Hang Gliding Competitions 101

This post begins a series of what I hope will be articles educating the general public, friends, family, and anyone else curious about what we do. In honor of the World Championships held this week in Annecy France (Women, Sport Class, and Rigid Wings), let’s talk about hang gliding competitions!

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Recently when I participated in my first competition I ran into the issue of explaining to others what it is exactly that we do. My experience has been that when I tell someone that I am going to a hang gliding competition, they will think a second and then ask questions like:

What’s a hang gliding competition?
How do hang gliders compete?
What do they judge you on?
Do you do aerobatics?

…and the age old, “What happens if the wind turns off?”

In my experience it is rare to meet a layperson who associates hang gliders with cross-country or distance flying. Most people I meet have no idea even that we go farther than the distance we can glide from launch. Many people I have met don’t even think we have much directional control. Mom, no, I won’t be drifting out into the Pacific ocean from Torrey Pines.

No, these are not aerobatic competitions. Though in the past there have been hang gliding aerobatics competitions, the primary method of competition in the world is what’s called Race-to-Goal format, which is pretty much just as one would think it is. There is a start, a course, and a finish.

No, we’re not “judged” on anything. A computer program calculates points based on our flight (how far we went and if we made it to the “finish line”) and how everyone else did on a particular day.

Don’t know the terminology? How about a few definitions. These are a little simplistic but good enough for an intro:

  • Task – A series of points that mark a course from start to finish. A task varies day to day depending on weather conditions. See a sample task below.
  • Start Cylinder – The area where pilots must fly within until all or most other pilots are in the air. It allows for pilots to launch, gain altitude, and then start the course at the same time as other groups of pilots.
  • Start Times – Think of start times as the start of the race. More specifically they are times when the time clock begins and when pilots can leave the start cylinder without penalty. There are typically multiple start times and a pilot can choose when to begin their clock by when they leave the start cylinder.
  • Waypoint – A point on the course surrounded by a cylinder. We only have to cross into the cylinder for the track to count. They are ordered in a task so we must arrive to each waypoint in the correct sequence.
  • Goal – The place where we’re supposed to get to. Think of it as a finish line, though it really is another cylinder (usually). This is when the time clock ends for a pilot. Many times we yell as loudly as fans do at soccer/football matches if we make goal, especially if we’re first.
Sample task
A sample race course. From Day 1 of the 2014 Women’s World Championship.


How do you takeoff?
Either we run off a mountain or we are towed up behind a light aircraft designed to tow at slow speeds. When we tow we release at about 2,000 feet above the ground.

How far do you go?
Believe it or not, the non-competition record is just under 500 miles (800km)! That’s straight line, as the crow flies, but I’m not sure a crow has ever flown that far at one time…especially not without flapping its wings. The road back to launch is often much longer. Typically competition tasks range from 40 (64km) to about 120 miles (200km) or more, requiring us to be in the air for 3-5 hours. The task distances are different for each class of glider.

How high do you go?
That depends on the location of the competition. One U.S. site that I know of allows us to climb over 18,000 feet (5,500 m) above sea level (with FAA approval of course). However, most sites we can only dream of flying that high. Usually we fly between 3,000 (900 m) and 10,000 feet (3,000 m).

How do you stay up so long?
We find rising currents of air, known as thermals. Hot air rises—think about a hot air balloon—so when the ground warms during the day the air warms with it and rises. We go up with that air. (Note that there are other ways air rises, but generally in competitions it’s the thermals that allow us to go far.)

How do you find thermals?
With lots of practice. We learn with experience what topography or features on the ground help produce thermals. Certain types of clouds are also good indicators when they are around.

How do you know where you’re going?
We fly with a GPS. Prior to the flight we program the task into the GPS. During the flight it tells us where the next point is, and ultimately where goal is. It’s up to us to find the lift, stay in it, and know when to head toward the next point. The GPS also records our flight paths which are then submitted to determine points.

Where do you land?
We find open fields, and hopefully choose wisely. Sometimes we find surprises that we cannot spot from the air, but we learn with experience the signs of good fields and what obstacles look like from the air.

What are the different types of gliders?
For competitions, there are primarily three classes of hang gliders: Sport Class, Open Class, and Rigid Wing Class. The sport class is comprised of gliders with less performance, which are usually more docile for less advanced pilots. The open class gliders are more streamlined, are faster, and glide farther without losing as much altitude. But performance comes at the cost of maneuverability and ability to land in smaller fields. The rigid wing class is a more complex class of gliders (which I won’t get into here) and in some ways are less hang gliders and more mini sail planes.

So what happens if the wind “turns off”?
The wind turned off? The wind merely affects our speed over the ground, so unless we are using the wind to stay up (such as at a cliff where the wind is forced up), the wind speed only affects how fast or slow we travel toward our destination.

There you have it. Most of the basics to a hang gliding competition. Have other questions? Contact me or leave a comment. Enjoy following the World Championships and future competitions!

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