Secret Tips from Sebastian Kawa

On February 5, 2019, the Soaring Society of America hosted an interview with Sebastian Kawa, the most successful competition glider pilot of all times. Below the YouTube link is a summary of the key takeaways.


  1. Training is critically important to be a successful competition pilot.
    • To win you must be dedicated to the sport.  If you’re a good pilot and want to become great, you must take the sport / preparation / training seriously.
    • This includes psychological training.
    • Get to know the terrain that you’re flying in – fly with locals before a competition.  E.g. we flew 2 weeks in Omarama with local pilots before the Grand Prix there.
    • The way to learn is not to follow others but to make your own decisions
    • Instructors typically teach students just how to fly safely, not how to fly perfectly.  To win, you must strive to fly perfectly.
    • The best teams, e.g. the French team, understand that you must train a lot of pilots to have a good chance of success as a team.  The French have the resources to practice in different places; they have excellent forecasts; they can organize big groups of pilots.  Pilots learn to cooperate with one another. They have a long season and fly a lot of hours – thousands of hours, not hundreds.
    • Practice communication and cooperation with other pilots
    • Always keep learning, “I can easily beat the Kawa from 5 years ago”
  2. You must learn to fly very precisely.
    • Where you fly (i.e. the line you choose) is most important to winning.
    • Fly at the exact speed the situation demands
    • Fly at exactly the right place relative to where you expect the lift to be.  Often people are not precise enough and turn a few hundred meters before the best lift and just skim the best-looking places.  You must be precise and fly directly through the area of best lift.
    • Squeeze the maximum energy from every moment
    • Limit control input. Every control input creates drag so limit them. I learned this from sailing. Stick to your line and be patient.
  3. Learn to interpret the sky and clouds
    • Pay very close attention to the sky at all times. There is so much information in the sky; the weather is very complicated; you have to think at all times
    • There are usually several cores under a cloud – you must find the strongest area quickly
    • Often several cores merge under the cloud, that will be the best place
    • Wisps aren’t equal.  Some are dissipating pieces of cloud.  If you see condensation going up into a cloud, that’s an indication of lift.
    • Think about where the sun is shining. E.g., in Europe most winds are from W to E.  If you’re flying upwind, the sunshine will be on the left-hand side and so the best lift will usually be on the left side of the clouds.
    • However, if a cloud is big, the best lift will often be on the downwind side where the sun was recently shining.  If a cloud is small, the lift is usually stronger on the upwind side

Flying Tactics

  1. Test the location of the best lift before the start line opens.
    • Examine 5-6 clouds before the start, learn where the proper place is under the clouds to find lift. Especially on windy days.  It is problematic if the sun is on one side and the wind is moving from the other side.
  2. Look at the sky like a chess board and find the best line(s).
    • Even in a random sky you will find lines that are less than 30 degrees off track.  Create a mental track and plan to fly along this track to find a satisfying thermal.
  3. Approaching clouds
    • If you’re approaching a cloud and you’re almost sure to find good lift, accelerate before the cloud because there is a lot of sink around it.  Horizontal gusts are also likely – pull a little in those.  Once you are under the cloud pull a little more.  Vertical wind shear can give you extra altitude if used correctly.
    • Plan ahead so that your approach to the cloud is slightly to the side of where you believe the best lift will be.  Pick the side that allows you to plan your initial turn in such a way that you can keep moving forward on course if you decide that the lift isn’t strong enough to circle in it.
    • If lift starts to increase you should already be turning gently in the direction you expect it.  Once the air is strongly pushing up, increase the bank angle rapidly – you may hit the core.
    • Also consider the feel of glider – gliders behave differently based on the location of the CG.  An unstable glider is often better.  E.g., a Duo Discus is a stable glider.  It wants to lower the nose if you let it fly – you must gently pull when lift comes.
  4. Plan your next route well before leaving a cloud
    • As soon as you’re happy with a thermal, look ahead and plan the next move.  When you get higher you can’t see as well.
    • Once you get within 300m of cloud base you often can’t see ahead
  5. Flying between clouds
    • Don’t fly a straight line; look for indicators of lift and follow them
    • Be precise where you fly.
    • I’m not afraid to deviate up to 30 degrees to use a better line. Even a 60-degree deviation is sometimes fine if it allows you to fly under a cu street.
    • People have tendency to neglect small indicators of lift and only see the big clouds.  You must look and see the small clouds.  If you can fly under clouds and not loose altitude it is much better compared to flying 300m on the side and loose altitude.
  6. For speed-to-fly between thermals apply McCready – but do so wisely.
    • Fly a little slower than McCready because the polar is not perfect and drops off steeply as you increase the speed. Most of the time I fly no faster than the McCready speed for 2 m/s.
    • The best speed is the one where you can fly forward on course without having to stop to thermal
    • You should always have 2-3 clouds to examine.  Don’t fly so fast that you run out of options; betting on only one cloud is not a good strategy.  Slow down before it’s too late: I usually start to slow down when I’m down to 1/3 of cloud base, sometimes sooner; this depends on the terrain and the strength of the day
    • Also account for the drag created from airspeed changes: “I usually fly a constant speed but pull up gently in gusts (except on final glide where I push to fly faster because of the extra height/energy that I’ve gained)”
  7. Plan for some rest during the flight
    • Flying precisely is mentally demanding
    • Plan when you can take a short break from thinking

Other Observations, Tips and Tricks

  1. About the importance of having the highest performing glider
    • For classic competitions you don’t have to have the best glider to win; where you fly is most important
    • For GP style competitions you do have to have the best because there is always a long final glide at the end and the best glider will win on final glide
    • On the very best days, a JS3 will be difficult to beat.
  2. Flarm has fundamentally changed competitions
    • You cannot hide behind the start
    • Everyone is flying together
    • This is a lesser issue in Grand Prix style competition because in order to win you have to fly out in front; but in regular competitions you can start a bit later and see where everyone is
  3. Weather forecasts have become extremely accurate
    • Weather forecasts have become very detailed with 2km resolutions
    • We (i.e. the Polish team) have our own meteorologist
    • Kawa uses
    • Groups of people are working on the ground to help you in the air
  4. The three most important things that make you winner:
    • The right timing for crossing the start line – leave behind others and finish before them or together with them J
    • Find the right balance b/w deviating off track and finding lift.  To fly in uprising currents, you must deviate.  The slower you fly the more you may have to deviate.
    • Always finish the task. The competition scoring system usually does not allow you to have even one terrible day.
  5. About Risks and Safety
    • To compete in difficult terrain, unfortunately we need to take and accept the risks; otherwise can’t fly in areas like Chile.
    • You can train to minimize the risks to yourself: I have experience landing in very small fields that are only 100m long with a 30% uphill slope.  It is usually possible to find a place to land where you may destroy the glider but not kill yourself.   I have not crashed a glider in 43 years, though. 


The video below was shot by someone who flew with Sebastian in the Duo. If you pay close attention you can hear Sebastian giving a lot of the tips he spoke about in his talk but in a hands-on situation.