Note: in the initial publication of this article I made a mistake when extracting data points from the JS3 polar curve. Thanks to Matthew Scutter for pointing this out to me. This error has been corrected below.
The published performance data from Jonkers Sailplanes and Schempp-Hirth, suggest a very significant performance advantages of the JS3 over the Ventus 2cxT.
The data suggest that a ballasted JS 3 flies 12% faster than a ballasted Ventus 2cT at a wing-loading of 51 kg/sqm. Unballasted, the JS3 is shown to be 9-10% faster than an unballasted Ventus 2cxT. (All data shown are for 18m configuration.)
However, one complication is that ballasted (or unballasted) the wing loading for the two gliders is different.
Let’s try to create a more “apples to apples” comparison by comparing the published performance figures at equal wing loading. To do that we have to estimate the values for the JS3 at a wing loading of 51kg/sqm and that of the Ventus 2cxT at 40kg/sqm. (To create the estimate I assumed that the attainable speed at a given sink rate for each of the gliders increases linearly with additional wing loading. This methodology is probably not exactly accurate but any other plausible method would yield almost identical results.)
The table shows that even at equal wing loading the polar data still suggest a performance difference of 6-7% for the JS3.
[Side Note: per the manufacturer flight manual my Ventus 2cxT has a maximum all-up mass of 600kg (1323 lb) and is not limited to 565kg (1246 lb) as the polar curve suggests. I.e., the maximum permissible wing loading is 54.4 kg/sqm and not just 51 kg/sqm. ]
Do those data points hold up in reality?
A little while ago I wrote about a Practice Race Day in Nephi on July 1. One aspect that I did not give much attention was the difference in glider performance between John Seaborn’s JS3 and my Ventus 2cxT. John and I flew the last 92.7 km (57.6 miles) within just three minutes of each other, which makes the results directly comparable.
I took a closer look at our flight traces to see how well my Ventus 2cxT held up against John’s JS3. As a multiple National Champion John is unquestionably the better pilot, so we should expect John’s final glide to be at least 6-7% faster than mine if the published glider performance data are true AND if we flew with identical wing loading. (Both of us flew with 18 meter configurations.)
I do not know how much ballast John had on board (although I do know that he flew with water that day) but I think it is likely that his JS3 was at or close to maximum gross weight, which would mean a wing loading of more than 12 lbs/sqft (close to 60 kg/sqm). At full wingloading his JS3 should be about 12% faster than my Ventus.
Is this true? Let’s see!
My flight trace is shown in red, and John’s is shown in blue. Note that at this “starting point” John was exactly 3:00 minutes behind me. My red glider is shown at 16:11:41 local time. John reached the same spot (the location of his blue glider) at 16:14:41 local time.
What makes this flight so comparable is that we reached this location not only within 3 minutes of one another but also almost exactly at the same altitude. In fact, I was at 16,428 ft MSL and John was at 16,508 ft, i.e., only 82 feet higher.
Let’s take a look at our positions exactly 5 minutes later. I.e., my location as shown is at 16:16:41, and John’s position is shown exactly three minutes later, at 16:19:41.
We’re still neck to neck although John took a slightly more easterly line. John also flew a little faster than me during his cruise, thereby losing more altitude, and decided to make two extra circles in good lift (where he gained 700 feet of altitude). At 16:19:41 he was 270 degrees into his first circle. My altitude was 16,672 and John’s was 16,494. I.e., I was now 178 ft higher than John.
Let’s wind the clock forward another five minutes, i.e. 10 minutes into the glide):
There is still hardly any visible difference in terms of our location. Since the prior position I had taken one pointless turn which netted absolutely no change in altitude. John’s 700 ft altitude gain in his two circles is now reflected in a positive altitude difference between our gliders of 675 ft: I am at 15,639 ft and John is at 16,314 ft.
Purists may say that the true final glide only starts here since neither of us stopped to climb from this position until the finish.
Let’s jump ahead another five minutes. We’re now 15 minutes into the glide:
John took advantage of his positive altitude difference and flew significantly faster than I did. He is now almost exactly 2 miles (3.2 km) ahead of me and about to enter the final turn point. At our flying speeds this means that John is now almost exactly one minute ahead. However, John’s higher speed came at the price of 1000 ft of additional altitude lost over the past five minutes: while he was previously 675 higher, he is now 371 ft lower. I’m now at 14,697 and John is at 14,326.
Once, again, let’s jump another five minutes ahead. We’re now 20 minutes into the glide:
John is still approx. 2 miles ahead. I have put the nose down with the finish in sight and am more rapidly losing altitude. At such very high speeds there is a steep price to pay for flying with less than maximum wing loading. I am now at 12,010 feet and John is now almost 300 feet higher at 12,308 ft.
There is still just over five minutes to go, so let’s jump to the last checkpoint before the finish. We’re now 25 minutes into the glide:
John expanded his lead to 3 miles (5 km). He’s been flying close to Vne and is now also dropping altitude more quickly. John’s altitude is now 9,365 ft and I am now almost 1000 ft higher at 10,327 ft.
It’s now obvious that John is clearly ahead and I can’t do anything to catch up. Let’s look at the finish line:
John is crossing the finish at 16:40:11 at an altitude of 9,221 ft. My position is shown at 16:37:11 (exactly 3 minutes earlier to maintain the same 3:00 minute difference that we have started out with). I’m still exactly 3 miles (5 km) behind and at 9,983 ft.
I will cross the finish line at 16:38:30 at an altitude of 9,671 ft.
John’s 93km glide took him a total of 25 minutes and 30 seconds, and mine tool 26 minutes and 49 seconds. In other words, the entire final glide took me 1 minute and 19 seconds longer than it took John. The difference of 1 minute and 19 seconds is 5.1% (79 seconds / 1530 seconds).
5.1% is quite significant but it is clearly less than the published polar curves suggest, especially if John flew close to maximum wing loading.
In addition we can see that John also lost 532 ft more altitude than I did during the final glide (John lost 7287 ft whereas I lost 6755 ft).
It would be tempting to say that at John’s average climb rate of 490 fpm for the entire flight, it would have taken him 1 minute and 5 seconds to gain that 532 ft of altitude and the net advantage of his JS3 on final glide was therefore only 14 seconds (1:19 minus 1:05 minutes) – i.e. only 0.9% (14/1530 seconds).
However, such an argument – while mathematically correct – would miss the point that flying faster at a speed that would have resulted in an additional loss of 532 feet would not have allowed me to reduce my finishing time difference from 1:19 minutes to just 14 seconds. The reason is that the speed polar drops off quite steeply at such high speeds. A better way to save time would have been for me to just not do that one pointless exploratory turn. This one turn cost me 50 seconds and netted no altitude gain at all. Omitting this turn alone would have reduced my finishing gap from 1:19 to 29 seconds.
In summary I can say that my Ventus 2cxT held up quite well against John’s JS3. In other words, it confirms that John’s superior performance over the entire flight has much more to do with pilot skill (e.g. during John’s only turn during the glide he gained 700 feet in 70 seconds compared to my 0 ft gain in 50 seconds) than with any performance advantage that his JS3 may have over my Ventus 2cxT. This also is confirmed by my prior analysis of all other aspects of this flight.
Clearly, this analysis is just based on one flight and not under “laboratory” conditions. It is not scientifically valid because not all variables were “held equal.” We did fly three minutes apart and it is possible (tough doubtful) that the conditions were more favorable three minutes earlier. We also took a slightly different line above the Wasatch Plateau and I might have gotten lucky. But I doubt it. I’m fairly confident that the performance difference between the two gliders is exaggerated. If anyone wants to do the performance analysis for themselves, the flight traces can be found here: John Seaborn’s trace and Clemens Ceipek’s trace.
On June 6 I published a “Beginner’s Guide to Scoring Well in the OLC Speed League“. This was – at least in part – written for myself as a guide for how to improve my own contribution. Now that the Speed League is over it is a good time to take stock and ask “How Did I Do?” and “What Have I Learned?”
Boulder Achieved 2nd Place World-Wide, Out of 1029 Clubs
First of all, credit is due to my club, the Soaring Society of Boulder (SSB). Out of 1029 participating soaring clubs competing in the World League, Boulder came in second place, beaten only by the outstanding team from the Minden Soaring Club. Boulder has been doing well in the Speed League for many years but this is the best result for the Soaring Society of Boulder since OLC was created.
After a 9th place finish in Round 1, Boulder took the overall lead in Round 2 and then managed to hold on to first place until Round 9 when the soaring gods unfortunately had nothing but rain in store along the Colorado Front Range. That gave Minden an opportunity to take the lead in Round 10, and Boulder was not able to catch back up.
The following table ranks the top 30 clubs in the 2020 World League. The list includes 29 soaring clubs in Germany, seven in the western United States (Minden, Boulder, Tucson, Black Forest, Moriarty, Tehachapi, and Northern Utah), and one in Finland.
One of my goals for the year was to make a significant contribution to SSB’s League Results. I wanted to measure this specifically by scoring among the top three SSB pilots on 10 of the 19 planned Speed League Weekends in 2020. (The top scores of three different pilots affiliated with a specific club count for the club’s overall results – hence my objective to be among the three pilots whose results get counted.)
The Covid pandemic caused a six week delay in the start of the Speed League and the League was shortened from 19 weeks to only 13 weeks. I therefore adjusted my goal accordingly to score among the top three Boulder pilots on seven of them.
I was able to fly on 10 of the 13 weekends. And I did achieve my goal of seven scores among the top three participants:
I had two first place results (Round 3 and Round 7), four second place results (Rounds 1, 2, 6 and 8) and one third place result (Round 4). In addition (not counted), I also came in second in the rained-out Round 9 when none of the Boulder pilots achieved a qualifying score (a minimum of 40 points).
Over the course of the season, 24 individual Boulder pilots contributed to SSB’s overall team score. This is more than ever before and shows the breadth of SSB’s soaring talent. The following table lists the top 10 contributors sorted by their “Contributing Points”, i.e. the cumulative number of OLC Speed Points for those rounds when the pilot’s score was among the top 3 SSB results. By this metric, I was among the top three contributors of my club behind CX and BC.
“Rounds Flown” indicates the number of rounds that a particular pilot participated in and achieved a Speed League Score of at least 40 points. Only flights on Saturdays and Sundays during the 13 week long Speed-League Season count.
“Rounds Among Top 3” indicates on how many weekends a pilot’s score was among the best three results; i.e. their score ultimately “counted” for SSB’s overall Speed League Score for that particular weekend.
“Total Points Earned” is the cumulative number of Speed League Points a particular pilot earned for all their flights during the entire Speed League Season (remember, only flights on Saturdays and Sundays count).
“Contributing Points (In Top 3)” is the cumulative number of Speed League Points of a particular pilot for those weekends when their flight was among the top 3 SSB results. Note: if a pilot would score among the top 3 pilots on every one of the weekend that they flew, their number of Contributing Points would be equal to their number of Points Earned. The fact that only one pilot scored among the top 3 on every weekend they flew (XR) underscores the breadth of overall team member participation.
“Contribution Per Round Flown” simply divides the “Contributing Points” of a pilot by the total number of rounds that they participated in.
“Contribution Per Round (Top 3)” divides the “Contributing Points” by the number of rounds when they scored among the top 3 SSB pilots, i.e. the number of rounds when their results counted.
Given that this has only been my third cross-country season I am definitely happy with my result. However, the point of this analysis is not to congratulate myself but to determine how I can improve going forward.
What Did I Learn?
I took a close look at eight speed league weekends when there were enough comparable flights to assess my performance against that of other pilots. Why only 8 instead of the 10 that I participated in? I removed the Speed League weekend when I flew from Nephi because my flight would not be comparable to those flying from Boulder. And I removed one weekend when I broke off my flight after 90 minutes due to thunderstorms. (Speed League Scoring is based on the best 2 1/2 hours, and my 90 minute flight would not have been comparable.)
To ensure a good dataset, my analysis only includes flights flown from Boulder and only flights flown on the same days that I was flying. My objective was to do an “apples to apples” analysis of specific flights, not a comprehensive analysis of all SSB Speed League Flights! (E.g., None of John Seaborn’s winning speed league scores are included because they were not flown from Boulder. Also excluded are flights by any pilot on days that I did not fly at all. )
The following table shows a summary of key stats from the best 2 1/2 hour flight segments that are automatically selected by OLC.
Before we dive into the data, it is important to note that only the results of CX and BX are truly comparable to my own (V1) because only CX and BC flew on almost all of the days that I was flying. (Y flew on 5 of the 8 days that I flew; AO, kW, and XR only flew on 2 of the 8 days that I flew. It any of them wanted to draw conclusions about their relative performance it would be better to only look at flights on the days that they flew instead, and not at the aggregate results across rounds that they did not participate in.)
With that caveat out of the way, what do the data actually tell?
First, they show that I (V1) had the lowest circling percentage of any pilot at only 13% and the Highest Effective Glide Ratio of 172:1. This is indicative of a certain flying style that prioritizes staying in rising air and – probably – flying relatively slowly, and possibly also accepting significant course deviations.
Unfortunately, as I pointed out in the aforementioned article, circling percentage and effective glide ratio are both composite metrics that are not only based on a pilot’s ability to follow energy lines, but are also a function of a pilot’s inter-thermal cruise speed. To truly understand a pilot’s ability to follow energy lines we must look at the average “netto” value while in cruise flight because this metric is independent of a pilot’s chosen flying speed.
Unfortunately, the OLC flight analysis does not provide the netto value.
Second, the table above shows that my 5.7 kt average climb rate in thermals was fairly competitive as well. Only CX climbed a bit better at 5.9 kt average, and kW had an outstanding average climb rate on one of his two flights resulting in an average of 6.5 kt.
Based on the flight stats that OLC provides it is impossible to tell why my average League Points per flight trailed the performances of CX, kW, and XR.
Multiple possible reasons come to mind:
Sub-optimal cruise speed between thermals (possibly too slow)
More course deviations than other pilots
Too much time lost in thermal tries
Unfortunately, OLC does not provide any data to gain insights into these potential factors.
In search for more answers, I turned to See You’s flight analysis software from Naviter. However, See You cannot isolate the best 2 1/2 hour OLC Speed League Segment and so it is necessary to examine the entire flight instead. This may not be too bad except that pilots tend to disregard competitive considerations once they have exhausted their 4 speed league segments. E.g., in Boulder it is not uncommon for pilots to loose many thousands of feet of altitude at the end of their flight by deliberately following lines of sink instead of lines of lift. Or they simply pull out the spoilers to lose excess altitude. Needless to say, such actions distort any performance analysis. In addition, Boulder is notorious for difficult climbs at the beginning of a flight until the pilot is “connected” with the upper level lift band. Pilots who get “stuck” early in their flight often spend an hour or more in weak lift trying to climb out while others take a higher tow and find good lift straight away. These factors also distort the analysis. It would therefore be much better to isolate the speed league segments only and be able to analyze the flying performance just for the part of the flight that actually “counts”.
So everything from here on must be viewed with these caveats in mind.
As we’ve seen above, I only circled 13% of the time during the Speed League segments of my flight. The relative impact of my circling performance is therefore lower than it would be if thermaling had accounted for a larger proportion of my flights.
The following table compares my circling performance to that of the other pilots flying on the same eight days.
Interestingly, my average circling percentage only goes up from 13% to 16% if I look at the entirety of my flights. This is somewhat surprising because it includes the initial climb-out phase, and suggests that I was on average lucky to find good thermals soon after releasing from tow.
Most of the other metrics also show favorable results for V1.
My average climb rate is shown as being the highest of all pilots. I do not put all too much stock in this metric though because this metric can be easily distorted by several factors. I already mentioned the initial climb out when it is fairly common to spend 30-60 minutes or even more in very weak lift (1 kt or even less) before getting into “good air” on the west side of the Front Range convergence. Another potential distortion can occur when a pilot deliberately circles to lose altitude prior to landing. See You will treat this just like thermaling and the result is that the data unfortunately becomes useless for comparison purposes.
I calculated the “Average Loss Ratio” in thermals as the ratio of altitude lost compared to altitude gained while thermaling. I think of this as a metric of effective thermal centering: the lower the loss ratio, the better the thermals are centered because the glider is in lift most of the time while circling. The data shows that only CX had an equally low loss ratio in thermals. (However, the caveats mentioned above apply here as well.)
“Average Tries” measures how much time during the flight gets wasted by trying out (and ultimately rejecting) thermals. See You uses 45 seconds as the “cut off” time; i.e. if the pilot circles for less than 45 seconds before moving ahead on course this is deemed to be a “try”. At 2.5% my “Average Tries” percentage might be a bit higher than I think it should be. CX spent only half as much time trying out thermals. However, I’m not sure what value is ideal. At first glance it would seem that the lower the better, but a very low tries percentage could also suggest that a pilot is not rejecting enough weak thermals. (This would show up as a low average climb rate, which is certainly not the case for CX.)
“Average Altitude Gained/Lost During Tries” subtracts altitude losses from altitude gains during tries and calculates an average value per flight. I was a little surprised to see that the value was overall positive for my tries which suggests that I rejected weak climbs but that I did not lose altitude during these tries in aggregate. Most other pilots did lose more altitude than they gained during their tries.
Overall, I’m not sure that the Circling Performance Analysis provides strong indicators that would suggest specific improvement opportunities. Cutting my “tries” percentage may help but only if it doesn’t lead me to reject really good thermals as well.
I believe there exist are other improvement opportunities for me but they are not specifically suggested by the data. E.g., I believe I could achieve better climb rates by tightening my circles, and flying slower in thermals. But to see this I would need to be able to compare my orbit times and ground speed in thermals to that of other pilots, especially in correlation to effective climb rates achieved. I also believe that I can further improve my aileron/rudder coordination in thermaling flight.
If the thermaling analysis is somewhat inconclusive in terms of identifying improvement opportunities, maybe more can be gleaned from an analysis of the cruise flight segments. Let’s look at the table below.
The first thing that jumped out to me is that my Average Effective Glide Ratio is still by far the best of any pilot (not surprising given that I also had the lowest circling percentage – which really is just the mirror image of this metric), but that my netto value is not as high as that of CX and XR.
As I mentioned before, netto is a much better metric to look at than effective glide ratio or thermaling percentage because it much better isolates a pilot’s ability to follow energy line.
A difference of 0.1 kt is certainly not a huge negative but it adds up, especially if one spends most of the time cruising! Consider this: since my thermaling percentage is only 16%, I spend 84% of my flight time in cruise flight. In other words: in aggregate, I cruise more than 5x longer than I circle (84/16=5.2). So, when the cruise percentage is that high, over the duration of an entire flight a 0.1 kt vertical speed difference while cruising is approx. equivalent to a 0.5 kt vertical speed difference while climbing! Looked at this way, it’s definitely not irrelevant.
On the other hand, the data set is not large enough to draw any conclusions. Following energy lines is as much an art as it is a science and the location and strength of energy lines is so variable that an analysis of just eight OLC flights (where each pilot flies at different locations and at different times within a very wide area) is certainly limited with respect to assessing skills of improvement opportunities.
What we can say from the data, however, is that the effective glide ratio is likely very significantly impacted by the average cruise speed: CX had the best netto value (1.6 vs 1.5 for V1) but his average effective glide ratio was significantly worse than mine (63 vs 107). The main difference is most likely CX’s higher average cruise speed (83 kts vs 79 kts after adjusting for the glider’s index). The higher cruise speed resulted in a higher sink rate during cruise, therefore a lower effective glide ratio, and hence more time spent circling. Still, CX had the overall better performance so it is likely that his combination of flying speed and climb rate in thermals gave him an overall edge.
Another possible explanation for the difference in performance is the percentage of course deviations. This seems such an obvious potential differentiator that one would think that the flight analysis software would provide this metric! Unfortunately this is not the case and there is no practical way to compare the extent of course deviations over eight flights manually.
