In this country, roughly half of all soaring pilots are rated in gliders alone and half of all glider pilots are rated in other aircraft categories in addition to gliders. A transition pilot in this context is a one who’s adding a Glider rating to his/her existing pilot certificate or prior flight experience. In the past these were almost exclusively airplane pilots transitioning to sailplanes; today there are also many ultralight pilots doing so. In either case, adding a glider rating is somewhat different than initially learning to fly in gliders.
First, some similarities and advantages enjoyed by transition pilots. A rated pilot has already been introduced to the National Airspace System, to basic aerodynamics, to basic meteorology, and to the Federal Aviation Regulations. This exposure is a good head start.
On the other hand, a pilot rated in another category will definitely have some unlearning to do! A sailplane flight is planned very differently and a more nuanced understanding of meteorology plays a much more significant role in planning and executing a cross-country flight in a glider. Airmanship plays a much larger role in soaring, literally making the difference between remaining airborne and landing prematurely.
Perhaps the biggest difference is in the far greater significance of events and conditions outside the cockpit. Soaring hinges on extracting information from the environment. The successful glider pilot actively draws new information from any source whatsoever, and what would be trivial and unnoticed from inside an airplane cockpit often turns out to reveal a critical piece of information: the orientation of cloud shadows on the surface below, the detailed shape of a ridgeline, the firmness of the base of a cumulus cloud, the way a growing cumulus tilts . . . these all convey vital information.
This ties into one of the greatest benefits glider training offers the airplane pilot: because there are so many decisions to be made in even a short cross-country soaring flight, so many of which hinge on information and observations that come to light in the course of the flight, and because a glider can’t wait long for the pilot-in-command to make a decision, even a short cross-country is a real workout for a pilot. A sailplane is just about the only recreational aircraft that truly requires a Captain!
On balance, a transition pilot has an advantage over an ab initio student, but that advantage is probably a good deal smaller than one might think. Glider instruction has as much to offer the rated pilot as to an absolute beginner. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the vehicle, because that’s frankly irrelevant.
How about the FAA requirements for transition pilots? A sailplane is a true pilot’s aircraft: docile yet responsive, straightforward, and blessed with superb cockpit visibility. It’s extremely easy to fly and the Part 61 requirements reflect this. For starters, the holder of a powered aircraft rating need not take the written Knowledge Test and the flight time requirements are quite modest. While there’s a little bit of fine print in the regulations, the take-away numbers in the regulations include a minimum of three hours dual instruction and 10 solo flights (for a Private rating) or 20 solo flights (for a Commercial rating.)