The Evolution of U.S. Contest Soaring
John H. Cochrane
Ralph S. Barnaby Lecture, October 2 2010
First of all, let me thank the National Soaring Museum, and its director Peter Smith, for inviting me to give this lecture. The Barnaby lecture is organized and supported by the National Soaring Museum, whose mission includes understanding and preserving soaring history, not just beautiful old gliders. It is a great honor to be invited to give this lecture. I now feel like I’m part of gliding history! Let me also thank all of you who came out tonight, in particular the many Chicago-area pilots.
I was asked to talk about the history and evolution of contest soaring. As the son of a historian, I want to go on to think about why contest soaring has evolved the way it has. I can’t resist also speculating about how contest soaring will continue to evolve in the future, and a little bit of how I think it ought to evolve.I. 1985
I start my story in 1985. Races started with the gate, went through assigned tasks controlled by cameras, and then a fast final glide to an exciting flying finish. The classic strategy emerged: start late, catch the gaggle, bump up on final glide. The distance task was dropped, and tasks were short enough that the leaders at least typically made it home. Speed was the name of the game.
A remarkable set of new gliders – Ventus, Discus, ASW20 – dominated, bringing new domain of high speed performance. Wing loadings went up; pilots learned to flying with a lot of water. The combination of the netto variometer and “dolphin flying” -- really the art of careful course deviations -- opened the way to the “long glide” style of flying as opposed to the thermal-and-bash-through-sink style of the 1970s.
Spratt manned the gate; Striedeck and Jacobs reigned. In 1985 Doug Jacobs won the worlds – the last US first place. And the talent pool was deep. Eric Mozer placed 3d, Mike Opitz 5th, Ray Gimmey 7th, and a very young John Seaborn started a remarkable career. I only wish I could report 3/5 in the top 5 at the worlds this year, and 4/5 in the top 10. I looked up the 1985 national champions via the wonderful Soaring Archive. So many familiar names, and so many youthful faces: National champions Giltner, Beltz, Funston, Johnson; Regional winners included Bartell, Garner, Nadler, Mockler, Scott, Emons, Leffler, Tabery, Jurado, and many more.
To many, this is remembered as a golden age. That memory may be a big fuzzy. Weather forecasting wasn’t as good as we have become accustomed to, so there were occasional mass landouts. The late 80s had an uncomfortable string of midairs. And new pilots faced a daunting learning curve of landing out day after day on assigned tasks. But in many ways it was a golden age. Certainly contest soaring had achieved a certain maturity and stability after years of development.
And then it all changed.
GPS is the most obvious change.
GPS made navigation much easier. There was a lot of grumbling, “real pilots know how to look at a map.” To this day, there’s lots of grumbling that “pilots will just stare at their GPS all day,” ignoring how much head-down time map navigation and glide planning took, and the fact that there has not yet been a midair collision ascribed to staring at GPS. GPS was initially banned in contests, rules only giving in when costs got to the thousand dollar range, and most pilots were flying with GPS in their everyday flying. It’s interesting that we loudly protest $1000 instruments, but think nothing of each new generation of gliders that double costs. Now, of course, no student pilot leaves on a silver C attempt without two GPS and a moving map, and the immense controversy is hard to remember.
Interestingly, the vario got the same reception in the 1920s. “You’re losing the real skill of soaring by the seat of your pants.” Both cases are worth remembering as we think how future technology will infuse to the world of soaring.
Easier navigation is only a small change. The secure flight recorder, developed by Dave Ellis at Cambridge brought the big change. Again, by itself the change from cameras to GPS documentation was a minor though very useful improvement. The Big Change is that the flight recorder opened the way to fundamental changes in how we run and fly contests. These are:
1. GPS allows the turn area task.
Unlike the traditional AST, the competition director (CD) assigns a sequence of areas; in the US circles between 1 and 30miles in diameter. Pilots must fly through these in order, but can choose to go deeper in one or shallower in another area. A minimum time is announced, and if you finish undertime, your speed is calculated using the minimum time.
This task is slowly taking over as the default task. Many contests are now all turn area tasks, with one MAT (modified assigned task) and one pure assigned task (maybe) thrown in for variety.
The turn-are task is fundamentally different because it is defined by time rather than by distance. Where a new pilot faced a steady stream of landouts in the good old days, now new pilots can simply cut the task short and come back home. Conversely, a CD who doesn’t want to discourage his newcomers can still call a task that fully challenges the top guns. If you have 4 hours of soarable day between start open and the end of the lift, you can call a 4 hour task; the winners can do hundreds of miles, and the newcomers can also fly a full day but end up at home around the bar.
The other time-limited task is the MAT, modified assigned task, in which pilots pick their own turnpoints. This has evolved steadily over the years. Its ancestors are the distance task, then the “cat’s cradle” distance. The rules and typical task layout have changed as well, with more emphasis on the assigned part, and less on the go where you want part.
However, pilots dislike MATs – they take a lot of in-cockpit head work, there is a lot of luck involved, in the sense that roll of the dice strategic decisions about which turnpoint to go to has a big influence on the results, and the optimal tactic is often to buzz around a few turnpoints in good lift or close to home. This isn’t real cross-country soaring. The MAT rules are flexible enough to accommodate more interesting variations – the ‘’Long MAT’’ with many assigned points in place of assigned tasks; the “OLC MAT” in which you can only use three turnpoints, and so forth – but these variations have not come in to widespread use yet.
The MAT is an important part of US contest soaring. It allows tasks in weather that even turn area tasks cannot accommodate, and situations such as very long ridge flights. But it isn’t as popular as the TAT in most cases.
The MAT does spread pilots all over the sky, which lessens start roulette and gaggling a lot. However, pilots like a certain amount of gaggling, the feeling of racing, and the sense that the race depends on what you do with a given sky, rather than clairvoyant turnpoint choices.
The TAT is so popular because it seems to arrive at just the right combination. Pilots are in roughly in the same sky, or at least parts of the sky that they can see and evaluate rather than guess. (Sometimes a poorly set TAT leads to a big strategic decision about conditions in a far away turn area, which is less fun – but better than a MAT in the same weather.) You do see other gliders, and small gaggles form. But start time tactics and massive furballs are much less present. The TAT is much more about the pilot, the glider, and the weather; not the start, the leech and the gaggle.
