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‘You’re just up there with the eagles’: International gliders reach new heights in central Australia

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International pilots are descending on the central Australian desert to break speed and distance records, as the Red Centre becomes a hotspot for gliding aficionados.

Terms like 'thermals' and 'convections' may mean little to the average punter, but for Alice Springs gliding instructor Edward Connellan, it is the difference between soaring and boring.

"So we get a lot of sunlight on the ground, a lot of hot air going up and because of the stability in the atmosphere, it often goes quite high," he said.

"So that allows us to go right up above 10,000 feet [3,048 metres], which allows us to go quite far across the country.

"We used to have a lot of Germans come out here and try and set records and it was always a bit of a novel place to try and do it."

Champion Australian gliders also flock to the desert. Last month, a Japanese pilot tried to break a gliding world speed record.

The sport is completely reliant on thermals and weather, with pilots using currents of rising air in the atmosphere to stay airborne and reach new heights.

A birds eye view from a glider outside of Alice Springs

In Alice Springs, the gliding club uses 'winch launching' to lift the gliders from the ground.

"It's about as close as a civilian can get to a catapult launch," Mr Connellan said.

In the space of a few metres, the glider can reach speeds up to 100 kilometres an hour before ascending rapidly at a 4-degree climb.

But there are some unique challenges about flying over the vast and isolated area of land.

"The only downside we have out here is we have very limited places we can land the glider if we run out of lift," Mr Connellan said.

"So we only travel out along the Stuart Highway or the Tanami Highway … the wing tip's just a little wider than the road indicators. We have had a few prangs with the old road signs on the highway.

"And, of course, when you do finally pick out your spot to land on the highway, inevitably there's a road train or a car stopped or someone challenge to deal with."

A man speaks over a two-way radio at the Alice Springs gliding club

Pilot Harvey Salemeh is hoping he won't need to land unexpectedly on a highway as he embarks on a five-hour endurance flight from the Bond Springs airfield.

He only took up gliding five months ago after 11 years flying powered aeroplanes.

"It's a lot quieter and calmer and surreal," he said.

"It's just absolutely one of the most extraordinary bits of landscape in the country definitely. It's magical, that's probably the best word I can use."

While breaking records is the aim for many of the visiting pilots, for the 15 or so local gliders in Alice Springs, it is all about socialising and having fun.

Tom Bird has been part of the Alice Springs Gliding Club for almost 60 years after taking to the sport "like a duck to water".

"The records I've broken is just staying up I think," he joked.

Three men inspect a glider plane in Alice Springs.

"You haven't got a roar of an engine like 300 horses galloping around you and chewing up petrol like it's going out of date.

"And you're just thermalling up there with the eagles."

He said a standout memory over the years was flying alongside birds of prey in a metal single-seater glider.

"After about 10 minutes I had eight wedge tailed eagles flying around with me and it was absolutely glorious," he said.

"You could see every movement of their wings, and they were less than a wing span away.

"You're one with unison with the air, and that's what a lot of pilots miss out on."

A man stands in front of a glider at Alice Springs.

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