Unfortunately, the insights gained from a detailed analysis of eight Speed League Flights are inconclusive with respect to truly understanding the performance differences and identifying specific areas for improvement.
The data suggest that my strengths include the ability to follow energy lines and centering thermals. This is also consistent with my findings in Nephi. These are core skills that have a very significant impact on overall performance and are key pillars of my current performance.
In addition to further honing these strengths, I believe I can further improve in the following areas. However, better flight analysis tools would be needed to confirm that these are more than “hunches”:
Better use of the full height band (increase in average climb height per thermal) / more selective in accepting thermals
Tighter circling (shorter orbit times – aim for around 25-27 seconds when ballasted, less without ballast.)
Slower orbiting speed (e.g. stall speed for the applicable bank angle and wing loading plus ~2 kts)
Further improvement in aileron/rudder coordination
Slightly reduce number of tries (but don’t aim for zero!)
Increased cruise speed, even when flying in lift along energy lines, with more aggressive pull ups in strong lift
Possibly reduce course deviations (need to be able to measure)
Opportunities for Providers of Flight Analysis Software – Especially for OLC!
To perform a more insightful analysis of OLC flights, a software would have to be able to isolate the portion of the flight that is scored by OLC. I.e., for Speed League Scores it would be necessary to specifically analyze the performance during the 2 1/2 hour Speed League segment (maximum of four legs as defined by OLC rules). For OLC plus flights, the relevant six legs would need to be isolated, again, based on the same rules that OLC applies. Once that is accomplished, the software would have to be able to calculate the following key data points:
Average climb rate in thermals; (ideally also the median climb rate)
% time spent in weak / medium / strong thermals (e.g. <2.5 kts; 2.5-5 kts; >5 kts). This is of interest because time spent in weak thermals is the #1 speed killer.
Average orbit time in thermals – a measure of how close one is able to fly to the core
Average speed while circling in thermals (air speed or ground speed) – in conjunction with orbit time another key metric to measure one’s ability to stay close to the core
Number of thermals
Average height gain per thermal – this is important to understand how much of the lift band one is able to exploit; greater height gain means fewer thermals, which fewer centering losses
Loss ratio (altitude lost / altitude gained while thermaling) – a measure for one’s ability to center thermals and keep them centered
Isolate Tries from Thermals and from Cruise:
% time in tries
Number of tries
Altitude gain – altitude loss in tries
% time in cruise flight
Netto during cruise flight only (excluding thermals and in thermal tries)
% time in weak / medium / strong lift (e.g. <2.5 kts; 2.5-5 kts; >5 kts)
% time in weak / medium / strong sink (e.g. <2.5 kts; 2.5-5 kts; >5 kts)
Average cruise distance between thermals (excluding tries)
Effective glide ratio (but this has mostly entertainment value)
OLC already has an enormous repository of flight data and would be in an excellent position to provide these analysis tools. Introducing such tools as a subscription offering could also be a revenue opportunity for OLC. Such a tool could allow pilots to benchmark their flights against those of others who flew in the same area on the same day. I believe this would be a highly valuable add on and many pilots would be willing to pay extra for such insights.
Introducing such a tool could also pave the way for additional “big data” analyses of OLC flight traces. The opportunities to provide deep insights are enormous. E.g., flight traces could be used to create “heat maps” of “house thermals” or other highly active thermal areas. Frequently flown XC routes could be identified similar to how Strava shows routes that are frequented by runners or bicyclists. Anyone who’s exploring a new area, taking a soaring vacation, or just simply planning cross country flights would find huge value in such tools.
It would be easy to anonymize the data that is being used for such analyses such that data privacy considerations can be addressed.
Unfortunately OLC is not (yet) taking advantage of its data repository. Worse, by limiting flight trace downloads to 20 per day it even prevents soaring pilots from exploiting this treasure trove of data on their own. There’s a tremendous opportunity to create real value for the soaring community. I hope someone will!
Covid destroyed my plans to fly my first two soaring contests in 2020 – the 20m-2-Seater-Nationals in Montague, CA as well as the Region 9 Sports Class Contest in Nephi, UT. Both of these contests were postponed to 2021.
But there was one day in 2020 when I did fly in a friendly race: a bunch of pilots including myself made their way to Nephi for a practice week in preparation for next year’s contests. And on July 1 the organizers declared a contest task fit for the 18 meter class. It was the only day of the year where I flew exactly the same task as several other pilots. One day isn’t much to go by, but I wouldn’t be me if I skipped the opportunity to analyze the results. Especially since one of the pilots was John Seaborn, a multiple National Champion, and a fellow Boulder pilot. Don’t pass up an opportunity to learn!
The task was a Turn Area Task (TAT, aka AAT) with three assigned turn areas:
Start: 04 SE Start – radius 5 miles
TP1: 66 Nine Mile Ranch – radius 20 miles
TP2: 81 Table Mountain – radius 20 miles
TP3: 15 Browns Peak – radius 5 miles
Finish: 05 Finish (i.e. Nephi Airport) – radius 2 miles
Task Distance: from 275.2 miles minimum to 447 miles maximum (364.4 miles from the center of each turn area to the next)
Minimum Task Time: 3 hours (this seemed extremely short to me based on the task distance, so I basically decided to ignore it and just fly around the task as fast as possible). There was no declared maximum start altitude.
There were 18 pilots flying from Nephi that day. However, flying the task was entirely voluntary and I don’t know how many attempted it.
At least six pilots uploaded flight tracks to OLC that show valid task declarations for this particular task in their flight recorders. Five of them finished the task. I based my analysis on the five finishers because these flights are most directly comparable.
Pilot A, Hph 304 SJ 18 meter. Current Pilot Ranking: 91. Holds FAI 1000km Diploma. Several top 5 finishes at Sports Class contests
Pilot B, LS3a 15 meter. No information found on the SSA website.
Pilot C, Ventus 2cxa FES 18 meter. Current Pilot Ranking: 73. Participated at several Regional Contests.
Pilot D, JS3 18 meter. Current Pilot Ranking: 100. Multiple National Champion. World Championship Contender.
Pilot E, Ventus 2cxT 18 meter. No Pilot Ranking.
I am pilot E. 😉
I have attempted to score the flight according to SSA Sports Class rules and applied handicaps for the gliders (because one of them was an older 15m ship that clearly was not competitive with the 18 m gliders of the other 4 contenders.
These were the results (provided that I did the scoring correctly which is, frankly, insanely complicated):
1st Place: Pilot D. 1000 points (blue trace)
2nd Place: Pilot E. 823 points (purple trace)
3rd Place: Pilot A. 804 points (red trace)
4th Place: Pilot C. 783 points (green trace)
5th Place: Pilot B. 614 points (yellow trace)
The following table shows the raw speeds (before applying the handicap) and is easier to understand:
Avg. Speed (kts)
Not surprisingly, Pilot D – the multiple National Champion, let’s correctly identify him as John Seaborn :-), posted the fastest speed, and won by a wide margin.
Pilots A, C, and E were fairly close together (separated by 3.5 kts or 40 points), but far behind John. I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that I came in 2nd place, even though my performance was vastly inferior to John’s.
Pilot B was considerably behind everyone else. However, his raw speed is not comparable because he flew an inferior glider (the 15m LS3a).
Just looking at raw speeds and point totals doesn’t really teach me anything except that I can’t compete with John Seaborn. But that I already knew.
So let’s dig a layer deeper and look at some key stats to see some of the differences, in order to understand why John was able to score so much better than anyone else.
(1) Cruise Speeds
Given that John’s average speed of 86 kts was more than 15 kts faster than that of any other pilot it would seem likely that he flew much faster between thermals.
And in fact, John did indeed fly much faster than anyone else:
Avg IAS during cruise flight
John’s average indicated air speed in cruise flight was 92 kts, 16 kts faster than mine.
John was also 15.2 kts faster overall on average so at first glance it would be tempting to attribute John’s superior overall performance primarily to his higher cruising speed.
But beware! This line of thinking would be a big mistake!
Let’s figure out how my overall average speed would have been affected if I had matched John’s speed and flown 16 kts faster during my cruise segments. Had I flown at 92 knots instead of 76 knots, my sink rate would have been about 110 fpm greater than it actually was. (Based on the wing loading of my Ventus 2xcT with partial water ballast my sink rate at 76 kts IAS was about 180 fpm; at 92 kts IAS (John’s cruise speed) it would have been ~290 fpm).
While flying faster would have meant that my cruise time would have shrunk by 17.4% from 196 minutes to 162 minutes (i.e, by 34 minutes), I would have lost an additional 11,700 feet of altitude (162 min x 290 fpm – 196 min x 180 fpm). At my average climb rate of 4.2 kts (~420 fpm), it would have taken me 28 minutes to regain that altitude.
This means, my overall flight duration would have improved only by about 6 minutes, not by 34 minutes! My average speed would have increased from 70.8 knots to 72.7 knots. A little faster, yes, but still nowhere near John’s performance. My point total would have increased from 823 to 845.
In other words, John’s higher average cruising speed explains about 1.9 kts of the 15.2 kts speed difference between his flight and mine. That is 12.5% of the total performance difference.
BTW – this improvement assumes that I would have been able to maintain the same 4.2 kt climb average and not been tempted (or forced) to take weaker climbs as a result of losing altitude faster.
Let’s also calculate what would have happened had I flown just 5 kts faster: 81 kts instead of 76 kts IAS. My cruise flight duration would have been 186 minutes (10 minutes shorter) but my sink rate would have been approx. 25 fpm worse (based on my glider’s speed polar at my actual wing loading). In this case I would have lost an additional 2,850 ft over the course of the flight (196×180-186×205=2850), which would have taken me close to 7 minutes to regain while circling (2850/420=6.8). I.e., I would have saved a little over 3 minutes in total.
So, could or should I have flown faster. Yes. Would it have had a big impact? Probably not. Would it have made me as fast as John? Most definitely not!
The reality is that modest variations in average cruise speed by 5%, 10% or even 15% have only a fairly minor impact on the overall average performance because they are largely offset by the glider’s varying sink rates at different air speeds. McCready’s speed to fly theory is of course accurate but its importance tends to be overrated. Especially because there is also a strategic price to pay for faster cruise speeds: because the glider sinks faster to the ground the pilot has fewer options to select suitable thermals. This means that the faster flying pilot may find high average climb rates more difficult to attain. He or she also faces a higher land-out risk.
So, if John’s higher cruise speed wasn’t the main reason for his superior performance (it wasn’t), then what was? Let’s look at other potential reasons below.
(2) Flight Duration
In a Turn Area Task with a minimum task time, flight duration is a relevant factor. The minimum task duration was 3 hours, and John optimized his time quite well – although he would have scored even higher had he flown the full 3 hours and not finished 1 minute and 10 seconds too early. In fact, had he flown exactly three hours his average speed would have been 86.6 kts instead of 86.0 kts (assuming that he had enough altitude to extend his flight just a little at the last turn point – as in fact, he did). 0.6 kts may not sound much but it could make a crucial difference if the results are very close. (Per my calculations, the point difference between John and the other pilots would have been 6 points greater had he finished at an average speed of 86.6 kts instead of 86.0 kts).
Coming in “right on time” (or slightly above) is usually an advantage because the start altitude is considerably higher than the finish altitude and a pilot who flies just the minimum time (and no longer) is best able to convert that altitude difference into a higher average speed.
How big is this effect on a 3 hour task? Not insignificant. Math guru John Cochrane has done the work and given us some formulas to estimate the effect. On a three hour task in western conditions, the cost tends to be about 0.5 score points per minute of overtime. I.e. my 50 minutes of overtime might have cost me about 25 points. I.e., instead of being 177 points behind John, I might have only been 152 points behind, had I been able to finish the task in 3 hours instead of taking 3 hours and 50 minutes.
In other words: my 50 minutes of overtime explains about 14% of the overall performance difference between myself and John.
(2) Circling Percentage
A popular metric to compare flights of different gliders is to look at the amount of time pilots spend circling versus cruising. Since you’re not moving forward while you go around in circles, a high circling percentage tends to be a disadvantage.
John’s circling percentage was indeed quite low: 20%. However, it was not the lowest. In fact, I spent even less relative time circling than John did: only 15%!
But did this lower circling percentage give me a demonstrable advantage? Unfortunately that is impossible to say! The problem with the metric “circling percentage” is that it is a complex data point – a composite of several factors that include not only route selection (e.g. flying through lift vs sink), but also flying speed (if you fly slower your sink rate is lower, i.e., you arrive at the next thermal higher, and you need to circle less.)
Because of its composite nature it is impossible to say that the pilot with the lower circling percentage necessarily gains an overall advantage.
(3) Effective Glide Ratio
Highly related to the circling percentage is the effective glide ratio achieved in cruising flight. This is in part a measure of how effectively a pilot is able to follow energy lines, but, just like the circling percentage, it is also a composite metric driven in part by the inter-thermal cruise speed.
The more effective one is at following energy lines, but also, the slower one flies, the less one needs to circle and the higher the effective glide ratio. And indeed, the results show a mirror image of the circling percentage:
My effective glide ratio of 93:1 was better than anyone else’s. John’s 79:1 came second. However, just like the circling percentage, this metric ultimately doesn’t mean very much.
(Note: a reader might wonder how it is possible to achieve such high effective glide ratios with gliders that have a “best” glide ratio of around 50:1 when flown at best L/D speed (i.e. much slower than we were flying). The answer, of course, has to do with the pilot’s ability to follow energy lines – areas where the air is on average rising instead of sinking or just standing still. More about that right below.)
(4) Following Energy Lines
The circling percentage and the effective glide ratio might be taken to mean that I did better than anyone else in terms of following the best energy lines. However, as I mentioned, both metrics combine the effects of following energy lines and the actual inter-thermal cruise speed.
A much purer measure for the ability to follow energy lines is the netto value during the straight flight segments. Netto measures the actual vertical movement of the air that the glider flies through and is not impacted by the glider’s sink rate. Hence, it just measures the effectiveness of the choice of route and is thus a much better metric to use.
Netto in straight flight (kts)
This table shows that it was John who did the best job with respect to following energy lines. During all of John’s straight flying segments the air rose at an average rate of 2.1 kts. On this measure Pilot A ranked second with an average netto value of 1.8. Pilots C and E (myself) were tied in third place with a netto value of 1.6 kts.
How much difference did this make? John spent 2 hours and 22 minutes in straight flight. During that time the airmass he flew through went up by an average value of 2.1 kts, approx. 210 fpm. That is 50 fpm more than during my flight where it went up on average by 160 fpm. Over John’s entire task this difference amounts to 7,100 feet (50 fpm x 142 minutes). At my average climb rate of 4.2 kts (~420 fpm) – see below – I needed 17 minutes to climb 7,100 feet. On a 3 hour task, 17 minutes equals 9.4% (17/180). And 9.4% is the difference between John’s winning speed of 86 kts and a speed of 78 kts.
In other words, John’s superior performance with respect to following energy lines explains 8 kts (more than 50%) of the 15.2 kts speed difference between our two flights. It is thus the single most significant factor of John’s overall superior performance!
Since this is such a hugely important factor I also tried to understand specifically what John did better in terms of following energy lines. This is very difficult to glean from the data alone but I was able to combine evidence from the flight trace and an analysis of my inflight video recording. Let’s take a closer look.
The following graph overlays the flight traces of John and I. John’s trace is shown in red and my trace is shown in blue.
The graph above indicates where John and I made different route choices, especially with respect to approaching the first turn area (top right) and the second turn area (bottom left). But it tells us nothing as to which of the two traces followed better energy lines.
Fortunately, SeeYou (the flight analysis software from Naviter) allows us to display the traces based on their netto values as well. This is shown in the graph below.
You have to be careful to remember which trace belongs to which pilot. That’s why I included the graph earlier that clearly shows which of the two traces belongs to John and which one belongs to myself.
At first glance there doesn’t appear to be too much difference. But if we take a closer look at the approaches to TP1 and TP2, we can see some subtle differences in the color gradient.
Let’s look at the approach to TP1 first:
The differences are subtle but it you look carefully, you can see that my trace (the one further north) towards and away from TP 1 contains somewhat more blue segments than John’s (the one further south).
(Note: you can also see that I wasted quite a bit of time after turning TP1 trying to climb. I was uncomfortable with my altitude and made a number of unsuccessful exploratory turns. This was another contributing factor to my overall performance; it is discussed below under point (5) Climbing).
One might wonder: why did I fly such a northerly line to TP1, just barely nicking it and then heading back west? The answer is in the following image, taken a few minutes before I turned right to nick the the turn area:
To get to TP1 I followed a cloud street to the northeast, which ran past the turn area to its north. The turn area itself was in the blue to the right in the picture above.
Why did John decide not to follow the same line? I don’t know for sure but I can speculate. Let’s come back to this below after discussing TP2.
Here’s our different approaches to TP2. Let’s look at the graph:
John’s trace is the one further east (right), and mine is the one further west (left). Once again you can see that there seems to be a bit more blue in my trace than in John’s trace.
Why did John take the easterly route while I took a more westerly line? Here’s what the sky ahead looked like as I was heading towards TP2:
In the picture above I am about 25 miles north of TP2. I dare say there wasn’t much to go by to determine what route to take. The sky was entirely blue. I simply stayed above the high ground of the Wasatch Plateau and took pretty much every lift I could find to stay high.
As you can see from the trace, John flew a more easterly line. Did he know something that I didn’t?
Here is the answer: John had started the task much later than I did and came to the same area about 20 minutes after I did. Here is what the sky looked like by the time John was still about 25 miles further north:
A nice line of clouds developed further east that had not existed earlier. John could see the clouds ahead and was able to follow them while I was already too close to the turn area by the time the clouds appeared.
This means that a key reason why John was able to find a better line to and from TP 2 was that he timed the start of his task better: while I made the rookie mistake of starting as soon as I was up and seeing a path to get to TP1, John decided to wait for the day to develop further. As it turned out, these 20 minutes played a big role!
Let’s revisit the approach to TP1 as well: I believe, John’s later start also allowed him to fly a more direct route into the first turn area.
The above image shows John’s trace. Note the 90 degree kink in the line near Brown’s Peak on the left. This is just speculation but I think that John may have changed his course because he could see the first cloud appear in the turn area, which had been completely blue when I approached it earlier. You can see that John also didn’t just “nick” the turn area but continued into it for a few miles where he climbed in good lift. I have to believe that a cumulus had formed by the time he entered the turn area (almost one hour later in the day than I did). This would underscore the advantage one can gain by starting later and letting the day develop before going on task. (Obviously this makes only sense when the better part of the day is ahead and there is no risk of being unable to finish.)
Note that by flying a direct line to TP1, John was also able to reduce the total task distance and finish much closer to the minimum finishing time. Had he continued to the northern edge of the turn area (as I did), John would also have finished with overtime. I discussed the advantage of finishing on time in Section (2) above.
In summary I conclude that John’s decision to start the task later was a key factor helping him follow better energy lines, because he was able to follow cloud lines that had not existed earlier and thereby increase the ratio of flying in lift vs. in sink.
Pilots who are able to thermal better than their competitors can also gain a major advantage. And indeed, John’s average climb rate of 4.9 was clearly better than anyone else’s:
Avg climb rate kts
The delta between John’s climb rate and mine is 0.7 kts or 70 ft per minute, just over 1 ft per second. This may not sound like much but it adds up. John spent 36.6 minutes circling. In that time he gained about 2,500 ft more than I did (36.6×70=2562). Which means: I would have needed six minutes longer to achieve the same gain of height (2562/420=6.1). On a 3 hour task, six minutes are 3.3% or the difference between 86 kts (John’s winning speed) and 83.2 kts.
