Gliding is the art of using air currents to fly un-powered aircraft. Technically, gliding involves the gradual loss of altitude; gliders designed for soaring flight (utilizing air rising up a cliff face or hill, warm air rising as a thermal above sun-heated ground, and so on) are known as sailplanes.



There are three main methods of gaining height after launch; air currents, thermals, and thunderstorms. Air currents follow the contours of the land below them, and though in relation to the air itself the sailplane is losing height, the wind blowing up the side of a hill may enable it to gain more height than it is losing. By circling in a thermal, the glider can soar upwards for many hundreds of metres. By using the ascending currents in or near thunderstorms even greater heights can be attained.

Long cross-country flights

These are usually accomplished by the use of thermals. The glider first gains height in a thermal, then glides, gradually losing height, to the next thermal, where the process is repeated. By this method, which requires great skill and judgement of weather conditions, sailplanes may fly several hundred kilometres.




East Sussex Gliding Club launch aircraft




A sailplane must be given an intitial impetus by an external force in order for it to reach a speed sufficient to keep it in the air. Launching may be by rubber catapult from a hilltop (in the UK, the only remaining site for catapult launches is Long Mynd in Shropshire), by aircraft tow (the towing cable is released by the glider pilot when sufficient height has been gained), or by winch launching where the glider is attached to a winch with a reel of wire (when the wire is retracted the glider is launched like a kite). Once in the air, speed is maintained by depressing the nose and thus losing height in relation to the surrounding air.




Gliding played an important part in the development of flight. Pioneers include George Cayley, Otto Lilienthal, Octave Chanute (1832–1910), and the Wright brothers, the last-named perfecting gliding technique in 1902.  Modern aviation is a tribute to humanities ability to dream. Early pioneers first dreamed of flight and then put intelligence and perseverance to work to see these dreams become reality. The jets we take for granted today use technology that dates back to the beginnings of aviation history when these daring inventors made the first glides down hills in wood and fabric covered craft of every description.


Gliding Started It All


The sleek high performance sailplanes of today have a heritage that dates back to man’s first

attempts at flight. History tends to move from the simple to the complex and aviation follows this

premise elegantly. With no understanding of aerodynamics, few adequate materials and no

available engines avations enthusiasts had to be content with using crude gliders that used the force of gravity and a slope to become airborne. These flights were short and often ended in a less than elegant arrival but it was flying none the less.  



East Sussex Gliding Club launch winch



Development of Motorless Flight


At first all flight was gliding flight as the internal combustion engine had not been invented when

visionaries the likes of Leonardo da Vinci drew his first impressions of what a flying machine

might have looked like in 1490. The dream of human flight continued to capture the imagination of many but it was not until 1799 when Sir George Cayley, a baronet in Yorkshire England, conceived a craft with stationary wings to provide lift and "flappers" to provide thrust. It also has a

movable tail to provide control.


Through the 1800’s several aviation pioneers emerged in different countries around the world all

perusing glider designs with varying degrees of success. Chief among these were Otto Lilienthal in Berlin, Germany, Lawrence Hargrave in Sydney, Australia, Percy Pilcher in the United Kingdom, John J. Montgomery at Wheeler Hill near San Diego, Octave Chanute and his team in Gary, Indiana in the USA., just to name a few.


By the early 1900’s the famed Wright Brothers were experimenting with gliders and gliding flight

in the hills of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wrights developed a series of gliders while

experimenting with aerodynamics which was crucial to developing a workable control system.

Many historians and most importantly the Wrights themselves pointed out that their game plan was to learn flight control and become pilots specifically by soaring whereas all the other experimenters rushed to add power without refining flight control. By 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright had achieved powered flight of just over a minute by putting an engine on their best glider design.


At this point the development of aviation had been all about developing more and more advanced

gliders and perfecting the ability to control them in flight. Now aviation branched off with powered flight becoming increasingly dominant from the successful 1903 first sustained, controlled, powered flight of the Wright Brothers.


By 1906 the sport of gliding was progressing rapidly. An American glider meet was sponsored by

the Aero Club of America on Long Island, NY. By 1911 Orville Wright had set a world duration

record of flying his motorless craft for 9:45 minutes.  




