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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Evening report (Two podium finishes)

What may have been the final contest day at WGC 2008 proved to be a good one, though not without its difficulties. It was also an excellent day for the US team.

As promised, the lift was good and the wind backed off, giving strong and large thermals that could really be centered (a scarce commodity in eastern Germany over the past couple of weeks). A bit worse than expected was some thick cirrus clouds that invaded the task area from the southeast. At 5 pm the sky looked grim indeed: solid high overcast with a few scraps of high cumulus clouds remaining from what two hours earlier has been a beautiful sky.

But those scraps were working, some of them rather well. Pilots kept dribbling in until almost 7 pm, albeit not with the fine speeds of earlier finishers. Very few pilots had any complaints about an undercall, though it’s likely that 100 km could have been added to all three tasks without much increase in the number of incompletions.

Open class had the longest task, and Holger Karow did it best, at almost 119 kph. The close-flying German team of Michael Sommer and Tassilo Bode did a good job of protecting their overall lead, finishing 3rd and 4th. They now stand first and second overall, and (assuming we fly again) only a serious strategic blunder can prevent Michael Sommer from repeating as Open-class champion. US pilots Garret Willat and Heinz Weissenbuehler had respectable but not blazing speeds of around 109 kph.

15-Meter class saw some scoreboard shakeup today. Two Australians – Graham Parker and David Jansen – took top honors with speeds around 104 kph. Overall leader György Gulyas had a less-than-brilliant day, but managed to finish 9th, protecting his contest lead rather well. The pilots in overall places 2 through 4 all had a tough day, allowing the cagy veteran Janusz Centka of Poland to vault into second place. His deficit is 336 points, which almost certainly lies beyond even his ability to make up in a single flight (especially against György, perhaps the most consistent pilot flying today). But it would certainly be interesting to see him have the chance.

For the US Team, Gary Ittner did almost 95 kph, good for 18th place. Karl Striedieck shook off a series of difficulties and turned in an excellent flight of 102 kph, good for third place. Karl is easily the oldest competitor here, and the one with the most WGC appearances. I expect this is likely to be his final World Gliding Championship, so it is most gratifying to see him earn a podium spot.

There was no shakeup at the top of the 18-Meter overall scoresheet. Olivier Darroze of France did what a leader with a decent lead is supposed to and ”covered” second-place Ronald Termatt of the Netherlands, resulting in no meaningful change to the difference in their scores.

For the US Team, Doug Jacobs and Rick Walters chose a relatively late start time and this worked well. They stormed around their “lap of Berlin” at an excellent speed, encountering few difficulties. They had to deal with the cirrus invasion on their final leg into the wind, but were early enough to find the shrinking cumulus clouds still working well. Rick finished with a superb speed of 122.7 kph, good for 4th place. Doug was just a bit faster, at 123.7 kph; when the dust had settled, this was good for first place.

This is a very satisfying result for both pilots. They feel they have flown reasonably well here, but have consistently failed to select the right time to start each day (during a contest that on many days has seen a lot of variability in soaring conditions over a short time). On what may be the final flight of the contest it’s gratifying to finally get it right and show what you’re capable of. As with Karl, I think there’s a good chance this is Doug’s final World Gliding Competition – and it’s nice to leave ‘em looking at a win.

There was some curious skullduggery at Lüsse today. One of the US Team’s sponsors is Nielsen-Kellerman, makers of the new ClearNav navigation instrument. The European dealer is Klaus Keim, who today was presenting an elegant demo of ClearNavs mounted in sample instrument panels (alongside PDAs, so the difference in screen clarity can be seen). On his table was a large stack of brochures he’d had printed (in English and German) and just prior to the morning briefing he was attracting a crowd of interested pilots. He decided to duck into the meeting for a couple of minutes; when he returned to his display, all brochures were gone.

After extensive searching he discovered the brochures wadded up and stuffed underneath miscellaneous refuse in one of the contest dumpsters (a gliding contest generates a lot of trash). Just who might be responsible for this isn’t at all clear. Klaus takes it as a sign that the ClearNav is viewed as a formidable soaring instrument.

Thanks to some new procedures (basically, not towing gliders quite as far from the airfield), today’s launch of three classes was completed in around an hour and 10 minutes. This is a commendable improvement – you’d have to say the slow launch problem has been solved.

