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Saturday, August 2, 2008

The overnight rain at Lüsse was impressive (more than 2 inches, I’d guess) but the ground seems to have lived up to its reputation: the field (which last night had considerable standing water, and a certain number of drowned mice) was dry enough this morning to support normal automobile traffic. Plenty of low cloud was in evidence; at the morning pilot meeting we were told to expect clearing by late afternoon, in time for the opening ceremonies. Many pilots were skeptical of this, but it proved an accurate forecast.

This pilot briefing was the first “formal” one of the contest, at which pilot attendance was mandatory and essential information was promulgated. The first order of business was to introduce 130 pilots from 34 countries (a record at international gliding competition, no doubt due in part to the fragmentation of eastern Europe). This took a good while. We then were given a briefing on certain local rules which until now had not been precisely decided on.

One involved the height control for starts (which most pilots would probably consider basic enough that it should have been nailed down 6 months ago). The plan is to impose a maximum height limit. The problem with this is that when pilots can climb above that height they will do so, and then dive down (typically at dangerous speeds) to fall within the limit while retaining maximum energy. So the plan had been to measure speeds, which would be limited to 160 kph (about 100 mph). But this is not easy to do from a record of positions (as is produced by the GPS flight loggers that all pilots carry). After much discussion and wrangling, it was decided that the best scheme is to restrict pilots to a certain altitude for the two minutes prior to any start. The only question now is whether the scoring software is fully capable of imposing such a limit (this should certainly have been tested during the practice period). We hope for the best.

A welcome announcement was that an arrangement has been secured with Polish airspace authorities whereby gliders from this contest can fly into Poland under exactly the same rules as apply to German airspace. This is certainly welcome, and only in the past few years would this have been possible. We all hope a task will soon be possible that takes advantage of this cross-border agreement.

I’ve been asked to say a bit more about airspace restrictions here. The contest airspace database contains the description of all possible airspace that could be closed to glider flying (which is a great deal). Each day, task sheets include a list of the airspace areas that are not closed; this usually runs to at least a half-dozen such areas – so the actual restrictions are usually a bit less severe than they might be. The maps on the daily task sheets undertake to depict just the airspace that is “hot” that day (though not the altitude limits, which vary wildly). But pilots will need to be very alert – it seems normal here that tasks are set so they pass quite close to troublesome airspace and past experience suggests that this approach will reliably yield violations, sometimes from very experienced pilots. Penalties are severe: the first offense causes a pilot to be scored as if he had landed at the point of the violation; the penalty for the second offense is a score of zero for the day.

Another topic at the pilot briefing was finish procedures. There are two possibilities: a “speed finish” which applies when a glider has enough energy to cross the finish line, then pull up and fly a pattern to a landing; and a “direct finish” when a pilot lands straight-in, without a pattern. The discussions seem to presume that the two will be about equally common, but this appears naïve to me. Gaining the extra energy necessary for a speed finish takes time, and successful sailplane racing is about saving time. So (especially with an 11,000 ft airfield to aim for) most pilots can be expected to choose the direct finish on most days.

At Lüsse, direct finishers have been instructed to land on the far side of the field, and to roll as far as they can – to the end of the airfield, if possible. This is all very well, but on this giant airfield it means that crews who wish to reach their pilots may have to drive a couple of miles to do so, and then an equal distance (with glider in tow) back to the trailer for disassembly. A pilot who lacks the energy to roll the end of the field will necessarily stop in the middle of the field, creating a temptation for the crew to drive across the active runway. I’m not the only one who’s skeptical that this scheme will work smoothly though 14 contest days.

This afternoon’s Opening Ceremony seemed to go off well. I can’t say for sure, because although I was there, crews were separated from pilots early in the process, and were mostly unable to get close to the action. We boarded buses at the airfield which took us to the Belzig town square. We arrived about an hour before the official start of events, but there was already a rock & roll band on stage (US music is undeniably popular here, if not always performed astonishingly well), a host of food and beer vendors in operation, and a substantial crowd of Belzig locals present (and occupying all available seating). Weather was excellent – sun just breaking out from behind mid-level clouds, with temperatures in the mid-seventies.

US Team crews settled in on the northwest side of the square, a good ways from the stage (where it appeared that VIPs, including former and current World Soaring Champions, were seated) but close to one of the beer and wine concessions. We heard occasional noise from the stage – no doubt certain politicians were giving speeches and at one point it seemed likely that current World Champions were being interviewed. But our involvement was limited to the hoisting of a succession of beers and a general foggy seconding of what seemed to be a friendly and approving mood. Eventually it ended and some of us retired to a commendable Italian restaurant. We thus believe that the 30th World Gliding Championships have been declared open and active.

I must note that yesterday’s final practice task yielded a first-place finish for US Pilot Garret Willat and back-seater Mike Robison in Open class. They guided their ASH-25 around a 262 km task at 123 kph. They did a particularly good job on their return home from the east, where overdevlopment and rain showers slowed many of their competitors.