What is Gliding?
To different people, gliding means lots of different things. Some are happy flying for an hour or two around the local area and chatting with friends in the clubrooms. Others challenge themselves to fly for many miles cross-country or undertake skilful aerobatics. Still others challenge each other in local, national or even international competitions. As it happens, the UK is particularly active in international competitions and has several current world champions. Everyone in the sport has one thing in common though and that is their appreciation of one of the purest forms of flight; engineless, silent and graceful - as close to the birds as we will ever be.
Gliding is unusual in that although it could hardly be more of a solo sport, it engenders a real club atmosphere because you just can't do it alone (strictly speaking that's not true - a self-launching motorised glider can be operated single-handed but most people don't have one of those). It takes a team to prepare gliders for flight, man the winch or tug aircraft, run the launch-points and generally help around; and although the club has a small professional staff most of the flying-related activities are handled by the members. All sorts of people take up gliding, from teenagers to the retired, both sexes. No especial level of fitness or technical ability is needed to fly a glider. If you're fit enough to drive, you're fit enough to glide and just as you don't need to know anything about mechanics to drive a car, so you don't need to be an aeronautics expert to fly a glider.
To the newcomer it's difficult to see how a glider can stay up at all without an engine. Like any aerofoil a glider converts the potential energy due to its height into kinetic energy for flight and so it follows a gentle downwards path rather like a cyclist freewheeling down a hill. (Although it looks and is very sophisticated, a glider has a lot in common with a paper dart.) The air is seldom still however and if you can arrange it so that the glider spends its time in air which is rising at least as fast as the glider is descending then the glider will stay airborne. In this case it's a bit more like walking down an 'up' escalator - depending on how fast you walk you might end up going either up or down. Experienced pilots can climb tens of thousands of feet and fly for hundreds of miles using these rising air currents. (The UK distance record is over 600 miles and heights of almost 40,000 feet, as high as passenger jets, have been achieved.) Even pilots who have been flying for only a year or less have little difficulty in staying airborne for lengthy periods. More about this here.
As mentioned above with the exception of self-launching motorised gliders, a glider pilot needs some help to get into the air to begin with and there are two main ways of doing this. The first way is by aerotow where the glider is attached to a powered aircraft by a long towrope and towed to a suitable height and place before being released. The second is by winch where the glider is attached by a very long cable (in the region of half-a-mile to a mile in length) to a powerful winch which pulls the glider into the air much as a child might launch a kite. At the Scottish Gliding Centre both methods are used, each with its own advantages in particular conditions. The winch enables a large number of gliders to be launched relatively quickly whilst the tug can launch to a greater height and can position the glider in an area where is is most likely to find some good lift. There are a few other less common ways of glider launching such as autotow (towing by car) or bungee (using a long rubber rope) but most gliding sites use either winch or tug or both.
Gliders are more than just aeroplanes without engines as a quick glance at some of the photographs here will quickly show you. Gliders are generally much more aerodynamic-looking than powered aircraft and mostly have much longer, skinny wings. These differences are of course to make them glide better; the smooth curves make them more slippery through the air and the reason for the long wings is that as the speed rises long wings produce less drag (resistance to the airflow) than short ones. Gliders have a much higher performance than is generally appreciated and although mostly they fly around at something like 50-60 miles per hour, modern machines (and even some of 25 years old or so) are capable of speeds of over 150 miles per hour. Gliders are also much more robust than their graceful appearance might lead you to believe and can be flown in windy conditions which would ground most light aircraft. Some of the best flights at the SGC have been made in wave conditions in strong winds. Most are also capable of at least restricted aerobatics - things like chandelles, loops, stall turns, spins and lazy-eights.