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Home Stories So You Want To Fly Contests

So You Want to Fly Contests

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 By John Seaborn

There are many reasons glider pilots consider contest flying. For some its the call of competition or the pleasure of flying with friends and for others its the next logical step in their soaring experience. I can guarantee that contest flying is one of the most exciting and challenging experiences possible. It is often said that you will learn more about soaring in your first glider contest than in five years of solo cross country flying. Nothing else will build your soaring skills faster or open your eyes wider than flying your first contest. The competitive challenge and adventure brings the veterans back again and again. 
Lets talk about you for a moment. Do you have some cross country experience? Are a decent thermal climber with a silver badge and a couple of off field landings under your belt? Have you read the accounts of contest flying in Soaring? Are you tired of listened to your fellow SSB members jaw bone about contest flying and think you might like to experience a contest for yourself?

If the answers are yes then here is the place to start

Although it sounds counter intuitive, the best way to start flying contests is to crew at a contest. This time honored right of passage has been down played in recent years but the most valuable lessons you can learn as a prospective contest pilot are taught crewing for an experienced contest flyer. As crew you can build your contest knowledge by learning all about the workings of the contest environment with none of the flying responsibilities. Besides after crewing, flying the contest will seem easy! If you would like to crew just ask around. There are many SSB members who will worship your help for next season. 

So lets say you have done all of the above (or plan to) and want to experience the incredible thrill of competitive soaring. Start by identifying which of next summers contests are suited for your skill level. Since it will be your first contest, a Regional meet held in an area with a reputation for strong weather and hospitable landing options is an excellent choice. Littlefield and Hobbs are two relatively local sites which fit this description well. If you do not know the sites reputation, ask a fellow SSB member who has flown the site for a run down.

Soaring magazine has a section devoted to contest schedules for the upcoming season. The Internet has made identifying the dates for the various contests especially easy. Go to the SSA web site (, select the calendar of events and page through the months until you see a date and location that works for you. Most dates on the SSA calendar have a link directly to the organizers web page so you can read all about the site, the organization and download the entry forms. Neat!

A word about Regionals. The United States is divided up into twelve regions. Each of these regions hosts a contest during the year and some regions host split events depending on interest. Next year, for example, there will be a Region 9 contest in Hobbs, New Mexico and a Region 9 West in Turf Arizona. The Regionals are normally relatively low key events attracting most of the racing pilots in the area. You do not have to live in the Region to fly these contests. The practical purpose of these meets are to introduce new pilots to racing and determine the regions champions. The wonderful thing about the Regionals is there are several classes all flying from the same airport. Most Regionals have an Open, 15-Meter, Standard and Sports class. Consider these classes separate contests as they have their own tasks, are scored separately, and have there very own champion at the end of the meet. The Sports class is handicapped so almost any sailplane is competitive in this class.

My strong suggestion is to round up a crew before putting the event down in pen on the calendar. When you fly your first several contests you will need a second person to help with all the big and small challenges that come up. A friendly and fun loving crew is a huge asset and should be a near mandatory part of your first several contests. Not having a crew tends to make you fly to conservatively and can be a safety concern as no one is responsible for seeing you back on the field at the end of the day except your valiant crew. Also when selecting your first few contests, it's a good idea to ask around to see which SSB members are planning to fly the same event. Having friendly faces at the meet who can answer questions and help out is always valuable. Plus you have a built in group to help defray the cost for those all important post flight Margaritas and extra ears for the mandatory flight debrief. 

Once you have identified the Regionals location and time that works for you and your crew its time to start getting ready. This will be the subject of next months article.

Part 2 of 5 By John Seaborn

Last month I talked about the steps you should consider taking if you want
to fly contests, how to go about identifying which contest would be right
for your skill level and the importance of drafting a crew for your fist
several contests.

This time we will discuss getting ready to fly your first contest. My main advise is to start this process as early as possible. First, go to the organizers Web site or otherwise contact the organizers and request a pilot entry kit. Some organizers have all this information online. This kit should have an entry form and several other gems of local information including a list of accommodations. You should fill out the entry form and mail it back with a deposit check and copies of the following items. 1. Glider insurance conformation 2. Certificate for highest SSA Badge held  3. SSA Membership Card   4. FAA Pilots License. Make copies of everything (including your check) sent in with your entry form and put these copies in your flight bag in case the organizers loose your documents. Its happened! By making copies of all the paper work now and sending them along with your entry form you eliminate the last minute paperwork rush at the site. A big plus.

Be sure to get your entry in as soon as possible. In the US we have what is referred to as a seeding list. The purpose of this list is to rank all the competition pilots in the USA and use this relative ranking to determine which pilots can compete in contest which are over subscribed. Regionals rarely have to many contestants but as a new contest pilot your seeding is zero so its a great idea to get your entry in early just in case. The seeding list is available on the SSA web site.

