How Gliding Works


Gliding is a form of flight that involves unpowered aircraft. Instead of using an engine, gliders (also known as sailplanes) use currents of rising air called thermals and other weather phenomena to stay airborne. Gliders can fly for hours and travel hundreds of kilometres without having to land.


There are two main types of launch methods we use at Cambridge Gliding Centre. The most popular one being the winch. To understand how a winch works, first imagine a child flying a kite. The child must run to give the kite enough energy to fly. The winch uses the exact same principle, but instead of running it reels in the cable attached to the glider. The acceleration experienced during a winch launch can be around 0 – 50mph in 3 seconds.

The second method we use to launch is an aerotow. This is where the glider is towed into the air by another aircraft. The aerotow can be very useful because it allows us to launch directly to a thermal whereas we can only launch directly above the airfield on the winch. Our introductory flights are flown on aerotow because they are more gentle for passengers.


There are three main types of soaring that allow gliders to stay in the air and gain height. The most common form that we rely on at Gransden Lodge are thermals. These are currents of rising air like bubbles in a pan of boiling water. Gliders circle in these currents – just like birds do – to climb. Thermals are most often found under puffy white clouds. Keep an eye out for this when you visit!

The other two types are called ridge lift and wave lift. Ridge lift occurs when wind blows against a hill and deflects upwards. Gliders harness this lift by flying along the ridge. Wave lift occurs when the air that’s deflected off the ridge, sinks back down towards the ground and then bounces back up. Due to our geographical location, we are unable to take advantage of these forms of lift locally.

So you stay up in the air, what next?

Most pilots will fly specific routes known as tasks and they will try to fly around them in as little time as possible. The tasks vary in location and length, from local areas to as far as the Isle of Wight.

Every year a variety of competitions are held where pilots will fly together around the same task and race to finish in the shortest amount of time. These competitions run not just on a national level but also worldwide.

Some pilots with an adrenaline rush may like to practice aerobatics! This is very popular during the winter when there aren’t many thermals strong enough to stay in the air.

What happens when you run out of height?

If we run out of height we simply land. When flying cross country, out of range of the club, we typically try to land at a nearby airfield or if not available, gliders are designed to land in fields. This is a common practice and something that our pilots are trained heavily for.

Feeling inspired? Find out about trying gliding here!