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XC Tactics for pilots new to competition

Hang gliding competitions are a great environment to learn and improve your flying skills.  If you are a new pilot coming to your first competition it can be daunting.  All of a sudden you are in the mix with a lot more pilots than you have ever seen in one place before.  You may worry that you don't have the skills to compete or will be getting in the way of others when in the air.  Don't be concerned.  Hang glider pilots are generally very accepting and helpful toward new pilots.

We are all very different people with different levels of comfort with risk.  while I am not suggesting that risk taking is synonymous with hang gliding, it would seem that some top level pilots are doing things in the air that I would consider too risky for me.  It is very probable that this is due to their greater flying competancy & currency and not risk taking behavior.  The point that I am trying to make is that if it feels like a risk to you, don't do it.  If you are scared while you are flying then you are not enjoying yourself, this will not help with your skills progression.  Don't ever be trying to fly beyond your current abilities.  Learning new skills takes time & practice.  If you are flying a competition task and it feels 'risky', then you can alway backtrack to the 'fun zone' and either continue flying, or land.  There will always be another flying opportunity tomorrow.

This article contains some tips & have learnt or read myself over my 25+ years of flying and 'competing'.  It is not intended to be a complete guide to cross country flying.  Just an entry level primer to give newer pilots some things to focus on to extend their abilities.  For those newer pilots at a competition you should not be trying to 'compete' or be trying to fly fast.  Initially you should focus on learning how to navigate a task, read the sky and the ground, be safe and try to stay in the air long enough to get to goal.  If you can do this every day then you are well on your way to the podium at the end of the competition.  You may pick & choose what you want from this article, different things work for different people.  The main thing to remember is that you don't have to work it all out for yourself.  There is an abundance of pilots out there who will share their knowledge and experience if you ask them.

If this is your first competition, one of the first problems you may need to overcome is leaving the comfort & security of the hill.   To be able to compete at an XC competition you must be prepared to 'land-out'.  This means you have to have a handle on things such as:

  • Indicators of the ground wind speed & direction:  wind lines on dams, trees bending in the breeze, smoke & raised dust, glider drift when circling.
  • Terrain slope direction.  Mountains are easy, valleys usually slope down toward rivers, creeks & dams.  Solid white dividing lines on straight roads can indicate a crest.
  • Location of power lines.  These can be invisible until it's too late.  Look for lines of power poles leading to any house, shed, pump shed, tank or dam. Poles can be hidden in trees, in cultivated paddocks you can usually see the poles surrounded by small islands of ground cover/weeds.  Also expect every road to have power lines running parallel. 
  • Location of fences.  These also can be invisible until you are on final.  Suspect that any abrupt change in paddock colour is a fence.
  • Which paddocks have crop in them.  Please don't land in crops.  If the paddock is uniformly green or golden with no harvester wheel tracks in it.  Then it is in crop.
  • Which paddocks have stock in them.  Avoid landing anywhere near horses.  Be wary landing in a paddock with only a few 'cows', it's probably the bull paddock.  If landing with cows or sheep, maintain plenty of seperation to avoid startling them.  We don't want them injured or running through fences.  If possible pick another paddock.
  • Whenever flying XC, every few minutes scan the ground ahead on course to always have more than one landing option.  Also be looking for thermal sources so you wont need to land.

There is a gread video presentation by Vic Hare & Jon Durand that is well worth watching here: Vic & Jonny on starting out XC flying

If you are comfortable in leaving the familiarity of the launch hill and the bombout then now you can focus on some tactics to extend your flight.

A successful flying task starts way before you launch off the hill.  Remember the 5P's - Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.  There are many things that can be done to prepare you for the days flying.  Some are obvious, some are not obvious.

