Hang gliders

There are three broad categories of hang glider:

  • Flex wing - training and intermediate
  • Flex wing - advanced
  • Rigid wing.

It's important to fly the glider which is most appropriate for your level of ability and also the type of flying you want to do. Higher performance gliders are harder to fly which can knock your confidence and be dangerous. For just experiencing the fun of flying an intermediate glider is every bit as good as an advanced one. An intermediate level glider can be a lot of fun and a confident pilot flying an intermediate glider will usually beat a nervous pilot flying an advanced glider anyway. There's no hard and fast rule for number of hours logged before stepping up to a more advanced glider, but you should have really fully mastered the one you're on before considering it.

It's important to get advice before buying your first glider, either from your instructor or by contacting us here. Buying from ebay is rarely a good idea, you might see one very cheaply there but it's unlikely to be airworthy. Hang gliders can last a long time. Depending on how much they're used and how well they're looked after then 20 year old or even older gliders may well still be airworthy but it's important to get it checked out. Repairs and parts for old gliders, especially those no longer in production, are generally costly. So bear in mind that if you buy a glider very cheaply (less than £500) you will almost always need to spend more than that to bring it into airworthy condition and even then it's unlikely to be as good as a more modern glider. A decent, airworthy (although possibly scruffy) not-too-old (less than 20 years) glider will probably set you back somewhere around £1,000 with better condition, newer 2nd hand ones . New, beginners gliders start from just under £4,000 with intermediate level ones starting from just under £5,000 and going up depending on specification. A new full-on racing glider with all the options is likely to be over £10k and a rigid wing glider around £20k.

Flex wing - Training And Intermediate

A flexwing glider is made from a frame of (usually aluminium) tubes structurally braced by wires covered by a sail. Although the shape of the glider is partially defined by the frame and the battens inserted into the sail it also billows and takes its shape in the air, hence the name. Turning is done purely by weightshift (although this also causes some twisting and changing of shape of the sail, i.e. the wing flexes!).

Most beginner orientated gliders are single surface. This means that the undersurface layer of fabric just wraps around the leading edge tube and joins back to the topsurface creating only a small area of double surface aerofoil, typically 20-30%. The cross tubes are exposed. Gliders in this category include the Aeros Fox and Target, Avian Fly, Moyes Malibu and Wills Wing Alpha and Falcon. Some gliders with enclosed cross tubes and around 60% double surface are also docile enough to consider as first gliders such as the Avian Rio and Rio2 or the (no longer in production) Airwave Calypso or Offpiste Discovery. Gliders such as the Wills Wing Sport 2 or 3 and Moyes Gecko are similar in configuration but a little more advanced in performance and requirements on the pilot.

Avian Fly
Photo credit: Katy Cole Hobby Photography
Flex wing - Advanced

Flexwing gliders also come in more advanced versions. These are also tubular frames (more commonly with some tubes carbon fibre rather than aluminium) and a fabric sail, however they are different to their lower performance counterparts in a number of ways. They have a larger span, narrower (higher aspect ratio) wing. The cross tubes are always enclosed by the sail and the undersurface fabric extends right back to near the trailing edge making the aerofoil double surface for about 90% of its area. The wing area will be smaller for a given pilot weight (higher wing loading). Often some of the top rigging (which provides aerodynamic stability as well as structure) is omitted in favour of additional devices inside the wing, reducing drag. On the highest performance flexwings the upper rigging and kingpost is completely omitted (referred to as topless gliders).

Gliders such as the Aeros Discus, Avian Puma, Moyes Litesport and Wills Wing U2 are examples of high performance gliders with kingposts. Gliders such as the Aeros Combat, Avian Evo, Moyes Litespeed and Wills Wing T3 are examples of high performance topless gliders.

Higher performance gliders are much more demanding of the pilot than their lower performance counterparts. They are lighter in pitch meaning it is much easier to pull speed, they accelerate faster and retain more energy in manoeuvres. However they are also stiffer in roll and slower to turn. This combination can lead to Pilot Induced Oscillation and in all cases means more advanced planning is required when flying, in particular landing is more challenging.

Rigid wing

The highest performance gliders are not based around a tubular frame and do away with structural bracing wires entirely, instead making use of a carbon fibre D-box spar as a leading edge with carbon fibre ribs. Although this is still covered by a fabric sail, the rigidity of the carbon fibre structure means that there is very little flex in the sail. This means that it would be impossible to turn the glider by weightshift alone so instead aerodynamic controls (most commonly spoilerons) are used. These are connected to the control frame via control cables so the glider is still controlled by moving the body in a similar manner to a flexwing, however since the control is achieved by aerodynamic it means much less force is required to turn.

The extra performance comes at the cost of convenience (as well as extra financial cost). Rigid wings are heavier than flexwings. Although they can still be folded to fit on the roof of a car they are typically split into two bags (one for each wing) rather than one. Ancillary items such as tail and winglets are usually also carried separately. The Atos series by A-I-R are the only rigid wings currently in production although some older gliders such as Aeros Phantoms and La Mouette Top Secrets can still be bought 2nd hand.

Rigid wings are definitely not suitable for beginners. Their high speed and light pitch means that you must think and plan carefully when flying, particularly landing. However their light and well coordinated roll response and flaps which can be deployed for landing mean that in some ways they are less demanding on the pilot than the highest performance flexwings.

AIR Atos VQ-Race