We are still adapting. I think some CDs call far too large circles – two 30 mile circles adds up to “just go where you want.” Often CDs call too short times. They seem to have mistaken the “minimum time” of 2.5 hours in regionals and 3 hours in nationals for the “target time,” ignoring clear directions in the rules to use the available soaring weather to its maximum. They seem to forget that a short time is not necessary to bring newcomers home, unlike a short distance. We’re still fixing glitches in the rules: In 2009, we fixed a glitch involving undercalled tasks; in 2010 I hope to fix a glitch involving the speed and distance points.
All of which emphazises my point. It was not GPS per se; or even GPS navigation or GPS flight recorders that made the big change. The big change is how GPS led to changes in how contests are run, flown, and won. And though GPS is 20 years old, that process is still underway.
2. GPS-controlled start, finish.
In the good old days, there was a start line, visually controlled, with a limited altitude. You had to call the start gate, do an exciting VNE dive, and hear “good start.” The finish was a line in the airport, which you passed over, hopefully at high speed and 50 feet.
Now the start is (in the US) a cylinder, and is controlled by GPS. You simply pass a line in the sky, or thermal out the top. The cylinder is set up so VNE dives and other madness are not possible. The finish line is still available, but more and more contests are moving to a finish cylinder, also with a reasonably high floor of 500 to 1000 feet. You cross this line at normal flying speeds and enter a pattern to land.
It’s much less exciting. But it’s a lot safer. We don’t have any flutter through the start gate anymore, and the appalling string of accidents at and near the finish line is sharply reduced.
It goes without saying that GPS & cell phone change have dramatically changed the retrieve experience.
III. The future of Technology:
GPS only the start. Here are some things I see on the horizon.
1. Weather information
In-cockpit satellite weather is now available. It can be extremely valuable in a contest. The visible satellite loop and radar loop in particular can help with the agonizing decision, do I go on in this turn area or go deep in the next one, 60 miles away? Both loops would help start decisions, and profoundly affect MAT strategy. The radar loop would make a big difference in threading thunderstorms – or deciding that even though 5 guys ahead are trying it, threading the thunderstorm line really isn’t such a good idea.
So far, it isn’t widely used, and it is illegal. So far, it’s a bit cumbersome. Our instrument designers have not incorporated easy-to-use displays, though they are common in general aviation. I forecast that just like GPS, we will continue to resist for a while, then we will give in once units cross the $1000 price barrier, are incorporated in soaring electronics, and pilots are using them in recreational flying.
Flarm is a anti-collision device based on interchange of GPS position via short-range radio. It was developed in Europe and is extremely successful there with upwards of 13,000 units sold. It is coming to the US in the 2011 season, and contest pilots seem to be on the path of instant adoption. As of October 2010, over 100 units have been ordered.
Flarm’s potential to reduce the danger of midair collisions is obvious. However, we must be careful of the “Spikes on the dashboard” problem. (My colleague Sam Pelzman once wrote a brilliant article in economics when auto safety regulation was being developed. He pointed out that, if you really want to reduce car accidents, you should put sharp steel spikes on the dashboard. They people would avoid accidents in the first place!)
I detect a little bit of this problem in European contests. Pilots accept 30 glider gaggles, taskers call tasks that lead to 30 glider gaggles, and organizers allow start procedures with 150 gliders in a small area with 2,500’ cloudbases. Perhaps the thought “well, everyone has Flarm so midairs won’t be a problem” is leading to a little bit of complacency, or acceptance of risks that would otherwise be rejected. Reducing gaggles and midair possibilities is very much on CDs minds in US contests that have not had flarm so far. Let's hope it stays that way
3. Thermal detector.
The biggest piece of technology on the horizon is the long-awaited thermal detector. Many physical principles can work. Radar can measure the speed or concentration of birds, insects or other gliders. Dopper lidar measures airspeed by tracking dust. Microwave or infrared can spot the higher water concentration of thermals; and infrared can see their heat. All of these technologies work right now in large expensive power-hungry ground-based forms. All it takes is the usual miniaturization and development to make them work in a glider. And remember, even knowing what the air is doing 100 yards away would be a revolutionary change. If there were any military application we’d have it now. (Can anyone think of a military application for a thermal detector?!) If the soaring market were 100 times larger, we’d have it now.
Like the vario or GPS story on steroids, we can predict the response. Many pilots will bemoan it, as the end of soaring. But soaring will never be easy. Within a few years, every silver c student in a 1-26 will feel he needs one.
I for one look forward to it. The thermal detector will mean the end of start gate roulette, gaggling, and leeching. It will bring the biggest increase in our flying abilities since composite aircraft and laminar airfoils. And it will be the biggest bang for the buck we’ve ever seen. Even if units cost $10,000, they will bring my far more performance than my current temptation, trading in my ASW27 and $80,000 for an 18 meter glider. And I think they will enhance safety, in addition to the end of gaggles. If you know where the lift is, you’re more likely to find it; if you know there is no lift, you’re more likely to calmly glide to a good landing spot.
IV. Two Demographic Developments
I have so far focused on technology. Most soaring pilots are analytic, engineer types, and a story line that focuses on technology is natural to us. But in tracing this story, already we’ve discovered that the technology per se was not the central part of the story; it was how technology changed the “soft stuff,” the rules, procedures, strategy, and character of contest flying, that really mattered.
And as I review the development of soaring, it is the “soft stuff,” the human side, that really is the story, in so many of the other developments we have experienced. Let me start with two demographic trends, and then review the big changes in races, classes, and rules.
Overall, participation in US soaring contests has shown the same slow decline as in the rest of soaring. We’ve lost about 10% over the last decade. Nationals in particular are getting smaller and smaller, in part because there are more of them. For example, in 2010, there were 8 pilots at the open nationals, 27 at 18m, 29 at 15m, 10 at standard, a healthier (but still declining) 42 at sports and 6 at the world class. Smaller contests are less economically viable, and the site committee’s work now consists more and more of twisting arms rather than adjudicating too many bids.
