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Pure magicPure magic

Soaring in a race where it's OK to be olderSoaring in a race where it's OK to be older

Gliding is the purest form of flight: a serene chess match that pits the absolute certainty of gravity against a pilot’s skill and the fickle, ephemeral promise of lifting air. Put 55 gliders in the same air at the same time, each flown by someone eligible for AARP membership; turn them loose on a timed cross-country with the fastest guy declared the winner; do that daily for a week straight, and you’ve got yourself quite a contest indeed.

Glider speak

Trigger temp: The ambient temperature required for the formation of thermals.

Sniffer: Non-competitor who launches just before the start to sample and report lift activity.

Thermal markers: Other competitors who are the first to find a thermal and spiral upward. Glider pilots constantly scan left and right looking for the flash of another glider’s wings in the sun as it spirals up in a thermal. If it looks like a strong thermal, the pilot will fly over and join it.

Street: A line of clouds. Pilots know they can quickly transition from one thermal to the next flying underneath a street.

Gaggle: A group of gliders all spiraling up a thermal.

Leeches: Less-talented or inexperienced competitors who “leech” onto the best pilots, shadowing them to take advantage of their superior strategy.

Gliding is the purest form of flight: a serene chess match that pits the absolute certainty of gravity against a pilot’s skill and the fickle, ephemeral promise of lifting air. Put 55 gliders in the same air at the same time, each flown by someone eligible for AARP membership; turn them loose on a timed cross-country with the fastest guy declared the winner; do that daily for a week straight, and you’ve got yourself quite a contest indeed. Welcome to the Senior Soaring Championship.

It’s day one, and Tom Knauff, one of the world’s most accomplished glider pilots and author of nine instructional books on glider flying, is in the middle of a pack of single- and two-place high-performance gliders gridded in a tight pattern on the south end of the grass strip at lovely Seminole-Lake Gliderport in Clermont, Florida. Each aircraft is waiting to be hooked up to one of several busy Piper Pawnees that will tug them to 2,000 feet agl, where they will release and begin performing what Knauff says is “as close to pure magic as you can get.”

He is referring to the ability of an unpowered, 1,500-pound aircraft to travel about 44 feet horizontally for every foot it loses vertically, and to gain back that foot—and much, much more—by hitching a ride on a bubble of rising air. He could also be referring to the magic of the hands-on piloting skills, on-the-fly strategic decision-making, and marathon-runner stamina that Knauff and his fellow competitors will demonstrate in this annual competition.

In the aviation subculture that is competition soaring, the Seniors is something special. It began 19 years ago as a social event, an excuse for veterans in the gliding community who had retired to or were wintering in Florida to get together for some competitive fun. There were 18 participants at the inaugural event. This year’s contest, held in March, was limited to 55 pilots, two of whom are veterans of the first Seniors. The Soaring Society of America-sanctioned event is restricted to pilots age 55 and older, and for that reason it does not count toward world ranking points. That has not hurt its popularity, however—this year’s contest was overbooked.

The day begins with a morning briefing that centers on the expected weather.

About 20 minutes before launch time the competition director announces the day’s “task,” the course each competitor is required to fly. It’s defined by six waypoints, with the gliderport serving as the start and finish waypoints. The object is to fly the 187.11-mile course as fast as possible, adding distance as needed to achieve the required minimum elapsed time—two hours, 45 minutes—established by the contest directors. In the language of competition gliding, it’s called an “assigned-area speed task.”

In a powered airplane it would be a simple matter to fly a straight-line course between waypoints adding enough extra distance to finish in just over 2:45. But to finish first you first have to finish, which in gliders means staying in the air for the duration of the race.

Viewed in profile, a glider’s cross-country flight path would look like a series of shallow downhill slopes—the gliding portions—each ending abruptly in a tight, threaded vertical shaft as the ship thermals up to the base of small, puffy clouds, which on this day is around 5,000 feet agl. Rarely does the glider scribe a straight-line ground track between waypoints, because the pilot must range left and right of course to suckle on the life-giving thermals.

Given that the competitors are at the mercy of random, short-lived thermals and changing wind speed and direction, it is impossible to plan with any accuracy the time it will take to fly from one waypoint to the next, and thus the accumulated time to complete the entire course. That makes it difficult to make adjustments during the race to try and finish as close to the minimum required time as possible.

Enter the “turn area,” a concept introduced to U.S. competition by Knauff, who encountered it while competing at a Masters soaring event in Switzerland. Instead of flying to a specific latitude-longitude waypoint before turning onto the next leg of the course, pilots have only to penetrate a circle surrounding each waypoint. Diameters of the circles range from one mile to 20. The pilot decides how far to fly into the circle before making the turn.

