Your connection with the sky

Introduction to soaring – what are the possibilities?

, February 20th, 2009

As flying becomes more expensive, aviation enthusiasts are taking a long look at a form of recreational flying that uses the absolute minimum of fuel and has a tiny environmental footprint.

This Blog is about Soaring. That's the "Art, Science and Sport" of flying powerless sailplanes to great heights and long distances at astonishing speed.

It's a "Sport" since we do it for fun. It's a "Science" since, like any pilot, you need to know some things about aerodynamics and meteorology. It's also an "Art" because Mother Nature keeps reminding us how little we really know.

Soaring goes back more than a hundred years - right back to the dawn of flight.

"When gliding operators have attained greater skill, they can maintain themselves in the air for hours at a time."— Wilbur Wright, 1901

"There is no sport equal to that which aviators enjoy while being carried through the air on great white wings." — Wilbur Wright, 1905

Wilbur was more than a little prophetic. In 2008, approximately 20,000 US glider pilots flew their "Great White Wings" over 60,000 hours including 1.8 million miles flown cross country. That's a lot of flying without consuming Jet A or AVGAS.

We know this is so because they submitted secure GPS logs to the Online Contest. See: > "Sailplane Racing" > "Online contest" scroll down and click "here" for a list of today's flights. To see a map of a flight, click on the blue dot on the right.

I'm guessing a few of you readers are wondering how can a glider without an engine can fly cross country?

Current high performance gliders have a glide ratio of around 50:1 as compared to the typical light airplane's 7:1 glide. That means from 1 mile AGL a sailplane can silently glide nearly 50 miles - much further if the pilot can find "lift".

When flown slowly at an airspeed corresponding to the least rate of descent, these gliders will sink at less than 100 FPM. Gliding cross country there is no sensation the glider is descending.

For example, on March 27th of 2008, Jim Payne flew his German made ASW-27 1,027 miles non-stop at an average 107 MPH from Rosamond Airpark, CA to near Truckee, CA and back landing on the departure runway after a flight of over 11 hours. There were 22 other US glider flights in 2008 that exceeded 600 miles.

You might ask, "1000 miles at over 100MPH with no engine, how exactly was that done?"

Sailplanes aren't totally powerless. They have a pilot who (hopefully) knows a little about soaring weather and, in the case of soaring, that knowledge is literally power.

Soaring weather is all about finding "lift", or rising air, which can lift a glider to great heights restoring the altitude lost in long glides. It's a process of climbing and gliding again and again as you move cross country.

Jim Payne flew over California's Sierra Nevada mountain range where lift is both extremely strong and widespread. On occasion, Jim covered over 100 miles on a single glide.

In strong conditions like these the probability of finding the next source of lift after a long glide exceeds 100%. Most pilots are choosy and will pass up all but the strongest updrafts.

What about this "lift". How does it work?

If a glider sinks at 100 FPM but the air around it is rising at 1000 FPM, the glider will climb at 900 FPM as long as it stays in the rising air. The trick is to stay in "lift" and out of "sink".

I'll write more about the kinds of lift and how you find it (an how to avoid "sink") in the next installment.

Meanwhile, take a look at and click "About soaring" then "Where to Fly".