It’s been a heck of a year. We have seen our lives upended in ways we couldn’t have even imagined. In the midst of all this, any illusion of a future we envisioned for ourselves collapsed in the face of overwhelming uncertainty. We took a moment to reexamine our priorities as the day to day busyness of our lives turned into silence. Writing this, I am amazed to be here at all, in Montlucon France, on the eve of a World Glider Championship. It seems to be an illusion of relative normalcy while at the same time feeling somewhat peculiarly off. Like the initial feeling of confusion when you’re vividly dreaming, before you realize that you’re in fact in a dream. And then, the following feeling of delight when you grasp that you can let go of your grip in your confused reality and embrace the fleeting moment of freedom in your dream world.
I’ve been very lucky during these difficult times. I thankfully did not lose any family and friends to COVID. Personally, I have been greatly fortunate to be in a Ph.D program, which successfully retooled to conducting research remotely. If anything, I have had so many projects recently that I have had hardly enough time to remember to breathe! Leading into the competition, I was working days and nights to get everything squared away with hardly enough mental bandwidth to get packed and prepped for a glider contest. This was followed by a long journey from Philadelphia, New York, Paris, Le Mans, Zurich, and finally to Montlucon, lasting a full exhausting four days, employing all sorts of trains, planes, and automobiles.
A key character in helping coordinate these logistics was Alain Daumas, a fellow Aero Club Albatross club member who lent me his car and a place to stay on my first night in France. He even arranged for his friendly neighbors to invite me for dinner, feeding me a full course meal of oysters, crabs, steak, shrimp, and a variety of vegetables and cheeses. None of them spoke more than a few words of English, and I certainly was unable to speak French, which made the evening all the more entertaining. Later we used Google Translate on a phone, which worked splendidly. They asked me what I thought of Biden and Trump and I in turn asked them about Macron!
It turned out that the host, Claude, was a recently retired masterclass butcher. He invited me over to the neighboring billiard room to reveal all the medals and food trophies he won and a mural on the wall of his former butcher shop in the middle of the town. His face beamed with such well-deserved pride and dignity of an expert having spent a lifetime to become the master of their craft. It was such a delight to spend an evening with such wonderful folks!
The following two days consisted of a long journey to get the rented ASW-20a owned by Ross Drake in Switzerland to Montlucon, the site of the competition. The 15 hours of driving were complicated by my lack of a working phone, which I thought would be easily resolved by simply finding a SIM card at the airport or in a town. Beyond communication, getting my phone working was necessary to get Google Maps set up for the journey! It turned out this was not as easy as it used to be in the past years, and I was delayed some time finding a SIM card. As I crossed the border into Switzerland, it stopped working again and I repeated the process in the evening, in a large mall not far from Zurich.
After locating another SIM card in the mall, my excitement was not over yet. When I came back to the car and proceeded to drive toward the exit of the mall, I realized I had lost my parking ticket. The parking lot was completely empty for the mall had closed and I was stranded in this massive underground cavern, with no way out! After 20 minutes of frantic searching, walking to the payment machine, and back to the boom gate, and back to the car, I realized that there was an info button on the kiosk near the boom gate and pressed it. Thankfully a friendly Swiss lady answered and I words gushed out of mouth as I explained to her my predicament. She didn’t speak much English, but hearing the my fretting voice, she opened the gate and it simply stayed open. With that signal, I sprinted back to the car and drove out of there as quickly as I could!
Later that evening, I met with Ross Drake, who rented me his wonderful ASW20a. This glider is absolutely gorgeous, perfectly prepped and ready to go. He just got it out of his shop after a laborious refit, resealing, and polish. The glider hadn’t even flown this year! He gave me the rundown of the ship and the trailer, wished me good luck in his friendly New Zealand way and left me with the parting words of wisdom, “Fly it like you stole it!” And as if to reiterate the point, he noted that there was a sticker on the middle of the panel to remind me of this advice on a daily basis.
