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Gliding (flight)

By Wikipedia,
the free encyclopedia,

For the sport of soaring in gliders (sailplanes), see Gliding

Gliding flight is heavier than air flight without the use of thrust. It is employed by gliding animals and by aircraft such as gliders. The most common human application of gliding flight is in sport and recreation using aircraft designed for this purpose. However almost all powered aircraft are capable of gliding without engine power.

Instances of gliding flight

Aircraft ("gliders")

Most winged aircraft can glide to some extent, but there are several types of aircraft designed to glide:

The main human application is currently recreational, though during the Second World War military gliders were used for carrying troops and equipment into battle. The types of aircraft that are used for sport and recreation are classified as gliders (sailplanes), hang gliders and paragliders. These two latter types are often foot-launched. The design of all three types enables them to repeatedly climb using rising air and then to glide before finding the next source of lift. When done in gliders (sailplanes), the sport is known as gliding and sometimes as soaring. For foot-launched aircraft, it is known as hang gliding and paragliding. Radio-controlled gliders with fixed wings are also soared by enthusiasts.

In addition to motor gliders, some powered aircraft are designed for routine glides during part of their flight; usually when landing after a period of a powered flight. These include:

Some aircraft are not primarily designed to glide except in an emergency, for example airliners that have run out of fuel like the Gimli glider.


A number of animals have separately evolved gliding many times, without any single ancestor. Birds in particular use gliding flight to minimise their use of energy. Large birds are notably adept at gliding, including:

Like recreational aircraft, they too can alternate periods of gliding with periods of soaring in rising air, and so spend a considerable time airborne with a minimal expenditure of energy. For similar reasons to birds, bats can glide efficiently.

Other mammals such as gliding possums and flying squirrels also glide, but with much poorer efficiency than birds and cannot gain height. For these creatures, gliding has mainly evolved to get from tree to tree in rainforests, most especially Borneo, where the trees are tall and widely spaced. This mode of flight involves flying a greater distance horizontally than vertically and is therefore can be distinguished from a simple descent like a parachute. Some reptiles, amphibians and flying fish also glide.

Forces on a gliding animal or aircraft in flight
Forces on a gliding animal or aircraft in flight

Forces in gliding flight

Three principle forces act on aircraft and animals when gliding:

  • weight - gravity acts in the downwards direction
  • lift - acts perpendicularly to the vector representing airspeed
  • drag - acts parallel to the vector representing the airspeed

As the aircraft or animal descends, the air moving over the wings generates lift. The lift force acts slightly forward of vertical because it is created at right angles to the airflow which comes from slightly below as the glider descends, see Angle of attack. This horizontal component of lift is enough to overcome drag and allows the glider to accelerate forward. Even though the weight causes the aircraft to descend, if the air is rising faster than the sink rate, there will be gain of altitude.

Lift to drag ratio

The lift-to-drag ratio, or L/D ratio ("ell-over-dee" in the US, "ell-dee" in the UK), is the amount of lift generated by a wing or vehicle, divided by the drag it creates by moving through the air. A higher or more favourable L/D ratio is typically one of the major goals in aircraft design; since a particular aircraft's needed lift is set by its weight, delivering that lift with lower drag leads directly to better fuel economy and climb performance.

The term is calculated for any particular airspeed by measuring the lift generated, then dividing by the drag at that speed. These vary with speed, so the results are typically plotted on a 2D graph. In almost all cases the graph forms a U-shape, due to the two main components of drag.


Induced drag is caused by the generation of lift by the wing. Lift generated by a wing is perpendicular to the wing, but since wings typically fly at some small angle of attack, this means that a component of the force is directed to the rear. The rearward component of this force is seen as drag. At low speeds an aircraft has to generate lift with a higher angle of attack, thereby leading to greater induced drag. This term dominates the low-speed side of the L/D graph, the left side of the U.

Profile drag is caused by air hitting the wing, and other parts of the aircraft. This form of drag, also known as wind resistance, varies with the square of speed (see drag equation). For this reason profile drag is more pronounced at higher speeds, forming the right side of the L/D graph's U shape. Profile drag is lowered primarily by reducing cross section and streamlining.

