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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

July 30

The second official practice day of the 30th World Gliding Championships was a rather quiet one. A weak cold front marched westward into eastern Germany last night, bringing low cloud and just a touch of rain. At the morning pilot briefing the weatherman held out some hope for late-afternoon flying, but after several days of excellent soaring weather few pilots seemed interested and at 2:30 pm the day’s task was canceled. Naturally, skies began to clear about then, and by 4:00 it was sunny with even a few cumulus clouds. But very few launches were seen – it was by general consensus a day for fettling rather than flying.

Nor did we have anything to match the excitement of yesterday’s field fire. The same combine was at work harvesting wheat just northwest of the airfield, this time without complications. One type of beer available locally is “Weissbier”, made from wheat. Most such are light, but a few are dark; we reckoned that the burned field could possibly contribute a very dark variety.

Perhaps 60% of the registered pilots chose to fly yesterday’s turn-area task. Winning speeds were close to my prediction of 130 kph. No one puts a great deal of stock in practice task results, but it was certainly a good day for the Brits (easily the most successful country in recent international soaring competition), who were first in all three classes. Team USA did well, with a third in Open class, third in 18-Meter class and sixth in 15-Meter class.

We also had one of the only landouts: Karl Striedieck found a hole on the final leg and landed (in a typically excellent field) about 50 km southeast of home. He caused a bit of fuss for the local police, who calmed down (and were actually quite helpful) when given the explanation for the “plane crash” – apparently, eastern Germany is a bit less used to soaring than the western areas.

As most who follow international soaring competition know, this is the first year that Standard class is not competing alongside the flapped classes (15-Meter, 18-Meter and Open). The non-flapped World Championships were held in Rieti, Italy a few weeks ago. There is some sense that this is a demotion for Standard class. Many pilots wonder about the future of classes and the plans of the often inscrutable IGC (International Gliding Commission). It seems to be a common belief that one or more classes are in line for extermination by The Powers That Be. One might well be the World Class, which has never achieved a strong level of participation. Another is thought to be either 15-Meter or Standard class; the 15-Meter class is believed by some to be the more likely, since its performance is reasonably close to that of the burgeoning 18-Meter class. Others say that the neck of the Standard class is on the block, and point to its exile from this contest as evidence.

It’s significant that the newest class – 18-Meter – is also the one with the most entries here. Despite a non-trivial increment in cost, it appears that pilots are forsaking 50-foot wingspans in favor of 60 feet. Doug Jacobs and I were just a few days ago at the factory taking delivery of his new 18-Meter Ventus 2cxa; we were told that Schempp-Hirth is building gliders about as fast as they can, and that almost all of them are capable of wingspans of 18 meters or more.

Part of the reason is the popularity of stow-away engines (both self-launching & sustainers) and the fact that the weight of an engine is much more easily borne by 18 meters of wing. Another factor is certainly improvements in handling. As I learned in a flight with Doug from the Hahnweide to the Black Forest and back (in a superb Ventus loaned by Biggo Berger), a modern 18-meter glider is a very attractive combination of Open-class performance of just a few years ago combined with 15-meter handling. I’d recommend you NOT fly one of these gliders unless you can afford to write a rather big check (as you’ll almost certainly be tempted to do shortly after landing).

That leads to the topic of the dollar-euro exchange rate, which is really quite savage just now. At 1:1, things would be a serious bargain in Europe; $1.15 - 1.20 to the euro would make things about even. But the current rate is around $1.58, which is vicious. Consider that at Lüsse a tow to around 2000’ costs 50 euro, which equates to $79 (!). The only sensible response is to ignore the brutal cost and simply enjoy the chance to be here.