Participation has always been small. Only about 5% of SSA members every fly a contest. But a glass that is 95% empty is also 5% full. That means we could double contest participation if we just get an extra 5% of SSA members to show up! (Similarly, if the SSA could get 1 out of a hundred power pilots to take up soaring, we would dramatically increase our members.)
I see low and declining participation as the main challenge to contest soaring in the next decade.
You might say “who cares?” After all, a trivial percentage of drivers racy the Indy 500, and that seems neither to hurt car sales nor lower the quality of the race.
The answer is, you care. Soaring is a participant sport not a spectator sport. We are organizing events for the enjoyment of participants, not for the big TV money. And the economics of our sport have vast “economies of scale.” Everyone has a better experience if there are more people.
I had a vision of this a while ago. I spent a lovely half hour 500 feet above a golf course. I don’t need to tell anyone in this room exactly why I was there. As I looked down, I noticed a full parking lot; tennis courts with happy wives; a swimming pool full of happy children, a pro shop where you could get your wings waxed – no, sorry, buy golf clubs – a bar and a restaurant. And it occurred to me; why do we fly gliders out of dusty deserted airports in the middle of nowhere, while these people pursue their sport in such pleasant surroundings? The answer is simple. Their club has 1000 members. I fly from a great club, well run, with great equipment. But we’re not putting in a restaurant for 60 members!
Every bright idea everyone has for improving contest soaring comes down to one obstacle: There aren’t enough of us. More classes, more contests, cheaper gliders, better teams, more instruction, more coaching, more development, more fun times, better venues… It all needs the money that comes from scale.
And contest soaring is a key to stabilizing the numbers in regular soaring. When I went back and looked at the contest winners from 1985, it was striking that almost everyone on that page is either still soaring or dead. It seems we fly until they pry our cold dead hands from the stick! When they start flying cross country or contests, they stick. The problem in soaring is not numbers in the front door, it’s that the typical member stays two years and then leaves out the back door. More contest participation can really help that trend.
2. Wives (spouses) and crews
A big change in soaring since the 1970s follows a big change in society. Wives work! (Sorry for being sexist here; almost all US contest pilots are men.) If you ask a modern wife to take her two weeks of vacation, and take care of the kids in the back of the station wagon for two weeks in, say Uvalde Texas, and come pick you up from various ranch roads, you will get a big laugh. Those days are over.
Partly as a result, there are fewer and fewer crews. Most contests, even nationals, now have more than half of the pilots showing up crewless.
On the one hand, it’s a good thing rules and tasks have evolved to allow it. If we go back to distance days or mass landouts, we’ll lose half our sport.
On the other hand, the fact that so many pilots now show up alone – and the vast majority of pilots who are still working and have kids at home show up alone -- is a big impediment to participation. The fact is, glider racing is now a sport that people take up in their mid-40s, when kids are at least a bit independent, and the majority of our population is retired or semi-retired with no kids in the house.
All of soaring needs to make the transition to this new demographic reality. The days in which hubby could hang out at the glider port while wife takes care of kids at home is gone. I don’t have any big answers, but this is the big question. Again, if only we had 1000 members and could be like the golf club…
One small lesson here comes from contest experience. The successful contests are fun . The Seniors, Newcastle, Perry and Mifflin are big successes. What do they offer? A great place, a well organized social scene, and a lot of support for newer pilots. This is a lesson for us winter pundits. Team points, handicaps, and all the things we obsess about over the winter eventually matter a whole lot less than fun.
V. New races
The last 25 years have seen a huge structural change in how contest flying is organized. I start with two whole new race formats, the OLC and Grand Prix
The OLC (online contest) is a big development. Pilots send their traces in from around the world, and are scored on various formats, most of which emphasize long distances. This is another instance in which technology (the internet) enables a form of race organization that was previously impossible.
OLC is immensely popular. Close to 1000 pilots fly OLC in the US, compared to about 350 that flew in a contest in 2010. Put another way, two out of three active cross country pilots chose not to attend any contests last year. Obviously, OLC is either a challenge – an alternative which may be sucking energy away from contests – or an opportunity: here is a target population which could triple our numbers.
Why do people fly contests? In part for recognition; you want people to see your accomplishments. The OLC offers that. In many ways OLC really is the modern substitute for badge flying in that regard.
And why might pilots find OLC satisfying over regular contests? Perhaps they dislike the tendency to short tasks, the milling around before the start, or tactical flying. Certainly there is some convenience in a short event that does not mean a long drive or weeks away from home (see wives and crews, above).
But they lose something. They lose the camaraderie, the lifelong friendships we develop from contest flying. They lose the fast learning curve that the interchange of ideas of top pilots in a common location produces. They lose the challenge of flying and racing on weak days, when your competitors around the world will rack up kilometers.
If we view OLC as a challenge, maybe OLC style contests will attract pilots. We certainly can get together for shorter periods of time, and declare a 3 turnpoint MAT with very long minimum time! Or perhaps we just need to view OLC as our targets and mine them for contest participation.
2. Grand Prix.
The Grand Prix is another new race format, brought about from the top by the IGC. We haven’t had one yet in the US, but it’s more and more popular around the world.
Grand Prix races are run in a fundamentally different way. A small number, less than 20, start all at the same time. They fly a short assigned task. They are scored by place, not by points.
These changes have a dramatic effect on the nature of the contest flight. Start gate roulette is pointless. Gaggling and leeching take on sailboat tactics – the right thing to do is “cover” the opponent and then dash to the finish. If “covered”, the right thing to do is tear off and do something wild. And you can imagine how “exciting” the finish is when losing by an inch is as good as losing by a mile. Pilots under regular rules would not fight over one thousandth of a point.
Another big change is that the Grand Prix is designed for media and spectators. It has 3D real time tracking, and now has sponsorship and money. (The sponsors like advertising the “green” nature of soaring. They don't show the towplanes, RVs, retrieve vehicles, and so forth!) It came out of the IGCs frustrations at trying to get spectator interest for regular soaring.
