This is a very brief overview of the bare bones of how gliding works For more general information on learning to glide please visit the British Gliding Association website.
How do gliders get airborne in the first place?
A glider is launched by being towed into the air by either a powerful ground-based winch and half a mile or so of cable, or by a powered aircraft called a tug giving the glider an Aerotow. Winch launches are relatively cheap and heights of up to 1,800 feet are commonplace. Aerotows are more expensive but can deliver the glider to precisely the chosen height, usually between 2,000 to 3,000 feet, and often straight into lift.
What happens if the lift stops working?
Glider pilots are trained for this eventuality and land back at base where the glider is towed back to the launch point for another try. If flying cross-country and out of range of the home airfield the landing will need to be at a nearby airfield or in another suitable open space such as a farmer's field. With the assistance of a retrieve crew, the glider is taken apart (the wings and tailplane unplug), loaded into its special trailer and driven safely home.
Isn’t it all a bit complicated?
There is quite a lot to learn, but that’s part of the fun. Getting the various gliders, tow planes, winches, vehicles etc. rigged, checked and ready, getting a number of gliders into the air and doing a hundred and one other things that make up a day's flying is a real team effort and very satisfying. As is retiring to the bar at the end of the day to swap tall tales over a few lemonades. The fact that glider pilots rely on each other's voluntary efforts to get airborne is key to why gliding is such a sociable activity compared with power flying which can be more a case of turn up, fly, go home.
Having said that, power flying is pretty awesome too of course (where would we be without tugs for a start?) and gliding is an excellent way to acquire many of the skills needed to fly power but at far lower cost.