?
Nothing in life is 100% risk-free, and neither is soaring. Accidents can and do occur, though thankfully on an infrequent basis. Soaring in general compares well against other aviation activities (light aircraft and hang gliding).
The soaring pilot is often in a better position when problems do occur, because of the light weight and slow flying capabilities of the aircraft. Accidents that could severely damage the sailplane often result in the pilot walking away unharmed. Additionally, glider pilots are highly trained in energy management and situational awareness, factors that translate very well into making them safer powered aircraft pilots as well.
With that in mind, even one accident is one too many. Many organizations continue to work with the soaring community to make an already safe sport even safer.
This must be an expensive sport.
No more than a dedicated game of golf, actually, if you join a club. Soaring by itself is the least-expensive of the many types of general aviation; joining a club further spreads costs among members and can be very economical indeed. In addition, many clubs charge little or no fees for use of equipment and instruction (Sandhill included).
Once you strike out on your own things begin to change, though soaring is still well within the reach of most. Older model gliders can be purchased for less than $10,000, and insurance, maintenance, and storage costs are much lower than for a comparable powered aircraft. (Got a few more dollars to spend, you say? Then grab a Stemme S-10 — the world's most expensive motorized sailplane at a mere $340,000.)
Who can be a pilot?
Just about anyone! The requirements to operate a glider are less than that for powered aircraft, and the FAA allows individuals as young as 14 soaring! to fly as solo students. Additionally, medical certification is not needed to become a glider pilot. It's safe to say if you can drive a car, you can probably fly a glider.
With that in mind, no, you can't take your first ride on Saturday and walk off with your license on Sunday. Proper instruction is required, as is passing a written FAA exam and demonstration of piloting skills to an FAA examiner. A certain amount of solo time is also required before a pilot certificate is received. Most people find they can easily get to the solo stage of training in a summer of weekend flying, while dedicated individuals can go from novice to licensed pilot in the same season.
Who can join the Sandhill Soaring Club?
Anyone with an interest in soaring! Part of our charter is to "spread the word" about the sport, and Sandhill welcomes new members with no flying experience but a desire to learn. Current pilots are further encouraged to join, to share their excitement of aviation and perhaps introduce themselves to a new realm of flight.
Do you provide instruction to new members?
We do. Sandhill's CFIGs (Certified Flight Instructor Glider) work tirelessly to train the best soaring pilots in Michigan. (Editor's note: yes, a CFIG wrote this.)
Is the training I receive through Sandhill enough to get my pilot's license?
It is, combined with a little "ground school" of your own. Sandhill instructors will teach and monitor airmanship skills, recommend study material, and assist in preparation for FAA evaluations. The rest, as they say, will be up to you.
Are there any age restrictions to membership?
None for membership, but flight activities are those as mandated for gliders by the FAA. Individuals must be at least 14 years of age to fly solo, and must be 16 to receive a Private Pilot Glider license. Sandhill has members of all ages, with some continuing to fly into their 80s.
Can my family participate too?
Of course! Soaring makes a great family activity, and there's always a little something for everyone to do at the airport. The benefits of family participation are many…younger members learn a sense of responsibility and independence, while parents can take pride in their children's achievements (as well as their own). And there's nothing quite like the thrill of making that first solo to the cheers of the family "ground crew."
Sandhill offers a Family Membership option designed to allow participation by all.
I'd like to try soaring, but I'm not sure if it's right for me.
Sometimes you just don't know until you go. Sandhill offers Guest Rides, so that you can try out the ride of your life. We also offer several basic membership packages tailored for students, individuals, and families — there's sure to be one right for you.
How much does it cost?
Costs are dependent on the type of membership and the amount of flying done during the year. New members will pay an initiation fee; all members pay low monthly dues as well as costs for flight activities. Membership in the Soaring Society of America is also required, which is handled through the club.
As the differing scenarios are too varied to present examples here, please see our Schedule of Dues & Fees for a complete list of expenses for membership and flight activities.
Do you charge fees for member use of gliders?
Gliders are provided to members at a low hourly rate. Rental costs are as little as $20 per hour for our basic sailplanes.
Where are you located and when can I visit?
Sandhill is based at Richmond Field in Gregory, Michigan. Visitors are welcome on days the club is flying, but we ask those wishing to discuss the club contact us first to ensure a member will be available to answer questions, or to take you on your first flight.
Who do I contact for more information?
When are rides given?
Glider rides are available during Sandhill's flying season, which runs from April to October (or longer, weather permitting). Rides are given by our FAA certified volunteer pilots and are scheduled one a fist-come-first-served basis. Rides normally start around 1pm. We recommend you arrive around noon, to get your name on the sign-up sheet.
How long does a ride last?
Typically 20 – 25 minutes for a release at 3,000 feet. The Mile-High flight lasts 40-45 minutes. On a good soaring day…perhaps much longer!
What's it like?
An experience not soon forgotten. It starts with the excitement of takeoff — hovering just feet off the ground while the towplane gains enough speed for you both to climb. Then the ascent, flying in perfect and precise formation. Finally the release, and you and your pilot are left with the whisper of air over the wings and a view of the countryside as only the birds see it.
