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How to Earn Your Private Pilot License in Gliders

If you’re considering learning to fly but don’t have any idea where or how to start, you’re not alone. Many people begin with just a dream of flight and the desire to learn. If you’re motivated and armed with a few thousand dollars, you can learn to fly gliders in a short amount of time. If you’ve never considered flying gliders, you can read this article about some good reasons to do so. Also, if you are looking for some help funding your goal, you can read this article about flight scholarships tailored to glider student pilots. For now, let’s focus on the steps one needs to take in order to qualify as a private pilot in gliders in the United States.


Where can you Find the Legal Requirements for the Pilot Certificate?

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates aviation in the United States and is the agency responsible for certifying airmen (handing out pilot licenses). The rules for airman certification are found under 14 CFR Part 61, often just referred to simply as, Part 61. Within Part 61 are the eligibility requirements for private pilots. Let’s take a quick look at them here.


Age Requirement for Glider Pilots

The minimum age to solo a glider is 14.

The minimum age for the private pilot certificate in gliders is 16.


Medical Certificate

There is no medical certificate required for glider pilots. This is different for pilots of power aircraft such as helicopters and airplanes. If you are planning on a career in aviation as a professional pilot, it’s still probably a good idea to make sure you can qualify for a medical certificate for the type of flying you aspire to do. Do this sooner, rather than later. Generally speaking, there are three classes of medical certificates and they all have different standards and lengths of time during which they remain valid. Research Aviation Medical Examiners (AME’s) in your area for more information about getting a medical certificate.


Knowledge Requirements

Becoming a pilot is more than just learning to handle the controls of the glider. Pilots must learn many different areas to ensure the safety of flight for themselves and others on the ground. A couple of good references are the Glider Flying Handbook and FAR/AIM. Some of the topics of study include:


Airspace

Gliders are capable of traveling great distances and achieving awesome heights. The National Airspace System (NAS) is complex and rife with rules, communication requirements, equipment requirements, and even differing pilot certification requirements depending on weather conditions, time of day and other factors. Much of the learning you will do, will center on airspace.


Weather

The sky is the “office” in which an aircraft operates. Wind, precipitation, visibility, temperature, dew point, atmospheric pressure, clouds, and other phenomena make up a large part of the knowledge required to operate a glider safely. Many in the aviation community believe that glider pilots are better at understanding and interpreting weather than the average power pilot. This is because glider pilots must fully understand heating, cooling, thermals, and the effects of topography on lift generation in order to maintain and altitude (stay aloft) on longer flights.


Radio Communications

The majority of glider flight takes place in areas away from busy airports; you won’t be flying to LAX or O’Hare in your Schweizer. That being said, learning to speak and understand the language of aviation can take some time to grasp. You will become familiar with the phonetic alphabet, how to announce your position and intentions, and learn how to talk to FAA air traffic controllers. The radio is an important tool – one that helps maintain safety and enhance situational awareness.


Aerodynamics and Aircraft Performance

How does an airplane fly? How do you determine the center of gravity for the glider you will be flying? How much weight can you carry in the cockpit with you without being too heavy? What is adverse yaw? You will learn the answers to these questions and much more when you begin to study aerodynamics.


Navigation

Altitude, speed, wind, and other factors determine your speed over the ground. How will you get to your destination or ensure that you have enough energy to land at the airport that you are planning for?


Regulations

Rules are rules and aviation is filled with regulations that you must learn and understand. You will study airman certification standards, aircraft airworthiness standards, and flight operating rules, among other things.


Aeronautical Decision Making and Risk Management

Situational awareness, aeronautical decision making, risk management, hazardous attitudes – these are some of the things you will learn about while studying for your knowledge exam.


Written Test

After you’ve studied and received ground instruction in the required knowledge areas, you’ll be required to take the FAA Knowledge Exam. This will consist of 60 questions and you must pass with at least 70%. After the test, you will receive a list of learning codes of areas that must be reviewed with your instructor before being recommended to take the practical exam with an examiner. A great study guide is the ASA Test Prep. Your test will remain valid for 24 months after passing. This means you have that much time to complete your training and pass the practical exam. Otherwise, you will need to retake the written.


Flight Experience Requirements (Solo)

For a new student pilot with zero flight experience or other ratings (licenses in other types of aircraft), The FAA spells out minimum flight experience requirements with a flight instructor before a student is able to solo the glider. Before solo, you must have passed the written exam and demonstrate safe control of the glider and knowledge of soaring to your instructor. These areas include pre-flight, tow maneuvers, planning, flight maneuvers from take-off to landing, theory of flight and aerodynamics, weather, regulations, and emergency procedures. This training averages approximately 30-40 flights with an instructor which ends up being 10-12 hours of flight time. These numbers can vary widely depending on how often you fly, your skill level, and your preparation.


Flight Experience Requirements (Certificate)

After a student pilot has soloed the glider, there are other flight requirements that must be met in order to qualify to take the practical exam with a designated examiner. The student pilot must:

  • be at least 16 years old;

  • have logged at least 10 hours of flight time in a glider including at least 20 total glider flights, including three training flights with an instructor in the preceding two calendar months in preparation for the practical test, and

  • have two hours of solo flight time in a glider with not less than 10 launches and landings.

Practical Test

On your date with the examiner, you will have to successfully demonstrate mastery of the regulations and knowledge areas listed above. This is called the oral portion of the test. The oral will usually take a couple of hours. You will then move on to the flight portion of the practical test. During the flight test, you must demonstrate flight maneuvers to the private pilot standard. These maneuvers are listed in the FAA pilot test standards (PTS).


Average Time and Cost

Ok. You now know what is required to become a glider pilot. I’m sure you’re wondering: How much will this all cost? The answer depends on a host of factors, including whether you choose a glider club or a flight school. In general, a club will cost you less money to get the rating but take a longer time to do it. The flight school may cost more, but will usually be a stricter schedule and predictable timeline for achieving your goal. Many pilots choose to go to a flight school to get their license then find a local glider club to make friends and continue to fly.


We looked at three flight schools and one soaring club in the United States and found the average to earn your license at a flight school is somewhere around $6500 while the average at a club is closer to $5000 when considering club membership fees. There are also costs associated with testing. The written knowledge test can cost $150 and the practical test can cost $500-800 for the examiner, plus the cost of renting the glider for the exam. For the sake of easy math, set aside at least $1000 for testing / examination.


All in all, the total cost for a private pilot certificate in gliders will cost somewhere between $6000 and $8000.


The cost can vary depending on how often you are able to fly and how much time you devote to learning all of the material. You could theoretically learn to handle the glider and be lacking in the knowledge areas necessary to pass the practical exam. If you are diligent and able to set aside time for study and lessons, you can realistically complete your license in two months or less. Some people can do it faster, others take much longer. The most important thing is to learn to be a safe pilot and have fun while doing it.


Read about how a glider gets airborne here.


Disclaimer: This post is not legal advice, flight instruction, or ground instruction. For answers to questions specific to your situation and experience, consult a flight instructor in your area.


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