This yearís SRA pilot poll will be on line in a few days. It contains a question on the 500 foot rule. I urge you to read it, think about it, and vote. In particular, this is a rule that benefits newer, less experienced pilots. It doesnít matter much to the top 5 national and world group, many of whom hate the idea. If you like this idea for your contests, you have to voice your opinion.
Here is the proposal: before the finish, you have to be above 500 feet AGL in a donut from 2 miles out to one mile out. If you donít make this altitude limit, you will be scored for distance points when you land at the airport. When the actual finish is a line, you may then dive down and cross the line at the usual altitude.
Why? Sooner or later, you will find yourself in that awful situation, 5-7 miles out at MacCready 0 plus 50 feet. Or maybe minus 50 feet. Youíre passing over the last good field, and the last chance to properly evaluate a field, do a pattern, look for wires, etc. From here on in, if you donít make it, itís straight in to whatever you find. Common sense says ďstop, look for a thermal, and land in this good field.Ē But the contest is on the line; 400 points and more call you to try to pop it in over the fence. This is not fun. Itís not safe. And itís entirely a creation of the rules.†
The proposal removes the agonizing points vs. life decision. If you donít make it with a 500 foot margin, you donít get speed points. Make your decisions based only on safety. If itís safer to squeak it in to the airport, do so. If itís safer to land in the good field 5 miles out, do that. †Forget the race.
This proposal is tantamount to moving the airport up 500 feet. †The race is entirely unaffected. A race with the airport located 500 feet above the surrounding terrain is just as valid, just as fun, and just as challenging.
The rule is only suggested for regionals, and perhaps only sports class. It will have to have substantial support from pilots before it makes it to nationals.
For more details, including accident statistics, see my article ďSafer FinishesĒ in the October 2002 Soaring. Itís also online at my website,
I will also keep updated versions of this message on the website Ė Iím sure to hear more objections that I can answer in the FAQ
1. We should leave this to pilot judgment.
Weíll never substitute for pilot judgment, and handling the Mc 0 + 50 feet situation will still take lots of judgment.
There is plenty of precedent for rules that remove from ďpilot judgmentĒ decisions that pit safety vs. competitive advantage. We used to leave gross weight to pilot judgment. Now we impose weight limits, and drag scales around to contests. We used to leave the question whether you can relight after a landout to pilot judgment. Now we ban the practice. We ban cloud flying instruments. And so forth.
Making a low final glide is a maneuver that requires extensive experience and judgment. While there is a good case that national level pilots can be expected to have this judgment, this is not the case for regionals, and especially sports-class regionals, which are explicitly aimed at newer, less experienced pilots.
2. I love the low pass finish. Donít take all the fun away
This proposal does not eliminate the fun low pass. The actual finish can still take place over a line, at the usual altitude.
Many pilots think they will end up too high for a proper low finish, but that is a mistake. If you pass one mile out at 500 feet and 80 kts, you will pass the finish at 50 feet well below redline. It takes more than 500 feet just to gain the extra speed. Try it Ė I have.
3. This will lead to unintended consequences that are even worse.
a) Pulling up over the line.
Several pilots complained that a 500 foot finish would lead to pilots racing in at 200 feet and then popping over the line. Good point. Thatís why the proposal is now that you must be over 500 feet for the whole distance between mile 1 and mile 2. (It is treated like special use airspace). Now the optimal thing to do is stay above 500 feet the whole way.
b) Traffic problems.
Perhaps people thermaling at 400 feet just outside the line will interefere with finishing traffic. Not likely, as this does not happen now, and all weíve done is move the whole business up 500 feet.† But moving from a circle to a donut will further separate finishers from thermalers, as it eliminates finishers below 500 feet counting on popping up at the last moment.
Experience with the current 500 foot finish in sports class has not revealed a big heads-down problem. Set your GPS to finish over the airport at 500 feet. That gives you a 150 foot or so margin over the donut.
4. This isnít the number one problem.
It isnít. Off field landings and terrain impact are still
the number one problems. Crashes near the airport and from low energy finish
are in the
Sailplane safety does not consist of only attacking the number one problem. You each problem as a solution comes. Midairs are not the number one problem, yet we all wear parachutes and look around, and avoiding midairs is a central concern of all rule making. Assembly errors are not the number one problem, yet we all do checks and the rules now require them. If we can improve the #99 problem, at no cost to the validity or fun of the race, soaring gets a little bit safer.
5. OK, I see that a high finish is a good idea, but losing all speed points seems awfully harsh. Canít we just tack on a 5 minute penalty or something?
The key is not the finish, the key is how this looks 5 miles out when the pilot is passing the last good field. The whole point is to remove ďbut if I squeak it in, Iíll get all those speed pointsĒ from the mental calculation. The only way to do this is to give essentially the same points for landing 5 miles out as for squeaking it in to the airport.
6. Soaring needs a little danger. If you canít stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Several pilots have forcefully stated this opinion. If you think that physical danger and an occasional fatality are important to keep soaring exiting, vote against this rule.
Disclaimer: All of this is entirely my own opinion and has no connection with the rules committee.
John Cochrane (BB)