And that’s why I like it. The grand prix nicely shows how regular soaring is a participant sport, not a spectator sport. The point of regular soaring contests is for the enjoyment of the participants, period. Watching a contest has always been as fun as watching paint dry.
Now that we have the grand prix, we can cleanly separate the two goals. Grand prix racing can go for the spectators. For that purpose, short tasks, and wild rules make sense. You don’t have to pay much attention to safety. In fact a few telegenic crashes will bring in more spectators. You don’t need big participation. In turn, regular soaring can stop even thinking about amusing spectators, and come to the realization that there aren’t any, and focus on increasing participation. So good luck to the grand prix.
VI. New classes.
We not only have two new race formats, we have an abundance of new classes.
1. Handicapped racing
One of the biggest innovations of the last 25 years has been the introduction of handicapped racing. As in all other sports that have handicapped racing, such as sailing, there’s a lot of whining over the winter about rules and handicaps, but then it proves extremely popular in the spring. The sports class is the single most successful class in the US. It is another US invention that spread to world. It has brought many new pilots into the sport, and it allows people to race older gliders. Again, technology had unintended consequences: time limited tasks opened the way for handicapped racing, as gliders of different performance require a course defined by time not by distance to both use the soaring day.
In the US, the sports class developed initially with two missions: to allow handicapped racing, especially of older gliders, and to be a “beginner” class at the regional level that would feature easier tasking and a gentle introduction to contest soaring.
Europe developed a “club” class instead, that only allows a narrower range of handicaps. It has much less of a “beginner” mission, and no mission at all of allowing racing for lower performance gliders, or older high performance gliders that are uncompetitive in open or 18m classes. All this made sense: Europe has a lot of clubs which have standard-cirrus level gliders, and the point was to let “club” pilots compete. The US has almost no clubs with such gliders that can go off to a contest (my club, the Chicago Glider Club is the exception that proves the rule). Almost our entire target is private owners, but many of them have gliders which do not qualify under European “club” rules, and many of them are beginners.
Handicapped racing is evolving fast. At the US national level, it is really “handicapped racing,” rather than a “beginner” event. What it does is allow pilots to enjoy national level racing without driving across country to “their” nationals. The single most popular glider in the sports nationals is the ASW27, closely followed by the Ventus 2! Effectively, we have “east” and “west” 15/18 meter nationals without the name, with a few other gliders sprinkled in for fun.
At the same time, large handicap spreads are not ideal when the point is serious racing. The handicaps are fair on average, but introduce more luck than is desirable. This has led to the idea of a US “club” class consisting only of the middle of the handicap range. But if we do that, will we kill the rest of the sports class, and leave the old Nimbus 2/3, the club ASK21, or the Silent, Russia, 1-26 etc. nowhere to compete at all? If only we had more pilots….
In any case, what needs to be said in a “history” lecture is simply that handicapped racing is evolving quickly, and we will be chewing over these issues for a few years to come.
Handicapped racing is spreading. Most countries have handicapped nationals for at least some classes. US regionals now merge small FAI classes with handicaps, and this is proving very popular.
2. FAI classes
The profusion of FAI classes is a really big change in contest soaring. Once upon a time, there was one class: the open class. Standard class came about in the 1960s as a very sensible idea to create a class with good performance but simple operation and limited cost, as open wingspans, costs and complexity exploded.
And then in the late 1970s, the IGC committed the original sin, since repeated. They couldn’t decide whether to allow flaps or not in standard class, and didn’t know what to do about legacy gliders that did or did not have flaps. So they split standard class in two, resulting in two classes of nearly indistinguishable performance, cost, and handling qualities. Within 3 years, all of the “legacy” gliders were obsolete. New gliders designed to the new class rules had displaced them, and we’ve been stuck with one class too many for 30 years.
Now we have open (which became open / 750 kg max, then open / 850 kg max), 20 m two seat, 18m, 15m, standard, club, 13.5m (absorbing the world class), junior and feminine. If we look at the larger world of soaring flight, the open class of the 1960s has also spawned two hang glider classes (fixed and flexwing), paragliders, and microlift or ultralight gliders.
Editorial: This is nuts. In the face of declining participation, is fragmenting classes the right thing to do?
Perhaps what’s going on is that the IGC is thinking only about world contests, and it seems to be able to expand the number of “world” contests in all these classes. I put “world” in quotes because almost all the contests are held in Europe, and participation from out of Europe is spotty for all but the big classes. So really, what they’ve done is create a large number of interesting venues for European championships.
But this class structure makes little sense at the US national level, makes no sense at all for smaller countries, and none for regionals. You can’t even imagine running a regional contest with one third of this number of classes.
And the IGC is repeating the Original Sin. The world class was a fiasco. It wasn’t necessarily bad idea in the abstract – maybe pilots are really all hungering for simple cheap one design racing and don’t care that much about performance. The failure was in doing no serious market research, relying instead on “build it and they will come.” It turned out that when offered the menu, pilots are all choosing $180,000 18 meter gliders. Nothing else is selling at the moment. At least we have all learned to beware of “build it and they will come” theories.
Having pursued the world class fiasco, they are faced with the question, what do we do with the PW5s? Thinking “legacy”, they create a class which not just PW5s, but also Russias and Silents and other gliders developed for the original world class idea can participate in. But the second a new glider is designed to the new rule, all those gliders will be as obsolete, as the PIK 20 was obsolete in standard class the minute the Discus and ASW20 came out, and we’ll be stuck with another pointless class for 30 years. (I haven’t done the research either, but I don’t see any benefit to 13.5 meters with conventional wingloadings. The design, certification, molds, control system, are all there. It won’t be that much cheaper, it won’t be any better or different really. And standard and 15 are already out of production. )
Why does this matter? It drives up costs needlessly. Fixed design, certification, and production costs are spread over much smaller runs. It dilutes effort. The US team cannot send pilots to all these classes. And it leaves national and regional contests in a horrible mess.
What should they do? Pick 3 classes for 15 years from now. Allow legacy gliders with handicaps. And stick to it. Think about classes for all races, not just the European scene.
VII. How will contest soaring evolve in response to these challenges?
I have pointed to several changes going on at the same time.
