Gliding

Motorgliders give you the best of both worlds

You’ve heard of light aircraft, and you’ve almost certainly heard of gliding. But what about motorgliding? Not many people are aware that motorgliders offer the best of both worlds, so if you’re struggling to choose between flying a light aircraft and flying a glider, motorgliding could be for you. In this post, we’re going to introduce you to motorgliding and explain what’s so great about it.

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What is a motorglider?

The short answer is: exactly what it says on the tin! It’s a glider with a motor. This means that it has long wings like a glider, but it has an engine, so it can get off the ground of its own accord, without the need for a winch or aerotow. Because it has long wings, you can turn the engine off in flight and use it as a glider. Not only does this mean you can enjoy a quieter flight, but it also saves lots of money on fuel! Because of the extra weight of having an engine on board, it probably won’t fly as far as a glider, so you’d need a nice thermic day to enjoy soaring in a motorglider.

Types of motorglider

Motorgliders come in many shapes and sizes. Some are really just gliders with a small propeller that pops out of the back to get them airborne, and once airborne the pilot retracts the propeller and uses the aircraft as a normal glider. These could be described as ‘self-launching motorgliders’ (SLMG). Other motorgliders – ‘touring motorgliders’ – are basically just light aircraft but with longer wings, and can be used for long-distance journeys, with the engine remaining switched on the whole time, just like any other light aircraft. Unlike gliders, they can be used to get to places because they’re able to take off under their own steam. Here are some of the most common motorglider types in the UK.

Slingsby T61 Venture

Motorgliding

First flown in 1971, these basic motorgliders – also known as Falkes or Ventures – were used by the RAF to train new pilots. With a cruise speed of around 60kts, they’re on the slow side, but they make great training aircraft as they’re quite tricky to fly.

Scheibe SF25

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The SF25 is similar to the Venture – it’s the earlier German version, first flown in 1963, upon which the Venture was based – but in many ways it’s better. The SF25 comes in several versions, with single, double or tricycle undercarriage and different sizes of engine. They have a cruise speed of 70-80kts, so they’re a bit quicker than the Venture.

Grob 109

Image from Wikipedia

The Grob 109 is very popular in both civilian and military flying schools, and replaced the T61 Venture as RAF cadet training aircraft (it’s known by the RAF as the Vigilant T1). The Grob 109 had its first flight in 1980 and is still used by the RAF today.

Dimona

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Diamond Super Dimona, parked next to a T61 Venture, with a Grob 109 behind

The Dimona is a contemporary of the Grob 109, designed by Wolff Hoffman and manufactured by Diamond aircraft. This fibreglass aircraft comes in ‘taildragging’ (with a tailwheel) and tricycle undercarriage versions. The so-called ‘Super Dimona’ is the same aircraft with a few small differences, the main one being that it has a more powerful engine. With a cruise speed of around 90 to 100kts, these are somewhat speedier than the Venture and SF25, and they have feathering propellers, designed to make them more aerodynamic when soaring with the engine off.

What are motorgliders used for?

The most common use for motorgliders in the UK is as RAF Air Cadet training aircraft and in gliding clubs. Many gliding clubs have a motorglider as part of their fleet as a means of carrying out additional training for glider pilots. They are a convenient way of making the transition from gliding to powered aircraft, and they can also be used for gliding exercises and tests. There are very few flying clubs dedicated solely to motorgliding; our sister company MotorGlide is one, and it comes under the umbrella of the British Gliding Association.

Switching the engine off: should I be scared?

We’ve found that some of our passengers are alarmed at the prospect of switching the engine off in flight. While it does feel counterintuitive to switch off the engine in flight, there really is nothing to be worried about! With those long wings, a motorglider is designed to be flown with the engine off and will go a lot further than a normal light aircraft would without an engine. What’s more, the engine can simply be switched back on when you’re ready to land or if you’re getting too low. In the meantime, your instructor will be looking for thermals, which are rising columns of air that allow the aircraft to gain altitude and therefore time in the air, just like a glider.

