Gliding from a hang glider pilot’s perspective

Having flown model aircraft as a kid I had the opportunity to take up hang gliding whilst at University in Swansea. I got hooked straight away and went on to open a hang gliding school after graduating, flying whenever possible both in the UK and occasionally in France. I flew a season in the British League which showed what a useful environment competition can be for furthering your skills and experience.

After about 15 years (and 1500 hours) a good friend of mine (John Clark) kept pestering me to go to Talgarth and have a flight with him in one of these sailplane thingies. He used to fly hang gliders himself and instructed for me sometimes at the school. We had a flight in a north westerly where the ridges were working well and there was a bit of wave around to 5000 feet. 

Apparently, Gerry Martin, who was CFI at the time, had instructed John to take me for a flight and get me hooked! It certainly worked! I soloed at Talgarth after some excellent (and free!) instruction from a number of people including Gerry. I joined the soaring scheme where you paid a fixed sum for the 5 day scheme (currently £375) which covered all your airtime for a year. I broke even after about 4 weeks!

I realised that it would be really useful if I could have my own glider as this would give me the freedom to fly where and whenever. Many people continue using the club fleet of gliders which works well for them and is a cheaper option but can limit your opportunities to fly at different locations. I bought a wooden K6CR for about £5000 and flew it both at Talgarth and in Spain. I had so much fun using the knowledge and experience of hang gliding and applying it to gliding. A lot of the theory is the same – it is just that it happens a little faster (even in a K6) compared to a hang glider. The better glide enables you to reach the next thermal much higher and gives you the option to take or reject the climb depending on its strength. You will usually have enough height to then fly to another potential source of lift even if the first one didn’t provide any lift. (It doesn’t always work out this way though!)

I flew the K6 in a few local comps and then ‘upgraded’ to a Standard Class (no flaps – simple) 15 metre LS4 on the advice of Gerry (thank you – great advice.) The LS4 gave a similar performance jump again from the K6 with a 40-ish to 1 glide and a top speed of over 150 mph. This sort of glider is probably mid-range in terms of performance but the rules of diminishing returns certainly applies to buying gliders. You can easily spend a lot of money for relatively small gains (but boys do like their toys!)

I’ve now had over 3000 hours in my LS4 with about 140,000 km of cross country flying in both the UK and France, flying at both Regional and National level. The weather envelope that we can fly in is so much bigger than that of a hang glider and certainly a paraglider. BUT we can’t land in a small area, pack it away and hitch back to take off! It is all relative and to fly a paraglider 300km from mid Wales is far more of an achievement than to do the same in a glider.

One thing that I do miss from hang gliding is the fun of going to different sites depending on the weather and the banter on the hill. What I don’t miss is the frustration with the weather and the ‘para-waiting’ that I’m now experiencing again having recently got my Pilot rating for paragliding!

There are numerous similarities between gliding, hang gliding and paragliding. We are all trying to achieve the same goal – to get out there and fly, and to do it safely. The more we fly the more we (hopefully) realise that there is so much more to learn. It doesn’t matter if you are just Club Pilot level with a paraglider or flying a glider in a Nationals – we can all learn from experience and from the experiences of other pilots. The weather is the same, the thermals are the same, the only difference is that in a glider you may have more opportunities to use them. Some of the most successful glider pilots came from either hang gliding or paragliding. I wonder why?…

Mike Tomlinson