On the last point. The vast majority of pilots do not cross the country for “national” contests. With the exception of 2-3 pilots desperate for team points under the current formula, most pilots fly something nearby, not in “their” class, rather than spend an extra week or two driving. Standard gliders go to 15, 15 meter gliders go to 18, 18 goes to open, and everybody goes to sports.
What to do? The answer is obvious once you state the question. We will have to merge classes with handicaps to form viable races.
Regionals already merge and do not offer all classes. Still, 5 classes with 6 gliders per class is not optimal. We’ll probably do more merging. Perhaps we’ll end up with just three handicapped classes, “FAI” with water, “club” and “low performance” will work; the handicap ranges can overlap and adjust to the gliders at hand.
Almost all countries already have adapted this way. As you can imagine, Belgium (say) does not try to offer separate nationals in Open, 20m duo (“Arcus class”), 18m, 15m, standard, club, 13.5m, junior, and feminine. They have a single, handicapped national. The US has only persisted as long as we have because we actually have a very large base of contest pilots compared to most other countries.
How to do it will be a hard problem. For us, it is mixed with the problem of distance. There has been a longstanding demand for something like separate “east” and “west” nationals, as driving a week each way is a large cost. New Zealand already does this, as the body of water separating them is larger than in our case.
We might end up just mixing a few classes – put standard and 15m together with 2% handicap; mix 18m and duo; or both of those with open; or other mixtures. Or we might go whole-hog and have “east” “west” and “central” contests with two or three handicapped ranges each.
Like other countries, team selection will have to abandon the idea that you win in a particular class to go to the worlds in that class. Instead, we’ll have to develop a ranking list, and go down that list to fill out our world team. This isn’t a bad move on its own; surely doing well in the 15 meter nationals tells you something about how good a standard class pilot is, without making him drive (say) from Boston to Ephrata.
While the details will take a lot of work, this is exactly how the vast majority of other countries have already adapted to the profusion of classes, so we’re not reinveting the wheel.
I hear the gnashing of teeth from many anguished friends who detest handicapped racing. I don’t like it either. I wish the IGC had settled on 3 reasonable classes that made sense at national and regional level as well as at world level. But until they do, I see no other way out of our quandary.
To some rules are boring. But rules make the race! The only difference between a glider race and a tiddlywinks contest is the rules! The character of racing has changed a lot as rules change, and it will continue to evolve.
1. Measurement vs. incentives.
The Big Picture of rules evolution in the US is this: we have come more and more to understand that good rules balance the two functions, Rules as measurement vs. rules as incentives. The minute a rule says “this is how we measure your performance,” the pilot asks, “how does affect my strategy?” In an ideal set of rules, it doesn’t. You just go fly, as fast as you can. However, often rules set up to measure well leave lots of options for strategizing and gaming the rules. Most of the changes from the US rules committee come with exquisite attention to avoiding lots of strategizing and getting contests more to a “just fly” experience.
Here is a classic example. Why is it that at worlds, there are huge gaggles, and start gate games, unlike in the US? We’ve all puzzled at this question. Some speculate that it’s a cautious national character, vs. “individualistic” Americans. But put those cautious Europeans in a Grand Prix and they fly like maniacs.
No, the answer is simple, and we’ve known about it for at least 20 years, since Bruno Gautenbrink’s famous speech. It’s all in the day devaluation formulas. In world rules, the “lone wolf” who starts early and makes it home when the gaggle lands out gets little for his efforts. The lone duck who lands out when the gaggle makes it home, or who tries the “lone wolf” strategy but the gaggle eats him up, loses catastrophic amounts of points. The result: there are no wolves left in Europe. The incentives are not perfect in the US (we also need to work on our day devaluation formulas) but a lot better.
It is very common in Europe for contest pilots to indulge in 2 hours of start gate roulette, and then all land out. This happened to us several times at the Szeged WGC. Yet each pilot is acting exquisitely rationally given the rules. In an Australian worlds, reported by Hank Nixon, it once happened on a blue day that nobody wanted to start first, and nobody did. The entire gaggle hung around all afternoon, and nobody went on course. Again, a perfectly rational decision for each pilot given the rules.
These are classic. The WGC day devaluation formulas and speed/distance formulas are excellent measurements if pilot behavior would only sit still. Alas they give horrible incentives for how to fly.
Do we want races that value the pilot, his reading of the weather, and his machine? Or do we want races that value start roulette, tactics, big gaggles, and exploit tricks in the rules? You can achieve either once you understand that rules must balance measurement and incentives.
2. Should US use Worlds rules?
This brings me to a longstanding controversy, and a point which I must admit is pure editorial rather than history. Many pilots say the US should use IGC rules, and just ditch our local efforts. Many say it would prepare US pilots better for world competition. Having been there, I can vouch they are right on the latter point. Most of my failures were failures to execute the strategies demanded by world rules, not failures to thermal or glide well.
But many pilots who advocate this have not read the world rules nor experienced them. I have, and can now state with a bit of authority that this step would be a disaster for US soaring.
Imagine if the US adopted rules that led to mass landouts, huge gaggles, and start gate roulette. Even fewer would show up. Mass landouts means you need either crew or a motor.
(I finally figured out at the worlds why almost all new European racing gliders have motors. I was headed to a certain landout, but I was in the company of 5 other gliders. Good, I thought, we’ll all land together and help each other out. Nope, as we hit about 600 feet, one by one Brrrrrr. Out came the motors and off they went. As I sat all alone in my nice field in Hungary, I thought the whole Luftwaffe was off on a raid as the powered gliders passed over me. To fly European contests, you need a crew or you need a motor. Or both.)
If we require crews, or motors we’ll lose half our pilots. The contest cannot be run only to prepare the US Team – two pilots isn’t enough to pay for the towplane.
All of this comes from a simple failure to recognize the difference between measurement and incentives in world rules. Here are a few more classics.
-Start. The main start geometry at the worlds is an unlimited altitude gate. What’s the result? Cloud flying. They do have a procedure (not used at Szeged) for a limited altitude gate, but no time or speed limit before the start. Quick, this is a quiz, what do you expect pilots to do? That’s right, they still climb in the clouds, then dive at VNE parallel to the line and duck out when they hit the top. The US cylinder with start-anywhere and 2 minute under the top puts an end to all this nonsense.
