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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

July 29

It’s the first official practice day at the 30th World Gliding Championships. The site is Lüsse Germany, about 60 kilometers southwest of Berlin. Lüsse can contend with Omarama, New Zealand (home of WGC 1995) for the title of smallest municipality ever to give its name to a world championship contest. But the comparison isn’t quite valid, for just 5 km east is Belzig, a bustling town offering hardware stores, restaurants, supermarkets and beer outlets – just the sorts of establishments that glider pilots preparing for a 14-day contest find essential.

Lüsse lies well within the territory that 19 years ago was East Germany. And the presence of the contest here is in part related to that, for this airfield began its life as an auxiliary base catering to Soviet MIG fighters. A paved runway would have been extravagant for occasional use, but if a MIG is to land on grass, it had better be growing on a hard, well-drained surface. And it should be wide and really long – say, 3400 meters (around 11,000 feet) by 350 meters. Thus the world’s best glider pilots will be flying from one of the world’s largest unpaved airfields.

They will be sent on tasks in an area that is reasonably flat and rather “generic” in character – local knowledge of the terrain and its soaring characteristics is thought to be less important here than at most recent WGC sites (and dramatically less than at mountain sites such as Rieti, in Italy). The task area is eminently landable – East German agricultural fields tend to be huge and plentiful. The task area extends east into Poland, but its generous character changes little there.

If the weather continues as it has been since the arrival of the US Team on Saturday, the large and friendly fields will see limited business from gliders. We’ve had clear and cool mornings, with afternoon high temperatures above 90 degrees. The soaring has been excellent – lift has been 5 to 7 knots under sparse and honest cumulus clouds with bases to 7500’. With ground elevations mostly below 500’ (the airfield is at 217’), this is definitely “cracking good” soaring. Thermals have been typically small and hard to center, but these are conditions that would produce winning speeds around 130 kph (80 mph).

As is inevitable in Europe, airspace is an issue here. Lüsse lies just outside the outermost extent of Berlin airspace, and so the first leg of a task cannot be on any heading northwest clockwise through southeast. Indeed, Berlin takes a hefty chunk out of the contest area, though it would be possible for a task to circumnavigate Berlin airspace - and some pilots chose to fly this route yesterday (the minimum distance would probably be about 500 km). Other cities with significant airspace restrictions are Leipzig (85 km south-southwest), Dresden (140 km south-southeast) and Magdeburg (70 km west). So it’s not really a question whether airspace penalties will be earned, but rather by whom.

The US Team here comprises 7 pilots in six gliders (including an ASH-25, with two aboard). I will give full details in an upcoming report. For now I’ll note that all personnel have arrived, most have shed their jet lag, preparations seem to be going well, and the number of equipment issues yet to be resolved is agreeably low for this stage in the cycle of a contest.

As is typical on the first official practice day, the contest organization has some rough spots yet to be smoothed. By no means all entrants are present and flying, but today’s launch took two hours, so it’s clear that both the number of tow planes present and the launch procedures in use are not what they might be. Trailer parking has been largely organized on the do-it-yourself plan, for which even hardened WGC veterans can recall little precedent. This has inevitably led to crowding near the favored locations, some strife, and a general sense of “not ready for prime time”. It seems curious that at such a huge airfield we may be facing trailer and glider parking problems as significant as those at WGC 2006 in Eskilstuna, Sweden, an airfield with no more than a third the space of this one.

As against these complications (which to be fair tend to abound at this stage of a world contest) I should note that this morning’s pilot briefing was thorough and efficient, the English-language skills of all presenters were excellent, provisions for waterballast (often a very troublesome detail) are all a crewperson could wish, and both the food and the beer sold on the airfield are well above average.

This afternoon we had some unlooked-for excitement in the form of a grass fire in the large (perhaps 50-acre) wheat field adjacent to the airport. This field has appeared dry and due for harvest since we arrived, and indeed this morning we saw a combine at work there. The perimeter of the field was cut first, which proved fortunate. At about 3 pm a fire (possibly caused by the combine itself) started at the east end of the field and driven by 15-knot southeast winds soon had much of the field in flames, which made a fearsome noise and put out a giant pall of black smoke.

Had the edge of the field not been cut or had the wind shifted to northeast it’s likely the flames would have jumped onto the airfield, where the first targets would have been the east campground (full of tents) and the area that contains the team headquarter huts. As is normally the case, fire trucks showed up just a bit late to have much effect on the progress of the fire (which at its worst was far beyond any real control) but they did manage to make some noise and to add to the excitement. As I write this, firemen are spraying water at the edge of the field to ensure that nothing re-kindles. Traffic is barred from the only road leading off the airfield, but things should soon be back to normal. Pilots will now have a 50-acre black smudge as an airfield landmark.