“Gliders, sailplanes, they are wonderful flying machines. It’s the closest you can come to being a bird.” - Neil Armstrong. Only when you’re high in the atmosphere with no engine, where the only sound audible is wind rushing past the cockpit, can you understand exactly what Neil meant.

Cambridge University Gliding Club (CUGC) was founded in 1935 and boasts famous alumni including NASA astronaut Michael Foale. The club owns a glider and has around 50 members ranging in experience from those who have never flown before to those who started flying at 14. From zero experience, it is possible to reach solo standard - where you are trusted to fly on your own - in under a year.

Having never set foot in a glider before, last Michaelmas I headed out excitedly for a trial flight with CUGC. It was a bitterly cold morning, with low cloud and fog hanging in the air. Still, it would have taken more than dreary weather to dampen my enthusiasm, and as I arrived at the airfield and prepared for the flight the clouds were clearing up.

I walked out and strapped myself into the front seat of the glider, soon after we began our launch and shot off into the air, quickly reaching the top of the launch and releasing from the winch to begin our flight. Taking control of the aircraft for the first time – navigating steep soaring turns and feeling the power of the atmosphere, all while taking in phenomenal views of Cambridgeshire, felt incredible. I was hooked before I touched down, and headed back to college already dreaming of my next flight.

Despite being engineless, gliders can do more than just ‘fall with style’. Using the same naturally occurring rising air currents as birds, gliders can climb thousands of feet up into the skies and travel vast distances. A good pilot can stay aloft for multiple hours at a time, travelling hundreds of kilometres. The versatility of a glider was proven on a flight where the instructor spotted the opportunity to try out some aerobatics. Before I knew it, we were at the top of a loop where I found the ground above me and the sky below. If you still class this as falling with style, the emphasis should certainly be on style.

Unlike flying powered aircraft, gliding is not as expensive as you might assume. Without an engine to fuel or maintain, it is relatively cheap to operate a glider. Members flying the club glider can expect to pay around £10 per launch, and then £9 more per hour in the air, compared to rates of £150+ per hour on powered aircraft The lack of an engine also means that gliders emit no greenhouse gasses, so you won’t feel any ‘flight shame’ when taking to the sky.

Another common misconception is that gliders need wind to fly. In fact, unless there’s thick fog or a storm, most days will be flyable; our members can and do train all through the year. In both February and at Easter a long-held CUGC tradition is to organise an expedition and this year the club visited the Yorkshire Gliding Club at Sutton Bank. A week of spectacular weather presented phenomenal flying opportunities, but the best parts of expeditions are the evenings, where club members come together for a drink to compare flying stories and notes.

To fly cross country in a glider, a pilot must have a deep understanding of weather systems to carefully utilise the sun’s energy and the air currents it generates. This could mean using wind on ridge faces to fly low and fast, using convection currents called thermals to explore the countryside, or using atmospheric waves to climb to the height of jumbo jets.

Gliding isn’t only about whiling away time with your head in the clouds though, it is a true sport, and competitive gliding is commonplace. The pinnacle of competitive gliding at Cambridge is of course the varsity match, where standard rules see competitors attempting to achieve as much height gain as possible on a 50-minute flight. As of 2020, gliding varsity has half blue status in Cambridge. With commitment and dedication, you could reach these prestigious heights.

CUGC welcomes members of any ability and we run our trial flight sessions in Michaelmas and Easter term. Regular CUGC flying sessions take place every other Tuesday during term, and members are also welcome at the airfield any time it is open. Check our Facebook or website (cugc.org.uk) if you are interested. We look forward to seeing you in the East Anglian skies!

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