The Cambridge University Gliding Club is making flying exciting, competitive – and, perhaps surprisingly, accessible.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it a combination of the two? As the ultimate adventure sport, gliding sees participants hand over all control to the power of nature, soaring at great heights at average speeds of more than 100 miles per hour.
“There’s just something about the freedom of being up in the air,” says Charlie Brooker, president and co-captain of the Cambridge University Gliding Club (CUGC). “On one of my early training flights, the instructor was teaching me how to use a thermal – warm rising air – to gain height and there was a buzzard with us which kept having to duck to avoid us! When you’re in the same place as a creature like that, doing the stuff they’re doing, flying in the same way they are, it’s almost like being a bird yourself.
“One day we’d had some bad weather in the morning but in the afternoon, there was a break in the clouds, so we went up to about 4,000 feet. I could see an enormous rain cloud over Cambridge stretching from just above the ground to probably 15,000 feet into the atmosphere and another one to the west, and we were in this crystal-clear gap in the middle, doing aerobatics. That was one of the moments where you go, ‘Wow, this is so cool. This is why I fly.’”
Gliding might look like a solitary sport, but it takes a team to get airborne. The club shares resources with Cambridge Gliding Club at Gransden Lodge airfield and, for every flight, volunteers are needed to log take-offs and landings, communicate with the pilot and operate the winch that launches gliders. This community spirit makes for a tight-knit group, bonding at events such as the annual Varsity and trips such as the week-long expedition at the end of term.
One of Brooker’s favourite memories is the club’s trip to Sutton Bank in Yorkshire before the first lockdown, where the North York Moors allowed for take-offs that aren’t possible in East Anglia. “At the end of one of the runways is a cliff, so when the wind is in the right direction, you take off and the ground just falls away below you. You’re isolated up in the air in the sense that you’re completely on your own. But it’s not isolating. It’s freeing.
“In my early days of flying, when the instructor is in control, you get that roller coaster of adrenaline. But once you’re training, you’re focused on doing it right and then you get to enjoy it in a different way. It’s not a sense of being out of control, it’s more like, I’ve mastered this and I can have these experiences that I understand completely.”
Keen to expand his skills as a pilot, Brooker started aerobatics training last autumn, describing loops as “fairly easy” but steeply banked turns as more technically demanding than they look. And it’s those challenges that keep him coming back – he plans to do so for as long as he can. “Gliding is the type of sport you can pick up as a 13-year-old and keep doing into your 90s. Wherever you are in the world, there will always be a gliding club, and there’ll always be a sky to find.”