How do you win a soaring competition? Do you go
higher or farther than anyone else? Or do you just try to stay up in the air
as long as you can?
Actually, a soaring competition is a race, and the winner is the one who goes
the fastest. Racing without an engine? Be serious! Soaring competitions ARE
serious, with competitors pitting their knowledge of the sport against other
pilots and the elements to determine a champion. There is beauty as sleek
gliders go flat out for the finish line, drama as pilots fly courses of
hundreds of miles each day, and the thrill of victory for the champion--often
attained by the slimmest of margins. Competitive soaring is dramatic and
heady stuff, understood by only a few but fascinating to many.
This is your guide to understanding competitive soaring. Whether you are
seeking a local club angle, dramatic contest coverage, a technology story,
human interest, the history angle or international championship coverage,
soaring has something for you. The sport is diverse, colourful and pulls
together many potential story ideas for print editors and video professionals
While the sport is little known in the United
States there are an estimated 150,000 sailplane pilots around the world. In
the U.S. there are approximately 180 active soaring clubs providing the
approximately 38,000 licensed glider pilots a relaxed way to enjoy the sport
In the USA each spring and summer soaring pilots from around the nation
compete for the title of Regional and National Champion of their respective
classes in one or more of the approximately 35 scheduled competitions. These
events have all the drama, intrigue and competitive challenge of more widely
recognized sporting events.
The sports national organization, the Soaring Society of America, sanctions
both regional and national soaring competitions in the United States. A
sailplane competition typically lasts five to ten days, with tasks set each
day the weather is suitable.
Each contest features flights from the home airport, around turnpoints, and
back to the home field. In poor weather, the course might be as little as 60
miles; in excellent weather it could be 350 miles or more.
Competitive soaring is all about speed, with the
fastest pilot around the course receiving the most points for the day. The
contest winner is the pilot with the most points at the end of the event.
Seconds count and on some days may make the difference between winning and
losing. Regional competitions are held all across the country, typically
lasting 5 to 7 days and involving 25 to 50 gliders in several competition
classes. National Championships run for 10 days and usually include 50 to 65
competitors. A handful of pilots from the national level are selected to
compete internationally at World Soaring Championships on United States
Competition pilots and crews come from all walks
of life and are unpaid participants who compete for the love of the sport.
Even at the top levels of the sport there is neither prize money nor fame.
Competitors who go for the gold are there for the pure enjoyment of the sport
and the respect of their peers. The national organization, the Soaring
Society of America, maintains the rules by which competitions are conducted.
Every race needs a start, and soaring
competitions are no different. The race begins when competitors fly through
an imaginary ring or cylinder around the starting point using global
positioning technology and flight recorders... The start cylinder (also known
as the beer can) is five miles in radius (edge to centre) with a top normally
5,000 feet above the ground. The image at right is from an actual flight
trace looking down from above. The grey circle is the start cylinder and the
blue/green lines show a competitors flight trace and start.
Flying on Course: How to Go
Once a competition pilot starts the task, the
race is on. While the difference between winning and losing can be only
seconds, there is much more to a successful flight than just speed.
Competition pilots must find the best rising air--called thermals-- to gain
the altitude needed to complete the course. Remember: the higher you go, the
farther you can go.
Competition pilots must find and use lift to stay aloft and in
the race. By circling in these rising columns of air called thermals pilots
can cover great distances at high speed.
Thermals are invisible columns of rising air
that allow a sailplane to gain altitude. The rates of climb produced by
thermals can be from 100 to 1000 feet per minute with typical rates of climb
in the 300 to 500 feet per minute range. Thermals are often caped by a fluffy
cumulus cloud making the lift, so pilots look for clouds to mark the rising
Competitors will use between fifteen and twenty
thermals complete a task. The skill of finding and using these invisible
columns of rising air is what makes competitive soaring challenging.
Competitors find thermals using their experience and then keep the sailplane
in the narrow column of raising air by circling tightly and monitoring their
senses and instruments.
To be successful, competitors must balance
competing forces. Go too fast, and you might land out. Fly too slow and
fellow competitors will go faster around the course. Climb too high in
thermals, and you might be wasting time. But leave the thermal early, and you
might spend an hour trying to climb after getting low-- or even worse, need
to make an off field landing. Competitors are constantly making many critical
decisions on course that will affect their overall performance.
The competitive drama of balancing risk and
reward is played out thousands of feet above the ground, invisible to all but
a pilot’s fellow competitors.
Just as every race needs a start, it needs a finish as well. Finishes in
competitive soaring are the most visually dramatic part of the day. If you’re
interested in taking photographs of gliders in flight the finish line is the
place to be.
As competitors near the home airfield they start what is called final glide
when they think they have enough altitude to arrive at the field with just
enough energy to fly across the finish line and land. Final glides can be
started far as 50 or more miles from the home field. Landing sailplanes are
going fast and very low (under 100 feet) as they cross the finish. Often many
gliders arrive at the same time at the finish. While it looks chaotic, the
expert pilots sort themselves out and land easily.