-2 pts km/h 1 pt km. There is a lovely provision in world rules for a “simplified” scoring system, in which you get 2 points per km and 1 point per km/h. This is a great idea for measurement. It’s a disaster for incentives. At the beginning of a race, you have to make a roll of the dice to go for distance or speed. Needless to say, it is so transparently silly it has never been used.
-Time out distance. A race can be called where you are scored up to the maximum time. Good measurement. The optimal strategy is to go deep, and up at the downwind turnpoint, dive for the ground at time-out, and then try to squeak home for the bonus.
-There are circumstances in which you’re better off stopping and orbiting rather than finishing. You need a sharp team captain to keep track of scores and tell you if this is the case.
Instead, the worlds should become more like our rules (and our rules need some work too, especially on day devaluation formulas). And they are. US start, and finish procedures are slowly diffusing eastward, as is the popularity of the TAT which they call the AAT. This year, the IGC recognizes that gaggles are a real problem, after two midairs and are determined to do something about it. Perhaps they will finally change the devaluation formulas, which they have known for 20 years to be the source of the problem, as well as rely more on AATs.
3. Rules process
Back to history. One thing that happened in US is a change from “top down” to a “democratic” (or at least “representative democracy”) rules process. Once upon a time, SSA directors made rules. The SSA directors are hard working people, but many are not contest pilots, and the system didn’t work all that well. Over time, the current setup emerged. Our rules committee is elected, is composed of active racing pilots, there is a poll, a transparent meeting with published minutes, and all major changes are tried in regionals before implementation at nationals.
Like any representative democracy, it’s the worst possible system – except for all the others. When some pilot gets a bright idea like “let’s just add 15 minutes to everybody’s time,” or “we should have a club class like the rest of the world” it can seem like it takes forever to get it adopted; or it frustratingly doesn’t happen. Getting a rule change involves not just convincing the pooh-bah in charge; you have to educate and convince the entire pilot base. But the system does not produce huge errors like the world class. I think much of the IGC’s problems stem from its structure. The people are all hard-working and intelligent. Good legislation comes from a good constitution, not necessarily from wise individuals.
The final trend I will comment on is safety. Contests are getting slowly safer. If you watch the spectacular “Sunship Game” from 1970, you’ll not only be struck by how much everyone smokes, and how little they wear in the sun, you’ll be struck by the amazing amount of glider carnage, and the casual attitude towards it.
In many ways, contests are extremely safe. I do not know of a single recorded PTT (premature termination of tow) accident at a contest, though they are rampant in regular flying. There has been exactly one, though tragic, assembly failure, and that on an informal practice day. In fact, contests are a great place to learn how to fly in a much safer and more disciplined way.
Much of this comes from a collective effort. Over time we have developed a lot of safety practices and knowledge. Dehydration and pee systems may seem small, but one or two accidents per year add up. Tow procedures and the careful dance around the airport all keep the monster at bay.
Moreover, contests have evolved mechanisms to pass on useful safety knowledge. Old-timers wince at the daily safety talk – another US innovation – but how else are new pilots to learn vital lessons including thermal etiquette, landouts, and most of all that even the top pilots make far different and more conservative decisions in the air than you might think from a discussion around the bar? A lot of person-to-person mentoring goes on at contests as well. (I have Hank Nixon to thank for pointing out a couple of stupid things I was doing in my “youth.”) We have a good safety system, that refines and passes on important institutional knowledge.
Tasking has evolved to a much greater concern for safety. Better weather forecasting, the ability to change tasks on the grid and in the air, and the MAT and TAT means that sending pilots into a hopeless thunderstorm is very rare. CDs think much harder about poor terrain or weak ridge lift.
Rules and safety
And rules. Once you realize that rules consider measurement and incentives, there is an obvious safety implication: if we remove temptations--places in which pilots can earn hundreds of points by accepting a physical risk — we can lower accident rate. We have to balance this effort with “measurement” of course; such changes are only really attractive if they do not reduce the “measurement” function, i.e. spoil the race.
A recent example occurred in a crash at the World Championships I attended in Hungary. There were really good fields for the last few km before the airport, then a road, a fence and the airport. A pilot returned with low energy. Floating over several gliders in the field short of the airport who didn’t quite make it, he still thought he could do it. Skimming in ground effect, he had just enough energy to pull up over the fence….except there was a truck going down the road. The truck driver was severely injured in the resulting crash.
Now, why did this pilot ignore the perfectly good field with gliders in it, and instead try to pull up from ground effect to just skim a barbed wire fence (to say nothing of the road)? Well, obviously, the rules gave him about 400 points if he cleared the fence by 1 mm.
This is not an isolated accident. It’s been going on for 50 years. Year after year, around the world, where this possibility exists, there is regular carnage in the fields (or lack of fields) in the last few km before the finish, on the finish fence, or resulting from arriving at the airport with 10 feet, 40 knots, and no ideas.
What should we do? We can deplore it, as we have for 50 years. “What a bozo.” “A good pilot like me would never do that.” Alas, this answer is of little help to the truck driver, and little comfort to wives at funerals. And even very safe pilots who once proclaimed this sort of view become more circumspect after they get caught pulling up over trees on final, or giving in to other temptations. I speak from experience. I work on these things because I know I am not immune to temptation.
We can spend another 50 years hectoring pilots not to do it. We should, and will. But this is hardly new wisdom, and I’m sure this pilot – like every other pilot who has done something dumb in the heat of a contest – could have given a great lecture on just this danger. It makes us feel good, but it has not proven effective in reducing the accident rate.