East Sussex Gliding Club launch winch controls



By 1920 the sport of soaring was coming into its own. Glider design was spurred on by developments in Germany were the World War I treaty of Versailles banned flying power aircraft.

New forms of lift were discovered that made it possible to gain altitude and travel distances using

these previously unknown atmospheric resources. In 1921 Dr. Wolfgang Klemperer broke the

Wright Brothers 1911 soaring duration record with a flight of 13 minutes using ridge lift. In 1928

Austrian Robert Kronfeld proved that thermal lift could be used by a sailplane to gain altitude by

making a short out and return flight. In 1929 the National Glider Association was founded in

Detroit, Michigan and by 1930 the first USA National Glider Contest was held in Elmira, New

York. In 1937 the first World Championships were held at the Wasserkuppe in Germany.


By the 1950 soaring was developing rapidly with the first American, Dr. Paul MacCready, Jr.

taking part in a World Soaring Championships held in Sweden. Subsequently Dr. MacCready went on to become the first American to win a World Soaring Championships in 1956 in France.

The period of the 1960’s and 80’s found soaring growing rapidly with the Soaring Society of

America growing from 1,000 members to over 16,000. During this period there was a revival in

hang gliders and ultralight aircraft as new materials and a better understanding of low speed

aerodynamics made new designs possible.


Several U.S. Soaring pilots captured the title of World Soaring Champion including Doug Jacobs

in 1985. As the sport enters 2000 there is a growing sophistication of instrumentation with global

positioning technology, electronic glide computers and new composite materials combined highly

refined aerodynamics creating high performance sailplanes. New pilot techniques, refined

sailplanes and better training have made the sport of soaring a compelling and safe endeavor.


The Development of Soaring Flight


The discovery of the three main sources of lift freed gliders to become soaring machines and the sport of soaring was off and running. Ridge lift occurs when the wind is deflected upwards along the face of a windward slope. Sailplanes use the upward movement of the air by flying close to the slope and can stay aloft for hours and travel hundreds of miles utilizing slope lift. Ridge lift was the first to be discovered in the 1890 but perfected between 1920 and 1928. At that time, this meteorological phenomenon was discussed extensively by engineers and scientists.  



East Sussex Gliding Club launch winch controls


It is believed that Chanute’s team was the first to utilize the updrafts from the wind, coming from Lake Michigan along the sand dunes along the southern lake shore. Thermals are raising columns of warm air that allow sailplanes to gain altitude by turning in tight circles to keep the sailplane inside the columnof raising air. Thermals are the most common form of lift. Thermal lift was first used by Robert Kronfeld in the late 1920s in Germany, followed closely by Wolf Hirth a few months later.


Thermal soaring became widely known between of 1928 to 1935. Thermals are frequently toped by cumulus clouds although they can occur when the sky is completely blue. The first “blue” thermal was flown by Wolf Hirth during the first US National Glider Meet, flying from Elmira to Appalachian, NY.


Wave lift occurs when winds blow over a mountain range the air takes on the characteristics of water in a stream forming a wave behind the mountain range. Unlike water the wave can develop many times higher than the top of the mountains allowing sailplanes to reach altitudes of over

40,000 feet. Wave lift was discovered by Wolf Hirth and one of his students in 1933 in Germany and became well known between the years of 1935 and 1941. The phenomenon was researched extensively in several parts of the world, culminating in the Sierra Wave and Jet Stream Projects

over the Owens Valley in eastern California in the early/mid 1950s.


Vic Saudek was Project Supervisor for both of these research projects. By the late 1900’s aviation has become common place with jet travel becoming providing critical to the world economy. Soaring had grown into a diverse and interesting sport. Modern high performance sailplanes are made from composite materials and take advantage of highly refined aerodynamics and control systems . Soaring pilots use sophisticated instrumentation including global positioning technology and electronic glide computers to go further, faster and higher than ever before.




East Sussex Gliding Club launch winch drum close up








This brief history of gliding and soaring covers the most important aspects of the development of

the sport and is not a full rendition of history. See the resources at the end of this background for a more on the history of flight.



Leonardo da Vinci drew his first impressions of what a flying machine might have looked like based on the wing of a bat. 


Sir George Cayley, a baronet in Yorkshire, England, conceives a craft with fixed wings to provide lift and "flappers" to provide thrust. It also has a movable tail to provide control. 