Flying to turn areas instead of point to point gives pilots flexibility in deciding how long to make each leg. If a pilot believes he is ahead of schedule (the flight computer constantly updates and displays estimated course completion time), he may choose to fly well into the circle, past the center point, to extend the overall distance and trip time. If the flight is running long, he may make the turn just after crossing the boundary of the circle to shorten the distance and time.

A computer aboard each glider records its GPS ground track, and pilots must submit those electronic data logs to contest officials at the conclusion of each day’s race to verify that they completed the day’s task. Contest officials assign each make and model glider a performance handicap that, in theory, creates a level playing field.

After the task sheets are handed out, pilots hurry back to their gliders to program the task data into their flight computers and strap on their parachutes. Parachutes? Knauff explains that it’s not unusual to have a dozen or more gliders tightly stacked in one small-diameter thermal, all spiraling up to the base of a cloud. Collisions are extremely rare, but they can happen.

The start is a cat-and-mouse game. When the competition director calls over a common frequency that the race has begun, some pilots get under way immediately. Others, including Knauff, hold back a bit, waiting to see what the other fast guys will do. Each pilot announces his start time over the frequency, so it’s possible to keep track of rivals.

Knauff calls his start at 1:59 p.m. In less than two minutes he is joining up with five to six other ships in a thermal. Knauff’s head is on a swivel. The variometer shows a climb rate of five knots, or about 500 fpm, and he gains 1,000 feet before breaking off. “That’s the best we’ve seen today,” he observes. For the next several hours he is alternately streaking toward a turn area, deviating to take advantage of a thermal, and banking sharply to stay in the core of a thermal. “You grab lift when and where you can,” Knauff says. “Go fast and stay high—it’s a good combination.”

Knauff makes the last turn 65 miles from the finish at 4,600 feet. The flight computer says that with the six-knot tailwind, it will take 48 minutes to cover the final glide distance. It’s an Oshkosh-arrival-style madhouse approaching the gliderport. Although to a powered-airplane pilot it may seem too crowded to attempt a landing, with gliders there are no go-arounds—so Knauff shoehorns his Duo Discus into the short downwind, then turns a tight, high base and final. He plunks down and rolls to a stop right next to his glider trailer.

Knauff, who covered 186.98 miles at an average speed of 64.85 knots (corrected to 171.14 miles at 59.36 knots with the handicap) takes an early lead, then slips to third as more pilots report in. He’s later assessed a 39-point penalty for entering the one-mile-radius finish cylinder below the 500-foot minimum altitude, and ends up eighth for the day.

One of Knauff’s chief rivals is Karl Striedieck, a seasoned champion who is known as a fierce competitor. Striedieck is fastest in his Duo Discus at 69.34 knots actual and 62.78 knots handicapped, and collects 1,000 points for finishing first.

Day two

Like Knauff the day before, Streidieck spends time after launching to explore the starting area—sampling thermals, looking for ground references to navigate the first leg, eyeing his competitors to size up their strategy.

He zooms down into the start cylinder and flies around inside it for the required two-minute minimum, then calls his start and pops out the top doing 100 knots indicated. “Awright, we’re outta here,” he says. Striedieck attacks the course, yanking and banking in the thermals as if he were back at the controls of the fighters he flew in the U.S. Air Force and Pennsylvania Air National Guard.

For the next two hours and 40 minutes he will hum and whistle and talk softly to himself as he scans the sky looking for clouds, dust devils, swirling debris, circling birds, “haze bubbles,” grass fires, a heat-absorbing patch of ground—any telltale sign that there might also be rising air—while streaking along the six-leg, 167-mile-long race course.

“I like the competitive aspect,” he says of cross-country racing in gliders. “The challenge of it is what keeps guys in it. And it’s ecologically and environmentally approved flying,” he adds with a grin.

At one point he is at 2,500 feet and descending, with no sign of rising air, but he somehow finds a tiny cloud with enough of a thermal lurking underneath to gain a couple of thousand feet. “That’s why I like soaring,” he declares. “From zero to hero just like that!”

Rounding the last turn, Striedieck has about 30 miles to go on his final glide to the finish line. After flying through a column of smoke and gaining some altitude, he hits a stretch of nothing—no clouds, no haze bubbles, no other gliders to identify thermals. Then he spots a promising patch of ground, and makes for it. Sure enough, once over it he soars skyward at about 630 feet per minute.

Striedieck crosses the finish line two or three minutes past minimum time, and finishes first in the day’s standings. He goes number one again on the last day of the contest, and takes the overall win easily. Knauff, hobbled by a couple of penalties, finishes sixth overall.

It’s been a good contest. The weather has been consistently sunny and warm, but dry enough (relatively few clouds and therefore low thermal activity) to present a tough challenge for the field of talented competitors. No doubt most finished the competition already planning to return in 2010, because the Seniors is one contest where it’s OK to be another year older.

E-mail the author at mrtwombly@gmail.com.

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