Although it would be nice to complete every task, it doesn’t always happen.
Occasionally competitors will encounter poor soaring conditions, and they
will be forced to land away from the home airport. Frequently these landings
will be at another airport, although occasionally pilots will land in a
farmer’s or other smooth field.
While seemingly unorthodox, landing out is a
perfectly normal part of cross country and competitive soaring. Sailplanes
are designed to land on unimproved surfaces and the pilots have special
training to insure these landings are done safely. Competitors always fly
with the possibility of an outlanding in mind, and with a general idea of the
With cell phones and global positioning systems the pilot calls the contest
organizers and his crew for retrieval by trailer. The sailplane is
disassembled and loaded into its trailer for the trip back to the contest
site and the next day’s flying.
Technology & Keeping Score
Few sports have been transformed as radically over the last several years as
competitive soaring. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology makes it
possible to track and record the flight path of the sailplane allowing new
starting and tasking options not possible only a few years ago. Today’s
competitive sailplanes are equipped with GPS flight recorders that take a
sample of position, altitude and speed every few seconds and record this
information in a secure manner. These records or flight traces are used by
the contest scorer to verify that each competitor started properly, reached
the turnpoints as required by the day’s task and finished the course. These
flight traces are essentially electronic files that can be sent across the
Internet and analyzed using sophisticated flight analysis software.
Secure flight GPS flight recorders are carried by every competitor and track
the flight creating a digital file called a flight trace which is used for
In addition to tracking competitor’s flights,
GPS information is used by sophisticated flight computers that show
navigation and glide information to the pilot.
Flight Recordings Come To Life
By using the flight traces from each competitor
and sophisticated flight analysis software, it is possible to show a
competitors flight electronically in second-by-second detail. The image to
the left is an overhead or “god’s eye” view of a competitor (green line)
making a turnpoint and heading back to the home field. The grey circle is the
turnpoint, and the blue line is the course line.
The creation and analysis of electronic flight traces has been a tremendous
learning tool as competitor’s flight traces are available on the Internet
after the competition.
How to Read the Score Sheet
You can’t tell the cast without a program, and at soaring competitions the
score sheet is as close to a program as it gets.
There are several things to notice on a typical
score sheet for a sailplane competition. Fist is the contest name, place and
date of the score sheet. In following example the contest was the 15-Meter
Nationals held in May 2000 in Mifflin Pennsylvania.
The second item to note is the task. This is the course the competitors were
expected to fly on this particular contest day. Then comes the good part
showing the overall cumulative points for each competitor, their contest
identification or number, their name, the model of glider they fly, the day’s
placing, the days score their speed around the course and the distance they
All contestants have a tail or contest number which is used to refer to the
contestants. The aviation standard phonetic alphabet is used with KS referred
to as Kilo Sierra.
Sample of Soaring Contest
Today, a high-quality 720-channel aviation band radio can be found in the
cockpit of most competition gliders. Yet in most cases all that is required
is a radio that can receive and transmit on two frequencies (123.3 and
123.5). All contest business (starts, finishes, etc.) is normally done on
123.3 with 123.5 is for pilot-to-crew communication.
Even though gliders appear to be feather-light, some weigh almost a ton, and
the heavier plane has an advantage in high-speed racing. You are likely to
see gliders being filled with water. As much as 55 gallons can be carried in
some sailplanes. This practice adds weight to the glider and improves the
performance of the sailplane. Water ballast is normally dumped when the
conditions get weak and for landing. A sailplane dumping water ballast looks
like it has smoke trailing its wings.
The Competition Director is the head honcho - the one who calls tasks and
is responsible for ensuring that the contest is a safe, fair soaring
competition. The CD (as he, and occasionally she, is always known) must have
considerable competition experience and command the respect of all pilots.
CDs take competition seriously - they tend to want to call a task on any day
when safe and fair flying is possible.
The Contest Manager is responsible for administration of the contest. It
is he or she who organizes all the volunteers, ensures that there are enough
tow pilots, tow planes, towropes, water faucets, porta-potties, etc. This job
tends to be more difficult and less glamorous than that of the CD.
The Weatherman is responsible for monitoring weather observations and
forecasts, and presenting this information to pilots each day. As we all
know, meteorology is an inexact science, and it often pays to be a bit
sceptical of the day's forecast. In discussions with local pilots you may get
some idea of how much trust the weatherman deserves.
The Scorer is responsible for keeping track of the distances and times flown
by all pilots every day, entering these into a computer, and producing score
The Retrieve Office is the collective name for the group of volunteers
who take phone calls from pilots that has landed out.
Tasks, Courses and Competition
Each day the Contest Director evaluates the day’s weather and decides on the
day’s course or task. Tasks can be as sort as 60 miles to over 400 with
typical task lengths being 180 to 270 miles.
While the Contest Director has many task options to choose from, all involve
turnpoints, which are points that competitors must navigate. These turnpoints
are normally physical features on the ground, such as airports or towns.
