Thermal Soaring

"Growing up I was always based around model flying and competing but as I progress through competition to an international level, my experience and friendships grew. I’ve met so many different people through this hobby that you would never expect to meet, you experience totally new things by competing that you wouldn’t even dream of in a day to day life." :- Josh


Thermal soaring: the simplest and purest form of model flight, your glider riding invisible currents in the air.  You’ve no motor (powered flight). You’ve no lift from the wind blowing up a hill (slope soaring.) You keep the model in the air by getting it into thermal lift (rising warm air which will take your glider up with it). Simple and pure from the very beginning … and infuriating. Then, with more experience,  you can develop your thermal soaring in a number of different directions depending on what floats your boat and doesn’t sink your finances … all addictive, some awesome, some terrifying.

Getting started

Start off with a cheap and cheerful foam glider with an electric motor in the nose (the motor is just for  launch).  You’ll notice the glider is a lot bigger than the alternative of a beginner’s power model (1.8m-3m recommended for a first glider).  And much sleaker:  all thermal gliders, even the most basic, are beautiful bits of kit on the ground and a graceful delight in flight.  Once you get the model trimmed out, it will not be difficult to start gliding. Your model will be stable (though keeping the turns smooth can be a challenge) and slow enough to give you plenty of time to react.

But that’s gliding, not thermal soaring. Your first thermals will be big ones and they will find you. Instead of its usual gradual  descent, you will notice the glider is climbing – it’s a great feeling. (Which can quickly become raw terror if the model gets in danger of going out of sight and doesn’t want to come down. Don’t be afraid to ask for help to get the model onto the ground without over-stressing it.)  Being sucked up into a well-developed ‘boomer’ like that doesn’t happen that often and at first it may feel like thermal lift is a rare phenomenon. It isn’t. The fascination of thermal soaring is gradually learning to read those invisible currents in the air – from the behaviour of the model, from the birds and the trees, from subtle changes in wind speed and direction. You will start  using light lift as it develops as well as going up in boomers.  You will find thermals rather than wait for them to find you – and you will find there’s a lot of them about.  The best thermal pilots have an ability to spot lift which can seem like witchcraft. But any pilot can make real progress in learning to read the air and even a basic glider will thermal.


The planes: there are several different sorts of more sophisticated and specialised model, very different from each other, all of them beautiful and nearly all moulded composite construction.

The flying: any of these can be flown as sports models. But do have a go at competitions too – glider comps are very broad church. Local competitions are entirely relaxed and inclusive. Even national comps have plenty of room for pilots who just want to give some focus to their flying, improve a bit and enjoy the occasion. The top pilots are fabulously skilful and very competitive but not at all elitist – they positively encourage less serious and less ambitious colleagues to join them and are keen to offer help.

Discus Launch Glider DLG

This purest form of gliding dispenses with electric motors. The smallest, lightest (and cheapest) sort of specialist model. Competition models are 1.5m and weigh only 200-250g. Launches are by hand up to about 50m, the pilot spinning round as when throwing a discus (hence ‘Discus Launch Glider’). Competitions feature a variety of different tasks.  Very handy for sport flying. 1m balsa-and-ply sports models are available with  2/3 the performance for 1/3 the money.


Electric thermal soaring

Like the beginners model only more so. Competition models are 3.5-5m and weigh 1100-2200g. The electric motors used for launch are often geared in-runners. Competitions are 10 min flight + spot landing, traditionally launching to 150-200m but modern rules give a bonus for low launches. Beautiful models for sport flying.  3-4m balsa-and-ply sports models are available for ¾ the performance for 1/3 the money and can still do well in competitions.

Electric multi-task

The terrifying one. Competition models are c2m and weigh about 2kg. The electric motors used pull up to 7kW (compare 400W for the average 4m electric thermal soarer) and launch at over 120mph to the limits of vision in a few seconds. Competitions are speed runs to maximise distance on a 100m course, followed by thermal duration (where these models are nearly as good as pure electrci thermal soarers.) Plenty of only slightly less frightening hotliners are available, including some foamies for the price of a beginners model.


The absolute pinnacle of models and of technology – just awesome. Stunning 1/3 scale models of modern sailplanes, up to 7m and 25kg. Launched by aerotow up to 500m. Competitors maximise distance and speed around a triangular course laid out virtually using GPS and telemetry. Various other triangle classes cater for electric launching / somewhat smaller non-scale models. Aerotow of 1/6-1/3 scale models and, increasingly, electric launch scale are popular and can be much cheaper.