Was 2020 A Pandemic Write Off? Not So Fast!

This time last year I was in the midst of negotiating the purchase of my first glider: a beautiful Ventus 2cxT.  It was “almost like new” with only 500 hours.  Early in January I closed the deal and drove to Dallas, Texas for a final inspection. Having found that everything was indeed tiptop, I was excited to tow it home to Colorado.

In February I travelled to the SSA convention in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Attending seminars and seeing all the shiny new objects on the convention floor I was excited for the soaring year ahead.  I also met with Daniel Sazhin, multiple US National Champion, who was kind enough to brief me on soaring in Montague, CA and Nephi, UT – the sites of my first two soaring contests that I had registered for.

Then, as we all know too well, everything changed.  Much of the world went into lockdown.  The contests I had signed up for were cancelled.  And instead of soaring, I found myself drafting a Covid-19 policy for our club to help us get back in the air. After all, “social distancing” isn’t all that difficult in our sport.

Club operations resumed in early May.  And by the end of that month the OLC Speed League Season started with a five week delay.

Looking back at 2020, the soaring year turned out much better than expected. These were the goals that I had set for myself a year ago:

    1. Stay safe by always heeding my own advice.
    2. Move up to flapped gliders, fly with water ballast, and learn to responsibly use an engine.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. Complete a flight of more than 750km. My stretch goal is 1000km.

How did I do?

Despite the challenges we all faced, the soaring year 2020 turned out better than might have been expected.

My 2020 XC soaring flights from Boulder (KBDU). I significantly expanded my soaring range in 2020 – in part due to a better glider, and in part due to increased experience. The distance between the furthest points in the north-west (Crestone Junction, Wyoming) and south-east (Greenhorn Mountain) is more than 300 miles (just under 500 km).

Goal #1 – Stay safe.

This will always be my most important objective.  I’m glad to say I succeeded in staying safe.  However, I recall one situation where I pushed my luck further than I should have when I continued a particular flight under a rapidly over-developing sky.  This got me into a terrifying situation: I had to return across a line of thunderstorms with lightning flashing across my canopy.  While the outcome was benign, the experience was scary and not something I ever wish to repeat.  I have definitely been much more respectful of potential thunderstorms ever since. At some point I must find the courage to write about it in more detail so others can learn from it, too.

Lightning flashes across the sky ahead as I had back to Boulder from South Park, breaking off one of my 750 km attempts on July 31.

Goal #2 – Move up to flapped gliders, fly with water ballast, and learn to responsibly use an engine.

My new-to-me Ventus 2cxT allowed me to make good progress.  Most of my summer soaring flights were with different levels of water ballast. I am now quite comfortable flying with high(er) wing loadings.

Flying with flaps has been much less of a deal than I had imagined.  The flap controls in my Ventus are extraordinarily well designed.  The pilot’s hand can comfortably rest on the flap handle. Making adjustments is no effort at all. Working the flaps is as intuitive as working the elevator.

The integration of flaps and trim makes trim adjustments largely unnecessary.  Hard to beat that design!

I started the sustainer engine a few times for test purposes but I rarely ever used it to climb, and I never used it to self-retrieve, although once I came close.  You could say that’s a responsible use of the engine but I wish I had got to know it a bit better. There’s more opportunity for that next year.

My Ventus 2cxT during it’s Annual Inspection. The glider is in excellent shape.

Goal #3 – First Contests.

Almost all US contests were cancelled and moved to next year so this will remain one of my key objectives in 2021. To practice, I did manage to travel one week to Nephi to fly with Bruno Vassel and a number of other XC pilots.  The experience was invaluable as I was able to fly a number of good tasks and am now much more familiar with the terrain and the prevalent energy lines. This flight also provided a taste of what racing feels like.

The chart above shows the flights that I flew out of Nephi at the end of June / beginning of July.

Goal #4 – Contribute to my club’s OLC Speed League Results.

Boulder has had it’s best year ever competing in the speed league with a number 2 placement in the US Gold League and the World League.

My own contribution met my objective of placing among the top 3 Boulder pilots on more than half of the speed league weekends.  I learned a lot about flying faster and feel much better prepared for future XC flights.  I wrote more about my learnings from the Speed League in this article.

Among all Boulder pilots I over-achieved on what my stretch goal of scoring among the top 5 pilots overall by coming in 3rd place behind John Seaborn (a multiple national champion) and Bob Caldwell (one of Boulder’s most accomplished XC pilots). Among all US Speed League pilots I scored 25th, also well within my goal of landing among the top 50.

My fastest-ever glider flight was on a Speed League weekend in July – in classic Boulder convergence conditions. The average speed for the 2 1/2 hour speed league segment was 173 kph. The circling percentage was 6.5% with an effective glide ratio of 177:1.

Goal #5 – Complete a flight of more than 750km.

It took me eight attempts but on August 7 I ultimately achieved my objective of completing a pre-declared 750km flight.

My longest flight of the year (per OLC rules) was 916 km.  I’m now inspired to reach for 1000 km if the conditions permit.

14er Challenge.

In addition to these goals I also made good progress on the 14er Challenge: flying over the peaks of all mountains in Colorado that are at least 14,000 ft tall. At the beginning of the year my tally stood at 11 out of the 58 peaks.

In 2020 I succeeded in “bagging” another 28: the fifteen 14ers of the Sawatch Range, the seven 14ers of the Elk Range,  and five of the ten 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo Range.  I also flew over Mt. Bross, my last missing peak in the Mosquito Range.

My overall tally is now at 39 with another 19 peaks to go: the five southern-most peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range, and all 14 peaks in the furthest-away San Juan Mountains.

Total XC Distance.

In 2020, I flew a distance of 19,728 km (based on OLC plus rules using a maximum of 6 legs per flight), almost half-way around the earth, at an average speed of 116 kph.

In my next post I will try to set new goals for 2021.

2 Replies to “Was 2020 A Pandemic Write Off? Not So Fast!”

  1. Flying over an assortment of peaks. What a great goal! I will add that into our club’s personal challenges. Much better than OLC competions, etc. A very local type of thing. Great for bragging over who gets to but the beers.


    1. Hi Lance, yes, the 14er Challenge is great. It’s a brain child of one of our club colleagues. Climbing all the 14ers is one of the greatest challenges for Colorado alpinists. Flying over the peaks by glider is less strenuous for the body but not so for the mind. The challenge was issued 13 years ago and so far only 4 pilots have been able to complete it. (Our club has about 150 members and the challenge is open to any glider pilot.) If you need more inspiration, more information is at this link: http://www.soarboulder.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=64%3A14er-challenge&catid=17&Itemid=123

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