Sir George Cayley builds a man-sized version of his glider with a wing surface of 300 feet. An assistant makes a few tentative hops in the air, holding onto the fuselage. 


Gliding flight by John J. Montgomery at Wheeler Hill near San Diego, California, USA 



Gliding and possibly some soaring flight by Otto Lilienthal in Berlin, Germany



Gliding and soaring (“quartering” as early pioneers called ridge soaring”) flight by Octave Chanute and his team in Miller Beach, Gary, Indiana, USA 



Wright Brothers learn control by flying in ground effect from the shallow dunes amidst wind and sand at Kitty Hawk North Carolina, USA 


Octave Chanute reports “that these glides provide the most original and most enticing of sports… Some of our dauntless automobile sportsmen will happen to make themselves similar machines and seek out somewhere a favorable spot for competing in these glides.”


Orville Wright’s first powered flight of just over 1:00 min was achieved by adding a motor their “Flyer” design. This 1902 glider design becomes the basis for their “Flying Machine” patent. 


American glider meet sponsored by the Aero Club of America on Long Island, NY. This event was a gathering of about 10-12 members of the club, sharing to fly three biplane gliders. 


Intercollegiate meets were held in many areas of our globe, here in the United States, in Europe, but also in Australia. The sport started to find its supporters. 


First world soaring duration record: 9:45 min by Orville Wright, Kitty Hawk NC. Accomplished using ridge lift created by the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA. 


Soaring becomes organized sport at Wasserkuppe, Germany as the World War I Versailles treaty outlaws flying power aircraft in Germany.


Phase 1 – Discovery: Sources of life and soaring flight discovered, better glider designs, pilot training and USA Glider clubs proliferate with air-minded youth. 


Dr. Wolfgang Klemperer breaks the Wright Brothers 1911 soaring record with a 13 minute flight in Germany. Both flights used ridge lift. 


Austrian Robert Kronfeld proved that thermal lift could be used by a sailplane to gain altitude by making a short out and return flight. 



National Glider Association founded in Detroit, MI 




Phase 2 – Development: Aero towing becomes popular, sailplanes develop better performance, the three forms of lift are becoming well known, and soaring distances reach over 300 miles.


First USA National Glider Contest, Elmira NY, 1930. All pre-WWII (up to 1941) Nationals were held at Elmira. 


Soaring Society of America incorporated in May, 1932: “To provide an official body with the authority to conduct a contest (the 3rd Nat’l Contest), it was deemed advisable to organize an association.” 


Wave lift was discovered by Wolf Hirth and one of his students in 1933 in Germany.


World Duration Record in a single place sailplane, THE “NIGHTHAWK,” in the USA 22 HOURS, flown by Lt WILLIAM Cocke near Honolulu, Hawaii in December, 1931.


Heini Dittmar wins the first recognized World Soaring Championships flying the Sao Paulo at the Wasserkuppe in Germany. Wave flights to high altitudes are accomplished. 


US Distance Record flown in the USA was 263 miles, flown by Woody Brown in Jun 1939 with a flight from Wichita Falls, TX to Wichita KS. The World Distance Record was 465 miles flown by Ms.

Klepikova in July 1939 in the USSR. US Altitude Record in a single place sailplane reached 17,265 ft by Bob Stanley in July 1939. 


First American competes in World Soaring Championships Paul

MacCready, Jr flying to second place in Orebro, Sweden flying a

Weihe sailplane. 


World Soaring Championships in Madrid, Spain: Paul MacCready, Jr, flies to 6th place, flying a Schweizer 1-23, Paul A. Schweizer to 18th place, Dick Johnson to 24th place, and Stan Smith to 31rd place.  



First American, Paul MacCready, Jr, wins World Soaring Championships in Saint Yan, France.


The standard class was introduced at World Soaring Championships



Phase 3 - Expansion: Soaring Society of America goes from 1,000 to 16,000 members and from 1 to 5 National soaring competitions. 


The prototype of the first composite sailplane PHOENIX had its first flight in 1957 in Germany.


American Andrew J. “AJ” Smith wins World Soaring Championships in Leszno, Poland 


American George Moffat, Jr. wins World Soaring Championships in Marfa Texas. 


