Contest Corner

Start Anywhere

John Cochrane


It’s happened to all of us. The only decent thermal is 90 degrees off track at the edge of the start cylinder. You’d love to start right there. But if you do, at the point marked “Start” in the drawing, you only get credit for distance B, not the distance A you actually travel.  At a minimum, you have a difficult strategic question: how far is it worth traveling through dead air inside the start circle to get a more efficient start?  Often, the question is whether you’ll get back to the high ground at all if you go too far. Why not simplify this, and give credit for the whole distance A that you travel? 

When asked in the pilot opinion poll last summer, a large majority supported such a change. That rule change is in place (subject to SSA approval at the February board meeting) for regionals this year.

It’s not as simple as it appears, which is why distance B was specified in the first place. The committee worked long and hard to come up with a rule that does not introduce a lot of unintended problems. As a result, there are wrinkles that pilots need to be aware of.

The obvious problem would be pilots starting out the back or top of the cylinder, and then bumping the pre-start gaggles while “on course.”  To stop this, the rule specifies that you must use your last valid start. (A “start” is an exit of the start cylinder. A “valid start” is one that happens after the start gate is open.) Here’s the crucial paragraph: …The last valid start of the claimed task is used unless i) it incurs a penalty under and, [two minute rule] in which case the best-scoring valid start is used or ii) the pilot has achieved one fix more than 5 miles outside the start cylinder after a start which otherwise qualifies, in which case that previous start may be used.


Thus, if you start out the top or back and fly through the cylinder, you will be forced to start again when you exit the cylinder a second time.  There’s no point in trying.

Now, what are the exceptions for? Suppose you start normally, but you bust the two minute rule, thus incurring a hefty penalty. (You must spend two minutes below maximum start altitude before start, to avoid high-speed dives.) Before, you were allowed to use any earlier, penalty-free start instead.  The “unless it incurs a penalty” clause means you still can do so.  Any time you would want to use an earlier start under the old rule, you can use it under the new rule.  Similarly, any time you would want to use a later start, accepting a small penalty rather than a large time loss, you can still do so. (The scoring program still does not necessarily find these other starts for you, so you still need to know the rule and ask.)

The second exception is technical: it means that if you fly over the home airport while on course the rule won’t seem to imply you must take a new start. Similarly, if you start, make some distance, come back, start again, and make less distance, you can still call the first start your task.

What else can go wrong?  Suppose you start, but then drift back into the start cylinder, staying below maximum start height the whole time. Now you are forced to take the second start. If you don’t know about it, this could mess up your flight planning. You could end up a bit undertime in a TAT or MAT. Worse, if you calculate a TAT or MAT that just barely makes minimum distance, you could find you don’t have minimum distance after all, and so receive only distance points for your flight. Moral: If you’re going to be clever and start out the back or top of the cylinder, pay attention.

The remaining  concerns are operational.  If there is a substantial wind, the upwind-most point of the start cylinder is now, other things equal, the most favored point to start. (In the past, the most favored point was also displaced upwind, but not as much.) This has two potential downsides. First, in a cross-wind situation we may have a big gaggle at the upwind point, and everyone will want to take a 90 degree turn right after they start.  We have big gaggles at the favored point now, but at least everyone peels out directly towards the first turn. Second, if the CD does not use a cylinder somewhat downwind of the airport, the most-favored upwind start point may be hard to get to for late starters.

This rule should have some pleasant benefits. It will of course be convenient and simple to start at the best place, avoiding a long glide to and back from the “front” of the start cylinder. It can mean starting higher over rough terrain, or with easier contact to the next lift.  If you want to avoid the monster gaggle hanging out at the edge of the start cylinder, it will now cost a good deal less to start from the next thermal, even if it is several miles away and previously unfavored.

Have we found all the gotchas? Will this work in practice? That’s why it’s only in place for regionals this  year. Let the rules committee know if you like it, dislike it, or experience any problems.