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Posted - 10/10/2012 :  1:20:01 PM  Show Profile
What I Love About the Eastern Soaring League - Learning!
by Ed Anderson

This will be about learning, not competition. Because, when you are flying the same task as 40 other pilots you get the special opportunity to watch what they do and how they do it. You have an opportunity to talk to them about soaring in the context of that task. And, most importantly you get to try what they told you, sometimes immediately, to see if it makes a difference in your results.

Yes, you can do some of this at the club field just flying with friends but how do you know if you are doing it right? How do you know if it made a difference. Did you have a short flight because you did it wrong or was it the conditions? Was your flight longer because you did things better or was it the conditions? How do you know?

When we fly an ESL flight group you are typically flying with 3 to 4 other pilots who are flying the same air and the same task you are flying. Their goal is the same goal and the conditions are the same. For example, the task may be ten minutes, and you came down in five. Was that a bad flight or a good flight? Well, if you are the first on the ground among four pilots, it was a poor flight. What did the others do that you did not? You learn! However, if you were the last on the ground among four pilots, that five minutes is a pretty good flight. You have an objective way to measure your performance.

Four pilots launch and look for lift. You launch and go left because you think you see lift indications, but you are wrong. You ask your timer where the others are and how they are doing. The others went right and found lift. Can you get to where they are and catch that lift? You know where the thermal is because you have three other pilots marking it for you.

You run to the lift but arrive at half launch height. Now you need to see if you can find the lower part of that thermal. Do you know where to look? Can you visualize the shape of the thermal? Go and try, test your knowledge and your insights. They are skied out and you are at 1/2 launch height. Can you find the bottom and work your way up? You know there is lift there, somewhere, but can you work it?

What did they know at launch time? What did they see that you did not? Or maybe it was one top pilot and two followers. Well, after the flight you can ask them, while things are fresh in their minds. Learn from their success rather than dwell on your failure. And you will generally find they are happy to share their insights.

You can watch launch techniques. With 40 pilots and 8 rounds there will be 320 launches to watch that day. How high do they launch? How do they do it? Is anyone flying a similar plane to yours? How do they launch compared to how you launch?

Maybe there is a launch group with 3 or 4 of the same glider. You see a lot of flight groups with 3-4 Supras or maybe 2-3 Explorers. Did they all get the same launch height? Was it technique that made the difference or was it the way the pilot set-up the plane before he came to the winch? You watch and learn.

Do Supras launch consistently higher than the others or are the Pikes the kings of the launch? Or is it more pilot dependent and less plane dependent? If those two pilots swapped planes would the same plane launch higher or the same pilot, now flying a different plane? I wonder sometimes. My observation is that it is the pilot more than the plane.

You have four guys going up one after the other. How did they throw the glider? Overhead? From behind? Did they throw it up or out? Who launches highest and why? Do they go full pedal? Did the full pedal guy do significantly better or worse than those who tapped the pedal? What does their release look like? Do they dip deep and go straight up? Do they come off flatter but with more speed? Did they direct their launch or go straight out? How did they do it, and why? You can watch 4 launches, one after the other within 90 seconds. Which would you like to try on your next launch or your next practice session?

You can ask them later where they set the tow hook. Ask whether they use launch mixes or not. How do they use them? What kind of launch mix? Does it include elevator settings? Do they switch from launch to reflex on the zoom? When do they go to cruise. Most of them will be happy to tell you. Some will even offer to work with you after the contest day to help you tune your launch.

I have seen launches that looked like they were in trouble because they had pulled to the side. But later I realized that the pilot had directed his launch and his zoom was in the direction he wanted to travel after coming off the hook. Rather than go up and then float over, he zoomed to the area where he wanted to fly with very little sacrifice in height. I have seen people do half loops and rolls to run straight to the back while still climbing off the zoom. Hummm, perhaps something I should try?

At this year's end of season contest, in Daniel Boone PA, we had some strange conditions. For five of the 8 rounds on Saturday and all but the last round on Sunday, there was virtually no detectible lift and very little breeze. I watched, learned and greatly improved on a flying technique I had not done well in the past, the minimum sink flight.

Here you launch as high as you can, pick your starting area and head for it. In this case it was the tree line forward of the winches. While there was no real lift there, the air was more buoyant along the perimeter of the field, over the trees, than anywhere else. You could not really climb, you would just sink slower. And if you did start to rise it was not enough to turn. A turn of any significant degree just cost you height, so you cruised.

As I timed for other pilots I asked what they were doing and why and how. The answer was always the same. Get level with the right speed, put in thermal camber and just fly smooth. Set your elevator so you can fly without stalling and touch the sticks as little as possible. Stay off the right stick and fly with the rudder only, as much as possible.

And so I did this, and over several flights my times got better. I flew over 9 minutes with a Supra on virtually rudder only. On one flight I circled the field twice, for 9:30, on rudder alone, and won my group. During that flight I hardly breathed for fear of disturbing the air. At no time did I see anything that looked like lift I could turn in.

I watched other pilots try to turn in what looked like lift only to see them come down early. They were wasting a lot of energy for no return. Meanwhile other pilots just floated through that same area without turning, seeing that turning was not working. They did not see the lift that the turning pilot thought he saw. I watched and I learned.

In the past I would have turned in some of those small bumps and would have given up a lot of height. But watching the top pilots fly this pattern over and over again was very instructive. Timing for them as they did it gave me a chance to ask how they did it. And I learned. Often they made their times while I still fell short, but my times were improving. So, what were they doing better than I was? I watched and I learned. It was fun and very satisfying. I now have a new skill and a new flight technique I did not have when I went to that contest.

I tell you this because the ESL season is over and I feel I am a better pilot today than I was at the start of the season. I look forward to next year in the hope of becoming better still. When I was a Sportsman I took home many awards, but since moving up to expert I have taken home none. That is fine with me because my goal is to become a better pilot, not just win awards. The awards will come again as I improve. I will try to practice more this off-season and hone my skills.

If you would like to give this a try, now is the time to think about flying with the ESL next season, or a soaring league in your region. It doesn't matter what glider you fly. What you want to learn is how to make the best of what you have. Speak to the pilots at the contest. Speak to the pilots in your club. Ask them for advice and how to prepare for next year's contests. Then go and fly and learn. If you are like most of us, the better pilot you become, the more you will enjoy soaring with the birds, and rising into the sky on unseen forces.

Clear skies and safe flying, always!

Best regards,
Ed Anderson
Long Island Silent Flyers
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