This article by Angus Mackintosh was first published on 12 February 2024 on the ABC website.

Short of sprouting wings, piloting an 18-metre fibreglass glider is the closest Christopher Thorpe will get to an eagle in flight.

It is a clear summer day in western Victoria as he prepares for take-off. The heat rising from the ground is ideal to create thermal winds to carry his glider more than 300 kilometres.

At 1pm, he and co-pilot Noel Vagg attach a rope to the front of their glider and prepare to be towed into the sky behind a small plane.

"Because we fly very close together, the risk of midair collision is fairly high in this sport," he says as he straps on his parachute.

"So you want to have a way of getting out if it all goes pear-shaped."

The pilots are among the 33 taking part in the Horsham Week Gliding Competition.

The contest is one of Australia's longest-running aerial events, held annually since 1966.

On this summer afternoon, the gliders take off in quick succession, and by 2pm the sky is full of silent white shapes.

About 5pm, they begin to reappear at the Horsham Aerodrome after flying a 359km route over farmland, lakes, and country towns.

Improvised landings 'common'

As well as wearing parachutes, each pilot has a flight alarm to prevent midair collisions and is trained to perform unplanned landings.

June Nakamura says Horsham's warm temperatures and flat farmland make it ideal for gliding.

"It's the best. The thermals are always strong, and there are plenty of landing options, so you feel very safe," Ms Nakamura says.

"You don't have this kind of place anywhere else."

A key attraction is the large paddocks typical of western Victorian farms, which make for a safe runway in a pinch.

Pilot Arnold Niewand says improvised landings are common but can strain the relationship between landowners and pilots.

"[The response] can vary quite a bit because, with the modern style of farming, they don't like vehicles running all over their paddock," he says.

As a former farmer from Minyip, just 50km from Horsham, Mr Niewand says he's met old friends after unexpected landings.

"I landed in a Wimmera farm and happened on one of the fellas that I was cutting grain for that year," he says.

"So that wasn't an awkward meeting. It was more of a, 'Oh hey! What are you doing here?' type of thing."

Free training to attract young flyers

Many of the pilots competing at Horsham Week have attended for decades, recording thousands of flights.

The strong pool of experience makes for a safe and smoothly run competition, but many pilots lament the lack of young pilots in the sport.

Dave Nugent says his father-in-law introduced him to gliding. In turn, Mr Nugent taught his son to fly.

"My son's done very well in this glider and he's in his mid-20s," he says.

In fact, his son, James Nugent, won the club class of the premium 2023 FAI World Gliding Championships, held in New South Wales last December.

"There is a junior organisation and a women's organisation within the gliding movement in Australia," Mr Nugent says.

"But, yes, we want more people."

To encourage young flyers, Horsham Week contest director Michael Durrant says clubs around Australia offer free training and heavily discounted glider hire.

"The main cost is the aerotows and the hire of the glider, but the club will usually discount that for students," he says.

"The other option is winching from a V8 motor at the end of the strip. That might be $10 for a launch.

"It's quite an exciting ride because you can get to 2,000 feet in about two minutes."

Easy access to the sky

Unlike powered aircraft, glider pilots do not require an expensive licence to fly at the club level.

In fact, once a club's training panel is satisfied with their skills, pilots can take to the skies alone at just 15 years old.

The final step of the training process is obtaining a glider pilot certificate that "recognises the pilot's ability to carry out cross-country flights in varied conditions, operate independently and safely, and be able to fly at any site in Australia".

Mr Durrant says gliding is among the most accessible ways to fly, especially at high altitudes and over long distances.

"Paragliding is probably more accessible for young people," he says.

"But they're more restricted in terms of the conditions they can fly in."

Christopher Thorpe believes finding the time to fly is also an obstacle for working-age pilots.

"A lot of kids go through clubs. They usually drop out when they get married and have kids and a mortgage," he said.

"But then a lot of glider pilots tend to gravitate back in after the kids have grown up and left home and the mortgage is paid off."

But after recording 3,500 flights of his own, Mr Thorpe says he has no intention to stop.