In other words, John’s superior climb performance explains 2.8 kts (almost 20%) of the 15.2 kts speed difference between our two flights.
Once again, I tried to dig a little deeper. Did John actually center the thermals better or did he just do a better job at thermal selection?
The data point to both being factors: John spent most of his circling time in 5, 6, and 7 kt thermals; whereas I spent most circling time in 4, 5, and 6 kt thermals. I also wasted about 10 minutes trying to climb in sinking air and lost a total of 1500 ft whereas John wasted only 5 minutes this way and only lost 200 feet.
I lost this wasted time in two places: (1) when I got lower than I liked coming out of TP1 with still some blue sky to cross ahead, and (2) when I tried to stay high prior to TP 2 with only blue sky ahead. (A later start may have helped reduce some of the wasted time because clearly marked thermals ahead would have given me more confidence and lessened the impetus to try every lift that I encountered in the blue.)
This difference of 1300 feet extra wasted explains approx. another 10% (or 1.5 kts) of the delta between John’s performance and mine. The additional 5 minutes wasted account for another 3% (or 0.4 knots).
# of Thermals
Avg Glide Distance (miles)
Avg Altitude Gain per Thermal (ft)
John also took only 14 thermals with an average altitude gain of 1300 feet per thermal and flew on average 23 miles between thermals whereas I took 19 thermals with an average altitude gain of less than 800 feet per thermal and only flew 18 miles between thermals. This is illustrative of my overly conservative flying style. (Another indicator is that my thermal entry altitude was consistently about 1000 feet higher than John’s.)
The number of thermals chosen and the average altitude gained per thermal do not impact the overall performance “per se”. But they are an important reason as to why my average climb rate was lower than John’s: each time you stop to thermal you have to first center the thermal before you can get the most out of it. John did this 14 times and I did it 19 times. It goes to reason that centering more thermals made my climbs less efficient and is a significant contributor to John’s superior climb rate.
(6) Other Potential Factors
(a) Speed Variations in Cruise Flight
One might think that pilots could gain a significant advantage by really slowing down in rising air and speeding up in sinking air. However, the following chart shows that none of the five pilots varied the speed significantly from their average cruise speeds while flying through rising and sinking air. The data are in kts IAS relative to the average IAS flown by each pilot.
Slow down in rising air (relative to avg)
Speed up in sinking air (relative to avg)
I was especially surprised to see that none of the pilots sped up much while flying through sink.
I think the problem is that varying the cruise speed between lift and sink works great in theory but is very difficult to do in practice. If you find yourself in sink and speed up, chances are that you fly too fast through the next patch of rising air. Conversely, if you’re flying in lift and slow down, it’s quite possible that the lift will have ended by the time your speed has come down and now you’re going too slow in sink. In the soaring literature this is often referred to as “chasing MC speed” and I am not the first one to observe that it doesn’t really work in real life. In addition to always lagging behind in your reaction it is also inefficient to constantly vary your speed by pushing and pulling. Obviously, it does make sense to vary your speed if you positively know what’s just ahead (e.g. if you’re closely following another glider and can observe it rising or falling). But in the absence of compelling clues it is often better to just maintain your speed during cruise.
(b) Tactical Turn Point Height
Turn Point 2 was located directly into a 13-16 kt headwind from SSW and provided an opportunity to gain an advantage by rounding the turn point low and then using the tailwind to gain altitude while moving on towards Turn Point 3.
Altitude when rounding TP2
The table above shows relatively small altitude differences among the various pilots when rounding TP2 and suggests that none of the pilots gained a tactical advantage. Turn Points 1 and 3 offered much less opportunity to gain an advantage.
(c) Start Timing
John Seaborn was the only one of the five pilots who seemed to deliberately time the start based on improving soaring conditions. Everyone else started right after gaining sufficient altitude to get going.
It is impossible to directly measure the impact of the different start times. However, as we have seen, waiting to start late was likely a key underlying contributor to John’s superior performance as it helped him follow appropriate energy lines and improve his climb performance.
(d) Start and Finish Altitude
Since this was just a practice task, there was not a declared maximum start altitude although I suspect John deliberately started lower for practice reasons. A higher start altitude would have provided an advantage.
Minimum Finish Altitude was 7000 ft and most everyone returned significantly higher than that. I remember there being a lot of lift on the final leg and I flew close to Vne or the altitude and I still came in more than 2,500 ft too high. John was just a few miles behind me and flew through the same air, also finishing high.
By starting ~3000 ft higher than John and finishing ~500 ft higher I gained a net advantage of 2500 ft, which translates to a six minute time advantage in my favor (2500/420=5.9) and can alternatively also be expressed as a speed advantage of 2.8 kts in my favor.
George Moffat explained in his classic book “Winning II” (p. 42-50) that winning can be viewed as the result of not losing. He illustrates that the winner of any particular flight usually did several or many things (big and small) a little better than his or her competitors, and that the win can therefore be explained as a sum of all these things.
If I contrast John’s flight with mine, here is a summary of the things that John did better than I, and how much each factor contributed to the overall results:
Following energy lines (measured by netto in cruise flight) … 8 kts
John climbed better (measured by average climb rate) … 2.8 kts
Time and altitude wasted in “trying out thermals” … 1.9 kts
Finishing on time vs. finishing with 50 min overtime … 1.7 kts
More optimal cruise speed … 1.9 kts
Total difference: 16.3 kts
As discussed I believe that John’s decision to delay the start of his task until 13:41 (53 minutes later than my start) contributed to his ability to follow better energy lines, finish closer to minimum time, reduce time wasted in exploring thermals in the blue, and possibly even achieve a higher average climb rate.
From the 16.3 kts we have to subtract factors where John put himself at a disadvantage:
Net difference in start/finish altitude … 2.8 kts
John finished 1 min 20 seconds under minimum time … 0.6 kts
In sum, the analysis explains 12.9 kts (16.3 – (2.8+0.6)) of the overall speed difference between our two flights while the actual speed difference was 15.2 kts. This leaves just 2.3 kts of speed differential unexplained.
I believe that some of the unexplained 2.3 kts may be attributable to John’s slightly superior glider (a new JS3 vs compared to my 17-year old Ventus 2cxT) and potential differences in wing loading (I flew with 2/3 water ballast; I don’t know John’s wing loading but it may have been higher than mine).
(1) Focus Most on What Matters Most: Energy Lines and Climb Rates!
This deep-dive analysis of one single flight suggests that the following two factors have the biggest impact on overall performance:
The ability to follow energy lines (as measured by “netto” in cruise flight)
The ability to avoid weak climbs, minimize tries in sink, and achieve a high average climb rate (selecting the most appropriate start time can play a major contributing role)
These two things not only have the biggest impact, they are also skills that one must develop and hone over time. And they are relevant on every single flight.
Over the past two seasons I have significantly improved my ability to follow energy lines but I still have a ways to go as this one flight clearly shows. Starting a task later in the day can make energy lines more visible.
I have also been working on improving my climb rate in thermals and there are still some low hanging fruit such as thermaling slower and tighter. The data suggest that I also have an opportunity to become more selective: I should skip more of the weaker thermals and use more of the available altitude band. It is best to only take thermals that offer an average or better climb rate. And it is critical to minimize the time it takes to center them. That’s why it is generally better to take fewer thermals. In contests it is often best to take thermals marked by other gliders, precisely because others have already done the centering work for you (obviously assuming that they did it right.) I was actually encouraged to see that my avg climb rate was “only” 15% lower than John’s.
(2) Picking the “Right” Start Time
It seems that picking the right start time was a key underlying contributor that may have helped John achieve a superior performance – especially with respect to following energy lines and achieving a superior average climb performance.
(3) Other Tactical Improvement Opportunities
Compared to the overarching factors above, everything else is secondary (although, of course, it also adds up). Interestingly, most of the other contributing factors are more tactical in nature and can be more readily improved by an average pilot, including:
Not leaving potential energy on the table by departing too low or finishing too high. The departure altitude is relatively straightforward as in contests it tends to be a given. The finish is trickier and my conservative approach means that I am likely to come in too high. I will need to practice more final glides to gain the confidence to finish close to the minimum finish altitude.
Optimizing the finish time (avoid under time; minimize over time). I have been practicing a few TATs and they are more fun than I initially thought. On this particular flight I believe that a later start time might have helped me pick a shorter flight path and finish closer to minimum time.
Flying closer to MC speed. The stats on this flight showed – once again – that I am among the more conservative XC pilots. There’s definitely some room for me to fly faster and take higher sporting risks. However, the rewards of flying faster are not huge and I will always have to balance this against the added land-out risk and the risk of having to take weak climbs that could destroy my overall result.
Turning upwind turn points low and downwind turn points high. This did not play a big factor on this particular task, likely because TP2 (where it would have helped) was in the blue and I therefore tried to stay high. However, from my experience with Condor I know that this tactic can have a significant impact on the overall result.
Speeding up in sink and slowing down in lift. This is great in theory but the data suggest that it may be impractical to do this efficiently in reality, especially with a ballasted high performance glider. Lift and sink tend to alternate so quickly that it is often impossible to vary the airspeed in a timely manner. There is nothing worse than pulling up in lift only to find oneself in sink again right when the glider has slowed down; or conversely, to push down in sink only to find oneself shooting through the next patch of lift at high speed.
(4) Don’t Look Too Much At Composite Metrics such as Glide Ratio and Circling Percentage
Composite metrics that I have liked to look at in the past such as circling percentage and effective glide ratio achieved, have more entertainment value than analytical value. You won’t win a race because you have achieved the lowest circling percentage or the highest effective glide ratio. You primarily win the race because you consistently flew through better air than your competitors (as measured by netto), and because you achieved a high average climb rate, especially by picking a limited number of good thermals and successfully avoiding weak climbs.
On August 7, I successfully earned my 750k Diplome by completing a pre-declared 757 km task with three turn-points. It was my eight attempt at such a task. Here is the flight track. I’ve documented the flight in detail in the following video.
In this article I will NOT focus on the successful flight but instead on the seven failed attempts that preceded it. I want to examine exactly what went wrong, when, and why. And most importantly: what did I learn from these failed attempts?
Attempt #1 – You’ve Got to Take This More Seriously!
On May 5, 2020 I declared the following task:
Start/Finish: Gross Reservoir Dam
TP1: Morton Pass, Wyoming (42 km north of Laramie) – 189 km
TP2: Lake George (30km northwest of Pikes Peak) – 296 km
TP3: Rustic (35 km north of Estes Park) – 191 km
Finish: Gross Reservoir Dam – 85 km
Task Distance: 762 km
I launched at 12:39 pm, released in the pattern, and spent about 45 minutes getting connected. The launch itself had probably been too late already and when I finally was ready to get on task it was clearly too late for such an endeavor. I realized this at the time and didn’t even bother to head south to cross my start line at Gross Reservoir.
In retrospect, I am not sure I should even call this an “attempt” since I did not even get a valid start. I went on to have a nice flight: 561 km at an average speed of 120 kph based on OLC plus rules was fun but a serious effort to achieve a declared 750 km task it was clearly not.
Another question is: could it have worked had I started earlier? The honest answer is, “I don’t know”. The day was fairly strong with a well-working convergence line. I can’t be certain that the convergence would have worked all the way to my first turn point because I only flew north until Crystal Lakes and did not try to get further north from there. However, a line of clouds indicated the location of the convergence and it seemed to be in the right direction albeit with a lower cloud base.
The following picture shows my location over Crystal Lakes looking north towards Laramie just before turning back south.
The image suggests that it probably would have been possible to follow the convergence to the north – although maybe not at the same speed as the rest of my flight. But by the time I got there it was already too late in the day. What would the same location looked like two hours earlier? Did the convergence exist at that time? Was it marked? These questions are of course impossible to answer in retrospect.
Bob Faris and John Seaborn had the longest flights from Boulder that day with just under 600 km and no-one flew faster than my 120 kph average. These stats suggest that the day may not have been strong enough to accomplish a 750 km flight.
Overall, I think the key lesson to learn from this flight is this: if I really want to accomplish a 750 km task, I have to take it more seriously. A 750 km flight requires a different approach than a 500 km flight. In particular, I have to start early enough to have enough time in the soaring day.
TP1: Greenhorn Mountain (60 km south of Cañon City)- 245 km
TP2: Crystal Lakes (15 km south of the CO/WY border) – 334 km
TP3: Squaw Mountain (7 km south of Idaho Springs) – 130 km
Finish: Bighorn Mountain – 43 km
Task Distance: 752 km
This time I launched at 12:14 – about half an hour earlier. However, I made the same mistake of releasing in the pattern on a convergence day. I spent almost 50 minutes below 9,000 feet before I finally managed to break free of the inversion and got into convergence lift.
To my credit I went to get a valid start and made an attempt to reach my first turn point. However, I knew that conditions would have to be extraordinarily strong to complete the task before the end of the soaring day. I made good progress into a southerly headwind until I got to the town of Victor (south-west of Pikes Peak) where I decided to give up because the remaining 90 km to Greenhorn Mountain were devoid of any clouds. Instead, a beautiful cloud street beckoned across South Park and so I decided to head west into the Mosquito Range. I had a nice flight of 533 km and flew above Mt. Bross, my last remaining 14er of the Mosquito Range.
Could it have worked in hindsight? It’s impossible to say. John Seaborn had the longest flight from Boulder on that day with 869 km. This is proof that long flights were definitely possible. John launched 1:15 hours before me and managed to connect at 11:43 am, 1:30 hours earlier than I did. As far as I can tell, no pilot flew into the Wet Mountains that day where my first turn point was located. Skysight had predicted some clouds that day over the Wet Mountains and that forecast had not come to pass.
The lessons on this flight are similar to those on my first attempt. To accomplish a 750k task it is critical to start earlier and to not waste time trying to connect. An earlier and deeper mountain tow may be necessary, especially on convergence days with a strong inversion over the plains.
Attempt #3 – Plan the Final Turn Point More Wisely
Flying out of Nephi, Utah, my third attempt was on July 2:
Start: 04 SE Start
TP1: 47 King’s Peak (High Uintas) – 171 km
TP2: 73 Salina Canyon (along I-70) – 235 km
TP3: 52 Mirror Lake (High Uintas) – 211 km
Finish: 04 SE Start – 137 km
Task Distance: 753 km
I launched at 12:14 pm (which is fairly early for Nephi – about the equivalent of 11:45 am in Boulder due to Nephi’s westerly longitude) and climbed quickly to 12,000 feet. I left the climb to cross the start line relatively low. Unfortunately, I fell out of the band at that point and wasted about 20 minutes to reconnect. By the time I went out on task it was 1 pm.
My first turn point, King’s Peak (part of the High Uintas), is the tallest mountain in Utah and it turned out to be a real challenge. While conditions were great up to Strawberry Reservoir, thermals became narrow and windblown further to the north and only one in three clouds produced climbable lift. I managed to turn King’s Peak at 2:28 pm but this stretch had been hard work and even with a tail wind, I had only averaged 98 kph.
Conditions improved once I was back at Strawberry Reservoir and able to connect with the convergence line above the Wasatch Plateau. My second leg of the flight was into a headwind but I picked up the pace and averaged 110 kph rounding my southern turn point at Salida Canyon at 4:37pm.
The third leg started out really fast (160 kph average with a tailwind) but as I approached Strawberry Reservoir for the second time it was 5:20 pm and I had another 90 km to go to Mirror Lake. My memories of the difficulties of flying into the High Uintas from earlier in the day were still very much on my mind. As I considered flying into that terrain again at the end of the day I got cold feet – especially considering that I would then have to face a stiff headwind back to Nephi for the final 137 km.
Could it have worked? Who knows… Several pilots flew into the High Uintas that day but no one went there so late in the afternoon. And that is the key lesson of this flight: do not plan the last turn point such that it is over difficult terrain, far away from home, and facing a headwind on final glide. Any of these three aspects (difficulty of terrain, distance from home, and headwind on final) can become a problem by itself – all three combined is asking for trouble. I am glad that I made the prudent decision to give up on this task when I did. I might have been able to finish, but I might also have landed out at Heber or Thunder Ridge Airpark, running out of lift and unable to get back home.
I took some encouragement from the fact that I had achieved my first two turn points on a challenging 750 km attempt. My total flight distance that day was 667 km based on OLC plus rules.
Once again flying out of Nephi, my fourth attempt was on July 5.
Start: 04 SE Start
TP1: xPfeiler Ranch (10 km north of Panguitch) – 198 km
TP2: 80 Strawberry Dam (50 km east of Provo) – 269 km
TP3: 87 Whiskey Knoll (35 km southwest of Richfield) – 180 km
Finish: 04 SE Start – 117 km
Task Distance: 767 km
I launched at 12:13 pm, which should have been early enough for this task, and I had no problem climbing off tow. The direct route south was blocked by a fire TFR and so I had to go around on the east side of the San Pitch Mountains where I struggled to get up to cloud base and didn’t make good time. Better conditions along the Pavani Range past Richfield and then slow going again past Mt Delano towards my southern turn point. A mediocre average climb rate of just over 4 kts didn’t support more than 100 kph on that first leg.
A tailwind on the long second leg should have made the going much faster but the air above the Wasatch Plateau had dried earlier than predicted and much of my route was in the blue. The only visible cloud street was the convergence line east of the Wasatch Plateau, which I (erroneously) believed to be too far off course. Intent on staying high without thermal markers I took a lot of weak climbs such that my average climb rate dropped even slightly below 4 kts. Even with a tail wind, I did not make more than 110 kph on the way north to Strawberry Reservoir.
More blue skies on the way back south against a headwind and my average speed dropped to 91 kph. This is just way to slow to complete a 750k flight. Around 6pm the last wisps were gone and it became clear that the soaring day was over. I made it to the vicinity of Mount Baldy and had to acknowledge that the remaining 50 km to Whiskey Knoll were no longer feasible.
Crossing the Manti Valley I even dropped below glide range to Nephi but the sun-baked rocks along the San Pitch Mountains provided sustaining lift and ultimately I had no problem getting back home.
In hindsight I should have flown along the convergence that set up over the desert east of the Wasatch Plateau. I had judged the street to be too far east but looking at others’ flight traces for the day it would have worked very well, supporting speeds of over 160kph and only being a minor detour. In my assessment during the flight I judged the street too far east and had been concerned about making it back from there to the west side of the plateau.
John Seaborn and Bruno Vassel followed that convergence line all the way to the Grand Canyon and back. John’s distance of almost 1100 km flown at an average speed of more than 150 kph was truly humbling!
The key lesson was that I should have taken the detour to follow the very well marked convergence line where much faster average speeds were obtainable. (The picture above makes this really obvious.)
I managed to fly 709 km that day (based on OLC plus), which was my longest flight up to this date. Once again I had made the first two turn points and then ran out of time. I started to feel increasingly confident that it was just a matter of time until it would work.
TP2: Thunder Butte (10 km south of Deckers, CO) – 285 km
TP3: Crystal Lakes (15 km south of CO/WY border) – 190 km
Finish: Ward – 88 km
Task Distance: 763 km
This was a cool task because I hadn’t been to the northwest before. I launched at noon and caught a 10 kt climb right off tow to 17,000 feet. By 12:30 I had crossed the start line and was underway.
The first leg went quite well and I averaged 100 kph against a solid headwind of 15-20 kts, turning Dixon at 2:30 pm.
A tailwind and flying during the peak time of the day should have made my second leg much faster. However, I got caught in a down-cycle and cloud after cloud dissolved before I got there. The crossing of North Park was particularly slow going and I took several weak climbs and detours to stay in glide range of Walden. While my average climb rate had been almost 7 kts on the outbound leg, it dropped to 4 kts on the return resulting in a XC speed of only 105 kph, very poor considering the tailwind.
