Contest Corner

Goodbye Rolling Finish

John Cochrane

It was my great pleasure this fall to participate in the annual rules committee meeting. No major changes are underway for US contests.  There are several small changes that should smooth things along.  However, as usual, pilots need to be aware of what’s going on to avoid unpleasant surprises.  

A disclaimer: Rules are not official until after the SSA board approves them in February.  So treat this as a report, a heads-up on things to look for this year, but get the final word before takeoff.

One change is that there won’t be a “rolling finish” when a finish cylinder is in effect. As a reminder, a finish cylinder is typically 1-2 miles in diameter and has a floor, typically 500-1000 feet. When a cylinder is in effect (always in sports class), you finish the task when you enter this cylinder.

But what if you finish below the minimum height? Until now, you were scored with a “rolling finish.” Your finish time was the time your glider stopped, plus a fixed  time penalty, usually 2-5 minutes.  Now, you will instead get a graduated penalty of 2 points per 10 feet that you are below the finish cylinder.  After this, it does not matter how fast you land, how fast you come to a stop, or anything else.

This makes sense for a lot of reasons.  If someone can’t make the cylinder bottom, why should we award points for  their ability to dive for the nearest runway and brake as hard as possible?  It’s also undesirable to mix traffic that has finished and is trying to land properly with traffic that is still racing. Graduated penalties always  make sense: Why should there be a big difference between 499 and 501 feet,  but no difference between 498 and 1 foot?  The rolling finish evolved with the  finish line, where it makes a lot of sense (and will continue to be used), but isn’t well adapted to the cylinder. 

The size of the penalty – 2 points per 10 feet – is less severe than other penalties, such as the 25 points plus 5 points per 10 feet start height penalty.  This penalty is calibrated so that an “honest mistake, 50 to 100 feet low, will cost about the same – 10 to 20 points – as a typical rolling finish under current rules.   At some point we (pilots) may decide that we want stronger incentives not to finish low, or that the penalty for finishing low should be the same as the penalty for starting too high. But for now the rules committee felt we should change only one thing at a time.

Now, the important part:  what does this change mean for you as a pilot?  First of all, suppose you’re on a glide that will marginally make the cylinder floor.  Canny points-hungry pilots used to make a quick decision in the last mile or so:  the minute it’s clear you won’t make it, dive to the nearest runway and try to stop as soon as possible.   Now, this strategizing disappears.  The best you can do is simply to glide towards the airport at best L/D and then calmly enter the pattern to land. There is no need to carefully monitor altitude and GPS, as there are no strategic decisions to make. (The perception of such a need has been a longstanding complaint about the cylinder.) 

(This is a “rules” column, so I’m focusing on points.  Of course, the decisions you make on a marginal final glide need to have safety as the first consideration. Things happen fast, and the right decision depends a lot on the weather, the terrain, your knowledge of that terrain, your ability to do last-minute landings, and so forth, with all this points business very far down on the list.)

What if you’re really low – concerned you might not make the airport, and the heck with the cylinder? Consider the worst-case example:  you’re 5 miles out, right on MacCready zero to the airport, so your hope (I hesitate to call this a plan) is to cross the finish cylinder at 150 feet, pull up over the last line of trees, and plop down gratefully on the nearest patch of asphalt.  This will now incur a 70 point penalty, somewhat higher than the old rolling finish.  It’s  worth stopping in even a weak thermal to gain a few hundred feet and finish a little more sensibly.  On a 3 hour task each minute is worth 6 points, so you gain points by stopping in anything more than 1/3 knot.  Since the penalty is graduated, you don’t have to make it all the way up to the cylinder floor;  each foot you gain is worth points.  Before, once you knew you would not make the cylinder, all minutes were the same, so there was no points benefit to stopping and climbing unless the lift was decently strong, and unless you knew it would carry you all the way up to the cylinder floor. 

 If there isn’t even a weak thermal,  the 70 points you will lose on the finish, combined with the new larger distance points, mean that there is  less to be lost by landing  in that last nice field on this side of the trees.   In inhospitable terrain, CDs set higher floors, giving even less reason to do squeaker glides. 

In sum, the new rule means that the most competitive thing to do is a lot closer to the safest thing to do, and involves a lot less last-minute low-altitude strategizing.

What about pilots who try to pull up into the cylinder at the last moment, or try to thermal at 400 feet just inside or outside the cylinder?  This might seem like silly behavior to gain a few points, but there have been reports of pilots getting into both kinds of trouble under current rules. The committee considered refinements that rule this sort of thing out.  However, the consensus was to keep things simple for now.  These issues are not particular to the new penalty structure.  In fact, the graduated penalty gives less incentive for mischief here.  A pilot might be tempted to stall through the gate if 10 feet saves  a  5 minute rolling finish penalty,  but 10 more feet will only gain 2 points now – really not worth it!  Sharp pull-ups and low altitude thermaling over the airport will also draw unsafe flying penalties (Darwin Awards) in the future as they do now.  Let’s hope that a little pilot education and common sense prevail.  If not, it is easy enough to write rules that eliminate any benefit from this kind of flying.

There is sure to be some complaining when the first pilot clears the fence by 2 feet, sees his (say) 50 point penalty and says “Hey, I made the airport, what’s this penalty?” It will be especially embarrassing if he passed up a 2 knot thermal on a hot dash to a downwind landing, and scraped the gel coat off the nose with a hard brake.  Don’t be that guy, read the rules! 

A special thanks to J. J. Sinclair who suggested this nice little simplification. (All blame goes to the RC of course, not to JJ.)