Tim Fletcher started gliding in his first year at Bath University and since then has gone solo and become an instructor. He was lucky enough to get a place in the Junior National Championships this summer, which are open to pilots under 26 years of age. The weather didn’t disappoint and it was a fantastic week of racing. But how does an aircraft with no engine stay in the air, never mind race hundreds of miles around the country? There are many misconceptions about gliding. Gliders (not to be confused with hang-gliders) are not light, weighing in at up to 800 kg fully loaded; they are not slow, cruising at speeds of up to 180 mph (290 km/h); and they are not totally silent – well, a 180 mph wind is not exactly silent. Hopefully this article will give a taste of what it’s like to take part in the most 3-dimensional sport in the World.
Without an engine, to stay airborne glider pilots must search out and exploit thermals, which are invisible but powerful currents of rising air. This is how gliders gain height, which can then be used to fly along, typically for 10-30 km or so, before topping-up at the next thermal. The pilots that can find the strongest thermals waste less time climbing and more time flying around the task, which is typically anything between 100 and 500 km in total. This is the basis upon which glider racing is born – reading the sky and knowing where the best thermals will be, as well as being able to fly the aircraft as accurately and efficiently as possible. Sound complicated? Well it is and it isn’t, but an experienced glider pilot will definitely look at the sky and see it differently to how they did before they started gliding.
This year’s Junior Nationals were fiercely contested between 47 pilots, including the double defending Champion, Matt Davis, who naturally went in as one of the favourites. Whilst strictly speaking an individual event, Matt used to go to Loughborough University so there’s a bit of Bath-Loughborough rivalry there! The competition is similar to the Tour de France, in that there is a winner declared each day, with an overall leader as well. This year there were some very challenging days, with a few showers making racing conditions difficult. Tim had a steady start and it wasn’t until Day 4 of the competition that he won his first day and took the lead overall. Thereafter Tim was able to build a lead overall until the penultimate day of the competition, when Matt pulled off an amazing flight to win the day and close to within just a few points overall. It was all to play for going into the final day. Mercifully the weather provided a straightforward day, which Tim managed to win, clinching overall victory and earning the title of British Junior National Champion 2014.
If you are interested in finding out more about gliding or tasting the thrill of soaring amongst the clouds for yourself, get in touch with the Bath University Gliding Club to find out what they can offer. Training takes place throughout the winter and you could become solo in time for the thermals next spring and summer, ready for another season!
Photos Andy Cocktell