I returned to the Front Range near Mummy Mountain north of Estes Park and found the convergence line in perfect working order. Finally I was able to go straight with minimal circling. Over the following 115 km I averaged 150 kph with convergence lift supporting an effective glide ratio of 117:1.
Turnpoint 2 was to the east of the convergence and harder to get to due to over-development, causing another slow down until I had turned it at 5:15pm. From there I detoured back to the convergence, reaching it by 5:25pm.
By the time I got back to the Continental Divide past Mount Evans it was 5:50pm and the area to the north towards Crystal Lakes was completely over-developed with overcast and rain.
A notable feature of the day were the different characteristics of the various air masses. The air to the east of the Front Range convergence was quite humid and prone to over-development and showers, whereas the western air was much drier with nice cus, although not always conveniently aligned with my task.
Eight pilots were flying cross-country from Boulder that day and my 685 km flight was considerably longer than anyone else’s. The Cache la Poudre area (where my third turn point was located) was already overdeveloped by 4 pm, meaning that a faster speed on leg two would not have made much difference.
Overall, I believe that a 750 km task was not obtainable that day. The main lesson to take away is the realization that some great-looking days may simply not last long enough to complete such a long task.
TP 1: Centennial, Wyoming (45 km west of Laramie) – 160 km
TP2: Scottsbluff, Nebraska – 221 km
TP3: Mount Evans – 307 km
Finish: Boulder (KBDU) – 61 km
Task Distance: 750 km
I was very excited about the possibilities of this task. Not only was it a 750 km task, it was also a >650 km FAI triangle with start and finish on the same leg. And it would take me across three states – Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska. The cloud bases were projected to be somewhat lower than what I prefer but with much of the task over the eastern plains flying really high was not going to be critical.
The forecast supported an unusually early launch at 10:30 am. The air was highly unstable. Cumulus clouds had started to form before 10 am and when I released from tow above the Flatirons at 10:45 am, the first rain drops hit my canopy.
I quickly climbed to 14,000 ft and crossed the start line above Boulder at 11:04 am. I already had significant doubts about the viability of the task but thought I would give it a try. Over-development is often confined to the mountains and most of my second and third leg would be over the eastern plains.
At 12:41 I rounded my first turn point at the foot of Medicine Bow Peak. At 100 kph my average speed wasn’t particularly high but I had been flying into a headwind and it was still early in the day.
Turning eastward it was obvious that the direct route to Scottsbluff was blocked by a big rain cell sitting above the hills east of Laramie. The shorter detour seemed to be on the northern side but I had not prepared for such a northerly route and wasn’t familiar with the landing areas. So I decided to try a southerly detour, which would keep me in glide range of Cheyenne and Owl Canyon.
South-east of Cheyenne I had made it past the rain cell and could see a street towards Scottsbluff. However, looking back towards Boulder, the foothills west of Fort Collins were already heavily overdeveloped with lots of dark clouds and it was only 1:30pm. Virga and rain had also started to fall from some of the clouds over the plains.
I did not want to tempt land-out fate and decided to give up on the task and make my way back towards Boulder while heavy rain fell over the foothills west of Carter Lake. Slightly drier conditions to the south allowed me to continue past Boulder and almost reach Mount Evans before returning back home, landing at 3:20pm.
Would a completion of my task have been possible? I am confident that the answer is no. Overall there was no new lesson to be learned. Completing a 750 km flight requires the whole soaring day and if the day gets cut short by heavy over-development there simply isn’t enough time to finish the task.
July 31 was a convergence day with a strong ground inversion over the prairie. I launched at 11:15 am and crossed the start line at Ward at 11:51 am at 12,000 ft. While some other pilots struggled to get connected I felt lucky to get underway relatively quickly.
Cloud bases were still somewhat low and conditions relatively soft but I made steady progress, crossing from Trail Ridge Road into the Never Summer Range. Cloud bases dropped below 16,000 as I headed north but the line of lift was well-marked. At 1:30 pm I rounded my northern-most turn point above Medicine Bow Peak.
As I began to head back south, some clouds already showed signs of significant vertical development, which did not bode well for the conditions later that afternoon. But for the moment I enjoyed strong lift of 6 kt average and a glide ratio of 113:1 as much of my leg to the south followed the convergence line along the Front Range and into South Park. My average speed on this leg was almost 150 kph.
By the time I reached Mount Evans, the clouds had begun to darken with clear signs of over-development. However, the sky ahead into South Park still looked promising and the convergence line extended ahead, fairly well-aligned with my route to turn point 2 south of Hartsel.
The prudent thing to do would have been to give up at the task at this point. However, the allure of a quick line towards TP2 was very strong. Having a clear path towards the airport of Salida gave me the confidence to continue.
I rounded turn point 2 at 3:18 pm and turned back north. The clouds had continued to build up but there was a well-marked way back towards Mount Evans and so I took it.
As I got closer to Mount Evans I could see sunshine beyond the virga line ahead.
At this point it was more than evident that there was no safe way to continue to turn point 3 at the Colorado / Wyoming border. Heavy over-development and storms blocked the way to the north and I abandoned my task.
At this point my only question was whether to head back to Boulder or to land at Granby, west of the Continental Divide. After intense radio communications with other pilots I opted for a return to Boulder where the winds were still calm.
However, the final approach towards Boulder was more exciting than I had imagined. The big cell above Boulder had evolved into a thunder cloud and it’s full extent was difficult to see from my location. But once I had committed to Boulder there was no longer an alternative. I had to cross below the virga line that marked the storm front.
Fortunately there wasn’t much turbulence below the virga line. I reached Boulder safely and there was little wind on the ground at the time of my landing. However, I clearly learned a vital lesson: it is absolutely not worth taking safety risks to achieve a sporting challenge. More specifically: I should have turned back to Boulder an hour earlier – before passing Mount Evans and flying into South Park when I could already have anticipated the possibility of the storm that developed.
What did I learn from these failed attempts ultimately preparing me for a successful run:
A 750k is not just a little longer than Diamond distance (500 km). To succeed you need to take it seriously – in planning, and in execution. A declared 750k is also a lot harder than an OLC plus 750k; in my opinion it is roughly on par with a 900-1000k OLC plus flight.
You will most likely need the whole soaring day. This means you have to start as soon as possible and well before the lift is great. You will also still be flying when the lift is no longer great.
Take a higher tow if it allows you to get on task quickly. If you waste 30-45 minutes trying to connect, chances are that you will come to regret it at the end of the day.
You need a long soaring day. This means conditions should allow for an early launch – ideally before 11am – and last into the evening. May through August will normally be the only months where such a task is possible, with the best opportunities in June and July – close to summer solstice.
You need a day with reliable weather. The weather obviously can’t be too stable for the lift wouldn’t be good. But it also can’t be so unstable for there to be widespread overdevelopment, virga, and rain. Ideally you want a high cloud base and just enough moisture to generate nice cus wherever you plan your task.
Stay away from days when there is a risk of thunderstorms. You can fly around localized showers but you should not try to attempt a long task where you may have to fly through lightning, hail, and storm outflows. Do not take safety risk to achieve a sporting goal. It is not worth it!
Days with light winds are much better than days with strong winds.
Out and returns or triangle tasks are most demanding but tasks with three turn points give you the best chance to succeed. If you plan a 3 turn point flight the first turn point should be furthest away from the start and turn points two and three should be planned in such a way that the last ~200 km of the flight is relatively close to home. This greatly reduces your stress level and will encourage you to keep trying until the end. If the last TP is outside of glide range from your home airfield, you may have to give up early even if there is still a chance to be successful. This is especially true if you are flying above unlandable terrain.
Align the task with the best weather. Some pilots like to design a few tasks at the beginning of the season and then pick the one that seems best suited for the given day. The mental exercise of designing tasks upfront can be helpful but you should remain flexible and willing to design a custom task the night before the flight, possibly revising it in the morning to be most aligned with the latest weather forecast. Take full advantage of the features of modern weather forecasts – especially make sure to use the time slider to determine what parts of the task area are best early, during peak hours, and late in the day. (Forecasts are obviously not always accurate but that’s not a good reason to ignore them!)
Account for the wind when planning your task: ideally use the best part of the day to fly into the wind, and make sure that you’re not fighting a headwind on the final glide home. If there are significant differences in wind speed and direction within the task area, consider them in your task planning.
Be careful to ensure your task complies with all FAI sporting rules (1 km start line, 45 degree turn sectors, valid flight declaration in a valid flight recorder, finish no more than 1000m below the start, etc.) and make sure you observe all air space restrictions including TFRs.
Once underway you must make good forward progress to not run out of time. Understand what contributes most to a high average speed: (1) continuing forward on task, (2) flying in lift (e.g. along ridges, convergences, cloud streets, or other energy lines – even if it involves taking small to medium detours) and (3) avoiding weak climbs. Boomer thermals with 10+ kts help but they are not essential. 5-6kt thermals are perfectly fine. Just try not to put yourself in too many situations where you have to take 1-2 kt climbs. On a 750k task you will do a lot of circling – 80,000 feet if your average glide ratio is 30:1. A pilot who always takes 5 kt climbs is much faster than one who alternates between 1 kt and 10 kt climbs. Do the math of how long it takes to climb 80,000 feet at various different climb rates if you don’t understand why. If you do a great job following energy lines you may cut the necessary circling down to 50,000 or 60,000 ft – a big time savings!
Make use of water ballast for you will be faster. Days where ballast is of no advantage are not suitable for 750k tasks to begin with.
There will be segments along your flight where the conditions are not as strong as you expected. Try not to let that discourage or frustrate you and make the most of the hand you’re dealt with. While it is unlikely that you will succeed on your first attempt, you might never succeed if you wait for the perfect day when all stars remain aligned from beginning to end.
What Strava is for runners and bicyclists, OLC is for glider pilots: a place where you can upload, share, and compare your flights with those of other soaring pilots. At the end of a soaring day, it’s fun to see where your friends were flying, and to check how you did in comparison.
Such comparison is not limited to a specific soaring site. With the help of OLC, pilots can analyze their performance against the flights of other pilots nationwide, and even globally. Weather conditions are obviously very different from day to day and from site to site. However, over the course of an entire soaring season many differences tend to even out and the overall performances become more comparable.
OLC scores multiple different contests, both at the individual level and and at the club level. In this article, I want to focus on one specific type of competition: the OLC Speed League.
The Speed League (the rules are here) has a number of unique characteristics that make it particularly fun and accessible to everyone:
1. It is a team contest that is scored at the club level. On each weekend during the Speed League Season (which normally runs for 19 weeks starting on the 3rd weekend in April), the top flights of three different club members count for the team score in each round. On some weekends only two or three pilots are available to fly, which means that you don’t have to be an experienced contest pilot to contribute; in fact, every club member has an opportunity to contribute to the club’s overall performance.
2. It’s a great way to practice for soaring contests. You practice flying in less-than-stellar conditions (because every weekend of the season counts, no matter the weather). You practice all the skills necessary to improve your speed, e.g. quick thermal centering, finding and following energy lines, flying at the optimum speed-to-fly, judging course-deviations, etc. And you learn to fly with specific goals in mind rather than just meandering around.
3. You don’t have to fly extraordinary distances or get far away from home to score well. The four fastest legs during a 2:30 hours soaring window count for your flight. For those flying from Boulder it is often possible to achieve a good score without ever getting out of glide range of the home airport! Scores are handicapped based on the glider’s performance, which means you also don’t need to have the fastest racing machine. You can achieve a competitive score with any of our club gliders, even the ASK 21.
This past weekend was the first of 13 rounds of the (shortened) 2020 season and SSB is in # 1 position of the US Gold League and in #9 position globally – a great start to the season!
To do well as a club, it is critical that enough pilots come and fly on the weekends, especially when the conditions are ok but not great.
In this Beginner’s Guide I am offering 12 tips to help anyone contribute to our club’s performance. These suggestions are particularly geared towards new participants who want to stay within glide range of the home airfield. But they may also be relevant for everyone else, especially on mediocre days when most pilots will want to stay relatively close to home.
Here’s a link to my first-ever speed league flight attempt in April 2018 at a time when I my total experience was just a little over 100 hours in gliders. It was weak day with low thermal heights over the hills and I wasn’t able to get to the west side of the convergence. My speed was just barely faster than the required 40 kph minimum for the Gold League but I had the third best flight among those flying from Boulder and the flight earned valuable points for our club.
Some of the tips are fairly specific for the conditions in Boulder, Colorado. However, many are perfectly applicable to other soaring sites as well, and those that aren’t can be adjusted for typical site-specific conditions.
(1) Be Prepared and Have a Plan
First, look at the weather forecast (I like to use Skysight but RASP is perfectly fine also), and decide whether Saturday or Sunday is the better day. (Or, if you can fly on both days, your better score will count.)
Once you’ve picked a day, decide on your best soaring window and plan a tentative route based on where and when the best conditions are. Remember that you need to fly up to four (more or less straight) legs over a 2 1/2 hour time period in order to score well.
OLC does not require a flight declaration. You can simply take off and follow the best lift lines.
However, personally I like to declare a Turn Area Task (TAT) in my flight computer that is aligned with the fastest projected routes for the day. This forces me to figure out upfront what the best route is likely to be and it is great preparation for contests because I get to practice flying TATs (the most frequently used task type at US contests.)
Skysight has a very handy “Route Forecast” tool that, in conjunction with the “XC speed” screen, is of great help in identifying the fastest projected routes and picking the best start time for the task.
I usually use three turn areas as this will help me generate four legs. The minimum task time must be at least 2 1/2 hours but more often than not I plan a somewhat longer task and use a minimum flight duration of at least 3 hours. OLC will then automatically pick the fastest 2 1/2 hour segment (using four legs). I keep the radii of the turn areas quite large (e.g. 25-40 km) so I have sufficient flexibility to use the best available energy lines, even it the forecast is considerably off.
For start and finish, I set up a 15 km cylinder centered at the takeoff airport. This helps ensure that I get a valid start (see tip #3 below).
I can always abandon my task to follow better energy lines once I am underway but I found it much better to have a plan that I can modify, than to have no plan at all.
In addition to having a plan for your flight, also make sure to check for TFRs (temporary flight restrictions), especially during wildfire and football season. And make sure that you have a valid flight logger and that it is turned on a few minutes before the flight. (It must start recording when the glider begins to move on the ground otherwise OLC will not accept your trace.)
(2) The Most Basic Flight Is Often the Fastest
The most basic (and yet often the fastest) speed league flight from Boulder is a four leg yo-yo up and down the Front Range. (The entire flight path is often roughly parallel to the Peak-to-Peak Highway.) Especially good speeds can be achieved if the typical “convergence line” sets up over the foothills. This flight can be accomplished entirely within glide range of Boulder, even on days with modest conditions.
The basic strategy for this flight is as follows:
a) Initial climb: After releasing from tow, climb into the convergence (if there is one), or up to cloud base (if there isn’t). This may take a while and your speed along this stretch is usually poor. Think of the point when you are finally “connected” (with the clouds or the convergence) as the true start of your speed league flight. This is the point when your 2 1/2 window should begin. Make a mental note of the time and your altitude (or write it down on a notepad). (It will be very important that you remember this at the end of your flight!)
b) Pick a Direction for Leg 1: Once you are connected, decide whether to go north or south along the convergence (if there is one) or along the best lift line that you can make out. (You should already have an idea from the weather forecast which direction will likely offer the better conditions early in the day (e.g. higher cloud bases, and/or stronger lift early in the day). If OD is forecast in either direction, it is usually best to go there first.
c) Leg 1: Follow the convergence (or other energy line) in more or less the same direction (north or south) until you are no longer comfortable to continue or until the conditions get too soft (whichever comes first), then turn around. This will be the first leg of your flight.
d) Leg 2: Your second leg will typically backtrack your first leg although the position of the best energy lines may have shifted somewhat. Follow the best energy line past Boulder in more or less the same direction and once again keep going until you are no longer comfortable or until the conditions get too soft. It is likely that the conditions will have improved from the beginning of the flight (higher cloud bases, more cus, stronger lift) so try to go a bit further away from Boulder than on your first leg (provided that you can do so safely). Then turn around.
e) Leg 3: Your third leg will likely mirror your second leg – just in the opposite direction. If conditions allow and you are comfortable, push a bit further than you did on your first leg. Then turn around.
f) Leg 4: Now is a good time to check your watch from the time when you first connected (i.e., the start of your first leg). If 2 1/2 hours have already passed and you have maintained your direction on each leg reasonably well, you should already have a good score! However, more likely than not, the 2 1/2 hour mark will still be in the future. If that’s the case, you should try to get a good fourth leg by backtracking your third leg (and possibly beyond) until the full 2 1/2 hours have passed.
e) Finish: At the end of your 4th leg, make sure to climb up to the altitude when you started your first leg. (You must be at least as high at the end of your fourth leg as you were at the beginning of your first leg!)
(3) Get a Valid Start
For OLC Speed League flights to count, the start of motorless flight must be within 15 km (9.3 sm, 8.1 nm) of the center of the takeoff airport.
Boulder pilots have all flown on days when there is a powerful ground inversion over the plains and a high tow is needed to get into lift above the mountains. Sometimes that tow will take us beyond the 15 km start cylinder. (For reference: the top of Bighorn Mountain (west of Lee Hill) is just within the start cylinder, the town of Gold Hill is just outside the cylinder. Lower Nugget Ridge is inside the cylinder, Jamestown is outside the cylinder. Bear Peak is inside the cylinder, Gross Reservoir is just outside the cylinder.)
A great way to make sure that your motorless flight takes you into the 15km start cylinder is to set the correct start cylinder on the flight computer.
If you have towed (or motored) beyond the start cylinder you can still get a valid start by flying back into the start cylinder before you head out on your first leg. To do that, climb high enough first and then come back, “nick” the edge of the start cylinder, and fly back to where the lift is.
Getting into the 15km start cylinder after release from tow is critical because your flight will not count at all for the Speed League until your flight path includes a location “fix” within the start cylinder after release from tow. (This rule is Speed League specific and does not apply for OLC plus.)
(4) On Each of the 4 Legs, Always Fly Forward In The Same General Direction
This should be pretty obvious but it is the most crucial thing to do to get a good result. Nothing destroys your speed as much as getting low being forced to backtrack to the previous thermal. You’ll quickly end up with too many short legs and you will not be pleased by the average speed calculation. If the conditions ahead look weaker, try to stay higher and fly slower. But move forward whenever it is safely possible and you are fairly certain that you will find lift ahead.
(5) Move On When You Can’t Climb
When I started out I often tried to milk every lift as long as possible. This meant that sometimes I would keep circling without climbing at all. Needless to say that I wasted a lot of time doing that. You only gain distance and points if you move forward, not if you stand still.
It’s also worth considering that you lose a lot of time in very weak climbs. Whether you can climb at 5 kts or at 10 kts matters much less than whether you can climb at 1 kts or at 3 kts. Think about it: let’s say you need to gain 3000 ft to close your course. If you climb at 10 kts it will take you about 3 minutes; at 5 kts it will take you 6 minutes; at 3 kts, you need about 10 minutes, and at 1 kt you need a full half hour! The difference between climbing 3000 ft at 5 kts and 10 kts is only only 3 minutes. But the difference between climbing 3000 ft at 1 kt and 3 kts is 20 minutes!
Average climbs tend to be very good climbs overall. It’s the very weak climbs that will destroy your speed!
(6) Always Follow Energy Lines
“The best speed to fly is the one where you can fly forward on course without having to stop to thermal.” (Sebastian Kawa; watch this video to get Sebastian’s tips on how to fly faster).
One of the great advantages of flying from Boulder is the frequent presence of strong lift lines that allow for straight forward flight without having to stop and turn. I had already two flights this year where I was able to fly more than 250km in a straight line without ever having to stop to thermal. Such flights automatically result in excellent average speeds even if your cruise speed isn’t particularly fast per se.