One pilot had some launch issues today. He had one of the first tows of the day, and apparently was sprayed with oil from his Wilga’s radial engine (a device known for its ability to both burn and spit oil). It was apparently bad enough that he had to land and clean his glider before relaunching.

It’s hard to get any solid info on our chances of flying tomorrow. Opinions range from “no way” to “actually, a decent chance of short tasks”. We hope the optimists prevail.

Afternoon report

The next-to-last day of the 2008 World Gliding Championships is looking as if it might be the best. Yesterday’s air was obviously very good for soaring, spoiled only by some rather severe winds (which did not seem to hurt the winners’ speeds much). Today we have the same air with a forecast for a bit less wind. The tasks reflect this: Open and 18-Meter class pilots will make “one lap of Berlin” – their tasks take them clockwise around the large, roughly oval-shaped airspace reserved for airliners flying in and out of Berlin. They will have to be careful to stay clear of this airspace while flying rather near it.

Compared to much of Europe, airspace problems at Lüsse are only moderate. To be sure, Berlin looms just to the northeast and requires that most tasks stay to the south and west. Within that area are some military installations and a number of cities big enough to have significant airline service (and the controlled airspace that goes with it). But in general it’s possible to task over a wide area without severe airspace constraints.

All has not been perfect, however. We’ve had our share of strong westerly winds. When on such a day a task leg tracks the east side of closed airspace, it can create real problems for pilots. Suppose you’re getting low and then manage to locate a decent thermal. As you climb, the wind drifts you toward trouble. Well below the top of the thermal you may be forced to leave it and glide upwind to avoid a penalty. You may soon find yourself low again, with the same problem.

And, as expected, we’ve seen some airspace penalties – which are always severe: For your first offense you are scored as if you’d landed at the point where you entered the closed airspace. A second offense earns you a score of zero for the day. A third offense may lead to disqualification from the contest. Despite these draconian sanctions, and despite instruments that are good at depicting problem airspace, even the best pilots in the world sometimes blunder. Experience suggests that the rate at which they do so has a lot to do with how close to trouble their tasks ask them to fly.

Thus far, WGC 2008 has a good safety record. One glider has been damaged hitting a deer; another made a gear-up landing on a paved runway, leading to some ugly damage that was in fact easy to fix. We heard today that a glider suffered wing damage while being ballasted - it was the classic blunder of connecting a hose directly to the water inlet on the wing: when full, the water tank or bag then distorts the wing itself, usually causing serious (and very expensive) damage. We’ve had a couple of gear-up landings on the airfield: when the standard arrival is a “direct finish” – straight in from the final steering turnpoint with no pattern at all – it’s easy to forget to do your normal landing checks (which most pilots by habit do on the downwind leg of their landing pattern).

On a giant grass runway like Lüsse’s, this is rarely worse than embarrassing. As your fellow pilots fly past you they will guess why your glider stopped much more quickly than normal, and will probably notice your fuselage sitting closer to the ground than is quite right. When a lull in landing traffic arrives, some helpers will be there to raise the tail, rolling the glider up on its nose so the gear can at last be extended. You’ll have some grass stains to clean off the belly, and perhaps some scratches to sand and polish. But if your touchdown was gentle, that’s usually about it. Nor will you suffer too much ribbing from anyone who flies aircraft, for it’s truly said about gear-up landings: “There’s them that has, and them that will.”

It’s now 1 pm. Launches are complete into a sky that looks like a glider pilot’s dream: beautiful flat-bottomed cumulus arranged in streets running southwest-northeast cover about a quarter of the sky; their bases look to be around 6000’. Some of the longest tasks of the contest look as if they could be undercalls. They are unlikely to lead to devaluation, as happened yesterday when both the 15-Meter and 18-Meter class winners finished in well under 3 hours. But pilots love to race in a sky like this, and to use most of what the weather will give them. This of course goes double for those trailing on the scoresheet, looking to make up some ground.

I’ll close by noting that the mid-range forecast has changed again, and tomorrow’s weather is now described as “complex” with no assurance that tasks will be possible. Though we hope it isn’t the case, today could be the last flying day of WGC 2008.