The glider is a trainer with an 18 metre wingspan or a high-performance glider with 20 or 22 m span. The 20 and 22-metre versions also have winglets. The fuselage is the same in all versions, with the exception of the additional control connections for the wing flaps in the 22-metre version. The single wheel main landing gear on both versions retracts into the lower fuselage.
The DG-500/18 is mainly intended for flight training, and is fully aerobatic with +7/-5 g rating. There is also a motorglider version, the DG-500M. The DG-500/22 can carry up to 160 kg of water ballast which is not possible on the trainer version. Since 2004, the latest version of the DG-500 has been built as the "DG-505 Orion" in Slovenia.
The DG-500 holds the all-time altitude record for manned gliders, at 50,000 ft (16.660m), on 30 August 2006 by Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson, breaking the previous record by 1,713 ft (522 m). It was a standard DG-500M but the engine had been removed and replaced with liquid oxygen tanks. Additional instruments were installed powered by non-rechargeable batteries. The canopy had double-wall glazing and there was a drogue parachute for an emergency descent from high altitude. Pressure suits were worn. The glider is on display at the Seattle Museum of Flight. The program's second effort at high-altitude gliding is under development with an all new design, the Windward Performance Perlan II.