Let’s say you’re cruising in a club Discus at a modest indicated airspeed of 65 kts. If you’re flying at 15,000 feet, your true airspeed is 84.5 kts! Even if you’re loosing as much as 20% due to some course deviations and having to crab into a cross wind, your ground speed is still 67.6 kts (125 kph). And if you don’t have to stop to circle, that speed will be your average ground speed. If you can maintain this way of flying for 2 1/2 hours you will achieve 117 pts for the speed league (125 kph / 1.07 (Discus Handicap)). Not bad! And you can obviously do even better if you fly faster through any sink and slower through areas of strong lift. Three flights like this on a particular weekend will inevitably guarantee your club a top result in the Speed League!
In Boulder, the most frequent and most reliable energy line is the convergence line that sets up when there is a westerly airflow aloft coming across the Continental Divide, and thermals over the foothills generate an easterly airflow over the plains. Read this article to learn more about how you can climb into the convergence, identify it, and follow it. For Boulder pilots, being able to locate and follow the convergence is perhaps the single most critical skill to achieving good speed league results.
During the summer season we also often see powerful thermal streets setting up, e.g., over the Poudre, into South Park, and west of the Divide towards Kremmling and beyond. In spring, fall, and winter wave conditions may create even more powerful energy lines.
Look for such energy lines (especially convergence) in the weather forecast and then seek to follow them during your flight. The better you’re able to do that, the higher your average speed will be.
A convergence line often sets up on blue days as well. It is then obviously much more difficult to locate but there are great rewards if you can find and follow it. Certain flight computers (e.g. the Naviter Oudie) will allow you to download the weather forecast before your flight and display the projected location of the convergence line at the correct time while you’re flying. Provided that the forecast was accurate, this can be of great help!
(7) Stay in the Lift Band
In Boulder we frequently benefit from high cloud bases. In fact, the bottom of the clouds is often 10,000 feet above the ground, sometimes even more. Things are often great when we can cruise under clouds. However, everyone has experienced that getting “connected” with the clouds can sometimes be quite difficult and take a while. To achieve high speeds we have to be careful not to lose the connection once we’ve made it. Otherwise, if we “fall out of the band”, we have to go through the time-consuming process of working our way back up again. Needless to say that this will negatively impact our average speed.
It is not always easy to determine how deep the good lift band is. If you divide the distance between the ground and the cloud base in thirds, a rule of thumb is that the upper third almost always works and the lower third is almost always difficult.
E.g., let’s say the cloud base is at 16,000 feet and we’re flying over the foothills over terrain that is at 10,000 feet. The altitude band between 14,000 and 16,000 tends to work best and the band between 10,000 and 12,000 ft is likely very challenging. The area between 12,000 and 14,000 is the “murky middle”. On some days, conditions are great, or others not so much at all.
E.g., this past weekend, cloud bases were around 15,500 ft and I struggled mightily until I broke through 13,000 feet. From then on I managed to stay high and did not test the lower sections of the band. Looking at the traces from other pilots suggests that conditions improved in lower levels and that good lift could later be consistently found even at only 12,000 feet.
I tend to err on the cautious side and stay relatively high at the expense of climbing more often in less than optimal lift. Others are more aggressive, stop less frequently, and assume a greater risk of “falling out”. On some days one strategy works better than the other and luck can also be a factor. If you’re relatively new to cross-country flying you’re probably better off with a somewhat more conservative approach: more altitude gives you more options to find good lift, reduces the likelihood that you have to waste time digging yourself out, and also minimizes your land-out risk. You might not be the fastest but you will be more consistent and sometimes just as fast as those who push their luck a bit more. Your flight will also be a lot less stressful.
(8) Successfully Cross Blue Gaps
When I started to venture further away from my home airport, I was very concerned about blue gaps between clouds. When I came to the end of a street with a 5-10 mile gap ahead of me I often got cold feet and turned around.
The problem is that crossing blue gaps is often inevitable if we want to score Speed League Points (or fly XC in general). Otherwise we may end up with too many legs over the 2 1/2 hour scoring window. I.o.w., our best four subsequent legs won’t add up to a lot of miles even if we otherwise had a good and fast flight.
So how can we deal with blue gaps?
First, we should always look ahead so that we are not caught by surprise when we come up to a blue gap. The last cloud in a street may not work so well, so it is always a good idea to get close to cloud-base well before we reach the end of the street.
Second, we should assess the nature of the gap as best we can. Does the gap mark an area of sink or is the air just dryer? This may not be obvious but it is always a great idea to look for any kind of cloud activity. Often there are tiny wisps across the gap and those are usually a good indication that we won’t fall out of the sky if we follow those wisps. E.g., along the convergence it is fairly common (especially early in the day) that we run into areas with lower moisture but the convergence line is not interrupted at all. We have to look for any signs of clouds across the gap, connect the ones we can identify into a line in our imagination, and then fly along this imaginary line just as we would if the gap did not exist at all. More often than not, this works much better than we think!
Third, if we’re not confident that an existing lift line extends throughout the gap, we should treat the gap as a “transition”. This means we should start high and “downshift”, i.e. fly more conservatively if there is a risk that we might get to the lower end of the lift band. We must still accelerate through sink and slow down in lift but we should fly less aggressively than we would otherwise. E.g., if we used MC 5-6 before to determine our Speed-to-Fly, we may decide to now use only MC 2-3 until we are confident that we are able to connect with stronger lift on the far side.
Fourth, a good way to monitor our glide performance throughout a gap is to set up a NAV box on the flight computer that shows the Current L/D. I find this a better way of understanding the actual glide performance that I can achieve through the gap. Understanding this is especially important in case I have to decide to turn around and fly through the same air again.
Fifth, if the gap is so wide that we don’t know for sure that we can cross it successfully we should decide upfront at what point we will abandon our attempt and turn around even if it means that we won’t achieve a good speed-league score. E.g., let’s say we want to make sure that we stay within glide range of Boulder. In that case, we can set Boulder as our “Go-to” airport into your flight computer even if we’re heading away from it. We should use a safe MC setting (i.e. one that is relatively high, let’s say 4 or 5, and keep track of the arrival altitude on your flight computer so we can turn around before we get out of glide range. (Also we must always make sure that we have set an appropriate arrival altitude. The club recommends 1,500 ft AGL so we have an extra cushion and can still fly a normal landing pattern even if we encounter some sink.)
(9) Thermal Strategically
Every textbook on gliding has good tips about thermal centering and I won’t repeat those here. It goes without saying that flying consistent, well-coordinated 45-degree bank circles at a consistent airspeed is a critical skill that we all must practice over and over again. It’s also self-evident that we will do much better if we only stop for stronger thermals, center them faster, and continuously adjust our circles so that we are in the best area of lift.
In addition to these “standard rules” here are a few tips that are more specific to our conditions.
First, if in doubt, turn into the wind. The best thermals are usually on the upwind side of the convergence line. When we follow the line, we necessarily fly in a cross-wind (usually out of the west). That means that on northbound legs we should typically turn left if we stop to climb, and on southbound legs we should typically turn right. There can be exceptions of course but they tend to imply that we did not fly along the optimal line to begin with.
Second, observe where the best lift can be found under clouds. The best lift tends to be on the upwind side and/or the sunny side. Fortunately for us, typical Boulder conditions mean that wind and sun tend to be fairly aligned with westerly winds aloft and the sun in the afternoon in the south west. So more often than not, the best lift is in the south-west corner or along the western edge of the clouds. However, if you notice it to be different on a particular day under one cloud, check if that is true for the next cloud as well. Chances are good that it is. E.g., at one of my flights this year there was a 20kt wind from NNW and the best lift was consistently under the NW corner of the clouds.
Third, large clouds often have multiple cores. If you find lift under a big cloud this does not mean that you have found the best lift under that cloud. The best lift can be on the upwind/sunny side or underneath the darkest, flattest (or even concave) portion of the cloud. It makes a big difference to your overall speed whether you thermal at 2-3 kts or at 7-9 kts.
Fourth, if the lift is very strong under a cloud street, fly 1500-2000 feet below the cloud bases. This way you can pull up in strong lift and fly faster through areas with weak lift or no lift. If you’re too close to cloud base, you’re forced to fly fastest through the strongest area of lift (so you won’t get sucked into the cloud) and fly slower through areas of weak lift or sink. It should be obvious that the first technique will result in higher speeds.
Fifth, in strong positive surges it pays to turn into the wind and gently pull up (using the flaps if you have them). If the surge persists, you can then bank steeply and might get the core on the first turn. If the surge goes away quickly you can turn back on course and pick up speed again without loosing a beat.
Sixth, remember that it is always the weakest climbs that destroy your speed. If you take all the climbs that are average or better you might not be the fastest of the day but you will do very well because you drastically reduce your risk of having to dig yourself out from down low in very weak lift.
(10) Optimize Course Deviations
Notice that I did not say “minimize” course deviations. Flying straight is obviously the shortest way to go but very rarely the fastest. If you can follow a lift line without having to stop and turn, course deviations of up to 30 degrees will almost always pay off. (John Cochrane showed that a 30 degree deviation implies a detour of only 13%. Smaller deviations have minimal negative effects.) If there is a strong convergence, you may sometimes need to make deviations of 40 degrees from the course line and it will often still be be better than flying straight.
During my Diamond Distance flight last year, a convergence line near the end of a long soaring day saved my flight. I was very happy to follow it despite a 40 degree course deviation.
(11) Strategically Decide When To Change Directions
The most important factor to scoring well in the Speed League is to not have more than three major course changes over the 2 1/2 hour soaring window so we generate four more or less straight legs.
Our best strategy is to follow a clear lift line for as far it is working well and to turn around and use the same line in reverse.
Sometimes we get to the end of the lift line but are in need of more miles in the same direction. In this case it makes sense to stop in the last good lift, climb up high, continue in the same direction even if it means flying in no lift or slight sink and turn around at a point that will still allow us to get back to the same climb that we left before. E.g., sometimes, going northbound, the good lift line will stop north-east of the Twin Sisters but we may need more northbound miles otherwise our leg is too short. In this case we can take a high climb east of the Twin Sisters, head out further north (often in the blue), and then turn southbound in time to have enough altitude to connect with the climb that we previously left. (We may also find out that we’re able to connect with the next lift line and continue further north over the Poudre.)
If there is a strong headwind or tailwind component, another tactic is to change course direction when we are low on an upwind leg, and when we are high (e.g. right after a climb to cloud base) on a downwind leg. This way we benefit from the wind drift while climbing in both directions.
(12) Climb Back Up At the End of Leg 4
I already mentioned that the end of your 2 1/2 hour scoring window must be at an altitude equal to or higher than your altitude at the beginning of the scoring window.
This is very easy to overlook and a frequent cause for an unnecessary loss of Speed League points. Hence it is very important to remember how high you were flying during the early parts of your flight and that you climb up to your low points during those early parts of the flight.
Pilots who’s flying style involves a lot of climbs and descents tend to have less of an issue with this rule than pilots (like me) who tend to stay relatively high. If you go on Final Glide after TP 3, the portion of your last leg that is below the altitude at the point when your scoring window started, will not count for the Speed League!
Bonus Tip for OLC Plus Scoring: If you climb up high at the end of your fourth leg you will not only make your fourth leg count, you can then also use the extra altitude to turn your flight into a bonus triangle. (This will count for OLC Plus but not the Speed League.) To do that, head out into the plains to the edge of Class B airspace and then return back to the point where you released from tow to close your triangle. (To close the triangle you do NOT need to be at or above release altitude. You just need to cross any previous portion of your glide path that is necessary for your triangle to be “closed”.) If you succeed in closing the triangle you will get 1/3 of your FAI triangle distance as bonus points for OLC Plus scoring. (Note: This may not be practicable on days when you released far west and never had a trace near Boulder. It helps to display the full trace of your flight on your moving map screen (and not just the last few minutes) so that you can easily locate the best place to close the triangle.)
Be Safe and Have Fun
Learning to fly competitively focuses your brain and is a lot of fun. However, it must never mean that you relax your personal safety standards. Do not become single-mindedly focused on optimizing your score. Safety must always come first. Always maintain a Plan B and a Plan C if Plan A does not turn out as you hoped. If you can’t get a great score on a particular day you can learn from your mistakes and try again on another day! Not so if you ruin your glider or even your health.
This past Saturday we had another textbook convergence line form above the foothills west of Boulder. Climbing into convergence was quite tricky – as it often is – but there are amazing rewards for those who can make it.
I was able to video tape my flight and since there were outstanding markers that showed exactly where the convergence formed, I thought I would put together some in-depth explanations for how to get there and how to follow the lift line once you’ve made it.
You can find all of that in the following video:
In addition, I have tried to summarize 10 key lessons for flying in Rocky Mountain convergence lift from Boulder.
(1) Find a good climb after releasing from tow and climb as high as you can.
If your first climb takes you to 14,000 feet you are probably already set and can head straight to the convergence. However, on most convergence days, the thermals east of the convergence line will top out at much lower altitudes. Above the lower foothills it is common that the lift will only extend to about 1,000 – 3,000 ft AGL. It is therefore very common that your first climb may only take you to 8,000 or 9,000 ft MSL.
On Saturday there was no ground inversion and I was able to release in good lift right above the airport and climb up to cloud base, which was at 10,000 feet MSL.
Note: when there is a ground inversion over the plains there might not be any lift near the airport. If that’s the case you probably need to take a mountain tow to get into the first good thermal that can take you to cloud base.
(2) Once you’re at cloud base, head west towards the hills and look for lift that can take you a bit higher.
The goal is to get high enough to reach the convergence line. How high you have to get depends on where the line is located and, therefore, what altitude you need to get there safely and be able to return to Boulder should you be unable to connect with lift.
If the lift tops out relatively low to the ground (at about 2,000 ft AGL or even lower) you will likely need multiple climbs as you head west. Each climb is likely to take you a few hundred feet higher, commensurate with the increase in altitude of the terrain below. E.g. 2,000 feet above Nugget Ridge will take you to 9,200 ft. The same altitude AGL above Gold Lake will take you to 10,600 ft.
The convergence line might be as far east as the first hogback or it might be as far west as the Continental Divide itself. The altitude needed to reach it safely obviously differs greatly based on how far west the line is located. Most of the time, the line is within a few miles (east or west) of the Peak-to-Peak Highway.
Weather forecasts can help you determine where the line is likely to be. E.g., Skysight has a dedicated page for Convergence and will predict the location of the convergence line throughout the day in 30 minute intervals. You can get essentially the same information by looking at vertical velocity on the RASP forecast. Note, however, that the position of the convergence is notoriously difficult to predict so expect the forecast to be off by several miles.
On Saturday, I found a climb over the foothills to the northwest of Gross Reservoir under a cumulus cloud that took me to cloud base at about 11,000 ft MSL.
(3) Look for markers that indicate where the convergence line is likely to be.
The convergence may or may not be marked. Blue days are difficult because the line can be very hard to find and following it is also very challenging. If there are no clouds at all, all you may have to go by is the “feel of the air.”
More often than not, there are at least some cloud indicators that show the position of the line. However, they are not always as easy to spot as this past Saturday.
This is what the sky looked like when I left my climb at Gross Reservoir at 11,000 ft MSL and continued to head west towards Nederland (at the right edge of the picture).
Overhead on the left of the picture are remnants of the cumulus cloud that marked the thermal I just left.
Left of the nose (towards Thorodin Mountain) are additional thermal-marking cumulus clouds, which have a similar base as the cloud that I’m just leaving.
But the most interesting clouds are the scraggly-looking clouds further west. In addition to their different shape and appearance you can also notice that the base of these clouds is considerably higher. They are not ordinary cumulus clouds but are “curtain clouds” marking the location of the convergence.
Confronted with the situation shown in the picture above, it is evident that I have some ways to go before I reach the convergence. (The curtain clouds appear to be further west than Nederland although differences in distance between clouds and ground features can be hard to judge. Looking for cloud shadows may help make this assessment.) Also, it is critical to consider that the lift will not be directly underneath the curtain clouds but to the west of them!
(4) As you head further west, pay very close attention to any lift or sink and commensurate changes in your altitude and formulate a Plan B and a Plan C in case you don’t find the expected lift.
Knowing where lift and sink are can become critical if you are not successful finding a climb and have to head back east. On days with sink you will need a much bigger safety margin than on days when the air is generally good.
In this picture I am now west of Nederland and rapidly approaching the curtain clouds. Note that I am at 10,700 feet. This feels quite low for the location where I am flying and I am mentally prepared to turn around immediately should I hit any sink.
However, I draw some reassurance from the fact that I only lost 300 feet since leaving the cloud near Gross Reservoir – seven miles further east. The rim of Boulder Canyon is at 8,500 feet – this means that even if I lost more than 1,000 feet heading back east , I would still be more than 1,000 feet above the Canyon rim. On some days (e.g. west wind days with the potential of wave or rotor) this would not be an acceptable margin at all but given the specific conditions of the day I decide to continue towards the west side of the curtain cloud and pledge to turn around as soon as I drop below 10,500 ft.
Note: I find it very important to always consider my safety margins well before approaching a critical decision point. Key factors that go into the decision are (1) the day’s conditions, (2) my skill, experience, and recency level, and (3) the performance of the glider I’m flying. I like to set hard rules for myself before approaching a somewhat marginal situation so that I won’t hesitate to take action before the situation becomes unsafe. (I also had a Plan C – to land at Caribou Ranch – in the worst case scenario of hitting substantial unexpected sink on the way back east.)
(5) Know where you need to be to connect with convergence lift.
The following sketch illustrates how I think of the process of getting connected with convergence lift.
The glider is approaching from east to west. It climbs in thermal lift (shown in red) under a cumulus to cloud base somewhere over the foothills. From there it keeps pushing further west in the hope to reach the convergence lift (shown in green).
The scraggly curtain cloud is shown to the east of the convergence lift. The curtain cloud always forms at the edge of the two air masses. The eastern air is typically more moist than the western air. Therefore the cloud forms on the eastern side. The best lift is always west of the curtain cloud because the curtain cloud forms where the eastern airmass blocks the dryer western air from advancing east. I think of the curtain cloud as a barrier for the westerly wind: the west wind has to move up in front of the barrier almost like it has to move up along a mountain slope when you’re flying in ridge lift. (This isn’t entirely correct because the eastern airmass is obviously not as solid as a mountain but this model is very helpful in establishing a mental framework for what’s going on.)
Note that convergence lift is very unlikely to come up from the ground because it forms as a result of two wind streams coming together. At ground level there is too much friction and turbulence to form usable lift.
This means that the key to connecting with convergence is to be high enough to get into the (green) convergence zone. If you’re not high enough you will not find a climb.
It is therefore important to take every opportunity to climb as high as possible when you are close to the convergence. In the illustration I have shown a thermal (in red) just below the convergence lift. The glider enters the thermal and climbs up to the top of the thermal.
You’ll often notice that at the top of the thermal the lift becomes very weak and unorganized because it gets sheared off by the west wind and and the air becomes more turbulent. But very often you are now right at the cusp of making it, and with a little bit of luck you can continue your climb into the convergence.
When you analyze your flight afterwards you’ll notice that the wind drift in your climb changes half-way through. As long as you were in the thermal, you kept drifting from east to west and as soon as you enter the convergence lift, the wind drift changes from west to east.
In the picture above I am approaching the top of the thermal that is right below the convergence. The wind drift is still from east to west. Seconds later, the climb rate weakens as wind shears the thermal off.
In the post flight analysis you can recognize the change in the wind drift half-way through the climb. (You can best see this on the left side of the chart above that shows a 3D image of the climb. Note how I drifted from left to right (east to west) in the bottom half of the climb, and how I started to drift right to left over the past three circles.)
(6) Be careful to conserve and top up altitude until you are solidly connected.