Be sure to bring your camera!
Can I fly the glider?
We hope you try; nothing adds to the thrill of a first glider flight more than a little "stick time" of your own. Every pilot will be happy to demonstrate basic glider maneuvers, and with a little luck, it may be you rising with the thermals!
How much does a ride cost?
Rides to 3000 ft are $80 for our basic fleet and $110 for our high-performance gliders. We also offer a "Mile-High" flight in the high-performance glider for $160. We accept Cash or Check. We might be be able to accept credit cards, but contact us first.
Can I give a ride as a gift?
Sure can. An introductory ride makes a great gift for the aviation enthusiast, as well as a little "something different" for anyone. Gift certificates can be purchased directly from the club. Please contact us to purchase gift certificates.
Are there any limitations?
As with all light aircraft, there are limitations on the minimum and maximum passenger weight the glider can safely carry. If you weigh more than 200 lb, then call ahead first. The smaller cockpit may also create difficulty for some individuals. In practice this is rarely a problem, and we'll be happy to discuss any concerns you may have.
Everything you've ever wanted to know about the wind.
Well, perhaps not everything, but the relationship of wind to soaring is the most misunderstood aspect of the sport. Every pilot is guaranteed to get a question about the wind at least once – usually after telling friends about his or her new hobby. Below is a compendium of answers to the most common (and not-so-common) questions asked.
No…the wind does not need to be blowing for the glider to take off.
No…the glider will not fall if the wind stops.
No…the glider does not need wind to stay aloft, but
Yes…wind is necessary if the pilot intends to do ridge or wave soaring.
No…the glider does not go where the wind carries it, like a balloon (a glider can move independently of wind, as can all aircraft).
Yes…wind can turn a good soaring day into a great one. Thermals are sometimes aligned by wind into "streets," making soaring almost effortless.
Yes…all pilots need to be acutely aware of the wind at all times. It's one of the most critical variables in flying.
Gliders are just another kind of ultralight, right?
Not even close. Ultralights (and their cousins the hang-glider and paraglider) are smaller, lightweight, typically open-structured aircraft designed for easy portability and storage. Gliders are a category of airplane certified by the FAA, and have features more commonly associated with aircraft (enclosed cockpits and the use of control surfaces on wings and tail). The aeronautical performance of gliders well exceeds that of even the best ultralight.
Now there are some "ultralight" sailplanes...but we don't want to confuse you.
You've given three methods that typically keep a glider in the air. Are there others?
Yes, but not for the faint of heart or thin of wallet. Some other aspects of soaring for which "experimental" is an understatement include:
Dynamic soaring ~ Taking advantage of wind shear (a sudden change in wind speed over a short distance), pilots can "steal" enough energy to stay aloft. Requires optimum conditions and maneuvers of the type guaranteed to test the integrity of the aircraft. A little-known and very rare form of soaring indeed.
Ride the Polar Vortex ~ For the ultimate thrill, readers are advised to contact the Perlan Project and hitch a ride. This group, originally led by the late Steve Fossett, is attempting to use a global phenomenon known as the Polar Vortex to fly a glider to 100,000(!) feet. This is well above the operational limits of even the famed U2 and SR-71, and, if successful, would qualify the humble glider as the highest continuous flying aircraft in the world.
What is the highest/furthest/fastest anyone has ever gone in a glider?
Much more than you may think. For those who still don't believe soaring is real flying, consider the following world records.
(Editor's note: many have questioned the validity of the duration flight below. Proof is now included.)
Highest altitude (Absolute): 74,334 feet (Commercial jets typically fly around 35,000 ft.)
Furthest distance (3 turn points): 1,642 miles
Fastest speed (fixed course): 154.8 mph
Longest duration: 56 hours 15 minutes (Yes, without landing. And not a rest stop in sight, either.)
Admittedly, most pilots are content with figures a bit lower than these.
C'mon, how can "rising currents of air" keep a heavy glider in the sky?
Exactly the same way rising currents keep a 500 ton cloud in the sky. (Yup. A good-sized cloud created by a strong thermal weighs about this much.) The mechanism keeping both aloft is exactly the same: the cloud is in air rising faster than its water droplets are falling, while the sailplane pilot stays in air rising faster than the glider is descending.
Can the secret to soaring really be found in the lava lamp?
One member of Sandhill has formulated the "lava lamp theory": the belief that the formation and structure of thermals can be deduced by watching a lava lamp. While resulting in many ’60s flashbacks, putting this theory into practice has proved difficult (extension cords of sufficient length being hard to find). We'll keep the soaring community apprised of any progress in this area.
What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? African or European?
The answer to this question that has vexed mankind for centuries: 24 miles per hour for the European variety, as related in this article. This is significantly slower than the airspeed velocity of an unladen glider, which is left as an inducement for prospective Sandhill members to discover firsthand.
“Fly and you will catch the swallow.” ~ James Howell, Proverbs, 1659