Contest Corner-- Flarm

John H. Cochrane

Al Tyler and I started together on the first WGC practice day, but the first leg wasn’t going so well. We’d try here and there, cloud after cloud, finding only 2 knots or so – not enough for a great contest flight. Finally, down to about 1,500 feet, we got to a powerplant in the middle of a forest, a bit higher and dryer than the surrounding wet fields. Bingo, four knots. Aaah, you can imagine the sigh of relief. Now, to concentrate on the climb – rack it over, center the narrow core, pull back to the slowest possible airspeed, find that magic balance where the glider rockets smoothly to the sky, look around for birds, gliders, and up for the forming cu….

BEEP BEEP BEEP. The Flarm unit I borrowed from Bill Elliott lit up like a Christmas tree. What the…? Oh, there they are. The lead gliders from the 18 meter gaggle had pulled in behind me and the rest of the fleet was about to join. Wake up, John!

I was suddenly converted. This thing is great!

Flarm works by radioing back and forth GPS positions and projected paths. It calculates which gliders are likely to pose a collision threat, and issues a beep and shows position on a simple display. The beeps get more insistent the worse the danger.  It takes only a tenth of a second to check that display and see where the threat is. The connection to most navigation software gives you an even clearer picture of where the other gliders are.

Throughout the Worlds we were flying in big undisciplined gaggles. The Flarm unit was a lifesaver. Sure, it sometimes beeped about nearby gliders that I already saw. That’s not so bad, as it reminded me to really keep track of those gliders. But it also told me about lots of gliders that I had missed, and it told me about gliders I couldn’t possibly see.  I got indications about one idiot who pulled in behind and then passed 10 feet over me. Without Flarm I might have pulled up. I got lots of beeps from gliders following 20 feet behind and just outside – don’t roll out now!  

It was helpful in cruise as well.  Several times I thought I was all alone. (My “I’ll lead the pack” habits contributed to my great scoresheet success.)  Then the Flarm warned me there was someone dangerously close above or behind where I couldn’t see them.  If there is head on traffic coming down that cloudstreet in the wispies 501 feet below cloudbase just like you, you’ll hear about it.  A typical response from Europeans is “Flarm made me aware of how much traffic was around me that I had not realized was there.”  I have to admit to the same realization.

Unlike PCAS systems designed for general aviation, the Flarm unit doesn’t go nuts in a thermal filled with other gliders. It just tells you about the gliders that actually pose a collision threat. The software is a big part of the system. It was designed by glider pilots for glider pilots to alert us about glider-like threats, and not bother us with information overload.

Flarm isn’t perfect. Nothing is. You still have to locate and avoid the threats. You still have to fly defensively, join thermals politely, and keep your eyes outside the window.

But it really helps. The world championship had 150 gliders, and most days we had mediocre visibility, indefinite cloudbases below 3,000’, similar courselines, and lots of start gate roulette and gaggling. Really, I think the only way we avoided a midair is that most of the gliders had Flarm.

Up until now, Flarm has not been sold in the US. However, Flarm will be available in the US starting this winter.  The version sold in the US will be the PowerFlarm unit. It includes a IGC certified logger that can be used for OLC, contests, and badges. It also includes an ADS-B receiver and transponder detection capability, so you will see jet and general aviation traffic.  However, if you want jet and GA traffic to see you, you still have to install a transponder.  That’s not going to change any time soon.

It is announced at $1,695 (see your favorite dealer for accurate price information), but volume discounts are available.  That’s a lot of money, but not out of line compared to other devices many of us have installed including transponders, PCAS, parachutes, ELT, spot, backup loggers and so forth, especially if you add up the value of all its pieces – IGC logger, PCAS, ADS-B receiver, and Flarm.

As you all know, we have had a string of midair collisions and near misses in contests in the last few years, capped by Chris O’Callaghan’s tragic accident.  Even if midairs are not statistically the major danger we face, it’s the danger most pilots worry about.  Widespread adoption of Flarm at contests would make a big dent in this danger. If installed at busy operations or high glider traffic areas (White mountains, ridges), Flarm could also make a big dent in non-contest glider-glider and glider-towplane midairs (we’ve had two recently).

Since it receives but does not transmit, Power-flarm is not the holy grail, cheap, one-box solution for soaring’s general aviation and jet traffic concerns (though its reception capability does help a good deal even here).  But contests and general aviation/jet traffic are really separate issues. Contests are held in areas with little power traffic. In a contest, your big problem is other gliders. We can make a big dent in that problem, now.     
Flarm is more useful the more gliders have it. So, the contest community really has to make a collective decision if we are going to adopt Flarm. This doesn’t have to happen all at once; for example it would make a lot of sense if the 18 meter nationals converged on Flarm a lot sooner than sports class regionals.  But we do have to do this together.

Many people have suggested mandating Flarm at contests. That is a big step, especially for a new technology, and one that I do not think is wise.  (No, Cochrane is not advocating a safety rule!)  Instead, I think the voluntary path is the way to go. This is also what Flarm recommends, and the path that has been followed in the rest of the world.  Expect most of the world team and top pilots at FAI nationals to have a Flarm next year. An informal “let’s all get one” project is already underway here.  Expect social pressure to join, especially if you want to fly with the lead gaggle at nationals. Several people have thought of starting a fund that will purchase and maintain Flarms for pilots to try at contests, which seems like an idea worth pursuing.    

This article is meant to introduce the topic and start this discussion. Publication in Soaring has a several month delay, so the conversation should be ongoing by the time you read this. A group of pilots including myself has put together a website about Flarm, with a lot of extra information. I especially recommend the Frequently Asked Questions and the simulation of what the Parowan pilots would have seen and heard with Flarm.

We have a long winter to think through Flarm adoption and other steps we can take to really tackle the midair collision problem at contests. Let’s do it.