The illustration above has shown why a minimum altitude is critical to reach the bottom of the convergence.
One complication can be that the first contact with convergence may not be good enough to let you climb much higher. If that is the case, you need to explore nearby to see if you can gain more altitude before you start to fly along the convergence.
If the convergence line is marked by clouds this should not be too difficult. Look for any signs of air moving up and make your way to the upwind side of such markers.
In the picture above I am heading to the upwind side of the curtain cloud just to the left of the nose.
I turned as soon as I found lift and climbed up to 14,000 feet MSL.
You can now see that the wind drift is much more significant and firmly from west to east. This is a clear sign that I am now established in the convergence.
(7) Once you’ve made it, everything becomes easy: just follow the line on the upwind side!
Depending on the strength of the convergence, you may be able to cruise fast in straight flight without circling at all. Always stay on the upwind side of any marker clouds! If the convergence softens, you may need to decrease your cruising speed, and if the convergence is weak or if there are big gaps in the line you may need to stop in stronger lift from time to time to top up altitude.
In this picture I am cruising northbound along the convergence from Mount Evans to Longs Peak. I flew the entire ~45 mile stretch without a single circle and lost only 2,300 feet – an effective glide ratio of almost 100:1 at about 80-90 kts. Not bad!
(8) Make sure you don’t fall out of “the band”.
We’ve discussed earlier that convergence typically does not reach all the way to the ground. Therefore you must maintain a minimum altitude to stay in convergence lift.
The flying technique is similar to flying in ridge lift. The best lift along the ridge tends to be at ridge top – not higher and not lower (unless there are differences in the steepness of the slope). In convergence lift there is obviously no visible ridge top but I found that the lift tends to be best somewhere between the bottom and the top. It rarely pays to fly at the top of the lift band because the lift tends to be weaker. And you have to be very careful not to drop too low and fall out of the band! (If you do, you have to begin the process of climbing up into the line all over again. This is likely just as difficult and time consuming as it was when you entered the line and if the conditions change it might even become impossible.)
Be particularly careful if there are big gaps in the line of curtain clouds. Sometimes such gaps are just the result of reduced moisture and the convergence lift continues unabated between the clouds. But sometimes gaps can also mean that the lift line itself is interrupted.
Approach such gaps with some caution and think of them as transitions, just as you would approach gaps along a ridge line. You do not want to keep pressing ahead at full speed and then arrive at the next marker cloud too low to reconnect.
(9) Watch the lower lying clouds and always maintain an escape route
Flying in convergence may allow you to fly much higher than the cloud base on the downwind side. In this sense, it is similar to flying in wave. Always observe what is happening below you, especially if the cloud layer is becoming thicker and more dense.
On Saturday, the convergence line moved further west during the day and ended up directly above the spine of the Continental Divide. At the same time, upslope conditions over the plains caused increasing low level clouds to the east. When the sky to the east looked like this I decided it was time to pull out the spoilers and begin my descent below the lower lying clouds to the east.
(10) Have fun and fly safe!
Convergence conditions offer some of the most rewarding soaring in Boulder. Flying in convergence is easy and fairly safe provided you stay away from other aircraft (a transponder and Flarm are highly recommended). However, as discussed earlier, getting into the convergence can be fraught with risks – especially if the convergence line is west of the Peak-to-Peak highway and the thermal lift to the east of the line does not extend much beyond 11,000 feet.
A computer with a reasonable graphic card. (You do not need a high end gaming machine.) Condor only runs on Windows but you can use it with a Mac under Bootcamp. (That’s what I have). You find the specific requirements here.
A decent joystick. In my opinion, the best one for Condor by far is the Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback 2. Other joysticks work but this one is the best. It is long out of production but you can get one on eBay.
The Condor 2 software. You can buy and download it directly from the source, or, if you’re in the US and would like to benefit from Paul Remde’s excellent support, you can buy it from Cumulus Soaring. The standard version is perfectly fine but if you already know that you will want to fly a lot of different gliders, you can go straight to the Pro version.
In addition, although not necessary, I highly recommend that you get:
Rudder pedals. This is particularly important if you fly (or intend to fly) gliders in real life because you will want to build the right muscle memory. If you are not a real-life pilot you can use a twist joystick to control the rudder. The ones I use are no longer available but any brand should do.
Infrared Head-tracking. This is huge because you control what you see on the screen by slightly moving your head. Without it, you have to use the head switch on the joystick or your mouse to control what you see on the screen. Neither of these options is intuitive and either increases your workload when flying. The head-tracker is expensive but hugely improves the experience. Before you buy it, check that there is no direct sunlight coming in from behind where you will be sitting when you use Condor. Sunlight confuses the tracker and it will not work.
An external hard-drive to store additional sceneries. There are dozens of Condor sceneries (landscapes) freely (!) available for most soaring areas around the world so you can fly in lots of great places! These are very detailed and get larger and larger. The biggest one is >200 GB. And that is just one landscape. I have a 3TB external hard drive where I store all my sceneries and I keep the software itself on the main drive of the computer.
If you want to go all-in on an immersive experience consider a VR headset. Some people absolutely love them as everything is truly in 3D and you might forget that you are not in a real cockpit. However, they are not for everyone. I have tried a headset and I much prefer the head tracking option and a regular computer screen instead. (I find the headset heavy and uncomfortable, I do not like to have a screen directly in front of my eyes, and I like to be able to look at a print out of the task on a map while I’m flying.) If you go for a headset, you will obviously not need an infrared head tracker. Sunlight will be no issue for the headset. Before you buy one, I recommend that you try one first.
Condor comes standard with a scenery for Slovenia (that’s where the company is based).
If you want to install additional sceneries (aka landscapes) go to the website of the European Condor Club, then go to the Landscapes tab, and click on the link to install Condor Updater. This is an excellent tool that will automatically install landscapes for you. (This used to be a complicated process and is now totally intuitive.) You can see that there are many dozens of landscapes available already and additional ones are being added all the time. (These are created by volunteers and are offered free or charge. It takes a huge amount of effort to build one. Consider donating a little bit of money to the scenery creator if you find a scenery that you like a lot.) Also, do consider subscribing to the club. This will give you more bandwidth on the server and reduce the time it takes to download sceneries.
You do not need to install additional landscapes before your first flights but once you’re hooked you will want to try other top soaring locations such as New Zealand, the Alps, the American West, South Africa, or the Andes, just no name a few.
After installing the software, and before you can fly, follow the instructions in the manual for “Setting Up Condor”. The Graphics option allows you to tailor the detail to the power of your computer. The better your graphics card and processor, the higher level of detail you can pick. You may have to experiment a little bit. If the software runs sluggishly, come back to this screen and reduce the level of detail. If it runs perfectly fine, you can try to increase the level of detail.
Work your way through each of the tabs. I suggest you leave the default settings in most cases until you find that you really want to alter anything.
The main exception to that recommendation is the Input Tab (see below). There you will want to make sure that you click “Assign Controls” (on the right side under “Options”) and program the buttons on your joystick.
The following screenshot shows the “Assign Controls” dialog.
Before you start to change things around, think about what functions you really want to have on the joystick vs. which ones you want to keep on the keyboard. This depends in part on your joystick and how many buttons it has.
I recommend that you prioritize the buttons based on how often you expect to change things during a flight. E.g., retracting/extending the gear, releasing water ballast, or using the wheel brake are all things that I typically only do once during a flight and which I have kept on the keyboard. On the other hand, things that I do most often during a flight I have moved to the joystick, this includes: moving the flaps up or down, centering the trim, moving between screens on the flight computer, zooming in and out on the flight computer, toggling the vario between lift/and cruise mode, and operating the spoilers (I use a lever for that on the joystick).
If you’re just starting out with Condor and are beginning with School or Club Class gliders (e.g. no flaps) your list of things that you do most often may be a bit different from mine.
Some things can be a little confusing. E.g., some gliders have stick trim while others have a trim handle. (The same is true in real life!) There are different commands based on what trim the ship has. If something does not work quite as you would expect it to, chances are good that you find the answer on the FAQ page.
When you’re done with the setup, I recommend that you make a list of the keyboard commands on a sheet of paper. Appendix 1 in the manual provides a list of the default commands. Be sure to note which ones you have reprogrammed! There are so many commands that you may find this daunting. In practice you won’t use all of them and you will soon have memorized the ones you need.
I’m done with the setup. How can I get in the air?
Well, it is important to know how gliders work. If you’re a real pilot this part will be fairly easy but there are still things you may find challenging at the beginning. (E.g., I find aerotowing and landing to be harder in Condor than in real life.)
If you already know how to fly a glider you can jump right in. On the main menu you find a button for Free Flight. This will take you to the Flight Planner and the following window will pop up.
In the flight planner (look at the tabs on top) you set up a task (the route you plan to fly), determine key weather parameters, and pick a plane from the hangar (and set ballast and CG position). Look at the “Free Flight” section in the Condor manual to learn to use the flight planner.
Under Notam you can pick other options related to your flight. E.g., you can select between aerotow, winch launch, or airborne start (if you want to fly right away and not spend your time with launching). Also take a look at the Realism settings. If you’re only starting out you may want to enable thermal helpers for your first few flights. These will miraculously show you where the thermals are. There are also some other useful miracles for beginners such as plane recovery, height recovery, and mid-air collision recovery. (In online races miracles are usually not allowed or their use is so heavily penalized that you cannot compete if you use them.) You may not think you need a magic wand. By all means try without one first. However, you may soon find out that it can be quite handy when you’re just starting out!
If you are not a real glider pilot, your learning curve will be longer but you should be able to learn everything you need to fly Condor by working your way through Flight School. You can find a link for Flight School on the main menu. Start with Basic and work your way through all the lessons. Flying is not easy but Condor makes the learning process as accessible as possible.
Even if you master Condor you will of course still need real life flight lessons before you can fly a real glider, but the chances are good that you will need fewer of them and your training will be less expensive. Especially if you take the Condor lessons seriously and avoid taking any shortcuts. (E.g., if you’re starting in Condor with an eye towards learning to fly in real life, please use rudder pedals from the beginning. Coordinating the control inputs from your arms and legs correctly is absolutely critical and you would have to unlearn muscle memory later and this could make your real flight lessons longer and more frustrating.)
I think I have mastered the basic flying skills in Condor. What should I do next?
Once you have worked your way through Flight School (or have otherwise mastered all the skills that are covered there) you should be ready to fly cross country.
Just like in real life, a great way to test your skills is to earn your soaring badges. The Condor Club website makes this easy to do. Go to Badges and Diplomas and fly the suggested tasks that are listed there. Work your way through to earn your Silver, Gold, and Diamond Badges.
(Tip from a recent Silver Badge pilot: not all planes are allowed for all badges. Read the fine print to avoid disappointment. E.g., for the Silver Badge you must fly a School Class glider without PDA (i.e., you must navigate by compass and ground features although turn point helpers are allowed – press “J” to see them) and you have to press S to take turn point pictures over your wing when you are in the turn sector just like it was done in the olden days (before GPS). )
Once you have done that (or you are at least confident that you can do it), congratulations! You are ready for the pinnacle of Condor fun: multiplayer online racing!
There are a lot of online contests on offer. The best way to check what’s available and suitable for your time zone is on the Competitions tab of the Condor Club. Some races are more geared towards beginners while others are more suitable for experts. Read the descriptions of the race series you’re interested in – they usually provide some clues as to who they are seeking to attract.
The Condor community is very friendly and welcoming to newcomers. You can join a race even if at first you don’t want to fly the task. It’s cool to learn some gaggle skills while flying with so many other pilots in the start area. There’s no need to feel intimidated. However, if you are, a totally “private” way of flying against other pilots exists as well: you can download a particular task from any of the race series and fly that task by yourself. And you can even download the flight traces of others who have flown that task and set them up as “ghosts”. This way you can see them on your screen while you are flying the task. This is also a great way to practice getting faster. Download the traces of a few good pilots and try to follow them around the course.
As most of our gliders are grounded due to the Coronavirus pandemic, lots of pilots are flocking to Condor to spread their virtual wings and get their fix of soaring. You can have a good time flying by yourself but the real fun starts when you fly with others. And the pinnacle of fun is multiplayer online racing. The racing environment is very welcoming and friendly but the learning curve can be steep – especially at the beginning.
Helping you to shorten the learning curve is the purpose of this article. It assumes that you are already a proficient glider pilot (whether in Condor, in the real world, or both), that you are acquainted with the concepts of cross-country flying, but that you have no or only limited racing experience. You should also be familiar with the controls in Condor and make sure you have a suitable computer setup. (Read this article to learn more about Condor – at the end you will find my recommendations for hard- and software.) Hopefully the following tips will help and encourage you join the fun of multi-player online contests.
The purpose of racing is obviously to go fast. In Condor, most races are “racing tasks”, i.e. the pilot who can get around a set course the fastest, wins. Most of the scoring is based on the familiar 1000 pt model used in real world FAI gliding contests. (There are exceptions such as “Grand Prix” style races and Assigned Area Tasks but both are rare. This article focuses primarily on FAI racing tasks and what you can do to try to minimize the time you need to fly around the course.)
First, remember what you learned in your real life training about finding lift because Condor tries to simulate the real world (and does so quite well).
Ridge lift obviously forms on the wind-ward side of ridges and the strength of the lift depends on the strength of the wind (stronger is better), the angle between the wind direction and the ridge (perpendicular is best), the shape of the ridge (steeper is generally better), and your position relative to the ridge (all else being equal, the best lift will be near the top of the ridge). (Here is more information about ridge soaring in general).
Thermal lift is stronger in the mountains than over the flats. The best lift will be near the top of sun-exposed slopes, especially if the wind direction is the same as the direction of the sun. If you look for lift under clouds, the best lift will be on the windward side of the cloud, especially if that is also the sunny side. Conversely, be careful looking for lift under clouds in the lee of mountains, especially if you’re also in the shade. Such clouds rarely work and if they do, the lift may only be close to cloud base. Always, always pay very close attention to the wind and the sun. Also bear in mind that clouds with a higher cloud base tend to indicate stronger lift than clouds with lower cloud bases. And newly forming clouds tend to provide better lift than aging clouds. (Did I say it was just like real life? It is.)
Wave lift forms in the lee of mountains under certain conditions. A detailed explanation would go beyond the scope of this tutorial but again, remember what you learned. (Here is more information about wave flying in general.) Most of the Condor races tend to be primarily a mix of ridge and thermal flying. It is not very often that wave is a big factor.
Condor does not (yet) model convergence lift so this is one complexity less than in real life.
To race effectively, you have to first internalize these basics because only then will you have sufficient mental band-width to concentrate on all the other decisions you have to make.
Preliminary Route Planning
Just as in real-life you should plan your flight ahead of time.
First of all, you should read the briefing that is automatically emailed to you when you sign up for a race. If you have a printer, I highly recommend that you print out the map of the task that comes as part of the briefing. (Depending on the contest, the full briefing including the map may be available right away, or it might only become available 15 minutes before the server starts. In either case, print the map.)
The first thing you should do after printing the map is to draw a wind arrow on the map and take note of the wind strength. You cannot plan your flight route without that. You should also take note of the maximum start height and any unusual turn-point properties. (E.g., sometimes a minimum or maximum height is stipulated for a particular turn point, and sometimes a minimum height is stipulated for the finish. You will get mad at yourself if you overlook one of those things. Ask me how I know.)
The next thing you should do is plan your intended course line. Just like in real-life the biggest factor determining your speed is how effectively you take advantage of “energy lines”. E.g., you want to fly in ridge lift wherever possible. Even if the wind is so weak that you can’t climb, flying along ridge lines will help you sustain altitude and you will need to make fewer stops to climb. And even if there is no wind at all, remember that the air will move up along sun-facing slopes. So fly along such slopes if you can, not in the middle of the valley! Remember that there will only be sink in the lee of any slope, so avoid those areas as much as possible. If your route must take you through the lee to reach a turnpoint, anticipate that you will lose a lot of altitude while crossing those areas.
As you plan your route, pay very close attention to transitions between different parts of the task.
Your first transition typically comes right after the start because the start altitude is often well below cloud base. Think about how you get going efficiently. E.g., can you glide straight to a ridge or will you have to take a thermal first?
When you transition from the flats into the mountains, think ahead where the most likely spots are going to be that will allow you to gain the altitude you need to get close to the ridge tops. (You do not want to find yourself near the bottom of a steep valley – you will lose a lot of time to dig yourself out from there – it you’re even able to do it.)
It is crucial that you identify any upwind transitions across mountain ridges. I usually mark the altitude of the ridges (or passes) that I have to cross on my map and I estimate how high I want to be at the most logical point to climb before the transition so that I have enough height to get across. There is nothing more frustrating than to approach a ridge from the lee and then have to turn around at the last moment. You can easily lose 20-30 minutes with one such mistake. (Or you might even crash.) If you’re having trouble judging how much altitude you need to make it over a ridge, this is a skill you can practice. Daniel Sazhin suggests some specific Condor exercises for this. You can find them here.
You should also think about transitions from areas with stronger lift (i.e. mountainous terrain) into areas with weaker lift (i.e. flats). If you have been driving hard because the conditions were so strong it is very tempting to keep pushing as conditions deteriorate only to find that you get stuck and have to take a slow climb. Thinking ahead pays off.
If there is significant wind, you should also consider the impact of the wind on the altitude at each of the turn points, especially on thermaling tasks. Since you will drift with the wind when you’re circling you want most of your circling to happen when you are on a downwind leg and minimize any circling on upwind legs. That means, all else being equal, you should round downwind turn points high, and upwind turn points low. I usually write “Hi” or “Lo” next to each of the turn points on my map.
Finally, pay attention to the final glide. This is just another special transition. Think ahead as to where the final glide is likely to start. E.g., if the finish is somewhere in the flats where the lift is weak you will want to start the final glide in an area where the climb rates are likely to be better. Carefully look for terrain obstacles on final glide or the likelihood of sink if you have to fly in the lee of mountains.
Not all of the things mentioned above are equally important for every race. Below is the map I marked up in preparation for the race on March 26. With a bit of practice it only takes a few minutes to prepare.
Other Pre-Flight Decisions
As soon as the “join time” begins, you should connect to the server. This will start Condor and load the task. However, don’t jump into the flight right away! Instead, take a close look at the Flight Planner where you find additional information about the day’s conditions. Reading this is critical to finalize your route planning and to make decisions about the glider you intend to fly (what glider, how much ballast, and CG position).
In particular, pay close attention to the “Weather” tab and each of the four sub tabs: wind, thermals, wave, and high clouds. E.g., in addition to wind strength and wind direction, you will learn how much variability there will be for each of those factors.
On the “Thermals” tab you can find crucial information about the presence of cumulus clouds, the height of the cloud base, the strength and width of the thermals, the overall thermal activity, how much activity you can expect in the flats, and if there will be thermal streets. Also note the variability of each of these parameters.
E.g., if there is high flats activity, if the thermals are wide and well-marked, and if streeting is high, you can expect that you will be able to do a good amount of dolphin flying, especially on task legs that are well aligned with the wind direction. Your risk of having to land out will be very low. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with blue thermals, the flats activity is low, and the thermals are narrow you can anticipate that any section over flat terrain will be very challenging. In this case make sure to gain as much height as you need before you enter any flat section and fly more conservatively. Take a look at the wave tab to see if you should expect wave activity in the lee of mountains. This is important to note even if you don’t plan to use wave lift during the flight because the presence of wave may cause some unexpected sink, especially if the wave is not marked by lenticular clouds.
The “High clouds” tab shows how much cirrus cover you should anticipate on the flight. (In the real world, cirrus will cause thermal generation to be suppressed although I am not 100% sure to what degree this is true in Condor as well.)
Once you have taken note of these parameters and determined how they affect your route plans it is time to go to the “Hangar” tab and pick your plane.
