Gliding or “soaring,” as it is often referred to, is one of the most graceful, exhilarating ways to experience flight. Pilots who enjoy soaring are often drawn to the intellectual challenge of reading the air currents like the birds do so they can stay aloft longer and sweep through the skies. No engine, no fuel – just you, your sailplane and the currents.
There are soaring groups all around the U.S., so if you are interested in getting your glider pilot license and experiencing the thrill and delight of this sport, you are in good company.
In this post we will answer your questions and tell you everything you need to know to get started on the exciting journey of becoming a licensed glider pilot.
What type of glider pilot license do I need?
Your license type will depend on what your glider piloting goals are. No matter what, you will start out as a student pilot. If you simply want to be able to fly for personal enjoyment and with not-for-hire passengers, all you will need is a private pilot-glider certification.
A commercial pilot-glider credential allows you to charge for taking others up on a flight, and of course if you want to teach one day, you will need your certified flight instructor-glider (CFIG) creds.
Note that if you already hold a valid FAA power plane license, your path to a glider license may be a little bit different (more on that later).
FAA requirements for glider pilot licenses
For now, let’s get into the rules. No matter what skills you have and what you know, you still need to check all the FAA boxes to earn your glider pilot license. We’ll break down the requirements for each of the 5 types of glider pilot licenses available to you.
1. Student pilot
- Must be at least 14 years old
- Usually must log 30-40 flights (roughly 10-12 flight hours) with an FAA-Certified Flight Instructor for Gliders (CFIG) before being allowed to fly solo
- May fly solo once in possession of a student certificate endorsed for solo flight (issued at the discretion of your CFIG)
2. Private pilot-glider
- Must be at least 16 years old
- Pass FAA written exam
- Log a minimum of 10 hours of glider flight time over at least 20 total glider flights
- Log a minimum of 2 hours of solo glider flight time
- Pass FAA flight exam with examiner
3. Commercial pilot-glider
- Must be at least 18 years old
- Pass FAA written exam
- Hold a private glider pilots’ license
- Log 3 hours (or 10 flights) training in a glider
- Log 5 solo glider flights
- Log minimum hours consisting of either:
- 25 hours of glider flight time and 100 glider flights as pilot-in command
- 200 hours of heavier-than-air aircraft flight time including 20 glider flights as pilot in command
- Pass FAA flight exam with examiner
4. Certified flight instructor-glider (CFIG)
- Pass FAA written exam
- Hold commercial glider pilot rating
- Have endorsement from qualified instructor
- Pass FAA flight exam with examiner
5. Additional Pilot Rating
- Hold valid FAA power plane license
- Log 40 pilot-in-command hours
- Log minimum of 10 solo flights
- Pass FAA flight exam
How long does it take to become a glider pilot?
The length of time that it takes for you to become a glider pilot depends on several factors including:
Naturally your total flying experience comes into play here. If you are a beginner to any kind of flying, it will take longer than if you already have your private pilot’s license.
Many of the general piloting skills that you gained leading up to earning a private pilot’s license also apply to piloting a glider. This means that you won’t have to spend as much time mastering the basics and instead can quickly move on to building glider-specific skillsets.
Amount of Self-Study Time You Invest
Gliding is a technical sport and to become proficient, you will need to build a wealth of knowledge on topics like soaring techniques and meteorology. As with all piloting licenses, to obtain your glider license you will also need to be familiar with the theory and essentials of flight, safety, navigation and FAA regulations.
If you start studying early, you will have basic knowledge in place and your flight instructor won’t need to spend valuable time remediating you on the core principals. This means you get up in the air sooner and log your flights faster.
The Timing of Your Flight Lessons
What is the fastest way to build a skill? Having 2 lessons a month for 3 months or having 2 lessons a week for 3 weeks?
The closer together you schedule your lessons, the more you can build on your emerging skills instead of slipping backwards between lessons and having to keep building back up to the same level.
Aim for at least one lesson a week and plan to make multiple flights per lesson. This gives you ample time to practice a skill over and over so you can develop lasting muscle memory.
According to the Soaring Society of America (SSA), if you have no previous flight experience, you should expect to make a minimum of 30-35 flights before your instructor signs you off for solo flights. If you are an experienced airplane pilot already, that number is cut back to just about 10 flights.
As soon as you have your sign off, meet the FAA minimum requirements and pass your tests, congratulations – you are officially a glider pilot.
How do I find and choose a glider pilot school?
Since the number of training hours for glider pilots is relatively low, it doesn’t tend to make sense to seek out an accredited university program just for this certificate. If you are planning on getting several piloting certs in a row, then it may be worth looking into what programs different aviation colleges offer.
The more common approach is to find a private flight school or aviation club with certified flight instructor-glider personnel. The Soaring Society of America locations list is a good starting point when searching for both standard and accelerated glider pilot training programs.
How much does it cost to become a glider pilot?
As with all pricing estimates, your actual cost will vary based on your location and your school. The good news is that it costs much less to work up to your glider pilot’s license than it does your private pilot’s license.
What It Costs estimates that you can expect to spend $1,800 - $2,100 to go from zero flight experience to being signed off for solo flights and another $1,500 - $2,500 to obtain your private glider pilot license. That means you should budget for a total base cost of $3,300 - $4,600 plus any adjustments for your local area.
How do I prepare for glider pilot training?
The best thing to do if you want to build your gliding skills quickly is to spend as much time as possible absorbing information on the subject.
