Taking up gliding at the age of 52 after 20+ years of Paragliding

I developed an interest in flying model aircraft at an early age. I suppose this is what led me on to  joining the Hang Gliding Club at Swansea University and my first taste of actually flying. After Uni, while in the Pennines in the late 80s, I watched a couple of people soaring early paragliders. The simplicity and flexibility appealed to me.

I became a very keen and active paraglider pilot, flying as much as I could for around 12 years. I enjoyed competing in and organising inter club and some BPC level comps. I was completely hooked on paragliding and a pretty capable pilot – but not one of the hot shots. When foot and mouth hit the UK I took the opportunity to get my PPL and flew light aircraft for a few years. I returned to paragliding but I now had less free time and more responsibilities. Ridge soaring got me lots of pleasant airtime but it never excited me like a good flight in thermic conditions and XC.

I became frustrated with the relatively small number of days of really good flying available to me. And TBH I wasn’t as comfortable as I used to be in the often quite gnarly UK conditions!

In April 2015 I popped up to Talgarth. Had a couple of flights with Robbie before joining up! I was solo at the end of the summer and progressed quite rapidly after that. Completing Bronze, Silver and Gold badges in slightly over two years. The way it’s organised suited me too. Seven day operations, not having to be there from start to finish  – just help out a bit. Quite chilled out really!

I’d actually read a lot about gliding over the years. But a few things really surprised me. The number of days that are genuinely flyable. The variety of weather that we can fly in – good flights too! Real wave flights! And the sense that there is so much more usable and accessible lift around compared with flying PG. I suppose the latter is because we start a flight either relatively high or having been towed to a good place. And, of course, our min sink rate is half that of a PG – gliders can use lift that is simply too weak to sustain a PG flight. I found that staying up wasn’t that hard at all. Ridges seem to work even if the wind is way off, sections of a ridge that aren’t working don’t matter so much. And if in sink we can pull on speed and get through it at 160km/h+. And the feeling of security in rough air is really comforting. It’s very rare to go to the airfield based on a reasonable forecast and not have a good flight.

My light aircraft experience helped a little. But it’s my PG experience that underpins the progress I’ve made. I feel like I’m able to really put all I’ve learned over 20 years into real practice. The performance of even the oldest basic club glider eclipses that of even the new breed of ridged HGs. XC flying is a revelation compared with PG. And the dynamic nature of the flying, thermaling at min sink then a fast ‘cruise’ for perhaps 10/15km to the next thermal, pulling up and converting all that energy to height as you enter lift! It’s pretty exciting stuff.

A couple of PG friends rib me about flying these things, ‘it’s cheating’, ‘must be easy with 40:1 glide angle’. It’s certainly way easier to fly a given task than on a PG but there are lots of new challenges. And it’s more about speed than outright distance. It amazes me how the best pilots get around a long XC task at twice my average speed! I know how they do it but putting it into practice is another matter.

My first three and a half years of gliding have been truly exhilarating, life changing even. Sure the are the usual frustrations of learning something new but everyone is so helpful and supportive. I would say that any competent PG pilot with some XC experience should progress rapidly, and could be flying decent XCs in their second solo season – or earlier if you can devote the time to it.

In terms of costs, I’ve worked it out, I went solo after five months and 27 launches. Over this I flew for a total of 28 hours with instructors (a great bunch BTW) in thermal, ridge and wave conditions. My total cost for this was £1180. Made up of 27 aerotows, half a year of our 7 day glider rental scheme and a half years membership. So about the same as current total price for a EP and CP course! Bet you didn’t have 28 hours when you gained CP!

Chris Short