Soaring on a Wing and a Prayer: Fixed-wing Flight

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Thrilling and serene, soaring is freeflight in its most advanced form. With soaring centers located in many of America's most scenic destinations, you can fly the spectacular Hana coast of Maui, soar over the Colorado Rockies, or circle above the vineyard of California's wine country.

The modern gliders, or sailplanes, that will take you over there picturesque locations have themselves been called "the most beautiful machines ever crafted by humans." And their performance matches their looks. In the hands of an expert, a modern sailplane can fly hundreds of miles and stay afloat for hours.
The essence of soaring is the quest for lift. To stay in the air, gliders—whether a basic trainer or the most sophisticated of models—must have lift. Without it, no matter how exceptional the pilot may be, gravity will prevail and the ship must land.

There are three basic kinds of lift: thermal, ridge and wave. Thermal lift is produced when the sun warms the ground, causing the surface air to rise. Thermals take many forms, from large masses of rising air to narrow turbulent shafts, no more than 100 feet across.

Ridge lift is produced by winds blowing against a mountain range. As the wind hits the ridge, it bounces upwards. On the opposite side of the crest, the wind veers down. Accordingly, ridges can be soared on the windward side only.

Wave lift arises when a large mass of air spills over a mountain range just like a waterfall. When the wave of air hits the valley floor, it bounces upwards, sometimes ascending for miles. Waves, the strongest form of lift, permit spectacular ascents of 2,000 feet per minute to altitudes beyond 35,000 feet. Flying a wave is the ultimate soaring experience. Once past the rotor—an area of turbulence at the bottom of the wave—the air is incredibly smooth and stable, allowing the glider to cruise as if on rails.

Published: 18 Jul 2001 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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