  • Know your flight instruments.  Learn (on the ground) how to operate your vario/gps so that it is easy to use in the air.  Distractions lead to poor decision making and poor flying.  Don't be that pilot flying blindly in the gaggle because you are focused on your navigation display.
  • The night before make sure instruments and radio are charged and working correctly.  Make sure your team has access to backup gear or batteries on launch.
  • Look after your nutrition & hydration.  Both are required for good brain function & the physical exertion that will be required.  Keep drinking water throughout the morning and have an easy to use in-flight drinking system.  If drinking makes you pee, learn how to do this while flying.  This is a game changer for longer flights.
  • Get up to launch with plenty of time to spare so you can be completely set-up & relaxed by the time the task briefing is called.  If you are late and rushed you may forget/skip parts of your normal setup procedure.  This can lead to apprehension, agitation, or distraction that may see you land-out early.
  • Pay attention at the morning weather briefing and task breifing.  Make sure your navigation instruments have the task correctly programmed.  Get help if you need it but even better learn and practice before you get to the competition.  Have a look at the task on a map and come up with a plan of how you can use the terrain to your advantage while flying - discuss this with more experienced pilots if you like.  Another idea is to write the task with a diagram on some tape stuck to your basebar.  This can be useful if your navigation instrument is less than helpful at turnpoints.  Or if you are flying without navigation instruments (you will still need to record a tracklog somehow for scoring).
  • Watch the sky during and after setting up your glider.  If it is looking soarable (birds are soaring or wind dummies are staying up), then launch early if the competition rules allow it.  Launching early gives you the opportunity to fly with the better pilots.  They will all catch-up and pass you at some point.  If you watch them you will see where the lift ahead may be.  Launching early also gives you the opportunity at a second try if you bomb-out.  Also acknowledge that it will probably take you longer to fly the task than others so you will need more time in the air.  Going later in your ordered launch position (based on pilot ranking) means more time waiting in the launch queue (and the heat).

So now you are well prepared mentally & physically.  You have total confidence in all of your equipment and you have a plan as to how you will fly the task.  You have made it to the front of the launch queue.  You have been watching the launches ahead of you and are full of confidence because you have seen several gliders out in front circling-up.

  • Stay relaxed on launch, integrate any advice from the launch marshal.  The launch marshal is not there as an instructor, but you can certainly expect help holding you glider down in rowdy conditions and guidance on when a good launch cycle is approaching.  Try to not lift your glider off the ground until you and the conditions are ready for launch.  It's too stressful standing & holding your glider up in the wind.  When you think you are ready pick up your glider and try to level the wings.  If you can't get it settled and ready to launch in 5 seconds set it down again and wait.
  • When launching remember how your instructor taught you.  Smooth acceleration building to an excess of speed.  Maintain proper pitch control and get the glider flying fast enough before it has to carry your weight off  the launch.
  • Once you have launched, get as high as you can before leaving the start circle.  You want to start your race with a full tank of fuel.  Don't be concerned with start gate times unless you are able to make goal consistently.  Speed on course means nothing if you don't get to goal.
  • Being fast is not aways about flying fast.  This is particulary true with lower perfomance gliders.  Gliders become increasingly less efficient as you accelerate past 'best glide' speed.  All non-lifting surfaces (top rigging, bottom rigging, control frame and pilot) create parasitic drag which increases at a rate preportional to the square of your velocity. 

