Free as a bird

Imagine yourself in an aircraft, 10,000 feet up in the air, but without several important elements – a stewardess dispensing gin and tonics, an in-flight movie…and an engine. If the idea appeals, why not try gliding for a once in a lifetime experience?

Gliding is both a recreational activity and a competitive sport and involves both ‘pure’ gliders and motor gliders, which have small auxiliary engines used for take-off. Most modern gliders are made of lightweight aerodynamic fibreglass, but metal and even traditional wooden planes are still used in many clubs. Gliders are immensely strong in the air and can comfortably carry two large adults.

The sport of gliding emerged in Germany after the First World War, when the allied peace settlement imposed severe restrictions on the manufacture and use of single-seater powered aeroplanes. While aviators and aircraft manufacturers in the rest of the world were working to improve the performance of powered aeroplanes at that time, the Germans were designing, developing and flying ever more efficient gliders and discovering how to use the natural forces in the atmosphere to make them fly further and faster. The sport has since taken hold in many countries, including Portugal. The Resident reporter Nikki Hall caught up with Portugal’s former gliding champion, Jörg Herrmann, to discover more about the sport.

The take off: Jörg explained to me that gliders can be launched in several ways. The most common method is called ‘aerotowing’ and involves the glider being towed by a detachable cable at the end of a tow plane. When the plane reaches the required height, it is released from the cable. Winching is another common method. This involves attaching the glider to a winch with a long reel of wire tied to a vehicle. When the glider reaches the required speed, it sails into the air like a kite. However, more and more of today’s gliders have a self-launching mechanism, so that they don’t need auxiliary help. For obvious reasons, these are called self-launching gliders or touring motorgliders.

The flight: Our itinerary was simple: take off from Portimão’s Aeroclub municipal aerodrome, wait for the all clear and head straight to Monchique. Although I was a bit nervous, Jörg constantly reassured me and, as we flew closer to Monchique, the scenic view soon distracted my attention. I was mesmerised… We flew across the top of Fóia with the motor on and hit some thermal spots, which, if they had been more intense, would have permitted us to turn off the motor and glide. Instead, we had to pick up a bit more height before we were able to turn off the engine. The sensation was incredible – no noise, no pollution, just nature. “This could become the next revolution for travelling instead of cars. It’s more economical and produces less pollution,” Jörg commented.

Staying airborne: It seems surprising that an aircraft without an engine can fly in the air for hours at a time without falling to the ground. “But even jumbo jets can glide,” Jörg told me. “Not for as long as a glider, but it is possible.” It doesn’t even have to be windy in order to be able to glide, although gliders benefit when the wind blows against a hillside or over a mountain, creating what is known as a ridge lift. “Think of a glider as a bird. The dynamics are quite the same,” Jörg explained. When you think about it, it is common to see birds circling upwards without flapping their wings. Gliders can do the same when they hit a thermal spot, which is a volume of air that has been heated by the sun so that it is warmer than the surrounding air. Gliding gives you the freedom to explore the world from a bird’s eye view and discover the many moods of the sky. To become a glider pilot, you need to take a licence, which costs up to 1,500 euros for a six-month course in Sintra. However, anyone can experience gliding for 90 euros an hour at the Portimão aerodrome.

Jörg is an associate of the Portuguese National Gliding Team, which is trained by the British World Champion Brian Spreckley, together with his wife Gillian, who is Female Word Champion. The high-flying couple have a Gliding Training Centre in Ontur, near Murcia in Southern Spain. The Portuguese team are currently in need of sponsorship and the aeroclub in Portimão are currently looking for more members. So, whether you are interested in becoming a shareholder in a glider, a club member or just want to try gliding, please call Jörg on 916 356 633 or visit

Anyone is welcome to become a supporting member of the gliding club for 30 euros per month and, in return, benefit from special rates for sightseeing flights.