Get High, Go Fast, Stay High

Every competition pilot has his own theories as to how to go fast. There’s the fellow who never turns, meandering along at cloudbase going 45-60 knots. Then there’s the pilot who bombs along at MC speed, down to 800ft AGL, picks up an 8 knot thermal and proceeds to charge away toward the next turnpoint. And there’s the middle-of-the-roader, who likes to back off his MC for the “long glide” while meandering in good air while searching for that stronger than average thermal.

Yet all three of them make it to the turnpoint at the same time. And when they get back home and drink their beer, each will insist that their technique is the best.

The truth is that there is a wide range of optimization strategies and sometimes they all work! Sometimes certain situations, sites, and weather favors one approach over another. Ideally, a well-rounded pilot would understand the range of options available to them and choose the best strategy for that moment.

There are many variables which affect this optimization. The most significant ones include thermal strength, headwind component, thermal quantity and reliability, the resulting paths and their associated deviations from course line, and finally the difficulty of centering the lift.

I find that these variables output to two general strategies for me: float and try not to turn, or drop the nose and fly MC speed to the next climb.

For example, if you’re flying MC 3 in a LS4 under a little cloudstreet, maintaining altitude at 45-60 knots, you will probably do better than flying 75 knots and bombing along to the next thermal.

MC 3 achieves 60 mph around a course (not correcting for wind). In this example, you’re probably achieving 60 mph, all the while staying at cloudbase.

Obviously, the optimization is not quite that black and white because there is also a middle ground where you say fly 65-70 knots, while allowing yourself to sink lower in the band, all while in good air. But, often times the good air band drops off once you are 500-1000ft below cloudbase. And the second, more important point is that there is a tangible benefit to being higher. Maintaining the same speed achieved while at cloudbase is better because you retain more options along the way.

This allows you to minimize your strategic risk, all while allowing others to find your next thermal and make mistakes.

Over the long run, any tools that you use to minimize your risk exposure at little or no expense to your efficiency is a win.

This is a critical and under-emphasized element to speed-to-fly optimization.

Once you get to the end of the cloudstreet and the good air goes away, the interval has ended. Sure, you achieved 60 mph without turning, but the situation has now changed. If you keep flying at 55-60 knots in the dead/sinking air outside of the street, you are no longer achieving 60 mph for the next interval, so you should change your strategy!

At this point, I find it’s best to go to straight MC speed. Not this business of floating along and “under-flying” the speed to increase your range. When the air is neutral or bad, simply charge off to the next thermal. There’s efficiency to be gained by simply flying MC.

When encountering the next thermal, we often ask ourselves how strong we expect the climb to be? Another critical question is how hard will it be to center? If the thermal is only “average”, but you can center it without cost, it is completely worth it and often better than that pesky and uncertain strong gust which may lead to a stronger thermal after suffering several turns to find it.

If you can be higher at little or no cost, you are winning over the long run.


For me, this sums up my general approach to optimization, which leads to a very different set of assumptions than what most pilots emphasize. I don’t pay much attention to my circling percentage over a task; instead I focus on speed achieved at each interval, while trying to maintain as much altitude as practicable doing so.

Taking these sets of assumptions means I want to thermal fairly often to stay high, while trying to minimize the energy lost doing so. So instead, I fly fast between the thermals, because there is efficiency to be gained by flying MC instead of flying slower. I never pass up an average or better thermal if it is easy to center. By thermalling frequently, I stay in the top 1/2 or 1/3 of the lift band, which minimizes my strategic risk.

By flying MC in the top part of the band, you also offer up room to take the stronger than average thermals when you DO find them. If all you do is float along slowly to increase your range and then stumble into that 6 knotter, all you can do is just pull up and then keep going. But if you allow yourself to drop down a bit between the thermals, then you will have that 1000ft to climb to take advantage of the strong climb.

The net effect is that my circling percentages are often in the low 30s for a given day, with an average IAS 10 knots faster than others, all the while my altitude trace keeps me in a higher band. And my speed achieved is in the same ballpark as the others, with lower risk at most intervals over the task.

I find that this strategy is easier to convey to beginners. Beginners don’t like to get low and they tend to thermal too often. Well instead of telling them to completely change their style, I tell them fly MC speed (often 15-20 knots faster than they fly by default), learn to estimate thermal strength, and get really *good* at centering.

If at any interval you can minimize your risk at little or no cost to your efficiency, take advantage of that opportunity! Get high stay high!

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