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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Evening report

The effect of today’s weather on pilots at the 30th World Gliding Championships had a lot to do with what class you were in, but it was certainly good day on which to get home (something more than a few of the world’s best failed to do).

Open class was first to launch and (as is typically the case) had the longest task – 341 km. Their long wings were just the thing for dealing with a sky that had some extensive dead areas caused by overdevelopment and spreadout of mid-level clouds. But speeds were far below those seen during the trouble-free weather of several days ago, and 10 pilots failed to get around. The winner was Steve Jones (110) of Great Britain, a master in difficult and changeable weather (of which every British pilot sees a great deal). US pilots Garret Willat (NV) and Heinz Weissenbuehler (HW) found – and dug themselves out of – several holes, finishing 20th and 22nd (and obviously glad to be back).

18-Meter class had the worst of it. Their first turnpoint was well to the west, where little sun was on the ground and soaring was grim at best. 34 pilots failed to complete the task; of these, nearly all came to earth on the first leg or shortly into the second. Because so many achieved less than 100km, the day was heavily devalued, with the winner receiving just 550 points. It’s a feature of WGC scoring that when many pilots fail to finish, not many speed points are awarded. Because of this, there was little separation among the scores of finishers – a “big tie” down to 10th place. US pilots Doug Jacobs (DJ) and Rick Walters (71) cooperated extensively and got around this difficult task; they finished 7th and 9th, less than 20 points out of first. Some big names were among the landouts, including recent champions Phil Jones (210) and Wolfgang Janowitsch (WO).

15-Meter class was last to launch and was given a turn-area task with just a 2-hour minimum time. WGC rules call for devaluation when the winner’s time on course is less than 3 hours, so well before any launch this was guaranteed to be a day worth far less than 1000 points. (As Gary Ittner put it, “A Regional task at a World Championship contest.”) This call may have been related to the expectation of a long launch time (see below) but it certainly did raise some eyebrows. Not surprisingly, the 15-Meter class had the best completion rate, with just 3 landouts. US pilots Karl Striedieck (VW) and Gary Ittner (VV) were 19th and 20th, around 90 points out of first.

In addition to the 15-Meter task, other controversies swirl around today’s flying. Some scores were obviously incorrect when first posted. Some of the problems may have had to do with incorrect start times and the failure of analysis software to properly detect engine runs (this is typically done with a microphone that records engine noise). Most of these seem to have been sorted out, though it’s a bit puzzling that such “teething” problems should remain after five practice days that included plenty of flying.

An issue that seems likely to cause strife involves the use of engines by 18-Meter class gliders. Originally, all gliders with engines were to have been permitted to use these in lieu of landing for a re-launch, the idea being that this is quicker and more efficient. But this was thought by some to be unfair, and an appeal was made to the organizers to require that all re-launches involve an actual landing on the airfield (since non-motorized are obliged to do this, and so incur the delay that this necessarily involves). The decision, announced this morning, was that Open class gliders may use their engines to avoid the need for a landing, but all others would have to land first.

Notwithstanding this announcement, it appears that several 18-Meter class pilots may have used their engines in flight – no doubt they missed or didn’t understand the rule change. The penalty for this is likely to be the loss of all their daily points, since the general rule is that a pilot is scored as if he had landed at the place where the engine was used. It’s a bit grim to start a big competition with a misunderstanding like this – perhaps there will be some way I haven’t thought of that this can be resolved fairly and with satisfaction to all.

There will also likely be some low-level controversy about the time it took to launch the fleet – about an hour and 45 minutes today, despite the use of a dozen tow planes and the presence of plenty of self-launching gliders. It seems that the performance of the Wilga towplanes used here varies a lot – some are quite strong, while others climb slowly with a glider on tow. A day like today, with a restricted “window” of good soaring weather, puts a premium on a fast and efficient launch operation. Based on recent World contests, I’d say that the 40 minutes achieved in 2003 in Poland counts as superb, an hour is good, and much longer than that is likely to be judged as deficient.

This morning we were told to expect rain by this evening, and a poor chance of flying tomorrow. But the evening sky was mostly clear and temperatures were close to ideal, so a large group settled in for dinner outdoors at the local castle/fortress (said to be 1000 years old) on a hill overlooking the town of Belzig. One poor German waiter had to contend with about 20 Brits (who are staying there) and 15 Americans. He did a commendable job, and we will likely return.

Afternoon report

It’s the first official competition day at Lüsse, and the weather is much more troublesome than anything seen during the practice period. We have cooler weather with lots of low and mid-level clouds, obviously tending toward overdevelopment. Tasks are short, in an attempt to take advantage of what the weatherman described as a narrow window of soarable weather between two weak fronts.

Despite the rain of two days ago (and more last night) the field is in excellent shape. Today we gridded at the east end for the first time, in honor of a 15 - 20 knot westerly wind. The launch began at 11:45, with a dozen Wilga (“Thrush”, in Polish) towplanes taxiing out to begin their work. These are decidedly ugly aircraft with a high wing and a radial engine. Their drag is obviously considerable – enough that their preferred speed is just a bit lower than the pilot of a fully ballasted glider would be entirely happy about. About the only streamlining on a Wilga is some rather optimistic fairing of the gear legs – about like painting the toenails of a pig. But they are common in eastern Europe and generally do a fine job.

It was soon clear that the launch would be challenging. A couple of Open-class gliders were seen doing “aerial relights” by deploying their stow-away engines (which the majority of gliders in this class carry). The 18-Meter class was next and had the misfortune of being towed downwind of the field to an area of the sky with nothing but dead-looking clouds. Some of this class managed to escape to more promising areas, but many got low and about 8 had to land and re-launch – aerial re-lights are not allowed in this class (though we thought we might have seen a couple of gliders flouting this rule).

Among the re-launchers was Rick Walters (71), who was unable to get from one dying cloud to the next working one. But his landing was particularly well timed, and he was soon up again and this time had little trouble connecting with good lift and joining teammate Doug Jacobs (DJ). By contrast, we saw a number of pilots spend as much as 20 to 30 minutes grinding around at low altitude, from which few were able to escape. One pilot landed twice, and at this contest three launches is the maximum for one day – if he lands again, he’s done.

A World Gliding Competition is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are lots of ways that pilots can fall by the wayside. This morning I noticed a new-looking crew car with a nasty dent in its tailgate; further investigation disclosed some white marks that were almost certainly gelcoat. Backing your car into your wingtip is one of many ways to cause yourself trouble.

We were gratified at this morning’s pilot briefing to hear Garret Willat (NV) acknowledged as the winner of the Open class task on the final practice day. Give credit also to Mike Robison who flies in the back seat of their ASH-25. They are cooperating well with Heinz Weissenbuehler (HW – Nimbus 4) which seems to bode well for both.

As I write this, all six US aircraft are up and started – no mean feat on this troublesome-looking day. The sky to the southwest is again tending toward overdevelopment, and all three classes’ tasks pass through that area. It’s looking like a day that will demand plenty of detours and “gear changing”. I’ll be back with a full report this evening.