The words "glider" and "sailplane" seem to refer to similar or the same type of aircraft. In particular, the Wikipedia articles "Glider (aircraft)" and "Glider (sailplane)" seem to be describing the same kind of aircraft.

What is difference between a glider and a sailplane, if any?


The sailplane article is focused around sport and recreational planes. The aircraft article describes a wide variety of aircraft, not simply planes, like hang gliding and paragliding.

Which makes sense - one is about aircraft, so it has the aircraft moniker. The other is specifically about planes, which are a subset of aircraft, and thus have the sailplane moniker.

There was an idea of merging them in 2011, but it failed.

  • $\begingroup$ Any airplane can be a glider. $\endgroup$ – Devil07 Jul 19 '17 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ @mins both sentences are true. They are not mutually exclusive. According to the referenced wikipedia article "Glider is the agent noun form of the verb to glide." So any airplane that glides is a glider by definition. ;) $\endgroup$ – Devil07 Jul 19 '17 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Devil07: Any aerodynamically stable airplane. That used to be a prerequisite for any airplane to be controllable in flight so the phrase "any airplane can be a glider" was true. These days we have weird computer stabilised aircraft that won't glide without engine thrust. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Jul 19 '17 at 21:59

There does not appear to be any formal definition I can find, but if one observes the aircraft that are typically described as a 'glider' or a 'sailplane'...

Sailplane is generally used to describe an unpowered aircraft that is optimized to remain airborne by taking advantage of thermal currents. Typically lightweight, typically with very long wings. Schweitzer is a well known maker of sport sailplanes.

Glider refers to an unpowered aircraft that isn't necessarily optimized to remain airborne in the non-towed state. Aircraft described as 'gliders' are usually WW2 aircraft for getting troops and equipment onto unprepared ground, hopefully in one piece. They were used for airborne assault in pre-helicopter days. Examples: Waco CG4, Airspeed Horsa, DFS-230, ME-321. (the ME323 Gigant was the powered version) All were expressly designed to be towed to their destination by powered aircraft, and make short glides onto unprepared ground, to deliver troops and equipment.

Also, rocket propelled aircraft such as the ME-163 were described as a glider, when their fuel ran out. Not sailplane.

Finally, quite a few aircraft under development in the pre-CAD era were first flown as unpowered versions. Those experimental aircraft are always referred to as 'gliders'.

  • $\begingroup$ I would say that "glider" is the broader term, including everything that your answer described as a "glider", and also everything that your answer described as a "sailplane", and also hang gliders and paragliders which are definitely intended for soaring but are never called sailplanes. The one sometimes-heard definition that is definitely NOT true is that relatively low-perfomance gliders/sailplanes like 2-33, 2-22 should not be called "sailplanes" because they supposedly cannot stay up very well! $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jul 17 '19 at 1:16

I have no issue with either answer given. That said, I think this question deserves an answer "from the street".

I got my glider add-on in the summer of 2016, started training for it in the summer of 2015. I belong to a 100+ member glider club in the United States, of which 85 percent have their glider certification/add-on, 20 percent are CFIs and quite a few have flown gliders for 40+ years. Due to the nature of our club, during my training I flew with 15+ different instructors. And, of course, given the "stand around and tell war stories" nature of glider operations, I've talked glider flying with most of my fellow club members. During all flights I have undertaken and observed, the primary goal was ALWAYS to "remain airborne by taking advantage of thermal currents." (though we don't call them "currents"). The exception, of course, is training flights, where the primary objective was learning to fly gliders.

All of this said, I have NEVER, not once, heard the aircraft we fly refered to as a "sailplane". On the contrary, the word we use to refer to what we fly is glider, exclusively.

  • $\begingroup$ Gee, aren't there plenty of references to "sailplanes" in the magazine published by your national organization, the SSA? And note that this book is called "sailplane aerobatics" amazon.com/Sailplane-aerobatics-Horvath/dp/B0006EK6XQ $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jul 17 '19 at 1:13
  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, @bclarkreston, 2017 version no longer exists...so no answer will be forthcoming. $\endgroup$ – bclarkreston Jul 17 '19 at 13:44

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