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Fundamentally not requiring a vacuum chamber, atmospheric pressure glow discharges (APGDs) offer an exciting prospect for a wide range of material processing applications. To characterize their operation and establish their operation range, a radio frequency (rf) APGD is studied experimentally with measurement of discharge voltage, current, dissipated plasma power and plasma impedance. Different from the current understanding that rf APGD are operative only in the abnormal glow mode, we show the presence of two additional modes namely the normal glow mode and the recovery mode. It is shown that all three modes are spatially uniform and possess key characteristics of a glow discharge. So rf APGD have a much wider operation range than previously believed. To provide further insights, we investigate the transition from the abnormal glow mode to the recovery mode. It is established that the cause responsible for the mode transition is sheath breakdown, a phenomenon that is known in low- and moderate-pressure glow discharges but has not been reported before for atmospheric-pressure glow discharges. Finally we demonstrate that plasma dynamics, hence plasma stability, in these three modes are influenced crucially by the impedance matching between the plasma rig and the power source. © 2003 American Institute of Physics.