profile vs induced drag

Best glide speed for your glider is the region where parasitic drag and induced drag are equal giving the lowest value of total drag. 
You can see from the graph that floater gliders should be flying at best glide all the time unless slowing down in lift, or speeding up to dive into goal, or a nearby thermal.  Other reasons for flying fast include safety ie: descending through wind gradient to land.
  • Being fast means flying efficiently:
    • While you are thermalling be constantly scanning the sky and ground. 
      • In the sky keep a lookout for other gliders that are a collision hazard; other gliders or birds that are climbing better than you; what is happening to the clouds ahead on course, are they building or decaying?
      • On the ground be looking for landing options ahead on course, always have several;  look for ground/terrain based thermal sources; look ahead to identify the turnpoint you are flying toward.
    • My first rule for flying fast is don't  do anything that is outside your comfort zone.  You flying for fun, and to learn.  It's OK  to land if you're  not 'in the zone'.  Also If implementing any of the ideas below might put you on the ground then choose a different alternative.
    • Leave your thermal when the lift drops off below what you expect to be the initial climb rate of your next thermal.  Keep a 'mental model' of the average thermals you have encountered that day.  Be aware that if lift drops-off at a lower than expected altitude then you may need to search for it again.
    • Leave your thermal when you get to the top.  Some thermals are continuous for most of the day, some go in cycles/bubbles.  It is possible to climb in a thermal up to the rising bubble at the top.  Once you hit the top generally the lift will slow down and the air gets lumpy.  The thermal may try to push you out horizontally.  Time to leave if you are racing, or stay until you get to 'base if you want to play it slow.
    • Leave your thermal before you get to cloudbase.  Once you are at cloudbase you risk getting 'sucked-in' and 'whiting out'.  This can be extremely dangerous! Don't do this!  Also once near cloudbase you can loose definition of individual clouds ahead on course (from your angle it looks like the entire sky is one cloud).  This makes selection of the next cloud you want to fly to harder.
    • When gliding between thermals fly at best glide speed.  In a floater glider don't pull on too much speed as the drag/sink penalty is not worth it.  The only time for excessive speed is when there are thermalling birds/gliders (that are climbing better than you) ahead within your gliders range and you have the height to get there quickly.  Other uses for fast flying are when gliding for goal and you find youself embarassingly high, or if you need to traverse/escape a venturi wind effect in mountains.
    • Be aware that 'lift lines' can sometimes exist parallell to the prevailing wind.  Know what your gliders sink rate is and set you sink alarm accordingly.  If you are gliding in sinking air then try turning across the prevailing wind until sink decreases to normal before resuming your turnpoint heading.  You may even encounter lifting air that you can glide through strait into your next thermal.  If your task heading is less than 30deg off the prevailing wind direction, it may be more efficient to fly lift lines and zig-zag your way toward the turnpoint.  Always gliding to stay upwind of the turnpoint.  You don't want to find yourself past the turnpoint (but not yet in the 400m radius) and having to fly headwind back to it.
  • While you are gliding toward a turnpoint aquaint yourself with the direction of the following turnpoint and which way you need to turn.  Before you get to the turnpoint have some landing paddocks picked out for the next task leg.  Then get a plan of action so you don't waste height after tagging the turnpoint.  Look for any gliders thermalling nearby,  Are there any promising looking clouds growing nearby or reliable ground thermal triggers?  Do you have the height to tag the turnpoint first and the join the thermal or do you need to top-up first?  Know beforehand where you are going as soon as you have tagged the turnpoint.

How many turnpoints you have to navigate will depend on the class of glider you are flying and the conditions on the day.  Floater class will usually have it's own shorter task. Sport class will probably be flying the same task as the Open class.  The number of turnpoints doesn't matter.  Just fly one leg at a time, always be looking ahead  for gliders, birds, dust, smoke, ground thermal souces.  Use all of the data available to you to plan your route, but don't be in a rush.  At 'beginner' level it's more important that you have an enjoyable, safe flight and maximise your time spent flying.  Flying conservatively and staying in the air is going to teach you more than flying fast and landing 2km outside the start circle.

The trick is to have a plan, don't just bumble along making it up as you go.  Have a plan and make decisions based on what you see and learn on each task.  Some of those decisions, may turn out to be wrong, this is OK.  In flight you are subconsciously making several decisions per minute.  It usually takes several wrong decisions to put you on the ground.  The more you can plan ahead and have options, the better decisions you will be able to make.  Learning what works and integrating this data into future decisions is the goal.

After your flight each day rehydrate & refuel you body to be ready for tomorrow.   Charge-up your radio & instruments if needed.  You can also review the days flying using flight evaluation software.  You can see what other pilots did in their flights that may have worked better than what you did.