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The Guide To Not Normal

Riding Thermals In A Sailplane

For those with moral objections to the environmental impact of commercial airplanes, a niche community of tinkerers might have found a way to fly that’s the closest thing to riding a bike… in the air.

For those with moral objections to the environmental and consumerist impact of commercial airplanes, a niche community of tinkerers might have found a way to fly that’s the closest thing to riding a bike… in the air. Soaring—or gliding—is an unsung hobbyist-type activity practiced throughout the world, but mostly in Europe. Enthusiasts build lightweight, unpowered planes called "gliders" or "sailplanes" to harness naturally occurring atmospheric conditions that can propel them great distances.


            Soaring is also a competitive sport in which pilots try to accomplish a set of given tasks in their gliders. The challenges can range from distance: Pilots try to venture as far from a given start point as possible; courses: They must hit a series of predetermined spatial targets through the use of GPS; and most recently "stunt" flying: Expert pilots perform stomach-turning aerial acrobatics. The assignments are accredited with various "badges" that are sanctioned by local soaring authorities. Gliding even had a brief run as an Olympic event, but the lack of interest combined with the challenge of finding a way to make it exciting enough to spectators were enough to end the deal.

            The glider itself looks similar to the dumbed-down version of airplanes that kids draw before they understand the principles of physics and logic. Basically it is a smaller, slimmer plane that seats two in a glass-enclosed cockpit. The materials used for sailplane manufacturing are now so light that water is often added to the undercarriage of the vessel to maintain balance and control. Some new planes are equipped with smaller engines to facilitate landing and trip logistics, although this optional feature has become a bone of contention amongst gliding "purists."

            But if you’re looking for a freegan-friendly ride across the country, gliding doesn’t exactly fit the bill. Although flight distances for gliders can reach up to 600 miles, only extremely experienced pilots in super perfect weather conditions can pull off journeys of that length. The other stipulation is that because gliders rely on inconsistent natural phenomenon to keep going, landing in a specific destination becomes an issue. As a result, most flights begin and end in the same track or runway.


            Gliders have to be towed into the air. They can’t take off under their own power, so pilots have devised a variety of methods to get their long-winged crafts aloft. The most common method is winch launching. The glider is propelled forward on the ground by a chord attached to an engine.That initial forward thrust is transformed into “lift” by the wings. Sailplane pilots must then use their expertise and an analysis of climate patterns to plan their trajectory for maximum efficiency. To maintain lift, pilots have to find thermal pockets and surf wind patterns created by the geographic terrain.

Once a thermal - or column of hot air that rises through the atmosphere - is found, pilots will begin to circle within it to gain higher ground from which to soar to the next point of lift. The distance traveled isn’t the only way to measure a glider’s expertise. “Lift-to-drag ratio," expresses the distance flown for each meter of descent. The lower l/d ratio is the more successful the flight.

Although this whole pursuit might sound like something out of Portlandia, soaring originated and evolved in Germany for the most part. At the culmination of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles placed severe sanctions on Germany's rights to use powered vehicles of flight. This forced the focus of German industry in the direction of nature-powered flight. By 1937, Germany had over 50,000 trained glider pilots. Although majority of the world's gliders still reside in Europe, organizations such as the Soaring Society of America (SSA) do exist.

            However, the SSA has recently expressed concern over its dwindling membership and increasing average member age. Gliding isn’t cheap, and it requires quite a bit of time to become an expert of the sky, but initial tandem rides can run as low as $120.  Give it a go and try this entirely not normal way to soar through the sky.

Like to keep both feet on the ground?  Maybe a MINI is more your speed:

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