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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Evening report (Heinz wins again!)

The tricky weather smiled on us today. Winds were strong all day (with gusts to 35 knots on the ground), and created big problems for pilots who got low - and some exciting landings. But the overdevelopment and rain showers that were seen in the north and east had no effect on the areas where tasks were set. The day wound up being better than forecast, with winning speeds to match. Indeed, the sky at the end of the day was better than anything yet seen at WGC 2008.

As I’d suggested might happen, both 15-Meter and 18-Meter classes saw winning times under 3 hours. In 15-Meter class, the two British pilots (Timothy Scott and Leigh Wells) devalued the day with brilliant flights of 113 kph, for 840 points. Class leader György Gulyas protected his lead rather well, finishing 5th at 107 kph. Gary Ittner was 19th at 99 kph; Karl Striedieck was 24th at 96 kph.

In 18-Meter class, the two French pilots (Olivier Darroze and Frederic Hoyeau) won the day with excellent speeds of 121 kph. US pilots Doug Jacobs and Rick Walters chose later start times which on a long-lasting day (conditions still looked excellent at 6:40 pm) should have worked. But they ran into cycling skies on the first leg of the task and had speeds well off the pace.

The big news was in Open class, which had a turn-area task. Heinz Weissenbuehler once again posted a superb flight of 119 kph over 434 km that put him in – wait for it – first place. He actually tied for points (at 1000) with Germany’s great former World Champion Holger Karow. But by dint of a speed one one-hundredth of a kph faster, Heinz is the day winner. Heinz’s glow today may not be quite as radiant as it was a few days ago when he won his first day here – he is now getting rather used to this – but it was again an extremely satisfying result. It was made more so by the fact that this time his parents (Heinz and Elsbeth) are here to share it with him.

My look at the gliders here concludes with the 15-Meter class. The score sheet suggests that if you want to be competitive, you should probably be in either an ASW-27 or a Ventus 2. But it should be noted that neither Schleicher nor Shempp-Hirth is these days selling much in the way of 15-meter span gliders. They do sell a lot of 18-meter gliders that include shorter tips. But the number of pilots who buy these and then regularly fly with both spans is small. There are significant compromises: the fuselage that works at 18 meters is too long (and thus has too much wetted area) to be optimal at 15 meters. If you’ve paid the (nowadays rather shocking) price for 18 meters of span, why would you want to leave the long wingtips in the box? It’s fair to note that Leigh Wells of Great Britain currently stands in second place flying an ASG-29 at its short span (15 meters). But he is clearly an exception, being an unusually talented pilot - and a former World Champion.

Mention must be made of the Diana 2, being flown by Janusz Centka, the current 15-Meter World Champion. Janusz likens his airplane to a Formula 1 race car, flying in a fleet of high-performance sports cars. The Diana is indeed a radical design, and boasts a wingloading range better than any other glider here. His flight in the Diana on the final day of the 2006 World Gliding Championships is the stuff of legend – probably only a pilot of his caliber and experience flying a glider of this sort of performance could have achieved what he did (overcoming a big deficit to finish first). With two days to go in this contest, he stands 333 points out of first (the only place in which a champion is interested). Many would call that kind of deficit insurmountable; it will be interesting to see what he (and his glider) can do.

But the 15-meter class is now something of an orphan. Manufacturers are concentrating the lion’s share of their efforts on the booming 18-meter class. No new 15-meter designs are even in the rumor stage. The always-inscrutable IGC (International Gliding Commission) is said to be contemplating the cancellation of this class in 2010 (or will the axe fall on the Standard Class?). Yet there are vast numbers of 15-meter gliders flying all over the world – probably more than in any other class. The future is murky.

Afternoon report

This morning was clear and cool, and once again this has led to some tricky weather. The issues are gusty southwest winds and instability. The former is likely to produce broken and turbulent lift at low altitudes, but also good streeting of cumulus clouds. The latter should give both good thermals and some chance of rain showers.

This was emphasized at the morning weather briefing, when the weatherman’s statement about a “possibility of local showers” coincided with the start of rain on the roof of the briefing hangar. Fortunately, this was short-lived and did not interfere with the after-briefing photo shoot, which assembled all pilots (by class) for group photos.

Last night’s event was a party hosted by the Polish and Czech teams. The feature here was plenty of beer, well augmented by harder stuff, including vodka and Sliwowica (plum brandy). Janusz Centka (3-time World Champion) played the gracious host, serving shots of this fiery liquid and explaining how it should be imbibed (inhale, swallow the full amount, then exhale). There is apparently little truth to the rumor that he had a 2-liter bottle held in reserve in case certain Hungarian pilots were interested.

An interesting tale is told of the Lüsse airfield: In the days when it was an alternate landing field for jet fighters, there would likely have been underground fuel tanks – but these have never been located. When the field was converted to civilian operations a search was made for tanks, but none was found. Some years later a visitor came by asking if the gliding club had located the tanks. When told no, he explained that he’d been an airman stationed at the MiG base, and indicated that the tanks were located southwest of the center of the runway (which runs roughly east-west). Following up this clue also produced nothing. So either no underground tanks existed or they are lying hidden somewhere, probably partly full of ancient jet fuel which could become a problem should they one day start to leak.

At 1 pm the sky looks complicated: some beautiful cumulus in strong-looking streets, but also some areas of overdevelopment and even small rain showers to the north and west. Pilots are reporting inconsistent lift that at its best is 8 knots – as good as on any day of this contest. Wind on the ground is 15 knots, with gusts to 20, leading to struggles for anyone who gets low. (This has been true nearly every day at this contest: below 2500’, your chance of a good climb has declined considerably.)

In view of the strong lift, tasks seem a bit short: 15-Meter class has just 294 km, so it will probably take some significant problems out on course to avoid a devalued day (which happens when the winning time is less than 3 hours). The same is likely to be true for 18-Meter class, whose task is 313 km – under these conditions and without some seriously slow areas I’d expect winning speeds could reach or exceed 120 kph.

The Open class has a 3.5-hour turn-area task with a maximum distance of 468 km. It would take a speed of 134 kph to achieve this distance in the minimum time – I’d say that’s possible for the fastest pilots.

A piece of good news is the weather outlook for the final 2 days of the contest: it now seems we have a decent chance for flyable weather on both Thursday and Friday. But the weather situation in Europe remains complicated, so it’s unclear how much faith can be placed in a mid-range forecast. Thus far at WGC 2008, the weather has been consistently tricky to predict more than about 24 hours out. I give the contest weather briefings (which cover about 10 hours, from the pilot briefing to the end of the day) good marks – they have been very accurate, especially in view of the tricky weather