One of the most important things you can do in advance is to read, read, read. The more theoretical book knowledge you absorb right away, the sooner you will be ready to take your written test and move to the hands-on portion of the training.
Some good books to start with are:
This textbook-style handbook focuses on providing you all the most current glider operation information possible. You will read about your aircraft’s systems and components, its aerodynamics and how to operate it.
The aerodynamics are especially important since your proficiency as a glider pilot rests on your ability to maximize your time in the sky by skillfully applying knowledge of aerodynamic principles.
Begin familiarizing yourself with the skills that you will be expected to perform during your flight test. This is the exact list of what you will be verbally quizzed and physically tested on.
Even if you haven’t gone up for your first flight yet, it will give you a head start on building awareness of the skills you will be expected to master. If you have already gotten some flight time behind you, you can use this book as a tool to gauge your competency. Since you know you must be proficient in all these skills, use the book as a checklist. When you have achieved mastery and have logged enough flights, it is time to take the test.
Learn from the near misses of others and be aware of what can go wrong before you ever take to the skies. As you read each scenario, mentally put yourself in the pilot’s seat. Go along for the ride and visualize what the pilot saw, heard, smelled, felt. Live the experience with him and then consider what you would have done in that scenario. Decide what your response would have been.
These scenarios can also bring up good talking points with your CFIG and lead to quality training moments as your instructor takes you through how to avoid trouble in the type of scenario you read about.
Join a Soaring Club
Another way to jumpstart your gliding training is to join a nearby soaring/gliding club (a quick internet search will find you plenty of choices around the country). There you will meet other glider pilots or pilots-in-training and can immerse yourself in the world of soaring. Keep your ears open as you make new friends. They are likely to share stories and experiences that can come back to benefit you once you take to the skies.
Watch Training Videos
Don’t skip out on all the free information that is readily available. You can get a very realistic preview of what to expect during a flight lesson simply by watching an in-cockpit recording of an actual glider lesson.
This lesson takes you through the entire flight from the pre-flight inspection to setting up for the landing. Benefit from not only watching what the student pilot is doing, but also from hearing his instructor’s feedback and instruction. It is the next best thing to taking a lesson of your own.
Start understanding the aerodynamics behind how a sailplane actually glides with a short tutorial on how gliders fly.
Okay, we had to throw in one glider aerobatics clip. Don’t think that you’ll be trying these maneuvers in training, but it is always fun to see some of the impressive tricks that the pros are capable of.
Another fun sport in the world of gliding is soaring competitions. The SSA hosts a national championship event and glider pilots from across the country fly in to compete. Get a taste of the action in the short film “Another Day to Race.”
Fly a Simulated Glider
Flight time isn’t cheap, so pilots increasingly turn to high-tech simulator equipment and advanced computer programs to practice and hone their skills without even needing to leave their home.
Simulators are scalable, so you can start out with simply picking up a Microsoft Flight Simulation Bundle and training on your PC using nothing but your mouse and keyboard. This at least lets you start building an understanding of the flight process and mechanics. This is serviceable, but not optimal because you aren’t training with a joystick and developing that muscle memory.
You can add a joystick on later or just start out with the most effective training option which is to get both the software and joystick together as in Logitech Saitek Basic Flight Simulation Bundle w/Microsoft Flight Simulator Standard Edition Digital Download. This pack opens you up to a more realistic training experience for not only gliders but also for a plethora of other aircraft. You get the joystick plus a throttle, so you can branch out into powered flight training as well.
What are the biggest differences to keep in mind between gliders and powered aircraft?
If you are coming over to gliders from the world of powered aircraft, there are a few key differences that you would do well to keep in mind from the beginning.
High Aspect Ratio Wings
With your powered aircraft, you are used to having shorter, wider wings that allow for more maneuverability in the air and require less parking space on the ground. A Piper Cherokee, for example, has an aspect ratio of 5.6 (calculated by taking the square of the span of the wing and dividing it bay the wing area).
Your glider on the other hand has the extremely long, narrow wings that are needed to decrease drag and increase hang time. Just remember that those wings cannot maneuver as quickly and you must be very cognizant of their span when you are near other aircraft or hangars. To give you a comparison, the Schleicher ASH 31 Glider has an aspect ratio of 33.5.
Single Landing Gear
Yes, you read that correctly. Gliders only have a single landing gear in the center of the aircraft’s body. This means that when you land, your glider will be resting on the gear plus one of the wingtips which is protected by a small wheel or skid.
No engine = no standard method of takeoff. Gliders get in the air using one of two ways: tow or winch launching.
For a tow launch, the glider is towed behind a powered aircraft until it gets up to altitude. At that point, the glider pilot releases the tow rope and begins to soar.
The winch launching method uses a ground-based engine powered winch paired with a cable launch system. The cable from the winch hooks onto the bottom of the glider and the winch pulls the glider across the ground so it builds up speed and can take off. Once it has reached altitude, the glider releases the cable.
In the US, you are much more likely to see and train solely on the tow launch method, but the rest of the world frequently uses the winch launch as well, so it is good to at least be aware of this technique.
Time to Get Started and Get in the Air
Now that you know more about the requirements, timeline, process, costs and preparation required to earn your glider pilot license, it is time to just get started. Each day you wait is one day less that you can be soaring through the air catching thermals. Go find yourself a flight school and schedule that first lesson. You’ll be glad you did.
Finally, while getting your license makes you officially a glider pilot, the truly advanced glider pilots spend years honing their skills and technique. Commit to excellence and continue to train long after you receive your certificate.