The sport of gliding started in Germany, and as a percentage of the population, there are more glider pilots in Germany than in any other country except perhaps near Tamworth. So it is understandable that the well-known glider manufacturers are based there. The Eastern block countries have always made gliders and still do but apart from that, there are few other countries with any long-term history of making gliders.
The first gliders were made from fabric covered wood and this was the way it remained for a long time until companies with metal experience started making gliders from aluminium however there was no great advantage over either method other than that timber gliders may last longer. When glass fibre (composite) sailplanes appeared in the late '50s, the writing was on the wall for wood and alloy manufacturers.
It was rapidly apparent that composite gliders had huge advantages. Apart from the obvious performance improvements, maintenance was much lower. As composite glider design advanced, the style of gliders changed. Quite apart from the appearance, the biggest change was in the weight or wing loading. Gliders were designed to carry more and more water ballast… from a few litres of water with the first glass production gliders to hundreds of litres which modern gliders can carry.
Along with increased weight came higher landing speeds and this in turn led to a fork in the road. It is now possible to buy two distinct groups of gliders… traditional certified gliders or ultralight, 'uncertified' gliders from newer manufacturers.
The German manufacturers may claim to have the best quality, standards and testing, but they are burdened by EASA certification, having to work under strict EU legislation and needing to support historical gliders going back half a century. A large number of new gliders are "ultralight". That's really a class or a category rather than an all-up weight since many of these new UL gliders don't weigh any less than the last wooden gliders and have they similar performance.
A big problem with UL gliders is that they don't always mix well with traditional gliding organisations and club operations for reasons as varied as national administrative difficulties and the problems of mixing heavy and light gliders on a winch or aerotow launch. In fact, they may mix better with the vintage gliding movement because their performance envelope is similar.
Many of the new companies have a strong tradition of composite aircraft building and make more than just sailplanes, many being involved in building Light Sport Aircraft. In some cases, components such as fuselages are made in one country, and joined with wings from another.
Most modern gliders, both conventional and ultralight are available with auxiliary motors of some form, whether installed when delivered or as a retrofit. The motor may have enough power to be usable for self launching or only as a get-you-home-if-there's-not-too-much-sink sustainer. (To self launch, the glider must meet performance specifications in terms of climb rate and runway length.) There are several types of motors available including electric, jet and internal combustion.
Many of the early self launchers and sustainer powered gliders were distinctly less than satisfactory. Yes, the customers demanded some type of motorisation but what was delivered was often less than wonderful. Watching a 'heritage' glider attempting to self-launch can be a terrifying experience.
No current motor installation can be considered to be a perfect solution and the reliability or perhaps the unreliability is far higher than would be tolerated from a car engine. On the other hand, the cost of the motor is similar to that of a small car. That being said the convenience of motors seems to outweigh the disadvantages.
The new manufacturers are also pushing the envelope. They were the first to market some interesting innovations such as electric and jet powered self launching gliders. Electric power is a very attractive option in some countries such as Switzerland where aircraft engine noise is a big environmental issue, somehow affecting sailplanes, cows, cheese, Heidi, yodelling and chocolate manufacture.
The electric motors are normally highly efficient microprocessor controlled three phase motors similar to those used in everything from solar powered racers, military drones and model aircraft. Very small, very light and very powerful. You can buy an off the shelf motor developing over 11 Kw which weighs barely 4 kgs. The batteries are often LiPoly or lithium polymer. Again, very light and powerful with a power density four times that of NiCad batteries… but difficult to charge. Remember the exploding computer batteries a while back?
While it is easy enough to make one of these electric motors, it is considerably harder to build reliable electronics and batteries to control the power. Not everyone wants 240 volts and inflammable LiPoly batteries in their glider, but is it any worse than a two stroke and petrol? And as Lillienthal said, "Sacrifices must be made." Hopefully by others.
It's not certain if the Antares 18P falls into that category, it just might. The gurt big tube sticking out from the top is a pulse jet. As in V1 rocket or Doodlebug. Not too quiet then… hope the fin can stand the heat! (Check the link though… it may have been posted on April 1st.)
Traditionally, in many countries, gliders were owned by clubs and hired by the minute or hour to members. This meant that gliding was an affordable alternative to power flying… at least until the club glider was wrecked when many clubs folded. Increasingly pilots are buying their own gliders, either keeping them in trailers or hangaring them at their home club. Compared with small boat ownership, buying and maintaining a glider is quite cheap and gliders hold their value much better than boats do.
Most unpowered gliders can be bought and sold for around the same cost as when they were new. There's an active market for good types of gliders, even ones over 40 years old and active competitions all over the world. There's more of a risk when buying a less popular type but that should be reflected in the purchase price.
One issue when buying second hand is that of refinishing. Eventually, the gelcoat covering of the wings degrades, mainly due to UV damage, and the wings need refinishing. The problem is that the cost of refinishing may be more than the cost of the glider and this dictates the commercial life of the airframe more than factors like fatigue. In fact, some major German manufacturers have a reputation for not putting much effort into finishing brand new wings and refinishing may be required within a few years, in this case mainly due to resin shrinkage rather than UV degradation.
For those who buy a new glider, the choice may be mainly based on what type of flying you want to do. If it's competition flying, then the glider type may depend not so much as the type of competition that you want to fly as the region you live and fly in, because some glider types perform better in smoother, weaker conditions than other types which excel in stronger, more turbulent conditions. Currently the South Africans have really stirred up the competition scene with the JS1 being the choice of many competitive pilots over the German ASG29 or Ventus 2 or 3 gliders.
For adventure or mountain flying, it is hard to go past gliders like the DG 808C where the factory has put a lot of effort into making the best self launching glider rather than the best competition glider… and of course nothing looks better than DG single seaters!
Two seater types fall into two categories, training aircraft or high performance gliders. The traditional training glider for many clubs has been the lovely ASK 21, but this is increasingly taking second place to more modern and higher performance gliders such as the DG 1000 or the lower cost but practical PW-6. Higher performance two seater glider classes, traditionally ruled by gliders like the ASH 25, are increasingly being dominated by newer, shorter wingspan gliders like the Arcus and the DG-1000 in a wider wingspan configuration than the club or training version.
And if money is not a problem and you're not afraid of big technology, then the Stemme might be the best of both worlds… a competent motor glider or light aircraft which can climb high enough to cruise above a lot of the weather and with the nose-mounted propellor folded away, become a first class two seater sailplane.