Imagine a local sport that has produced international champions, with South African-designed and manufactured craft that have taken on the world and won, but that still flies silently under the radar.
Even with 17,000 pilots and thousands more flying enthusiasts in South Africa, there’s still little knowledge of one of the most exhilarating aero experiences around.
There’s no better thrill than sharing the wonder of flight with a first-timer in a twin-seater glider.
Climb into the narrow craft, get comfortable, complete the safety checks at the end of the runway. The aero tow is clipped on and then the bumpy ride along the runway begins, slowly, then quickly gathering speed, until the glider takes to the air, climbing rapidly, hundreds of metres into the blue. At a safe height, the tow rope is dropped and the silent surfing of the sky begins: Thermalling high about the heated landscape – empty miles of the Free State or North West fields stretching below, skating along purple-blue mountain ridges to George and back, or hurtling low and fast across the Sani Pass and flying up to Cathedral Peak in the Drakensberg.
This is the world of gliding, and it’s much more accessible than you think. Gliding’s official body, the Soaring Society of South Africa (SSSA), is undertaking a drive to spread the word about the sport, offering a clear and affordable pathway from your first-ever flight to earning the right to soar solo in as little as two weeks. Full-time accelerated training is now being offered at two of the country’s most active clubs, the Cape Gliding Club in Worcester and AkaVlieg in Potchefstroom. There are also full-time courses offered on an ad hoc basis at the Magaliesberg Gliding Club in Gauteng.
“We understand the challenge of attracting people to a relatively unknown sport like gliding,” says Rob Tiffin, who holds SSSA’s marketing portfolio. “When it comes to adventure, most people think of mountain biking or kite surfing – flying a plane of any kind seems out of the question. That’s why we want to introduce gliding to people who love planes and flying, knowing that once they try it, they’ll be keen to start training.”
The accelerated full-time training, which takes you to solo, costs around R30,000. Thereafter, to achieve your full glider pilot’s licence, you will need to accumulate hours at one of the 19 friendly clubs around the country. You don’t have to have your own glider – flights in club gliders cost around R400 – but if the bug bites, entry-level craft are priced from R50,000, less than the price of a small car. At the top end of the range are the much-admired and desired JS competition gliders by Jonker Sailplanes in Potchefstroom, crafted by the high-flying champion brothers, Attie and Uys Jonker, and successfully exported around the world.
South Africa has some of the best gliding weather in the world, so it’s no surprise that accomplished international pilots are often to be seen at the local clubs. Swapping stories about the day’s flying – and sharing tales of competitive flying as far afield as Poland and Australia – everyone from novice flyers to the greats of the sport are united in their enthusiasm. Some say it’s the purest form of flying, and at the top level gliding is a competitive and challenging sport. But it’s relatively easy to learn to glide and pilots at any level can have much enjoyment. Once you have mastered takeoff, landing and how to thermal, you can develop your skills at your own pace. Advanced cross-country courses and competition flying offers the opportunity to fast-track your skills and learn from other pilots.
Inland, the focus is on thermal flying, spiraling up rising columns of hot Highveld air and then racing downhill to the next one, before finally returning to base. Gliders are typically taken up behind a powered tug plane or propelled upwards via a winch to begin their thermal climbs. In competitions, like sailing, tasks are typically set around a triangular course of 300 km or so, although flying 1,000 km is achieved at least 20 times a year in good local conditions.
In coastal areas, like Worcester, gliders fly along mountain ranges, where wind creates the lift that keeps the gliders high. Typically, flights can take you north to Clanwilliam or along the spectacular southern ranges to George and back. In both Worcester and the Drakensberg, ‘wave’ conditions can take gliders as high as 30,000 feet.
There is the small matter of running out of lift before you make it home, but landing in a field is part of the sport. Pick a smooth-looking one not too far from a main road and put the plane down as gently as you can. Fend off the curious cows and wait for a rescue. These days, with cellphones and GPS equipment, the guys from the club can effect a retrieve quite efficiently. It takes just 20 minutes or so to take the wings off a modern glider, stow the plane in the trailer, dust down the pilot and head back to base.
Sounds appealing? Long-time flying enthusiast Rob Tiffin started at the age of 30. “Although I had been to the Paris Airshow and Oshkosh, I knew nothing about gliding. A friend took me out to Worcester and a whole new world opened up for me,” he says. “After 30 flights I went solo, and bought a part share in a glider for R35,000. Soon afterwards, I headed to Vryburg to fly my first camp, doing 50 km the first day and an astonishing 300 km the next. I was hooked.”
For more information about gliding, visit www.sssa.org.za