American George Moffat. Jr wins World Soaring Championships in Waikerie, Australia 


The 15-meter class was introduced at World Soaring Championships 



Phase 4 – Refinement: Growing sophistication of instrumentation with global positioning technology, electronic glide computers and new composite materials combined highly refined aerodynamics create high performance sailplanes. New pilot techniques and the development of better training. Expansion in the number of FAI competitive classes to eight. 


American Doug Jacobs wins World Soaring Championships in Rieti, Italy.


The World Class was introduced at World Soaring Championships 


The Junior class was introduced at World Soring Championships. 


No less than three new classes were introduced at World Soaring Championships including the 18-Meter, Club and Feminine classes.


Modern Soaring


Advances in technology and a better understanding of nature’s atmospheric forces has made

soaring a safe and enjoyable activity for estimated 150,000 glider pilots worldwide with a majority

of these in Europe where the sport has national attention in many countries.


In the United States there are over 180 soaring clubs in the country with a club located nearalmost every large city in the country. Soaring clubs have between 20 and 200+ members and offer inexpensive access to the sport. Clubs normally own several gliders and towplanes for use by their

members, offer rides and instruction often at very reasonable cost. Clubs provide a relaxed way to

enjoy gliding for the nearly 40,000 licensed glider pilots in the United States. Over 5,000  airplanes are registered nationally.


There are over 80 commercial soaring operations in the United States offering rides, flight training

and rental services. While there are many ways to enjoy soaring from a lazy summer afternoon of relaxing club flying around the home field to more energetic cross country flying, it is competitive soaring that provides the ultimate test of pilot grit and skill. Competitive soaring is organized by this countries national soaring organization, the Soaring Society of America (SSA). There are regional and national contests held each year with top pilots flying several events each season.



Selected Current World Soaring Records

World soaring records are a good measure of how far the sport of soaring has come from its modest beginnings. (Valid 08/2004)

  • Free Distance (1350 miles) 2174 km Pilot: Klaus Ohlmann, Germany. Place Argentina

  • Out and Return Distance (1395 miles) 2245 km Pilot: Klaus Ohlmann, Germany. Place Argentina  

  • Longest Flight (1869 miles) 3009 km Pilot: Klaus Ohlmann, Germany. Place Argentina  

  • Speed over (62.14 mi) 100km Course (154.78 mph) 249.09 kph Pilot: Horacio Miranda Argentina. Place: Argentina  

  • Speed over (621.4 miles) 1000km course (105.46 mph) 169.72kmh Pilot: Helmut Fischer, Germany. Place: South Africa  

  • Absolute Altitude : (49,011 feet) 14 938 m, Pilot: Robert R. Harris, USA Place: USA





Aviation & Soaring History Links :

The Wright Brothers online museum which includes a very detailed history of aviation.

A very worthwhile site when interested in the history and the invention of the airplane.

Interesting online aviation history site

National Soaring Museum in the USA

US Soaring Hall of Fame - Persons who achieve in a noteworthy manner in soaring or who have made significant contributions to the sport of soaring.

National Landmarks of Soaring - Sponsored by the National Soaring Museum, an affiliate of the Soaring Society of America. Soaring Related Background Web Sites

Soaring Society of America (SSA) home page. The SSA is the national organization responsible for soaring in the United States. Lots of good information on the sport and the organization here.

US Soaring Teams. Organized and funded as part of the SSA the US Soaring Teams Web site features team members, pilot’s biographies and much more about the US Soaring Teams.

The one stop media press room on soaring brought to you by U.S. soaring teams.

This site has a host of soaring related information including the turnpoint exchange, flight recordings from contests and all the details of US team selection.

The excellent soaring link page by Paul Remde who has collected a huge variety of soaring related links. A must visit and four stars.

This site gives a very good step by step idea and many references about learning to fly sailplanes.

This is a soaring web ring that allows you to randomly browse many of the best soaring related web sites

This site is an online magazine sponsored by the Soaring Society of America.

Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world's air sports federation, was founded in 1905. It is a non-governmental and non-profit making international organization with the basic aim of furthering aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide. Ever growing, FAI is now an organization of some 90 member countries.

The International Gliding Commission (IGC) of the FAI is the Air Sports Commission which is responsible for all air sports activities involving gliders and motor gliders with the exception of glider aerobatics.







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