Be sure to choose the class that is right for you. The Sports Class is handicapped but exclusively uses a Pilot Selected Task (PST). This task allows you to choose your Turnpoints while you fly. The winner is the pilot who has the best combination of speed and distance in the time allowed, typically around three hours. A plus for this task is that you can stay with the good weather as you pick your turnpoints on course. A negative is that some pilots complain the PST really does not feel like a race. All other classes fly a combination of PST and assigned tasks. In an assigned task the organizers choose the task and you fly it. Don't chose the Sports Class just because you think its the place to start. Multi time US National Champion Dick Johnson flies in the Sports Class.

Now is also the time to reserve your accommodations. If you do not know the lay of the land, ask a fellow SSB member who has flown the site for a recommendation to the best motel. Camping and RV parking are almost always available. For your first contest you should consider arriving at the contest site at least three days before the first contest day. This gives you time to become acclimated to the site and it's warmer weather. You will need to be very aware that the hot Texas or New Mexico days will cause you to dehydrate in as little as an hour so plan to drink copious amounts of liquid especially at first. Use your early arrival time to fly out and inspect turnpoints and landing options while generally getting comfortable with the environs. Most importantly being early allows you to identify the best Mexican restaurant in town.

Once you have sent in your entry form, copies of your documents and reserved accommodations for you and your crew its time to start considering the next steps in preparing for your early contest experiences. This will be next months topic.

Part 3 of 5 By John Seaborn

Last month I discussed registering for your first contest, what forms to send in and reserving your accommodations. This month we will talk about flying your first contest.

In my experience successful early contest flying depends on five somewhat interrelated factors. 1. Realistic Expectations  2. Preparation  3. Contest Knowledge  4. Flying Skills  5. Equipment. By the way, these items are in relative order of importance.

Setting realistic expectations for your first contest is absolutely key both for your enjoyment and safety. No one attending their first contest with the idea of winning the event comes away with a satisfying experience. I suggest that you define a successful contest as one in which you fly safely and do your personal best each day. Your standing on the score sheet should not be involved in this calculation for the fist several meets. You will learn more and have a much better time if unencumbered by the emotional pressure to score well. One of the untold secrets of successful competitive soaring at any level is this emotional freedom.

Preparation is one of the single most important contest enhancing things you can possibly do. If you are not prepared you cannot take on the new challenges posed by contest flying in a relaxed and knowledgeable way. Poor preparation blunts the enjoyment of competitive soaring as you struggle to solve self induced problems during the contest.  Good preparation allows you to concentrate on the flying and enjoy the learning experience.

By preparation I mean everything that you can do before arriving at the site to fly. Good preparation includes reading and understanding the rules, map preparation, equipment review, landout kit organization, trailer work, developing checklists and all the other details that need to be considered before showing up at the contest site. So how do you prepare? Easy! Aside from your early crewing experience the Internet is a tremendous resources
from which to draw. With a little reading and a little work you will be fully prepared for an enjoyable contest experience. Failure to be adequately prepared is the single biggest problem I see with competitive soaring pilots. Here are some URL's that will help.

The place to start is the SSA Web page ( This site has a host of contest related content. Read it all! The single best information I have seen for new contest pilots is available from the Sailplane Racing Association (SRA) ( and reproduced on the SSA site under the title SRA Guide to Competitive Soaring ( This document is an excellent primer for new competition pilots and a must read for pilots thinking about their first contest. The US contest rules are available on the SSA site ( Print them out, put them in a binder and read them three times. They seem complex but when it comes to the flying they are really quite simple. After you have done some homework ask an experienced SSB member to walk you through your remaining questions. Finally, if your ship does not have a contest number take a look at the contest number registration site ( to find out if the contest number you seek is available. For your first contest gray tape or large stick on numbers will work quite well. If your flying in Sports Class take a look at your gliders handicap factors at ( The SSA Web site even has a Contest Newsgroup so you can post your questions an get advise online. In addition to the SSA, ace contest pilot Bill Bartell has an excellent site ( that has a primer on starting to fly contests. Just click on "start racing".  My suggestion is to print out all the critical information and put it in a binder for reading. 

Next month we will discuss contest knowledge, flying skills and equipment.

Part 4 of 5 By John Seaborn

Last month we talked about the importance of establishing realistic expectations for your fist contests and role of preparation in maximizing your early contest experiences. This month we take on contest knowledge, flying skills and equipment.

By the term contest knowledge I mean the understanding of how contests work and what to expect. This is were crewing for an experienced pilot really pays dividends. If you have crewing experience you already know how the pilots meeting, the take off grid and start gate work. If you have not had the luxury of crewing you will need to read how contests are organized and run plus the various procedures used during the event. It is essential to
your enjoyment, confidence and safety to build your contest knowledge before you turn up the event. An hour or two with an experienced SSB member going over the various procedures is a big help as well. At first glance it seems daunting but in practice its simple.