In the next days, I arrived in Montlucon and spent the time prepping for the contest. All of the US Team were already present and upon arriving I was greeted by all of their grinning faces. Colin Meade, our team captain was glad that I arrived safely and was relieved that all of his cats were in at least some semblance of a herd. JP Stewart, my now four time teammate gave me a bear hug. I cannot tell you how excited I am to fly with JP. We have known each other since we were 15 and have flown in many contests as teammates. When we are flying, I can look at the sky in front of me and know almost exactly what JP is thinking. Every time I look over my shoulder, he is always there, right off my wingtip. There is nothing more comforting than knowing for the next two weeks I will be sharing the sky with my good friend and long time teammate.
At this time I also met Donat-Pierre Luigi, my crew for this contest. He is a very interesting fellow, a Frenchman who spent 20 years in America, doing work related to biophysics and quantum computing. He recently started soaring actively after flying extensively in Condor. We spent the following couple days mastering the rig and working out the squawks in the ASW20.
The glider is working out very well. Other than some of the avionics requiring some tweaking, which were promptly addressed after my first flight, the aircraft is a total sweetheart. I can see why these gliders are as loved as they are! The ship thermalled beautifully with its generous flaps and climbed very well. The Maughmer winglets made the stall characteristics very benign, with no tendency to drop a wing at slow speeds. The 20 absolutely GOES on the cruise, with the negative flaps giving it excellent glide performance. It took no time at all to dial into this glider and I am very excited to fly it.
Unfortunately, on the same practice day my teammate Tom Holloran had a midair collision. Thankfully both pilots are fine and landed safely. Tom had minor damage on his wingtip trailing edge and a big paint mark on the underside of the wing. The other glider literally “traded paint” with Tom. Aside from a very scary big “bang” in flight, Tom was fine and his glider is flyable for the competition. The other glider hit Tom with his horizontal stabilizer and was extremely lucky that it did not come off both at the collision and in the time when he had landed. This was a very rude introduction to WGC flying for me. In my three Junior WGCs and all of my flying in US National and Regional competitions, I have never seen anything like that before. I hope that this is the only such incident during this meet.
I took the next day off. After completing scrutineering, the mandatory competition inspection, and addressing a couple final squawks in the avionics system, I came back to Montlucon early and rested. The day was beautiful for a walk and I enjoyed the medieval city. Presiding over the city is a castle and chateau of the old House of Bourbon. These dukes later went to rule a large part of Europe, having climbed up the aristocracy out of their humble beginnings in this region. The castle was notable as is now a museum of pop music in Montlucon. This felt somewhat incongruent in the majestic walls of this military fort, hearing disco music played on a continuous loop. Europeans can be a strange bunch indeed!
Today JP and I, along with Donat and JP’s crew Jacob, scouted out fields along the five km finish cylinder. The fields in Montlucon aren’t that great and having landing options thought through is very important for safe finishes. We scouted 30-40 fields for the team from every quadrant in the finish cylinder and are satisfied that we have good landing options thought through for the competition ahead.
The big event today was the opening ceremony, which precedes the official opening of the contest. As the teams marshaled together in the middle of the city, among the noteworthy things for me was getting to interact with the Ukrainian team, my first time at a world gliding event. My family is from the Ukraine, so I got to speak with them in Russian and learn about their glider clubs. Later, all of the 23 teams attending the contest assembled in front of the town hall, wearing our team uniforms and holding our team flags as the local dignitaries gleefully addressed the pilots and crews, noting how the competition is such a huge event for the town. We were all excited to see the FAI flag unfurl, signaling the beginning of the competition.
And now, in a moment of self-reflection, I pause to take in this unlikely moment. It is hard to believe that I am saying this, but tomorrow I will fly my first day at a World Gliding Championship. After the joy of being selected, to see the world then fall apart, the competition postponed and for a while on the precipice of being canceled, and through all the trials and tribulations of simply getting here, tomorrow I will fly at a World Gliding Championship. After over 1700 hours of soaring and 16 years of being involved in this sport in one way or another, tomorrow, I will represent the United States of America at a World Gliding Championship.
Thanks to my friends at Aero Club Albatross, who have given me all resources, mentoring, and opportunities to grow as a recently aged-out junior pilot. Thanks to the many people who support me and the US Team to make flying at a WGC possible.