How do we actually reduce the accident rate? The answer is obvious. Don’t give 400 points 1mm above the fence. Move the “finish” point upwards. It makes no difference to the quality of the race, since the change is the same for everyone. The US is slowly moving to this system. The IGC is belatedly waking up, and slowly moving the finish out and up. They still are not assessing a sufficient penalty. If you blow a high finish on world rules, you get a warning the first time and 25 points the second time. Measurement vs. incentives: what do you do if you’re low? Answer: 400 points and a warning beats 400 less points and no warning. The wild flying and poor accident record at the Grand Prix has led to a 100 meter hard deck there; no points for a meter below. This works. (If I seem a bit rough on this issue, it is not without reason; I wrote a Soaring magazine article describing the problem and its solution 10 years ago; seeing in person exactly the crash I had warned against so long ago, and seeing the same refusal to accept the obvious answer, is a little discouraging.)
All of this is horrendously controversial, and I wouldn’t even bring it up if I did not have a captive audience who is too polite to come out with the usual tar and feathers when I bring this issue up. I’ve heard screams of protest, been called the “safety Nazi”, accused of “social engineering” and worse.
This is an interesting response. It’s interestingly common in all sports. Bike racers fought helmets for years. In the face of strong clinical evidence about what asphalt does to the human brain. They claimed “helmets will worsen safety, because they obstruct your vision.” Race car drivers fought safety rules. The baseball players union fought viciously to stop testing for steroids.
This kind of change is not an attempt to “legistlate safety. “ That’s silly. The idea is simply to “remove temptation, where it costs little (measurement) to do so.” Nobody is trying to “remove the pilot’s responsibility for safety.” Safety always is and always will be the pilot’s responsibility, and decisions up to him or her.
But we decide what actions we want to reward with contest points. That is our responsibility. If we think the skill of skimming in ground effect and judging whether you’ll be 1 mm above the barbed wire or 1mm below the barbed wire is not the skill we want to use to select our champions, then it is entirely our job, and our duty, to change that.
And this is nothing new. This is a history talk, so I can point out we’ve been doing it forever. This is the extension of a longstanding trend, not some wild new idea. Here are just a few examples.
In the 1970s, you could land out, return, assemble and try again. The result was a 90 mph retrieve, 5 minute assembly, 10 second preflight. Pilots didn’t do a very good job of exercising their responsibility. The rules changed; now once you land out you’re done for the day.
In the 1970s, the pilot was free to do whatever he wanted with water ballast. Some pilots chose to ignore manufacturer limits and fill the wings with huge bags. This one is interesting because so few points, really, are at stake, for a substantial risk. At any rate, pilots not doing a very good job of making their decisions led to weight rules and weighing, despite the substantial costs and hassle involved.
Rolling finish procedures are a great example, here because of what pilots were willing to do for surprisingly small number of points. Here is a true story, only slightly embellished (actually two true stories merged into one). We’re at Hobbs, with a main runway and a second, very rough runway that extends about a mile away from the main one.
Spratt: “Now, rolling finishes get 5 extra minutes of time, you’re scored when you stop, and must be on the main runway.”
Pilot X: “Charlie, why 5 minutes, and why can’t we roll on the other runway?”
Spratt: “Because the last time I let you do that, you, Pilot X, deliberately landed out there to save the two minutes to the finish gate”
Pilot X: “OK, Charlie, but why can’t I be scored when I touch down, not when I stop”
Spratt: “Because when we let you do that, you, Pilot X, were smacking the ground at 120 knots on the end of the runway and then orbiting for a landing in order to save the minute of flying to the actual line”
And so it goes. For as long as we’ve been racing, we’ve put in rules that remove temptations for pilots to do something stupid. This year we tweaked the finish gate again: Some pilots thought it was a dandy idea to do a sharp pull up and enter the finish cylinder from the bottom, even though there could be lots of other gliders around. Seeing this great display of pilot decision-making, we changed the finish cylinder rule to remove that temptation.
Well, so much for the past. Rules changes that remove temptations, with little consequence to the quality of the race, have reduced the accident rate. Are there further possibilities?
About some things, alas, not much. The first half of this decade sported a number of crashes in which pilots flew into mountains. Even I can’t think of a way to reduce this temptation, at least without damaging the “measurement” function unnecessarily. (Unfortunately, the response here is mostly not to run races in mountains, though mountain flying is some of the most rewarding in soaring.)
Until recently, there wasn’t much rules could do about midairs. Yes, we could set tasks like TATs, start procedures, and devaluation formulas to minimize the attraction of gaggling, but there wasn’t much we could do about aggressive thermaling. Flight recorders are beginning to change this. At the worlds, Brian Spreckley brought along traces of reported near-misses and publicly chastised the offending pilots.
Traces can be used to penalize all sorts of unsafe behavior; or more properly, to remove the temptation to engage in unsafe behavior in the quest for points. To be effective, however, this strategy must be handled properly and objectively. At least 10 pilots did something stupid in my view (i.e. cut me off or nearly ran into me), and I’ll admit to one or two screwups now and again. We could fill up the protest meeting if complaining becomes a competitive strategy. Perhaps a computer can be programmed to find all the near-misses objectively.
The vast majority of contest crashes remain on off-field landings. I look at all the NTSB reports, and I have looked at a lot of traces. Practically no contest off field landing follows the book: examine fields from over 1000’, commit by about 600’, fly a proper pattern. Straight in at 53 knots is much more common. The NTSB crash reports almost uniformly record the pilot circling at very low altitude.
These crashes could be addressed with a “hard deck.” At an easy MSL altitude corresponding to roughly 600’, you are scored as if you landed out. This could be implemented tomorrow by simply making airspace below certain MSL altitudes forbidden, and including those in the sua files. The altitude is over the valley, the ridge sticks out.
Again, we are not removing any pilot’s decision-making responsibility. We are doing exactly the opposite. We are simply saying at about 600 feet, “look, you need to make a good safety decision. Maybe you can thermal out. Maybe you should give up and land. Whatever you do, you’re in a tight situation; be a good pilot in command and make that good decision. And by the way, we don’t want to bias that decision one way or another. So points are off the table, no matter what you do. See you when you get back.”
“What about my 200’ save?” the anguished pilot cries. Well, I answer, what about the guys who didn’t make it? The gun clicked 5 times in a row. Does that really mean Russian roulette is safe? Yes, I’m sorry, the 200 foot save will have to go, along with bouncing over the barbed wire fence out of ground effect.