Many non contest pilots think it takes the flying skill of George Moffat and the daring of a bull rider to be successful in contests. Nothing could be further from the truth! Ask your fellow SSB members flying their first contest last year. If you can thermal adequately, have some cross country experience, made a couple of off field landings and are flying the glider comfortably you can successfully enjoy your first contest. At a Regionals several pilots will be flying their first contests as well. Contrary to the impression - the contest world is quite welcoming of new pilots. This is especially true if the new pilots are reasonably well prepared. If you stand up at the first pilots meeting and ask for an explanation of how the finish gate works be prepared for a side bar chat with the Contest Director to sort
it out. Hey this has happened!

Finally lets talk about your equipment. Again the perception seems to be successful competition pilots need the latest and greatest equipment. At the top level top equipment is necessary but for regional flying this thinking is completely wrong. All that is required for success is that the equipment you have be in good working order. That worn trailer tire, while no problem at Boulder, can put you in a difficult position if it blows out 75 miles from Hobbs, and you don't have a spare or a lug wrench that fits. This is actual experience talking. Same with the crew car or your gliders batteries. The glider that has poor instrumentation or leaky water bags will cut your fun rating considerably during your first contest. In short, take a good look at all the equipment you will be relying on at the contest making sure it is in good working condition before heading out. With the popularity of the sports class, all the gliders are handicapped, practically any performance glider is competitive. A well flown ASW-19 will beat a poorly flown Ventus every time. Next month? Beginning contest strategy.

Part 5 of 5 By John Seaborn

Last time I talked about contest knowledge, flying skills and equipment. With this, the final installment of this series, I will address early contest strategy to maximize your success and peg the enjoyment meter. 

OK. You have set realistic expectations, done your preparation, developed your contest knowledge, honed your flying skills and checked over your equipment. Your ready! Here are some pointers about flying your first event.

For your first contest do not get to exercised about speed to fly theory, wing loading, start gate technique and all the other stuff you can read in the racing books. At this stage your definition of success should be bringing the glider safely home at the end of the day. The wonderful thing about competitive soaring is that you are completely free to choose the level at which you want to compete. My advise is to be very conservative while you are on the early steep part of the learning curve. The winners don't take chances and neither should you. Always play it safe until you build some experience.

Lets take a typical day at Hobbs and cover the main points after takeoff. One of the things that makes contest flying very different from flying around Boulder is the number of gliders in the air at the same time. This is a tremendous advantage as your comrades spot thermals for you. Unfortunately the word gaggle can strike fear in the harts of new contest pilots. Gaggles need to be respected but not feared. By staying alert, moving that head around and with a little experience gaggle flying can be quite enjoyable. If you start feeling uncomfortable go find your own thermal.

When it comes to starting I suggest that new competition pilots start early say within ten minutes of the opening of the start gate but only if there are good thermals around and the weather on course looks consistent. Going early allows you lots of time to complete the  task and maximizes your chances of flying with the fast tail numbers as they catch and pass you on course. Do not get to intent on making a perfect start. It is much more important to get out on course at the correct time than squeeze the last 100 feet out of the start.

On course it is important to make your own decisions and keep thinking ahead. Do not get mesmerized by trying to follow someone. They will most likely fly off and leave you at some point with no plan and no situational awareness. This is not to say that tagging along for the ride with a good tail number is not a good idea. Flying with top pilots is a real eye opener. Just don't fixate. Never allow a fellow competitor to sucker you into doing something outside your skill range just because they are doing it. Set your own personal criteria for safety and follow these criteria. Did I mention that looking and thinking ahead is the single most critical skill you need in contest flying?

If the weather deteriorates and you find yourself running out of altitude and ideas - an off field landing looks possible. Relax! This is way you choose a contest site with generally hospitable landing options. Like gaggles, off field landings are to be respected, not feared. Do not postpone your decision to land to long and once you have made that decision the game is over. In fact I say "game over" out loud in the cockpit when I make my landing decision and never try and thermal away after uttering these words. Once you make a landing decision never change your mind. Off field landing can be interesting as you chat with the locals and invent things to do while waiting for your crew. Its all part of the adventure.

If your day is successful you will work you way around the course to arrive at final glide. Today's GPS computers can lend a false sense of accuracy to this exciting event. I suggest that you plan to finish at over a thousand feet above the contest site the fist several times you shoot a final glide to the home field. If the day is strong you might make it even higher. This costs very little and believe me when I say from thirty miles out you will
not believe you can possibly make the airport even with this cushion. You don't really need a fancy glide computer as a simple "prayer wheel" and map preparation works as well. It always pays to pick and scout safe landing fields around the home field during the practice days just in case.

As you wing through the finish line remember not to relax until your safely on the ground. In fact you should have planned your landing five miles from the airport while inbound. If the traffic is clear take a few moments in the quite before unbuckling to savor all you experienced in the sky this day. This is your own personal victory and achievement. Only then you will understand the magic that brings racing pilots back again and again.

Last Updated on Saturday, 01 May 2010 08:26  


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