5 reasons to try a motorglider experience

In case you hadn’t realised, we’re big fans of motorgliding here at Air Experiences! If you needed any more persuading, here are our top five reasons for trying a motorglider experience…

  1. You’ll be able to say you’ve tried gliding AND light aircraft flights!
  2. Motorgliding is cheaper than a light aircraft flying experience, especially if you come back to fly regularly.
  3. Motorgliders offer a gentler take-off experience than the scarily steep climb you’d get in a glider on a winch launch.
  4. It’s the perfect experience for those looking for something a bit different from the ordinary.
  5. It’s nice and quiet with the engine turned off – just the sound of the wind whistling past.

If you’re interested in experiencing what it’s like to fly a motorglider, try one of our Best of Both flying experiences. We have motorgliding locations at Wellesbourne Mountford Airfield near Stratford-upon-Avon and near Oxford. If you’d like to go a step further and learn to fly one, check out our sister company, MotorGlide.

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Gliding – your questions answered

Here at Air Experiences, we’re big fans of gliding. It’s how we both started learning to fly and how we met, and it’s something we want to encourage more people to try. In this bumper introduction, we answer all your questions about gliding and share a load of nice photos too. Read on to get clued up about this fantastic form of flight.

What is a glider?!
When they hear the word ‘glider’, a lot of people think of this:

That’s a paraglider. Or this:

That’s a hang glider. Or even this:

That’s a sugar glider. What we’re talking about is this:

As you can see from the photo above, a glider is like an aeroplane, but with no engine and much longer wings. Because they don’t have an engine, they need to be as aerodynamic as possible for maximum performance, and for this reason they have a narrower fuselage. Two-seater gliders have pilot and passenger sitting one in front of the other, rather than side-by-side as they would in an aeroplane.

When were gliders invented?
The earliest heavier-than-air aircraft were gliders, and were developed from the 1850s onwards, when aviation began to take shape. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it became a sport, however. At the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict limitations on the manufacture of powered aircraft in Germany, so instead the Germans (actively supported by the German government) began to develop increasingly sophisticated unpowered aircraft in the form of gliders. In the 1930s the popularity of gliding spread to other countries, and we’ve never looked back.

The role of gliders in the Second World War
Large gliders, most notably the Horsa, were used during the Second World War to deliver troops and equipment into battle zones. The advantage of using gliders over powered aircraft was, of course, that they were silent – the enemy couldn’t hear them coming, preserving the element of surprise. Britain hasn’t used them in a military context since 1957, but they are still used for training cadets.

Why do gliders have such long wings?
Those long wings help the glider stay airborne for longer by spreading the weight of the pilot and aircraft across a wider area. This means that each square metre of wing has less lift to create, maximising performance and allowing a longer flight.

How do gliders get into the air?
Because a glider doesn’t have an engine, getting them into the air presents a challenge. There are several solutions to this problem, the most popular being winch launch and aerotow.

Winch launch
The winch launch method involves a tractor-like machine sitting at the opposite end of the runway with a steel cable stretching all the way along the runway and attached to the glider.

When the glider is ready to launch, a member of the ground crew holds the wing of the glider up (gliders don’t have an undercarriage, so they will lie on one wing when at rest) and radios to the winch driver to power up the winch. The winch cable then winds in at considerable speed, dragging the glider into the air in much the same way as a kite taking off when you run while holding the string. The acceleration is around 0-60mph in about 5 seconds – it’s very exciting, and the climb is steep. When you get to the top of the climb, the glider levels out and the winch cable is detached using a pull-chord in the cockpit. The altitude you’ll reach depends on the length of the airfield and therefore the length of the cable.

Aerotow
An aerotow launch involves attaching the glider to a light powered aircraft using a rope. The aeroplane will typically pull the glider up to an altitude of 2,000ft or 3,000ft before the cable is released. This method produces a gentler, slower climb, and is more versatile in that unlike the winch launch, you can choose the altitude you want to be taken to – so you can go higher, resulting in a longer flight.