I brought this idea up to a SRA meeting once. The vote was 39-1. I mentioned the bike helmet story. The vote was still 39-1. I’d like to get a vote of the wives someday. (Once I tried the “only bozos crash, I’m a good pilot” theory on my wife. She answered “the heck with that. I know you, when points are on the line you’re the bozo.” )
By the way, I am told the USAF top gun school does this. They found in simulated combat a lot of pilots were fighting all the way down to about -100’ AGL. So they put in a “hard deck.” They simulate a landout at 10,000 in the rules. Apparently they’re not manly enough to let pilots make their own decisions.
It’s possible. It’s simple. We’ll do it someday. Probably after a rash of crashes.
Of course, we can also continue the current practice of structuring tasks to reduce landouts, to keep pilots over decent terrain when weather gets weak, or to keep them off the ridges in very marginal ridge lift.
A related controversy continues. Should the CD have the explicit right to call off the day if the weather gets out of control? In many other sports the CD-equivalent is in charge of the safety of the race and does this, for example in sailing. Our CDs actually do have the authority to do it, but few know the technicalities of the rules to dream up that fact on the spot, and many falsely believe there is a rule against it.
Our tradition – not rule – is that once the start gate is open, the race is on for good, no matter if a tornado or squall line appears. We expect pilots to voluntarily give up when weather turns dangerous. But we give out points to those who do not and survive. Unsurprisingly, the history of decision-making under these incentives is not particularly good. Until a few years ago, the CD really did not know what was going on, but radar, satellites, and better radio communication open up the possibility.
This isn’t easy, as none of these decisions are easy. Some worry about legal responsibilities – if the CD does not accurately diagnose the thunderstorm and some bozo crashes, will he get sued? I worry about the opposite legal responsibility – if there is a tornado and the CD does not call it off, won’t the lawyers sue us anyway?
This is a hard question – I think the answer is yes, but I respect all the difficulties that lead others to disagree. However, let’s be clear it is not an issue about “removing pilot authority” or “making decisions for him.” All we are doing is thinking about when we give out contest points. We are debating whether the CD should be able to say “Listen up, pilots. We have a tornado out there. Use your pilot decision making to do the safest thing possible. But I’m not giving out contest points based on what you do now. It might be safe to come back, it might not. You make that decision. Forget about points, I want you totally focused on making your own decisions.”
And of course, as I emphasized above, gaggling and leeching are only a function of rules, in particular task type, start procedures, and devaluation formulas. If we dislike them for safety reasons, as well as if we want to change the character of the race to focus more on soaring skill and less on tactics, that’s an area of potential improvement.
Can we stop all accidents? No. Can we remove all temptations? No. Are rules changes the biggest route to lower accident rates? No. But if we remove from glider racing the remaining 30% of the situations in which you can earn several hundred points from taking risks unacceptable in regular flying, will we reduce the accident rate? Yes. As we have done many times in the past.
Why not? Some say “gliding is a dangerous sport, accept it.” This is true, but it does not mean we need to make it artificially more dangerous than it already is.
Most of all, the answer is, participation. One accepts danger in “extreme sports” or in spectator sports. One does not attract widespread participation with danger. When you tell people you soar, what do they always ask? “Isn’t that dangerous?” (Or “how nice, I’d never let my husband do that.”) When you tell a regular pilot you fly contests, what do they often say? “Sounds like fun, but I don’t want to break my glider.” If we could honestly refute that impression, we’d have a lot more participants.
A recent Sailplane and Gliding interviewed Hans Werner Grosse, and asked why he gave up flying competitions. He answered, “I still hate gaggles, tactical start-line games, and low approaches in close company with other pilots who have not been to enough funerals.”
All that is rules, and all that can be changed. And it is changing, slowly.
X. A Vision.
Let me close with a vision for contest soaring; perhaps reversing my charge to talk about the past with facts and instead talk about the future with hope.
I love contest soaring. Selfishly, it’s very time-efficient – you go and fly on days you wouldn’t get out of bed on a safari. And those weak days have produced many of my best flying memories. Imagine you could go to a place with a great reputation for flying conditions, there is a weatherman who produces a daily briefing, three smart people spend all morning figuring out just where the best place to go is, then you fly around the course with 50 of your best buddies; there is someone manning the phones to come get you if you land out, and you finish it all with a beer and Mexican food. Isn’t that a dream? No, it’s a contest!
Contests are where you get together with the best and most committed pilots in the US. It’s a very welcoming community. I have made lifelong friends though contest flying. Of course contests measure you. Any sport gets boring just for the enjoyment. What hooks us on contest soaring is this pathological urge for self improvement.
And that’s their function and importance for our sport. Where is the knowledge of how to guide our amazing machines through the sky to unimaginable speeds and distances, learned, refined, measured, and then passed on? In contests. And where is the knowledge of how to do all that safely also passed on? In contests. Contests are the vital place where our sport develops and is passed on. Without contest flying, these skills and this knowledge will be lost.
Once I proposed that we change the official purpose of contests to add, beyond “selecting the champion,” “for the assembled pilots to enjoy and advance the art of cross-country soaring.” Like many other bright ideas, the motion didn’t pass, but I think the underlying philosophy is there and should continue.
Contest and cross-country soaring are our sport. All of our gliders were built for speed. The natural progression of our sport should be from license, to thermaling, to cross country, and then to contests – without losing 95% at each step of the way.
I dream that every year there is a Region 7 contest, in which every pilot and glider in the region shows up, including the ASK21 and 1-26s. We get together to have a big party, but also to learn from each other; to learn how to be better cross country pilots and safer cross country pilots. Nobody should feel “contests are beyond me” or “contests are unsafe for me.” They should feel “contests are where I will learn to be better, and see all my friends, and learn to be safer.” I sense there was some of this feeling in the 60s, when new pilots routinely went to contests with a fresh silver c in their hands. I’d like to recapture some of that feeling. Maybe we should stop calling them “contests” and “races” and instead call them “meets.”
That’s the experience in our most successful contests now, including Newcastle, Perry, the Seniors, Mifflin and its mentoring program. We need more like that!
Then the real golden age of contest soaring will have arrived.