Looking from above on a typical competition flight with two turn points. Note
the deviations from the course line made by this pilot.
Contestants are judged by the average speed
around the day’s task. Average speeds have been known to exceed 100 miles per
hour, but speeds are usually in the 60 to 80 mph range. The fastest
competitor receives 1000 points for the day, while slower pilots receive a
percentage of this maximum score depending on their speed. The competitor
with the most cumulative points at the end of the contest is the winner.
As can be seen in the illustration above
competitors rarely fly a straight line between turn points. Instead, they
make many course deviations to follow the best lift.
A pilot may fly over 40 total hours during a national competition, with the
combined mileage flown by all pilots exceeding 100,000 miles.
Sailplanes & Design Classes
Racing sailplanes are constructed from advanced composites including carbon
fiber to be extremely strong and light. The empty weight of these craft is
approximately 550 lbs with maximum weights reaching over 1100 lbs. Wingspan
is to sailplanes what horsepower is to an Indy car – the more the better.
With Open Class sailplanes anything goes, so wingspans can be up to 90 feet
in length allowing these marvels to travel 60 feet forward to one foot down
for a glide ratio of 60:1. The 18-Meter Class is similar to the Open Class
except with a wing span restriction to 18-meters or 59 feet.
The 15-Meter Class restricts wingspans to 15
meters or 49.2 feet. These sailplanes use flaps and interconnecting control
surfaces, water ballast, retractable landing gear and any other means to
increase performance. The Standard Class are similar to the 15-Meter
sailplanes except without interconnecting control surfaces or flaps. The
World Class is the one design class in which all gliders are restricted to a
single design. The Sports Class was developed to give older, lower
performance sailplanes and fair competition using handicapping. There are
several other classes including the Junior class restricted to pilots under
the age of 26 and the Feminine Class.
Typical Contest Day Time Line
Time Activity (All times are approximate – Check with the organizers)
8:00 AM ASSEMBLY - A soaring contest day starts with most competitors
assembling their sailplanes. It is interesting to watch how the sailplanes
are assembled and checked for flight.
9:30/10:00 PILOTS MEETING - The first "event" of the contest day is
the pilots' meeting (often held in a hangar or meeting room on the airport at
around 9:30 but this time set for each specific contest). Here, the previous
day's winners get a chance to describe their flights, and perhaps receive a
The weatherman explains why the forecast for the
previous day was less than perfect, and offers a guess about today's
conditions. Various administrative notes and comments are presented.
Each pilot receives a bunch of paperwork, typically consisting of a score
sheet, a weather summary sheet, and a task sheet. This last item is the most
important. Typically, it lists two or three tasks that might be called,
depending on how the weather actually develops. Sometimes the task sheet is
passed out on the grid.
10:30/11:30 GRIDDING - Next all gliders are moved to the runway in a
prearranged pattern in preparation for the launch. (The CD will have
announced the grid time at the pilots' meeting.) The grid is relatively
tightly packed and pilots must cooperate to get planes gridded smoothly. Grid
time is subject to change due to weather.
After gridding but before the launch is an ideal time to take photographs and
do pilot interviews.
11:30/1:00 LAUNCHING - Normally a "sniffer" is launched soon after
grid time as conditions warrant. The sniffer's job is to sample the lift and
help the Contest Director determine when it is safe to start the launch
(conditions that will allow a few ships to stay up may not be safe for the
Once the launch commences, things move quickly. The object is to get all
gliders safely into the air in the shortest possible time. Competitors are
towed aloft by a powered aircraft called a towplane. Towplanes will land
behind the grid and taxi for hook up to the next glider in line. Sixty
sailplanes can be launched in an hour. Towplanes will follow a prearranged
route until the glider releases. The standard release height is 2000' above
Please stay back from the front of the launch area and get permission and
pointers of were to take photographs. It is bad timing to interview pilots
when they are in the glider ready to launch.
12:30/2:30 START - Once the contestants have been launched they will
climb in preparation for the start. You may see many sailplanes in the same
thermal called a “gaggle”. This is perfectly normal. The opening of the task
is announced on the radio and takes place 15 minutes after the last sailplane
4:00/6:00 FINISH - With luck, at the end
of the task comes the finish. As pilots near home they call on the radio with
their call sign and arrival. The finish gate normally responds with the wind
direction and preferred landing pattern. Prepare yourself for some of the
busiest periods of the contest. Finishes are normally dramatic with many
gliders arriving together at low altitude (under 200 feet) and at high speed.
This is an idea time to take photographs of gliders in the air. The “smoke”
that appears to be trailing finishing gliders is water used to enhance the
performance of the glider.
After the high-speed finishes pilots do a smooth
pull-up to reduce airspeed for landing and then enter the landing pattern.
5:30/7:00 POST FLIGHT – After the bulk of finishers arrive the contest day is
over and people relax putting their sailplanes away. The day's winners are the
ones smiling and telling the stories!