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Under FAA rules a license for gliders doesn't require a medical certification and you can get your license at 16 rather than 17 for powered aircraft. You can get your student license two years sooner at age 14.

It appears to me that gliding would require MORE skill and experience than a powered aircraft. It looks very unforgiving. You only have one shot at landing, there is no go-around. If you lose too much altitude you could end up not being able to reach the airport. You have to know how to find thermals, etc to gain altitude. While being towed you will be flying in closer proximity to another aircraft than you normally would in a powered airplane.

Why are the restrictions less for a glider?

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  • $\begingroup$ For starters, this article - flighttraining.aopa.org/magazine/2002/May/… - on AOPA should be interesting. $\endgroup$ – RaajTram Oct 25 '15 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ @RaajTram Great article. But it does reinforce my feeling that gliding is more challenging than powered flight. The article explains how people who learn by gliding have a better appreciation for things that powered pilots often treasure for granted. Although there are fewer things to think about, namely engine and proper controls, it seems altogether much more challenging. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Oct 25 '15 at 2:24
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    $\begingroup$ Riding a bicycle requires more skills that driving a car. However, you need no driving license for bicycles. The conclusion is that the difficulty in obtaining a license is not directly connected to the level of skills required for driving a certain vehicle but with the danger you pose to others and yourself if you drive that vehicle. $\endgroup$ – Robert Werner Oct 25 '15 at 6:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Energizer777 I had thought of the bicycle/car analogy myself, but the dangers involved seem radically different, whereas the difference between the dangers of gliders and planes are pretty close to the same. You can still die in a glider crash; you could still cause a mid-air collision; if you crashed into a house or something you'd still do a lot of damage. After reading Peter's answer, though, I see that gliders do move a lot more slowly so those are a lot less of a risk than I was realizing (having never flown either). $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Oct 25 '15 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ The FAA makes rules based on the effects to paying passengers and innocent bystanders. They don't worry a bit about the pilot. Gliders have much reduced energy in them, therefor less damage upon striking the head of an innocent bystander. $\endgroup$ – Mike Brass Jan 5 '18 at 0:21
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First of all, gliders fly slowly. Everything happens more slowly than in other aircraft, and this helps to make flying them less challenging than you might think. Flying them well is a different matter - this requires a lot of skill and good physical health.

Historically, the early age limits were introduced in Nazi Germany when the Deutscher Luftstportverband (DLSV) and later the NSFK organized groups of adolescents to let them build and fly gliders. Flight training started at the age of 14, mostly in very simple, bungee-launched gliders like the Zögling or SG-38 which were flown in summer and built or repaired in Winter. Since bungee launching is a very labor-intensive process and flights last only a few seconds, this was less about pilot training than keeping the young occupied and under the influence of the Nazi party.

Bungee launch of a Zögling

Bungee launch of a Zögling glider (picture source)

And it worked. Accidents did happen, but were almost never fatal since all operations happened at low speed and altitude. Therefore, these age limits were exported together with the idea of flying unpowered aircraft.

Note that in Europe the same health certificate is required for glider flying as for flying GA aircraft.

Now to your concerns about the demanding nature of gliding:

  • Glider flying is done from airfields which are suitable for GA aircraft (or the gliders could not be aerotowed) or winch launching. 800 meters is about the minimum, and this leaves plenty of space to land a glider.
  • Flight training is done initially only in the direct vicinity of the airfield, and students are supposed to stay within a cone which allows them to reach the airfield at any moment. Flying cross-country comes much later, when the students have made more than a hundred landings and know how to get the plane down in a certain spot. Again, the slow speed helps to make such landings simple if the pilot is prepared.
  • Today, training is initially in two-seaters, so there is an experienced pilot around for the first landings and the first cross-country flights.
  • Aerotowing is also quite simple, and altitude management while in tow is more challenging than keeping the right distance from the towplane. Again, this is done initially in two-seaters, and all the glider pilot has to do is to fly with the same bank angle as and slightly above the towplane. The rope takes care of the rest.
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