If there are no handicap rules, pick the highest performing plane that is permissible by the race. You can compare the performance of different gliders by looking at the polar graphs under “Settings” on the “Hangar” tab. You can also look at prior contests that were held for the same plane class and see what gliders the winners used. If there is a handicap in place the decision gets more difficult and depends heavily on the task. E.g., if maneuverability is critical such as when having to thermal close to rock faces in high mountains you will want a different glider than when there are vast stretches of weak lift where you want maximum glide performance.
Ballast or no ballast? Almost all Condor races that I have ever flown were won by pilots who flew with full water ballast. I would say, definitely start the race with full ballast and only drop ballast if you can’t average more than 2-3 kts in climbs and there isn’t much ridge flying involved. If you drop ballast, it’s best to do it early in the race, ideally at the end of your first cruise / the beginning of your first climb. If you hang on to full ballast for most of the race, it makes no sense to drop it towards the end because you will miss it on your final glide.
With respect to setting the CG there are many different opinions. In my view, the overall performance difference of different CG positions is probably fairly minor. In general, gliders tend to circle better with the CG aft and run better with the cg forward but I doubt that this is a big factor for the overall race outcome. Experiment with different CG positions and find out what you like. I tend to fly with a medium aft CG unless the task involves mostly ridge running and/or significant turbulence (you can see this upfront in the flight planner) in which case I put the CG forward.
Once you’ve finished the route planning and picked your glider, ballast, and CG it’s time to join the flight. Most Condor races start “airborne”, i.e. you won’t have to aero-tow or winch to get up. This is to safe all participants a lot of waiting time before the race gets underway.
At the left top of the screen a count down will tell you how much time is left for others to join the game. Once the count down reaches zero there is a short delay until the start gate opens. The delay is usually a few minutes and the duration is specified in the briefing email. This is then followed by the start window time, i.e., the length of time that the start gate remains open. This is also specified in the briefing email. It could be as long as an hour or as short as one minute. If there is a “Regatta” start, the clock starts ticking for everyone as soon as the window opens.
Use the time between joining the game and the start of your race to get a feel for the day as you would in real life. Sample a few thermals to get a sense of the thermal strength so you can set your MC to what you expect to achieve at the first thermal out on course. If you have the time you may even fly out on task for a little while to check the conditions ahead, or, if the start is also the finish, you can take a closer look at the terrain on final glide. The briefing may have specified a particular turn direction in the start area – it is usually left turns only. (Out on course you can turn in any direction unless you join someone else in a thermal – in that case you must circle in the same direction as those who were there before.)
Also, remember the maximum start height from the briefing. The start sector on your Condor flight computer (typically a half-cylinder) is marked in red before the task opens. Once the start is open and you are in the sector, the sector will turn green as soon as you descend below the maximum start height. Your race time will start running as soon as you exit the sector (except for Regatta starts).
Before the start you should decide where you want to cross the start line. You should have already considered this in your route planning (based on wind direction and terrain) but other factors may come into play (such as the look of the thermals out on course).
Another tactical decision is to pick the right start time. If you are the first to start you have no-one ahead of you to mark any thermals for you. Instead, you will be marking thermals for everyone else. On the other hand, if you start last and can’t catch up to anyone else you will have a lonely flight and can’t take advantage of other gliders at all. So if you’re a relative newbie it may be a good idea to start early (although not first). This way you have someone ahead of you and you will be able to take advantage of the fastest pilots as they catch and pass. It’s a good idea to know who the fastest pilots typically are as this gives you a better idea who you may want to try and follow for a while. The fastest racers will often start at the back because this means they can use others ahead of them as thermal markers.
When it’s time to start, you will want to cross the line with maximum energy. This means, the ideal start is at Vne and just below the maximum start height (obviously with flaps fully negative). Doing so takes some practice. Condor is not very forgiving when you fly too fast. You will flutter and your ship may break apart. So be careful! There is a good reason this type of start is no longer used in real glider contests! I usually approach the start line from a few miles back, close to VnE and I control my height with the spoilers. (In real life you do not want to open your spoilers at VnE, so in this respect Condor is a little more forgiving.) As soon as you cross the start line, ease the speed back to your intended speed to fly. A common mistake is to fly too fast for the first few miles and unnecessarily destroy energy.
If you didn’t like your start you can go back and restart as long as the start window remains open. The last start counts.
Out On Course
Once across the start line you constantly have to make tactical decisions – just as you would in real flying. How fast do you fly? What climb rates will you accept? What route do you pick above the terrain? Do you divert from course to get to an attractive cloud or do you go straight? What is the right altitude to leave a particular climb? Your speed over the duration of the race is ultimately a function of all these decisions.
Some specific things you want to consider: not all climbs are created equal. You only want to stop for the best ones unless you are so low that you have no choice. How can you tell which ones will be best? Again, consider the terrain, the angle of the sun, and the wind: the best climbs will come off wind-ward, sun-facing slopes. Clouds with high bases are better than clouds with lower bases. New clouds are better than aging clouds. Decaying clouds often only have sink under them. Watch the development of the clouds and get a feel for the cycle time. If a cloud off in the distance looks great, it may be in decay by the time you get there. Look for newly forming clouds as they often work best.
Centering lift takes time. You don’t want to do it too often. Beginners often try to take every climb to stay high. This is inefficient, not only because you’re taking climbs that are weaker than average, but also because you have to center more often and each time you center you’re wasting time. If you can anticipate where the best lift under clouds can be found, you will become more efficient because you will approach slightly to the side of where you expect the core to be and decisively turn the correct way. Even better is the situation when other gliders are already centered in a thermal ahead and you can see them go up quickly. If that’s the case, approach on one side of the circle and then turn so that you are directly underneath them. (Make sure to observe their direction of turn as you approach – you must turn the same way for safety reasons.)
While taking too many climbs is inefficient, getting too low is inefficient as well. First, you may be forced to take a below-average climb because that is all you can find within your remaining glide range, and second, thermals tend to be weaker, broken, and narrow as you get closer to the ground. (Once again, this is no different than in the real world!) Furthermore, as clouds age, they may still indicate lift up high, but there may no longer be any lift coming from the ground. So the lower you get, the less you can trust the clouds. For all these reasons, almost all soaring literature will advise you to stay within the “working band” – this is the altitude band in which the average climb rates tend to be best. Contest soaring – especially thermal contest soaring – is a game of chance and you have to constantly assess uncertainties and probabilities as you examine the sky ahead. Which clouds look good? How many of them are likely to work? What are the odds that they still work when I get there? What are the odds of new clouds forming or finding lift in the blue? If you’re interested to learn more about this fascinating topic, I recommend Daniel Sazhin’s articles “Soaring is Risky Business” and “Modeling Gear Shifting“.
If you are on a cross-wind leg and you anticipate the need to thermal stay on the upwind side of the direct course line for any wind drift will make you move to the downwind side. Your total flight route will be shorter if you account for this in anticipation.
To determine the best speed to fly take advantage of the built-in flight computer and set MC to the value of the anticipated average rate of climb in the next climb ahead. Don’t pick the best (20 second) avg. climb rate that you expect to see in the next thermal but the total average that you anticipate to achieve from the moment you enter to the moment you exit, including any inefficiencies while centering. I tend to use about 75% of the anticipated best climb rate in the next thermal. You can obviously get much more scientific than that. I recommend this article by John Cochrane if you’re interested. (It’s about real life soaring but applies perfectly to Condor as well.)
Use the flight computer to find out at what speed you should fly given your MC setting but do not try to constantly “chase the needle”. Constant speed changes are inefficient. You want to fly with minimal control inputs when you’re cruising to minimize drag. You can also use Condor’s auto-pilot functionality to let the computer fly the plane between thermals (pressing “P” during a race will turn the auto-pilot on and off). You just need to make sure that it is trimmed to the right speed. (This only makes sense when there is no advantage to be gained by following obvious energy lines – either cloud streets or terrain features.) Also make sure that you fly well coordinated and are not inadvertently slipping.
When you are flying in ridge lift, MC theory is of little relevance. What matters most along the ridge is that you fly in the best area of lift. Generally you want to be near the top of the ridge. If you fall below it is important to slow down to get back up quickly so you can take advantage of the best air. When you are well above the ridge you should speed up because you can fly faster if you stay near the top. However, there are exceptions. E.g., if you have to transition to higher terrain ahead, or if you prepare to cross an area of weak lift, you may want to slow down and climb well above the ridge as high as you need to. Try to do that along sections where you anticipate the strongest lift.
Navigation is also crucially important. Complex mountainous terrain can be confusing. If you’re not careful you may find yourself in a different spot than you thought you would be at. You may even suddenly find yourself in the lee of a ridge when you thought you were on the windward side. One such mistake can easily be the end of your chances and it might even result in a land-out, or even a crash. I always use the map view on the flight computer when I fly in the mountains and I compare what I see on screen to the map that I printed out before the flight.
Should you divert from course or go straight? As with anything else, it depends 🙂 The factors that matter are how much better you expect the lift or the energy line to be along the course deviation, and how big the deviation is (in terms of angle from the direct course line). The cost of a 10 or 15 degree course deviation is very minor and almost always pays off if you’re reasonably confident that you will gain even just a little bit of height (or lose less height) relative to going straight. Even larger deviations of 30 degrees or more often pay off. On the other hand, if you’re moving 90 degrees off course you are no longer moving forward so this will only make sense if you are either desperately low of you just spotted an extraordinary opportunity (or both). Personally, I probably tend to deviate a bit too much but most newcomers fall into the other category, i.e. they deviate too little. Remember, what matters is the angle of the deviation from the course line, not the absolute distance from the course line! Soaring champ and math guru, John Cochrane, demonstrated scientifically when deviations make sense. Check here if you’re keen to dive deeper into this subject.
Always think ahead and be prepared to “switch gears” if the conditions ahead on course are likely to change. It is easy to keep speeding along when you have been doing it for 15 minutes non stop even though the conditions ahead are likely to drastically soften. Conversely, it is easy to remain too conservative when you have struggled to stay aloft and are entering an area where you should be ripping along at high speed. Always fly based on what’s ahead of you, not based on what you are currently experiencing or what you recently experienced. This is easier said than done as we all tend to be biased towards our most recent experience.
Also, do not blindly follow the herd. Just as you are subject to recency bias, everyone else is as well. It takes a lot of discipline to slow down and gain altitude ahead of a soft area when the folks you have been racing with for the last 15 minutes continue to press ahead. It is much better to fly your own race than to blindly follow someone else. The best learning takes place when you make a different decision than someone else and then compare the flight tracks after the race. Did your decision pay off? If the answer is yes, you clearly made a better decision than the the other pilot. If the answer is no, what did the other pilot see that you had overlooked?
If you want to be fast you have to race until the end. This means, don’t take a weak climb up to cloud base if stronger climbs are likely ahead. Your last climb should be at least as strong as those that are likely to come. How high should you climb? Use your flight computer! Set MC to the actual rate of climb in the thermal that you are in and keep climbing until you are on final glide. You may want to take one extra turn because you are going to lose a few hundred feet just to accelerate to cruising speed. Exit the climb as efficiently as possible and get going.
Unlike real races that usually end at a safety altitude (e.g. 1000 ft AGL), the finish line in most Condor races is at the ground level of the airport where the race ends. Normally you cross the finish line at high speed, pull up, drop your water, fly an abbreviated pattern, put the gear down, and land.
Since your life is not at stake, there should not be a mental hurdle to trust the flight computer. There tends to be less unexpected sink in Condor than in the real world and it is very rare that someone ends up coming short. (Just be a bit more careful when the final glide is in the lee of ridges, especially if your MC setting is low.)
Once I am on final glide, I go to the final glide screen and make any fine adjustments to the MC setting such that my arrival altitude is exactly zero. Once I have done that, I simply adjust my speed just to keep it that way.
Even on final glide it is still very important to closely watch the terrain ahead, taking account of the sun and wind. Small route deviations that keep you in good air will pay off nicely because they allow you to increase your speed.
A special case exists when portions of your final glide are likely to be in lift, e.g., when you are able to follow a windward ridge. In this case, there is no need to take your last climb all the way to final glide altitude. You can often get going with a significant negative value and make up the difference en route to the finish line. Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule for how soon you can get going because it all depends on the strength of the lift you anticipate to find along the way. With practice and experience you will become better at estimating this.
Post Flight Analysis
The fastest pilots are likely to have a lot of experience and you are unlikely to get near the top of the score sheet until you have built some experience yourself. The good news is that Condor-Club gives you easy-to-use tools to compare your flight to those of others. It is very interesting to find out where you lost time against the winners. If you want to take it to the next level, you can even download the flight traces in .igc format and compare them using See You or other flight analysis software.
Condor also allows you to use a downloaded trace from a competitor and set it up as a “ghost” that you can fly against. You can even refly a task against your own “ghost” and see how much you can beat your previous time.
I hope this little tutorial has been helpful and inspires you to join the Condor racing circuit! There is no doubt in my mind than many of the skills learned here will make you a better cross-country pilot in the real world (whether you’re racing or not). However, please always keep in mind that this is just a simulator! Condor encourages you to take risks that you should never assume in reality. Make sure that stays front and center in your mind.
The purpose of this short post is to review my progress as a soaring pilot in 2019 and to lay out some objectives and aspirational goals for 2020.
My Progress in 2019
39 glider flights (12 in DG 505, 27 in Discus CS)
120 glider hours (my new total is 319 hours)
My average flight duration was just over three hours. My longest flight was 7 hours and 14 minutes. 9 of my flights were longer than 5 hours.
Soaring sites: KBDU (Boulder) and U14 (Nephi)
Badges and Certificates
I got one step closer to attaining my Diamond Badge by completing Diamond Distance (a pre-declared 500km flight) on my 6th attempt (the only component missing is Diamond Altitude, i.e. a 5,000 meter altitude gain upon release from tow).
Upgraded from private pilot to commercial pilot by obtaining my commercial pilot certificate.
Speed League Championship: worldwide I finished the year among the top 1000 pilots for the OLC Speed League (rank #942 out of 10,830 participating pilots). In the United States I came in at rank #122 out of 756 participating pilots and in Boulder I ranked #11 out of 37 participating pilots.
OLC Plus Championship: worldwide I achieved rank #1,357 out of 14,087 participating pilots. In the United States I came in at rank #71 out of 1,043 participating pilots and in Boulder I ranked #6 out of 46 participating pilots.
To prepare for future soaring contests I attended the OLC camp in Nephi in June/July of 2019.
I conducted extensive research into understanding terrain, weather, and land-out areas at the locations where I will be flying my first contests (Montague, Nephi).
Before the soaring season I participated in a few soaring contests on Condor, which I find to be an excellent practice tool.
Move up to flapped gliders, fly with water ballast, and learn to responsibly use an engine.
Have fun flying my first soaring contests (I’m signed up for the 2-seater Nationals in Montague, CA; and the Region 9 Sports Class in Nephi, UT). My goal is to complete all tasks provided that I can do so without taking any safety risks. (My position on the score sheet is secondary given that these are my first contests.)
Contribute to my club’s OLC Speed League results by scoring among the top three Boulder pilots on 10 or more Speed League weekends. My stretch goal for the OLC Speed League is to score among the top 5 Boulder pilots and among the top 50 US pilots overall.
Complete a flight of more than 750km. My stretch goal is 1000km.
As I am preparing for my first soaring contests in 2020 I have been thinking a lot about managing risks in soaring competitions. Will I be tempted into taking risks that could threaten my safety? How can I recognize risks in advance? Are all risks bad and must be avoided? Won’t I have to take risks in order to compete? Are the winners typically those who take the greatest risks? Is it even possible to compete and stay safe?
It took me a while to sort through these questions and I may not have all the answers. But here’s an attempt at addressing them and I am satisfied that it leads to a good place.
When we talk about risks and soaring we usually refer to Safety Risks, i.e. the likelihood that a person will be harmed (injured or killed) by participating in a hazardous activity. I recently published two articles on this subject entitled “The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love” and “Does Soaring Have to Be So Dangerous?“. For obvious reasons we want to keep our safety risks as low as possible.
But, like most sports, soaring also involves another kind of risk that is best referred to as Sporting Risk. Sporting Risks should be understood as a player’s gamble in a competitive game: if the bet is successful, the player stands to gain in competition; if the bet is unsuccessful, he or she stands to lose. E.g., a tennis player who places his shots close to the lines takes the gamble that his balls will land inside the court and be difficult to return. If the gamble is successful he stands to gain the point, if the gamble is unsuccessful, he loses the point. A slalom skier who takes tight turns around the gates takes the gamble that she will ski the most direct line and round each gate correctly. If the gamble is successful she stands to win by scoring the fastest time, if her gamble is unsuccessful (i.e., if she misses only one single gate) she fails to complete the course and loses the race.
While we must keep our Safety Risks as low as possible, this is not the case for Sporting Risks: a tennis player who plays only safe shots makes himself vulnerable to attacks from his opponent, and a slalom skier who gives each gate a wide berth will be too slow to win a race. Conversely, a very high risk strategy might pay off now and then but it is unlikely to succeed in the long run: a tennis player who places every single shot close to the line will accumulate too many unforced errors, and a slalom skier who tries to round each gate within fractions of an inch will not complete enough runs. Sporting Risks must be optimized instead of minimized. The player has to find the right balance between offense and defense. A “Goldilocks” approach wins. (Watch Mikaela Shiffrin, already one of the greatest slalom skiers of all time, getting this balance perfectly right.)
Sporting Risks in Soaring
If you practice soaring as a sport, i.e. as soon as you venture beyond a safe gliding distance to your home airfield (you don’t even have to fly in a contest), you are confronted with sporting decisions and Sporting Risks. John Bird and Daniel Sazhin recently published a scientific paper that specifically proposes a (sporting) risk strategy for Thermal Soaring. A simplified version appeared in two parts in the March and April 2019 editions of Soaring Magazine.
My summarized interpretation of their work is this: when we leave a source of lift and glide out on course of a cross-country task we can never know with certainty whether we will find another thermal. If we don’t, we have to land out. Our likelihood of having to land out is a function of our sporting decisions: the course line we choose (e.g. how many clouds we sample through course deviations), our inter-thermal cruising speed, and how selective we are with respect to accepting lift. The more aggressive we fly, the greater our potential task speed, and the higher our odds (our Sporting Risk) of having to land (and failing to complete the task). John Bird and Daniel Sazhin show that our land-out risk compounds the more glides we need to complete the task because each glide is an independent event, i.e. we will be forced to land even if we fail only once to find another climb. If we fly in a multi-day contest where even one land-out can destroy our chances of performing well, our Sporting Risk compounds across all the glides needed to complete all contest tasks. To succeed, we must find the right balance: if we are too cautious we will leave points on the table; if we are too aggressive we will end in a field and blow the contest result. When conditions are strong with multiple reliable lift sources ahead we can fly fast and direct; when conditions weaken we must quickly “shift gears” and switch our focus on staying aloft. In short: we must always strive to optimize our Sporting Risks and get the risk balance just right. The Golidlocks approach wins in soaring as well.
This is also illustrated by the following chart, which shows the attainable task speed on a XC flight as a function of a pilot’s sporting risk and his or her skill level.
Here is how to read this: the chart assumes a task where the maximum attainable task speed for a top pilot is 70kt. You can see that the pilot has to find the optimal sporting risk balance to achieve that speed. If she is more or less aggressive, her speed will remain shy of the 70kt. The chart also assumes that the minimum average speed to complete the task is 40kt. Pilots who are unable to reach 40kt will run out of lift at the end of the day and not be able to finish. Pilots with medium skill can only get to 60kt even if they get their own risk balance perfectly right. (Setting realistic expectations based on one’s skill set is therefore important, and inexperienced contest pilots should not be disappointed with themselves if they can’t get close to the performance of the top pilots even if they perceive that they have done everything right.)
