Swooping high above the earth in an unpowered aircraft allows a different perspective on clouds, birds and the landscape. Gliders, also known as sailplanes, are usually towed by a powered aircraft until they gain sufficient altitude to fly for several hours using favourable air currents, either close to the home airfield, or cross-country.
New Zealand’s history of gliding (or soaring, as it is sometimes called) is as old as that of powered flight. In December 1911, 18-year-old George Bolt flew a glider of his own design and construction from the Cashmere Hills above Christchurch. In March 1913 he made a record flight of 1,224 feet (373 metres) above Hagley Park.
Gliding gained popularity in the late 1920s. By 1930 there were a few clubs, and in 1931 a gliding association was formed. Gliding appealed as a cheap way of achieving flight, and many early gliders were home built. They were launched by being towed behind a vehicle or pushed off a hill, and tended to make short flights at low altitude. In 1947 the establishment of the New Zealand Gliding Association led to a greater emphasis on safety.
The national association, Gliding New Zealand, controls the sport by setting standards and managing the training of pilots, instructors, engineers and tow pilots. It also organises contests, selects teams for world competitions, and represents New Zealand on the International Gliding Commission.
Soaring down south
The tiny North Otago township of Ōmarama can claim to be the gliding capital of New Zealand. Ringed by mountains, the Ōmarama basin has the three main types of rising air currents used by glider pilots – thermals, hill lift and standing waves. Fans visit from around the globe, and the 1995 world gliding championships were held there.
Trial flights and training are offered by regional gliding clubs and commercial operators catering for tourists. Certification as a ‘qualified glider pilot’ is equivalent to the private pilot’s licence for powered aircraft. Flying achievements for distance, height and duration are recognised by international awards known as badges, managed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Competitions and records
There are regional, national and international contests which test flying skill, judgement and understanding of weather conditions. In the 1960s New Zealand glider pilots began competing internationally. Recent world champions include New Zealanders Ray Lynskey (1995) and John Coutts (2003). World records for height, distance and speed in various categories have been set in New Zealand.