It has been a tough contest, with some of the most miserable and difficult weather I had ever flown in. We start the tasks at 800 meters AGL and fly in windy conditions in large gaggles with thermals that hardly exceed 1 m/s. We struggle through suppressed and dead areas, to dig out at 300 meters AGL as others land out around us. We hang on the gaggle as the sun glistens over our shoulders as we park in 0.3 m/s to get on a marginal final glide to the finish sector to finish with penalty points. Or in my case, to get dropped off the bottom and land in a field short. And on other days, nearly all land out as the day dies earlier than expected. In short, it has been tough and brutal flying.
Today was ground hog day; another weak, windy and tricky day. The difference was that the day was post-frontal and the wind was northwesterly. At least these kinds of days are in my wheelhouse from back home, with somewhat more reliable cumulus clouds.
I was the very first to launch today, in both my class and on the grid. The sky was already starting to overdevelop very early on, though after releasing I had no trouble climbing up to the meager cloudbase at 700 meters AGL. As folks launched, I tried to mosey my way over to the starting line and promptly started dropping out of the sky. As I headed back to the airport, with my tail between my legs, I radioed back to US Ground that I may need a relight if I fail to connect with a climb.
But there were several small gaggles on the way and as I rolled into the last one, I connected with a 1 m/s climb. And what do you know, JP was right there and we were easily connected together! With that, we climbed up and slowly picked our way up through the gaggle to get into starting position.
As we were climbing, we looked down and noticed that the launch had stopped. Colin told us that Standard and 15m were changing to their “B” tasks. With that, we had the joy of flying the longest task of the day (264km) into some of the trickier forecasted weather, with the lowest performing gliders. The whole class knew their fate was bleak, looking ahead at a nearly completely overcast sky. Nonetheless, we converged as a gaggle near the start line.
A little after 2:15pm, we finally got up to cloudbase, in a starting position. I egged JP to go on and we left with a fair portion of the gaggle behind us. We floated out into the ether, trying one little cloud and another. The goal today was to “Get Less Low, Don’t Land Out”. We plodded along the first leg, until about 10 km from the turn it looked horrific. We picked up a weak thermal and everyone and their mother started converging on it.
JP at this point got a bit higher than me and, for the first time perhaps ever, our personality roles had shifted. He was now stuck at 1000 meters and raring to leave and I remembered Noah when I responded, “No! Where’s the next climb?” After several more turns, the Poles left and JP went with them. I took several more turns and still left about 50 meters lower than him, along with several other gliders.
As we approached the turn, the usual bump and bustle in the air became glass smooth. This is not good. As we are getting closer, JP and I debate going back south from where we found lift before, or heading north toward a cu and favorable terrain, though close to the Avord airport airspace. The Poles and JP round the turn and headed back from where they came. CP, another ASW20 headed north. After several seconds of waffling, I made a split second decision to go with CP. Sure, I was boxing myself into a corner if it didn’t work, but I was also 50 meters lower than JP. We were both heading for a likely landout early into the task and it was time to go all in on the right gamble.
We found a weak thermal marked by one glider, over the edge of a little forest, about a 1/4 mile from the edge of the airspace. We slowly worked our way up and up, adjusting upwind, and drifting downwind in 0.5 m/s. It petered out after a while and CP left off into the distance. He had gained 100 meters on me throughout the climb (rascal!) so I was not eager to drive out with him. Instead, I went straight up the wind line toward a cloud near a highway intersection.
Down at 550 meters, I connected with weak lift and slowly drifted back. But then I felt bubbly air as the thermal cycled in. 1.5 m/s! And with that, I watched the ground drop away under my wing as I circled up, up, and away. At cloudbase at 1,300 meters, we were back in business. Further, the conditions on the north side of the task area cycled in as the thick clouds thinned just enough for enough sun to hit the ground. JP unfortunately was still stuck in the muck, slowly working his way up. At this point our days completely diverged.
After climbing up, I read Ross Drake’s decal on the cockpit, “Fly it like you stole it,” and kicked into high gear. The thermals were solid now, though I was making every effort to stay high and stay connected. I took every thermal, though few were marked by other gliders, for the gaggle had fallen behind. It was time to drive hard and make distance while it remained possible to do so.
After rounding the second turn, it got really solid. The climbs averaged 2 m/s and I was able to climb up to 1,450 meters or so over lower ground. Just keep the pressure on. There were three other gliders ahead that I would occasionally come across. Approaching the third turn at Vierzon, the day started falling apart again with a dark ominous overcast layer. A hard downshift, now it was time to get as high as possible to try to get in and out of the turn. 10km from the turn, I tanked up in 1 m/s and gingerly floated out. There was absolutely nothing from that point to the turn and back to the same thermal. Thankfully it still worked and now it was marked by a gaggle coming northbound trying to do the same thing. JP was with them, though somewhat lower. Unfortunately this spot was the end of the road for him today as he landed out underneath after the thermal gave out on him.
This climb only took me up to 850 meters and I rolled out, heading on a downwind track to some better looking clouds. However, despite the overcast, I found several 1-1.5 m/s climbs that I took for every ounce of lift. As I headed southbound, despite the lift being far apart, the air still felt solid to me. Another solid climb over the edge of a forest in a little sunny hole took me up to 1,200 meters or so and on the next glide I came across Thies (IV), the fellow I had been chasing for the better part of the last hour. He was parked in a zero climb, I took a turn with him and left. He left as well, though took a different path.
Looking ahead, there were a couple sunny patches on the ground. The clouds were a solid overcast, so the sky was no longer helpful. There were a couple burbly points, but no clear bubble to climb in. I got lower and lower, finally down to 650 meters. This last large sunny spot ahead was the final area to try; otherwise I was out of energy and ideas. With my field picked out, I floated on ahead and kabang! After a couple centering turns, I went from 300 meters above the ground to rocketing up and away in 2 m/s. The variometer screamed and the glide churned its way all the way up to cloudbase at 1,450 meters, for a 1 m/s final glide back home.
I cannot convey the absolute joy of this moment, knowing that I will make it home. I nursed the glider back and then took a couple turns in a weak 1 m/s thermal just to give a little margin on the glide to make sure I made the finish. Upon arriving at the finish and switching to the airport frequency, I realized that I was the only one at the airport. Not a single glider in my class, or in any other class had made it back yet. The airport was desolate, short of parked glider trailers, and one leaving out on the road.
Around ten minutes after I landed, Thies made it home as well, as the only other pilot to complete the task. Everyone else had come up short as the back door closed on them as the day died out.
Donat and I took the glider apart and I was very quickly on my way back home. Jen spent the afternoon in town, so I was eager to join her. We had a wonderful evening and had dinner in the medieval portion of the town. Say what you will about points, FAI rules, strategy, risk assessment, gaggles, weather, landouts, or whatever; I got to spend my evening with my love instead of standing in a field and coming home dirty, miserable, and exhausted at midnight. That would be more than enough on any day, let alone with the additional icing on the cake of winning this task.
Today was a very good day for the US Team. Aside from my good fortunes, Tim Taylor (VV) came in second for the day in a Ventus 2ax flying against JS3s and Diana 2s! Tilo Holighaus visited the airfield today and was happy to see his glider do so well today.
Thanks to my friends at Aero Club Albatross, who have given me all the 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.
See the daily scores here.