John Bird and Daniel Sazhin have taken the question of how to optimize the Sporting Risks in soaring one step further and proposed that we should adopt one of two different mind frames or “gears” depending on the situation we are in: if the conditions ahead look promising, we should focus on “racing”, i.e. progressing forward on task as directly as prudently possible while flying at MC speeds; if things look bleak, we should shift down and focus primarily on avoiding a land-out while still trying to move forward on task if possible. Their thinking is supported by thousands of computer simulations, which show that this approach is likely to yield a winning strategy. I like the approach also for its practical simplicity: two gears are a lot easier to operate than many. Look up their work as it explains this in a lot more detail.
Risk Management in Soaring is More Complex Than It Is In Other Sports
One aspect that makes soaring different and particularly challenging is the unusually complex interplay of Sporting Risks and Safety Risks. Various sports tend to fall into one of the following categories:
(a) Sporting Risks can be Independent of Safety Risks. In many sports the safety risks are completely unrelated to an athlete’s decision making during a competition. E.g., while tennis players have an elevated risk of getting injured, that risk is not a function of how aggressively they place their shots. When they decide to play, they accept the Safety Risk (which isn’t very high to begin with) as a given and can focus entirely on managing the Sporting Risks. (The same is true for sports where the Safety Risks are negligibly small.)
(b) Sporting Risks and Safety Risks can be Aligned. In many high-risk sports the Safety Risks are a direct function of the Sporting Risk. E.g., a race car driver must manage his Sporting Risk by driving right up to the edge of where the car remains on the track (but not beyond). When his Sporting Risk increases, his Safety Risk increases as well. The two types of risks are perfectly aligned, which means the driver can keep his entire focus on going as fast as possible, just not any faster.
(c) Unfortunately, in some sports, the Sporting Risks and Safety Risks are Misaligned. Soaring falls into this category: in our sport, the relationship between these two types of risks is highly complex. This is problematic because the pilot must constantly manage (i.e. minimize) their Safety Risks, while also trying to manage (i.e. optimize) their Sporting Risks. This challenge can be confusing and at times even overwhelming.
The Complex Relationship of Sporting Risks and Safety Risks in Soaring
The following characteristics make soaring risk management particularly challenging:
(1) Not every Sporting Risk involves a Safety Risk
A pilot who rips through the air at 90-100 kts and skips all but the strongest thermals will certainly take a high Sporting Risk. However, if she always keeps a landable field in safe glide and readily switches from thermaling to landing mode when she’s down at 1000 ft AGL she is not taking a Safety Risk at all.
(2) Life-threatening Safety Risks exist even in the absence of Sporting Risks
A very conservative pilot who flies at MC 0 with a safe arrival altitude of 1,500 ft programmed into his computer might run into a 2-3 minute stretch of 500 fpm sink on final glide, lack the energy to reach the airport, try a low thermal safe two miles shy of the runway, stall and spin in.
It’s critical to notice that the “conservative” MC 0 setting actually contributed to the accident. From a safety standpoint, MC 0 is the riskiest setting to calculate a final glide because it presumes a still airmass and that we are able to fly perfectly at best L/D. A more “sporty” setting of MC 3 or 4 would have been a much safer choice because it would have given the pilot an additional built-in margin. If you’re not sure why that is, I recommend you read John Cochrane’s article “Safer Finishes“.
(3) Sporting Risks can quickly become life-threatening Safety Risks
Consider the following example (from “Perspective: One Contest Pilot’s View…” by Dave Nadler, Soaring Magazine May 1987). “First day of the contest. … I leave the ridge near the turn point, seeing a gaggle. Everyone in the gaggle knows that this thermal will make the difference between a completion and a land-out, on day 1. Pressure’s really on. But the gaggle is not going up. I leave, hoping the others will call it quits and final glide out to the beautiful fields in the central valley, while they can still get past the low obscuring front ridge. I coast down to the turn, click my photo and coast up the valley, picking fields. Pattern altitude, and a nice landing on a lovely golf course fairway. As I taxi off, the panicky radio calls start. Somebody tried to hang on too long in that gaggle, refusing to admit that the day was over until too late. The violent crash was seen from the air. Nobody dares land to offer assistance, the ‘field’ is way too dangerous. Which one of our friends is dead now? Just one day, 3.5 hours of flying, already one dead and two crashes.”
If your mind is focused on the task and making choices to optimize the sporting risks, it can be easy to overlook that a particular choice is no longer just a sporting bet but also a potentially life-threatening safety risk. In the example above, Dave Nadler himself clearly recognized the safety risk in time and switched from Sporting Risk Optimization to Safety Risk Avoidance.
However, it is quite possible that the fateful pilot who tragically lost his life was entirely focused on flying the task and decided to join the gaggle as a sporting move (his priority set to “staying up”) without even noticing that he was too low to “get past the low obscuring front ridge” and “glide out to the beautiful fields in the central valley”. By the time he realized it, he may have already been trapped in an unlandable area. And so he kept trying to dig himself out until it was too late! Up to a certain point in time he could have saved himself by deciding to execute a controlled crash landing in an ill-suited field, or by jumping out with the parachute. But who can really be certain that they would make such a choice under extreme stress and while being entirely focused on trying to climb?
How Can We Manage both Sporting Risks and Safety Risks?
If we consider this complexity and the stress that can arise in the cockpit we can understand why even highly experienced pilots routinely maneuver themselves into situations from where there is no escape.
But understanding alone isn’t enough. We need a recipe, a decision making model, that we can apply in the cockpit to help ensure that we think the right thoughts and do the right things!
As I began working on this I got good input and feedback from Daniel Sazhin who helped me realize that our observations, our judgements, our decisions, and ultimately our actions are all guided by our priorities. If our priorities are wrong or even just unclear, we might not even see what we need to see; we might not form judgments about the things that need to be judged; we won’t decide the things we need to decide; and our actions will not get us to where we really need to go.
Even if our priorities are right, there is plenty of opportunity for us to make mistakes at each of these subsequent steps (observing, judging, deciding, and acting), but if we have our priorities wrong, we might already be doomed from the start.
The following schematic illustrates how all our decisions and actions flow from our priorities:
Let’s go back to Dave Nadler’s example. If the fateful competitor had his top priority set to “I have to prevent a land-out”, he would have scanned the sky for clues that might help him achieve this objective. When he saw the gaggle, he might have made a snap judgement that there must be a workable thermal allowing him to realize his objective. So he quickly decided to join the other circling gliders. Only after he got there did he realize that the air actually was not going up and that a ridge obstructed his glide out to the land-able fields. (This is of course speculation since we can’t ask the deceased pilot. But it’s easy to see how it could have happened exactly like this.)
What could have prevented this outcome? It’s actually quite simple: he would have needed a different priority! Had his top priority been “I must be safe if things go wrong” he would have scanned the sky and the terrain differently. He surely would have looked for land-able areas and noticed the ridge that ended up blocking his glide to the fields. He would have formed judgments about how high he would need to be when joining the gaggle in order to keep a field in safe glide. As a consequence, his decisions and actions would likely have been very different. (Btw – if you’re certain that you would have noticed the ridge even if your focus was squarely on preventing a land-out, remember this experiment.)
We always say that safety is our number one priority. But this is just an abstract statement unless we make it actionable. How can we do that?
I would like to propose a simple and practical way to do this by stack-ranking our priorities like in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Our first priority, which must guide every single decision, must always be to stay safe. Only if and as long as this need is satisfied can we concentrate on our Sporting Risks. Our second priority is staying up, i.e. preventing a land out. And only if we are high enough that we don’t have to worry about having to land out can we concentrate on racing, i.e. going fast. Our pyramid looks like this:
Aside from being very simple and easy to remember in the cockpit this basic model has a number of key benefits:
(1) It ensures that we think ahead and consider potential Safety Risks whenever we consider a particular plan of action (and not only once we find ourselves in trouble!).
(2) It clearly delineates “Being Safe” and “Staying Up”. These two priorities are easily confused but they are absolutely not the same. Trying to stay up when it is no longer safe to do so is the single most frequent cause of fatal accidents (as I’ve demonstrated before). We must only focus on Staying Up as long as it is safe to do so!
(3) It gives us a blue-print to prioritize our Safety Risks and our Sporting Risks and it is aligned with the “gear-shifting” model as proposed by John Bird and Daniel Sazhin. If the conditions on course ahead are poor we should focus on staying up while continuing to progress forward on course, but only if and as long as it is safe to do so. And if the conditions ahead are strong and we are high enough that we don’t have to worry about staying up, we can concentrate on racing, but also only if and as long as it is safe to do so.
The following flow chart illustrates how we can apply these priorities to formulate, assess, and constantly revise our plan of action as we learn new information. (The colors are aligned with those used in the pyramid chart above.)
When we’re in the cockpit we are repeatedly assessing our situation and are making plans for what to do and where to go. This is shown by the blue box in the upper center. Thereby we must always test our plan of action against our priorities.
(1) We must always test the plan for safety first and ask “Will I be safe if things go wrong?” If the answer is no or even if we’re not sure, we must try to adjust our plan to eliminate the safety risk, or incorporate a contingency plan, i.e., an alternative Plan B or Plan C if Plan A does’t work out as we hope it will. If we can’t think of any way to do either of these things, we are already in a precarious situation: we have no choice but to execute a plan that could endanger our safety. If that is the case, we should also make an emergency plan to safe ourselves in case our only plan does not work out. (E.g.: the pilot in Dave Nadler’s example could have saved himself by bailing out in time or by executing a controlled crash landing. Check with your parachute rigger at what altitude you can still deploy your chute. You might be surprised how low it will work!)
(2) If our plan passes the safety check, we’re ready to test it against your Sporting Risk tolerance. If we’re concerned about having to land out we should be flying in our low gear and focus on staying up while trying to progress on task only as far and as fast as our Sporting Risk tolerance allows.
(3) If we are satisfied that our land-out risk is below our Sporting Risk tolerance threshold, we can focus on racing, i.e. we can fly at McCready speeds and follow the best energy lines.
As we execute the plan, we must watch out for new information that could change our assessment. Our next step will be to test our plan for Safety again so we know we have to look out for information that could impact our safety assessment.
The model is a continuous loop and requires us to cycle through this thought process on an ongoing basis. We tend to get in trouble when we are so wrapped up in execution that we fail to take in new information, especially new information that would change the results of our safety test. E.g., it is possible that the pilot in Dave Nadler’s example joined the gaggle at a time when he was still high enough to glide to safety and that he then got so focused on thermaling in unworkable lift that he did not notice that he had dropped below an altitude at which he was no longer able to cross the ridge and reach a field. Had he reassessed the situation at the time of joining the gaggle and tested his plan for safety he would have surely noticed the ridge and the importance of leaving the gaggle when a safe glide out was still feasible.
We must also remember that we are always testing our plans and not just our current situation! This is an important distinction because it requires us to “stay ahead of our aircraft”. If we do this consistently we can avoid getting into a situation where a dangerous Plan A is our only option.
The practical application of the model works best if you have considered your Personal Safety Minimums and your tolerance of Sporting Risks before you get into the cockpit. This is shown by the two boxes at the upper left of the flow chart.
Your Personal Safety Minimums should be appropriate for your skill level, your experience, your equipment, the terrain you’re flying in, the weather conditions, etc. They might include criteria such as “I will never thermal below x feet AGL”, “I will never fly closer than x wingspans from terrain”, “I will never blindly follow another glider”, “I will always keep a landable field in a glide assuming MC 3 or higher and an arrival altitude of x feet AGL.” Having these minima in place will make it easier to answer the question “Will I be safe if things go wrong?” If you’re confident that you’ll stay within your personal minima you should be pretty safe.
Your Personal Sporting Risk Tolerance is primarily about your willingness to accept a higher or lower land-out risk. E.g. if you are attempting to set a new speed record, you will need to have a high risk tolerance and it may take you several attempts until you succeed (the other times you will land out). If you want to win a multi-day competition with long daily tasks all of which you have to complete, your risk tolerance will have to be much lower. Your experience and skills might play a role as well; however, you should be comfortable with the possibility of a land-out before you go on any cross-country flight. Your Sporting Risk Tolerance helps you answer the question, “Is my land-out risk acceptable?
If you consider the flow chart too complex to use in the cockpit then try to remember at least the simple hierarchy of needs as shown in the pyramid chart. The most important thing is to always ask “Will I be safe if things go wrong?” before you get into a situation where this is no longer the case.
Do We Have To Take Safety Risks To Win A Soaring Contest? In Other Words: Do Reckless Pilots Have a Competitive Advantage?
The history of soaring is full of stories of bravery (or lunacy, depending on your perspective), where soaring pilots “polished the rocks”, “dug themselves out from the height of a barn”, “scraped across the ridge”, or “pulled up over the trees with no energy to spare” to glide to victory.
It is easy to see why pilots may have benefitted competitively by taking such safety risks. Such behavior must have helped pilots prevent land-outs, or cross the finish line minutes earlier than they would have been able to do had they stopped for another climb. They scored higher points and may have even garnered the win on a contest day by flying recklessly.
But does this also mean that pilots who are willing to take such great risks are gaining a competitive advantage in the long run (provided they survive)? If so, we should find that the winningest pilots are also the ones who take the greatest risks.
Last I checked, pilots didn’t wear badges that show how how many life threatening gambles they have already survived. Accident statistics are also not a good source because a single accident is often enough to end a particular contest pilot’s career (or life).
Unfortunately, I don’t think real life provides the data that would allow us to answer this question conclusively. But there is a next best thing to study: Condor. More specifically: the accident rates of pilots participating in the highest level of multi-player Condor racing.
Insights from Condor Racing
Wanting to find an answer to this nagging question, I analyzed the results of the last three years of a race called “Condor World Cup”. It is hosted by the European Condor Club and has been the most competitive race series over the past three years with almost 300 participating pilots who completed a total of 3,683 race flights. 122 of these pilots finished at least 10 individual races in this particular competition. These are the ones I decided to study. In particular, I wanted to know if those who consistently achieve the highest average point scores are also the ones who have the highest crash rates.
The results are very clear but they show exactly the opposite! Pilots who consistently achieve the best scores actually have the lowest crash rate: pilots who scored more than 900 points on average per race only had a crash rate of 4%; those who scored less than 600 points on average per race had a crash rate of 30%. The following chart shows the crash rate of pilots based on the average point scores that they achieved in the races that they completed successfully.
This is great news for us because it shows that we do not have to take great risks to win a soaring contest! In fact, the opposite is true: those who take the greatest risks tend to end up at the bottom of the score sheet, and those who fly the safest are also the ones who tend to score the highest.
As expected there are some cases where pilots with high crash rates occasionally won a single race. But those cases are a rare exception and these pilots will typically score very poorly on average!
There are of course limitations to using Condor as a proxy for the real world. By far the most important one is the fact that there are actually no Safety Risks in Condor at all. Even crashing is just a Sporting Risk because those who crash will get a zero point score or may be assessed a point penalty. But they can fly again the next day even though in the real world they would have destroyed their plane or even killed themselves. But does this mean the results are not relevant for the real world? I don’t think so: if there were an advantage to be gained from flying recklessly, surely it would be greatest in an environment where the penalty for recklessness is tiny when compared to a real soaring contest. And yet we see that even in an environment that is completely free of Safety Risks, recklessness does not pay off at all!
But WHY Is There No Sporting Advantage To Flying Recklessly?
The data from the Condor study are as clear as they could possibly be, yet they may still feel counterintuitive. What about the pilots who dug themselves out from the weeds or who scraped above the tree-tops to a low energy finish? Why aren’t those the pilots who typically win contests?
I believe the answer can be found in the model that I introduced earlier. Take another look at it, and this time, focus on the green racing box.
The only time when we can focus on racing is (1) when we don’t have to worry about survival, and (2) when we also don’t have to worry about landing out.
In other words: to race we must be flying safe and high enough that we can give our undivided attention to following the best energy lines and maintaining racing speeds. Once we drop down low, we must accept detours and fly at slower speeds. And once we recognize that our safety is at risk, every other consideration goes out the door completely. When we find ourselves in these situations we will most likely not be moving fast towards the finish line!
This does not mean that pilots can never get a benefit from a reckless maneuver. The Condor study does show that pilots with a significant crash history will occasionally win a contest day. But more often than not, reckless flying gets us into situations that will slow us down or even grind us to a halt. To win contests we must avoid these situations!
While we can thus surmise that staying safe is necessary to win contests, it is of course not sufficient. The winningest competitors are those who not only stay safe, but who also manage to find the right balance with respect to their Sporting Risks, and who furthermore have the necessary piloting and racing skills. (The latter are not a subject of this article).
In this article I propose a simple yet holistic model for managing our Safety Risks and our Sporting Risks in soaring contests. One that helps us stay safe and compete.
The model is informed by the basic insight that our observations, judgments, decisions, and actions are framed by our priorities. If our priorities are wrong, chances are that what we see, judge, decide and do will be wrong as well.
Our core priorities in a soaring contest are actually quite simple: in order to go fast we must stay safe first, and stay up second. I call this the hierarchy of soaring priorities: stay safe; stay up; go fast. It means that we can only race when the two more basic/vital needs are satisfied.
To manage these priorities during our flight, we must continuously formulate plans and test them against our priorities, always starting with “stay safe” at the bottom of the pyramid. Our Safety Risk Tolerance should be informed by our Minimum Safety Standards, and our Sporting Risk Tolerance should be specific to our sporting objectives and the length of the task/competition.
We must remember that in soaring, Sporting Risks and Safety Risks are not directly related. Safety Risks exist even in the absence of Sporting Risks, and Sporting Risks can become Safety Risks.
Safety Risks must be avoided (principled approach). A good question to ask ourselves is,”Will I Be Safe if Things Go Wrong?”
Sporting Risks must be balanced (Goldilocks approach). A good question to ask ourselves is, “Is My Land-Out Risk Acceptable?”
Taking Safety Risks can provide a short-term benefit in competition (provided we don’t crash), but it does not convey a competitive advantage in the long run; not even over the course of a multi-day contest. In fact, the opposite is the case: reckless competitors tend to find themselves at the bottom of the score sheet. We must stay safe before we can even focus on staying up. And we must stay up before we can even focus on racing. To be fast, we must maximize the time when we’re racing, and minimize the time when we are looking for lift down low or even trying to survive.
Staying safe is necessary but not sufficient to win races. The winners will be those who fly safe, who appropriately balance their Sporting Risks, and who have excellent piloting and racing skills.
The great news is that we not only CAN stay safe and win. The fact is that we MUST focus on staying safe if we want to have a chance at winning at all!
And that makes me feel better about flying my first contests.
I’d like to give special credit to Daniel Sazhin. Daniel kindly critiqued my article “The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love” and encouraged me to think more about how we as glider pilots can reduce our safety risks. When I responded with “Does Soaring Have To Be So Dangerous?“, he once again gave me something to think about when he pointed me to John Boyd’s OODA loop decision model, to which he added the critical insight that our observations, judgments, decisions, and actions flow from our priorities. He also challenged me to explore if our frequent “failure at situational awareness” as discussed in “Does Soaring Have to Be So Dangerous?” isn’t just a consequence of us having the wrong priorities to begin with. This was very instrumental in pushing myself towards developing the integrated risk management model presented here. And this model could not have been coherent without heavily borrowing from the scientific paper “Bounded Rationality and Risk Management in Soaring” which Daniel Sazhin and John Bird published together earlier this year. This work is referenced frequently throughout.
As I mentioned before I do not pertain to have all the answers. But I am convinced that we can make our sport safer by giving more thought to the questions discussed. I welcome further critique and inspiration as it will help me and hopefully others to become better and safer soaring pilots. Have fun and stay safe!