Monday, December 10, 2007

North Island Regional Gliding Competition

Recently I got the opportunity to fly with an experienced pilot in the North Island Regional gliding competition. The concept is that there is a week of flying and there are a few classes based on the type of glider you are flying and your skill level. You obviously don't want someone spending $250k on a glider duking it out with a $20k glider. We flew our Twin Astir in the Club Class which has a broad array of different planes.

Each morning there is a briefing at 11:00 and they hand out a list of tasks for each class. A task typically involves flying to certain points on the map within' a certain radius. The person that completes all of the tasks and makes it back to the airstrip first wins and gets points for the day. If you land out then you are scored on total distance flown. So if you land in a paddock that is 100 meters closer to the next turn point than the next guy then you win.

Usually they have a time associated with the task and if you come in under the alloted time then you devalue the task for everyone even though you win the most points. So the goal is to complete all the turn points and get back to the field at time+1 second.

The first day I showed up and the sky was looking grim and everyone waited around for a bit grumbling about landouts. Finally the tasks were handed out and everyone raced down to the end of the field and got prepped for flying. There were about 30 gliders lined up on the vector 3 wide and 3 tow planes yanking then into the sky. Supposedly all the planes can get in the air in an hour.
Our turn came and we went up and on tow we saw planes at 3000+ feet circling around happily. We, on the other hand, got dumped into a heap load of nothingness. We hunted around and found that still air was not conducive to joining the other planes at 3000+. We looked and looked and couldn't find anything so we ended up landing back at the field. This isn't the end of the world since you can get another tow.

The second tow was slightly better but we ended up getting down to 900 feet near the field struggling to gain height. They opened the start gate but the best we could do from 900 is make it back to the field. Finally we hit on a little luck and got up to 3000 and off we were.

We headed towards the first turn point using the 3 GPSs we had on board. I spent more time poking at gizmos than flying. We made our best attempt but finally got down too low and started picking paddocks at 1500 feet. By 1300 we had a number picked out. By 1000 we had chosen one. By 800 we were on a quick downwind to a tight base and finals and in. It sure seems easy when you have an experienced pilot at the helm.
After drumming up support for a retrieve crew via phone we waited around and talked about the day. Crap, crap, more crap, and a thermal or two. Tomorrow will be better, it has to be. The weather report said otherwise.

The results for the day went up on the board and we got 3rd out of 7! Not bad for not even making the first turn point and landing out.

The second day was supposed to be a shitter but turned out to look very nice. Huge Qs with what looked like good lift scattered nicely out to all our turn points. The task was handed out and everyone was off.

Open this file in Google Earth to follow along: Second Day

For how good it looked it sure took some effort to get up. We got off the ground, found some good lift, and we were off. Our goal was to stay high as it looked like the thermals were small near the ground. We tended to stay about 2000 feet and were making good progress. We made it up north to around Paeroa through the first turn point and then it was off south for a long push to around Arapuni. The thermals weren't as strong as they seemed but with a little effort we made it and then it was off a little further south to the next turn point at Tokoroa and then it was an easy push back to the field for a victory dance, tell some stories and call it a day, or so we thought.

When we started our push back north we started to realize that the sky was no longer working and that we weren't really all that high above the ground. We started the process of picking paddocks again. We quickly realized that we were in more mountainous territory so the pickins were slim. We chose one that was our best option and then found a sliver of lift which allowed us to move on a little bit. We started getting low again and recognized that we were in worse territory but started picking some anyhow. We got another sliver of lift and made a little more progress but finally we realized that we were beaten and had to pick something. Looking around I couldn't see anything landable.

Robert picked a paddock and said "We are going there". I didn't see it. Downwind I asked him to point it out and I still couldn't see it. It might have been denial because when we turned onto finals I still couldn't believe where we were going to land. It was a steep upward slope with a big hump right at the beginning. Our finals was clean but I had my hand on my straps release and the canopy release because I didn't want to be in the plane as it rolled backwards down the hill. Robert flew accurately and touched down right over the fence. This caused us to hit that hump on the start of the paddock and get launched back into the air. He had full airbrake on and we came down hard on the second bounce. As soon as we hit the plane spun to the side and started sliding on the front two wheels up the hill. I thought we were toast for sure.

As soon as it stopped digging a trench with the wheels I popped the straps and jumped out. There was no need to as Robert had perfectly landed it so that it wouldn't roll down the hill. I checked the wheels and there was no noticeable damage. A quick high 5 and a much needed pee and we were off to find the farmers and share our drama.
The retrieve involved hooking one end of a rope to Robert's truck and the other to the glider and lowering it down the hill to the trailer. Trevor Atkins was there and kept saying that this was the start to a great story. Luckily it wasn't and we were able to get the glider down the slope and onto the trailer with little drama aside from getting covered with cow poop.

Lessons learned:

Start picking your paddocks before it becomes imperative.
Gliders stop in short order going up hill on a steep slope.
Picking a paddock close to a major road is the last concern.
Fly accurately and turn tightly in small thermals to maximize lift.
Competition flying is something that anyone can do(with a little training).

After flying in the competition this year I am committed to fly the PW-5 next year. There is no magic to it, you just need to be ready to land in a paddock if necessary.

Enjoy these pictures and see you at the regionals next year.