The drag curve
The drag curve

It is the lowest point of the graph, the point where the combined drag is at its lowest, that the wing or aircraft is performing at its best L/D. For this reason designers will typically select a wing design which produces an L/D peak at the chosen cruising speed for a powered fixed-wing aircraft, thereby maximizing economy. Like all things in aeronautical engineering, the lift-to-drag ratio is not the only consideration for wing design. Performance at high angle of attack and a gentle stall are also important.

Minimising drag is of particular interest in the design and operation of high performance glider (sailplane)s, the largest of which can have glide ratios approaching 60 to 1, though many others have a lower performance; 25:1 being considered adequate for training use.

Glide ratio

When flown at a constant speed in still air a glider moves forwards a certain distance for a certain distance downwards. The ratio of the distance forwards to downwards is called the glide ratio. The glide ratio is numerically equal to the Lift-to-drag ratio under these conditions; but is not necessarily equal during other manoeuvres, especially if speed is not constant. A glider's glide ratio varies with airspeed, but there is a maximum value which is frequently quoted. Glide ratio usually varies little with vehicle loading however, a heavier vehicle glides faster, but maintains its glide ratio.

Glide ratio is also known as glide number, finesse and is the cotangent of the downward angle- the glide angle. Alternatively it is also the forward speed divided by sink speed (unpowered aircraft):

{L \over D}={{\Delta s} \over {\Delta h}}={v_{forward}\over v_{down}}


Importance of the glide ratio in gliding flight

Although the best glide ratio is important when measuring the performance of a gliding aircraft, its glide ratio at a range of speeds also determines its success (see article on gliding).

Pilots sometimes fly at the aircraft's best L/D by precisely controlling of airspeed and smoothly operating the controls to reduce drag. However the strength of the likely next lift and the strength of the wind also affects the optimal speed to fly. To achieve high speed across country, glider (sailplanes) are often loaded with water ballast to increase the airspeed and so reach the next area of lift sooner. This has no affect on the glide angle but increases the rate of sink because the aircraft is flying at a higher speed..

If the air is rising faster than the rate of sink, the aircraft will climb. At lower speeds an aircraft may have a worse glide ratio but it will also have a lower rate of sink. A low airspeed also improves its ability to turn tightly in centre of the rising air where the rate of ascent is greatest. A sink rate of approximately 1.0 m/s is the most that a practical hang glider or paraglider could have before it would limit the occasions that a climb was possible to only when there was strongly rising air. Gliders (sailplanes) have minimum sink rates of between 0.4 and 0.6 m/s depending on the class. Aircraft such as airliners may have a better glide ratio than a hang glider, but would rarely be able to thermal because of their much higher forward speed and their much higher sink rate. (Note that the Boeing 767 in the Gimli Glider incident achieved a glide ratio of only 12:1.)

During landing, a high lift/drag ratio is desirable. Some aircraft therefore employ flaps, to increase their performance at lower speeds. Experiments with lifting bodies show that a lift/drag ratio below about 2 makes landing very difficult because of the high rate of descent.

The loss of height can be measured at several speeds and plotted on a "polar curve" to calculate the best speed to fly in various conditions, such as when flying into wind or when in sinking air. Other polar curves can be measured by loading the glider with water ballast. When ballast is carried, the best glide ratio is achieved at higher speeds (the glide ratio is not increased).


Soaring animals and aircraft may alternate glides with periods of soaring in rising air. Five principal types of lift are used: thermals, ridge lift, lee waves, convergences and dynamic soaring. Dynamic soaring is used predominately by birds, and some model aircraft, though it has also been achieved on rare occasions by piloted aircraft.

Examples of soaring flight by birds are the use of:

  • Thermals and convergences by raptors such as vultures
  • Ridge lift by gulls near cliffs
  • Wave lift by migrating birds
  • Dynamic effects near the surface of the sea by albatrosses

For humans, soaring is the basis for three air sports: gliding, hang gliding and paragliding.

See also

Text from Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License; additional terms may apply.

Published in July 2009.

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