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 15,460 m (50,720 ft), on 29 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.