How do they stay in the air?
A glider flies beautifully and smoothly, but without an engine, you will constantly lose altitude if you don’t find some way of staying airborne – and you won’t be able to stray very far from the airfield! The average glider falls at a rate of about 150ft a minute, so the pilot must find air that’s going up faster than the glider is going down. Luckily, there are ways of extending your flight, and experienced glider pilots can harness the power of the elements to stay airborne for many hours at a time.

Thermals and soaring
Thermals are rising columns of warm air caused by the ground being heated by the sun. On a sunny day, there will be few thermals first thing in the morning, because the ground is still warming up. Later in the day, tell-tale Cumulus clouds appear where warm air has risen up and condensed as it reaches a higher altitude and cools. Gliders take advantage of thermals by tightly circling within these columns of rising air, being carried up by it. You’ll notice that birds of prey like doing this too! Glider pilots are always on the look-out for clouds, as there’s a good chance there will be a thermal under them. What’s more, darker areas of ground such as built-up areas and brown ploughed fields produce stronger thermals, because they absorb more heat and therefore warm the air more.

Ridge soaring
The other way of gaining altitude in a glider is to take advantage of hills and mountains. When the wind hits the side of a hill or mountain it gets deflected upwards, producing strong lift that will carry a glider higher. This is an exhilarating form of gliding because it means flying low to hills, and it doesn’t rely on warm days, meaning that as long as the wind keeps blowing, it’s a guaranteed source of lift and will enable the glider to stay airborne all day.

Where do gliders land?
A trial lesson for a member of the public will land back at the airfield it took off from. This involves careful calculation on the part of the pilot to ensure that the flight is planned with plenty of altitude left to get back to the airfield. Glider pilots flying for fun, however, often ‘land out’ – that is, land in a farmer’s field! Part of the training a glider pilot undergoes involves selecting suitable fields for landing, as it’s inevitable that sometimes adventurous pilots will stray just a little too far from their home airfield. This is seen as all part of the fun! A member of the ground crew will then come out with a glider trailer to take the pilot and aircraft back home. Gliders wings come off, and the whole aircraft fits neatly into a trailer that looks like this:

What’s the highest anyone’s ever flown in a glider?
The World Altitude Record for gliders currently stands at 50,699ft, achieved above the Andes by Steve Fossett in 2006. This is higher even than most long-haul flights! The air at that altitude is incredibly thin, requiring oxygen masks to be worn, and incredibly cold – and remember that gliders don’t have heaters!

What’s the furthest anyone’s ever flown in a glider?
The World Record for the longest glider flight is a whopping 56 hours and 15 minutes, achieved in France in 1952 by Charles Atger. He must have had a very numb bum by the end of that!

Gliding competitions
Like any sport, gliding has its fair share of competitions. These typically involve a series of ‘tasks’ with several way-points that pilots must navigate to and prove they’ve been there using a GPS tracker. Competition glider pilots fly ultra high-performance gliders that have improved glide angles – that is, they lose altitude at a slower rate than the average glider.

Becoming a member of a gliding club
Becoming a member of a gliding club allows you to learn to fly as often as you like (weather permitting) at preferential member rates. Most clubs will expect you to turn up first thing in the morning to get your name on the day’s flying list and help get the gliders out of the hangar. You’ll usually be expected to stay for the whole day to help out, as gliding requires lots of ground crew. Ground duties include recording flight times and durations, operating the winch (usually reserved for solo level pilots), driving the vehicle to retrieve the winch cable and driving cars or golf buggies to drag gliders back to the launch point when they land elsewhere on the airfield. It’s a lot of fun, but pretty cold in the winter!

What’s it like to fly in a glider?
Gliding is a wonderfully peaceful form of flying. Without an engine, all you hear is the wind, and you can have a conversation with the person flying with you without the need for an aviation headset. It’s also quite a ‘raw’ form of flying, one that necessitates an accute awareness of the air and careful judgement. It’s said that glider pilots are better pilots for this reason!

If you want to try this stunning form of flying yourself, why not check out our range of gliding experiences?

All images from Wikimedia Commons except the glider winch from Geograph.org.uk

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