Many accidents in soaring are while flying cross country, particularly during landouts. Most landout related accidents have little to do with unexpected occurrences in a good field. Instead, they have more to do with the situational awareness, judgment, and decision making of choosing an appropriate field at the right time and selecting the right time to quit soaring and land.
Most pilots get injured or killed in the stall/spin during low thermalling, or a poorly planned approach into the field. Or, neglecting the field selection process until it’s too late and the nearest field is unsuitable due to obstacles, slope, or wires.
I’d like to focus on low thermalling and approach planning. What is extremely disconcerting is that pilots do dangerous things near fields. Dangerous is a relative term; what is unsafe for one pilot is “safe” for someone else with more skill, experience, and practice.
However, what is scary is that pilots who are generally “conservative” near their home airport under the close eye of their fellow club members will often take “chances” while flying cross country.
An explanation for this behavior is that it is an example of loss aversion. Pilots confuse being risk-averse/conservative with simply finding losses being painful. Rather than being conservative with respect to landouts, they simply really really don’t want them to happen due to their inconvenience or feeling embarrassed. And if they find themselves getting lower near a field, they will be MORE tempted to take chances to avoid landing out!
If a pilot is conservative, they will select a good field EARLIER and quit at a HIGHER altitude, rather than taking chances near fields! Instead, a loss averse pilot accepts safety risks to minimize their likelihood of accepting a loss.
To stem this behavior, I suggest developing a toolbox of skills and margins. Think of this like an athlete. You practice at your home court, your gym, your own pool or your personal track. And when you go to a meet, now you put your skills to the test.
Just like you shouldn’t try out a novel swimming technique while competing against other swimmers, you shouldn’t be experimenting with anything you haven’t practiced before while flying cross country. Especially as it relates to safety!!!
The toolbox MUST be built up in controlled conditions. The idea here is that abbreviated patterns, landing techniques, low thermalling, ridge soaring, final glide planning, or anything else should be thought through and practiced beforehand. Here are the steps to building your toolbox:
Think Through the Theory
Especially as it relates to safety skills, there’s a lot of disagreement over what constitutes reasonable judgment and decision making. For the purposes of this discussion, I will discuss choosing margins related to low thermalling, although you can apply this process to all safety related skills.
If you go on RAS, some people will tell you that thermalling below 1000ft AGL is absolutely insane and you should be thrown out of a glider club should you attempt it. Others will tell you that thermalling at 200ft AGL is perfectly A-OK and no one has any business telling them otherwise.
I doubt that there is any sport that has a 500 percent disagreement over what is reasonable and safe!
I have my own thoughts about these margins, but my objective here is not to proselytize. Instead, you should think long and hard about your goals. The closer you get to the edge, the narrower your margins for error and the greater your risk. Come up with a set of approximate numbers and consider the various contexts that you might apply them.
Note that your margins should be built around less than ideal circumstances. In the case of low thermalling, assume that you will be hot, tired, dehydrated, distracted, on the last day of a competition while in contention for placing well, on a somewhat windy day, near a less than ideal landing option.
Don’t assume you will be 100 percent on your game! Give yourself some room for error.
Consult a Respected Mentor
After you have come up with your limits, discuss them with a pilot you trust. They will provide you feedback and give you a sense if you are in the ballpark given your experience level.
One word of caution is to be careful to whom you gravitate towards. If you look at people in a positive light, the spectrum goes from pilots who are more focused on the sporting side of soaring while others are on the recreational side. The alternate perspective is the spectrum goes from “crazy” to “safety conscious”.
The truth is usually more complicated, but the point is to be careful seeking out affirmation of more aggressive minimums from a pilot that has a reputation for being “crazy”. Regardless of your feelings toward your mentor, you should expect opprobrium from a good portion of your flying club should you apply aggressive minimums if you are a beginner.
Practice in Condor
Once you decide what is reasonable and appropriate, practice these skills in Condor. Put yourself in many different situations and see how your margins play out. Practice thermalling low near airports, fields, in windy and turbulent conditions, etc.
Practice breaking your margins. See what happens when you get a little too far away from your field. What happens when you thermal a bit lower than your minimums? What happens when you thermal too slow and enter a single full spin?
Are your margins robust to failure, or do they require perfection from you to work?
The point is to practice every kind of failure you can think of in the simulator before you attempt it in real life.
Build Your Margins Locally
As you soar in gliding distance of your airport, practice your thermalling techniques and slowly build up your margins. Suppose you decide that your thermal minimums are 800ft AGL. On a non-busy, calm day, maybe take that turn in that thermal near the airport.
Practice your techniques in the real world. These margins now form your toolbox for cross country flying.
Applying Your Margins Cross Country
Approach flying cross country like you are performing at an athletic meet. NEVER do anything that you hadn’t practiced before. When you find yourself in a tricky situation, open up your toolbox and responsibly apply your skills/margins.
If the lowest you are comfortable thermalling near the airport is 800ft AGL, then you should NOT thermal lower than that altitude near a field!
If you are uncomfortable making non-standard patterns at your home airport, you should NOT do anything less than a full pattern into a field!
If you are uncomfortable arriving lower than 1500ft AGL at MC 4 to your home airport on a final glide, you should NOT arrive at an unfamiliar airport with any less margin!
If you are uncomfortable flying a weak ridge locally, you should NOT attempt a save on a weak ridge far away from home!
In summary, think through the skills you wish to develop, and practice them in controlled circumstances. Develop your toolbox. Practice, practice, and practice some more!
Note that these margins are elastic and depend on your proficiency. Just because you were comfortable doing something once, doesn’t mean that you can be comfortable doing it in the earlier part of a soaring season. Or ten years later after taking a hiatus from soaring. You must consistently assess and reassess your margins.
Think of cross country flying as going to an athletic meet. You are now performing, not practicing! And when you perform, don’t do anything you haven’t practiced before!
I believe if soaring pilots apply this approach to their soaring, they will be a lot safer.