Australia has always been one of the world’s powerhouses for exciting activities that adrenaline junkies swear by – skydiving, shark diving, kite surfing, hang gliding, bungee jumping, just to name a few. Coming from a tiny highly urbanised country like Singapore, where land and airspace are extremely limited, the opportunity to enjoy thermal gliding is non-existent as huge tracts of land and airspace with the right conditions are required.
Being an aerial enthusiast when I was an avid aeromodeler during my teens, the dream to sail the skies in a glider has always been on my wishlist. Thus I was over the moon when I finally had the chance to fulfill this dream during a recent exploration trip to Canberra and its surrounding regions.
How Thermal Gliders Fly and How are They Different from Powered Aircraft ?
High Aspect Ratio Wings
Airplanes and gliders share similar design, aerodynamic and piloting factors but the absence of an engine basically changes the way a glider flies. Gliders have high aspect ratio wings, which means they are longer and narrower than wings on normal powered airplanes.
Source – @How stuff works.
Their wing span is very long compared to their width. This is because drag created during the production of lift (known as induced drag) can account for a significant portion of the total drag on a glider. One way to maximize the efficiency of a wing is to increase its aspect ratio. Glider wings are very long and thin, which makes them efficient. They produce less drag for the amount of lift they generate. (excerpts from How Stuff Works).
The main types of rising air that glider pilots use –
Source – Boldmethod
Thermals are columns of rising air currents created by the heating of the Earth’s surface, which are invisible to our eyes. The volume air near the ground expands and rises as the surface of the Earth is heated up. Certain types of terrain absorb the sun heat more rapidly than others , e.g asphalt parking lots, dark fields, rocky terrain, etc. These spots retain the heat and warm up the air above them, producing thermal air currents. Newly forming cumulus clouds, or birds soaring without flapping their wings, are some signs of thermal activity. When a glider pilot is “thermalling,” they are locating and riding those thermal columns. And since the thermals can often cover only a small area, thermalling often involves a tight turn to stay inside the pocket of rising air. The other two main types of staying airborne are by Ridge Lift and Wave Lift, which you can refer here for more details. (excerpts from Boldmethod)
Riding the Wave with Canberra Gliding Club
The Canberra Gliding Club has been established for over fifty years and operates from Bunyan Airfield, also known as the Cooma Soaring Centre, beside the Monaro Highway which is about 12km North of Cooma. The club operates under the regulatory oversight of the Gliding Federation of Australia and offers glider pilot training and air-experience flights with all activities conducted by experienced instructors in modern two-seat fibreglass training aircraft.
The members of the club getting the glider ready, towing it out from the hangar. To maximise on space, most of the gilders are stored with wings detached in customised pods.
Our glider for the event – the Puchacz (Polish word for “eagle owl”) is a two-seater training and aerobatic sailplane.
Being a moderately-priced, versatile, modern two-seater with good handling qualities on the ground and in the air, the Puchacz is a very popular two-seater sailplane in many countries both for introductory and aerobatic flights.
Getting the glider ready to the launch area for towing.
The towplane for the glider, a Piper PA-25 Pawnee. This was one of the first single seat light aircraft to be specifically designed and built for agricultural crop spraying and dusting. It was also one of the most successful, with several thousand built and with licence production in a number of countries. Many Pawnees have nowadays found their way to a glider airfield where they are very popular as glider tugs due to their good power/weight ratio.
The man and his glider on a picture perfect day. It was a hot day but the low humidity makes it more bearable.
Stewart, the glider pilot with decades of flight experience, giving me a safety briefing, dashboard orientation, do’s and don’ts and assisting with the C-cross safety belt. It felt snugged within the cockpit. Information pertaining weight and height should be communicated to the club in advance as part of flight safety.
Towline and hook checked as we get ready for the launch.
The Piper Pawnee all powered up and moving into take-off position with the towline getting taut by the seconds.
A club member giving the glider a steady hand as it is being towed. Holding onto just one side of the glider is sufficient to minimise stress on the wings.
Moment before lift-off. You can see the glider gaining lift as it balancing only on 1 wheel.
We have lift-off. The vibration, shake and rumble vanished as she lifts off from the ground.
Into the blue yonder, the start of gliding as we climb to 4000ft before the release, into the thermals.
Up, up and away as the Pawnee pulled us along. It was a surreal experience as the ambience was peaceful and relaxed. The only sounds was from the little opening at the side of the cockpit letting in fresh air and the beeping of the audio variometer, which gives a rising note if the glider is going up and a falling note if the glider is going down or if you fly out of the lift.
The Pawnee and Puchacz gaining altitude as they climb to 4000ft. The flight experience can be had at 2500ft or 4000ft, which each priced accordingly.
At the point of release, the Piper banked to the port side while the glider pilot turned to the starboard, as safety measures.
I seldom if rarely, shoot a selfie but this occasion calls for one. I totally overlooked have a wefie with the pilot as I was in a state of awe, enjoying the thrill and scenery beneath us.
I was handed the control of the glider for a brief moment, as we catches the thermals to gain altitude, with Stewart giving instantaneous feedback . Those with motion-sickness, a sick-bag is available at the side of the glider just in case.
After about 30min, it’s time to return to earth after a fabulous flight.
With the ground rushing to meet us for a smooth touchdown soon.
The glider tow-back to the hangar was quite an interesting experience too, its like “walking your dog” in the park.
There are still many people who may not be aware about gliding and understandably be puzzled about what the fascination can be. Modern sailplanes are beautiful, precision craft that have been finetuned and perfected over many years of research and development to be as efficient in the air as they are a pleasure to look at. With the right atmospheric conditions, it can stay aloft for hours or much longer at a time.
For those looking for an introductory aerial experience, thermal gliding offers a whole new perspective to an exciting aerial sports that are not so commonly available. And if you never had the chance to fly a glider, I fully recommend you give it a try it.
Sincere appreciation for coming along my pixels journey. Should any readers be keen to go on a similar adventure, please drop me a message or check out Jetabout Holidays package HERE! For my other Australian adventures, do check it out here.
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and Jetabout Holidays and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is factual, objective and that of the author.