A Penny Wise and A Pound Foolish

Reading many of the essential soaring publications about tactics and technique, one gets the impression that the simple secret to success is to just fly faster. Reading Moffat’s book Winning on the Wind, he discusses how every little error is inefficient and how all of the errors compound make a big impact. He has a particularly interesting example comparing pilots of equal ability, Pilots A and B and how small differences in execution make a big difference in overall time spent on course. Reading Cochrane’s article A Little Faster Please, he makes a strong case of the value of optimizing thermal entry/exits and MacCready theory to achieve much better cross country performance. All of these soaring techniques and tactics are essential and a requirement to be successful soaring pilot. However, they are only one part of the story. In fact, lately I found that a lot of these suggestions are simply penny wise and pound foolish; the real optimization lies in the risk assessment and avoiding the really costly tactical errors. There is simply a lot more to soaring performance than trying to improve the performance of the glider or making fewer of the small errors.

Both in contest and distance flying, there are traps that will cause the pilot to get stuck for a long time or even land out. Recognizing these traps earlier and making the appropriate adjustments make a much bigger difference than all the small bits of optimization such as flying the exact proper speed or avoiding an extra circle or two at certain points. Or over-climbing in a weaker thermal. Or taking an extra climb where it was not necessary. To use Moffat’s example of Pilot B, he gets so wound up over flying perfectly that he ends up coming up short of the airport, or getting stuck in some valley for 30 minutes while Pilot A bumbles along to the finish. Pilot B failed to execute this somewhat abstract concept of “gear-shifting”.

What does “gear-shifting” mean exactly?

I define it as the moment that the prudent pilot should adjust his risk preferences. Should he be more risk seeking or risk averse? More simply stated, the pilot needs to decide at a given moment if the game is collecting the pennies or avoiding losing all the pounds.

How does one assess this?

This depends upon the objectives that the pilot defines for oneself. In a contest environment, the pilot must be quite risk-averse for most of the contest to avoid taking himself out of the running. Landing out, especially in the first 2/3rd of the competition is a near sure way of losing a lot of pounds. But the degree of risk aversion would depend upon the volatility in the conditions. If the conditions are quite reliable, then one would expect little volatility in the results, meaning that the game is about earning several pennies over the rest of the competition. However, if the conditions are quite varied and the performances of the pilots are quite inconsistent from day to day, the game is to simply avoid losing the pounds.

What does it mean to be risk averse?

This means flying in a manner that improves the odds of hitting lift, including sampling more air and flying with more gliders to improve the odds of contacting a thermal. When in a more desperate situation, this may require taking turns to sample air, taking weaker climbs and stopping for climbs more frequently. This feels very inefficient, but the guiding principle is to avoid the much bigger loss of getting stuck or landing out.

The game becomes about losing less and more gracefully than the rest of the competition, rather than winning.

All of this is very difficult to quantify because it is hard to train and define how to make this risk assessment. It is easy to say that making a glider fly two to three percent better has a certain quantitative result on the scoresheet. It is difficult to say when the pilot should become risk averse. But here some distinct traps:

1) Change in terrain/soil composition.

Anytime there is a change from one airmass or geological terrain feature to another, one must be wary of what will occur on the other side. Particularly if one is flying from rocky terrain into a wet valley, one must expect that the lift is likely to become much worse. The pilot must plan to climb prior to the transition.

2) Change in airmass

If the pilot is flying from clouds to blue, it is usually prudent to expect conditions to weaken ahead. If there is a convergence, the pilot must climb in the good air prior to going into the bad air.

3) Approaching a ridge transition

Many pilots will often drive toward the end of a ridge and then realize that it is time to climb. They end up stuck at the tip and (shuddering) end up going backwards on the ridge several miles to finally find their climb. It is much less costly to take a thermal or two early, once the bearing to the next ridge is 45 degrees or less.

4) Crossing into high ground/plateaus/mountains

Whenever there is a change in the boundary layer, the transition between the two layers tends to be somewhat tricky to push through, at least around in NJ/PA. It is often necessary to climb to the top of the lift band at least several miles before transitioning into the higher ground.

5) Less than half of the clouds are working.

See thermal risk assessment post. When less than half of the clouds are working, the probability of landing out goes up quite a lot.

6) Day is starting to decay

As the day starts to die, the lift band starts to collapse lower, while still working up high. It becomes necessary to be at the top of the boundary layer to still keep going. If the pilot drives in low, then he may end up finding smooth, dead air while a pilot up high is still finding lift.

7) Transitioning into wave

Transitioning into wave requires a lot of patience and work. If the pilot seeks to take advantage of it, the pilot must work to find the entry point that is stronger than the rest.

8) Shear layers

It is often difficult to recognize and deal with shear layers, particularly when trying to be efficient and avoid taking weaker climbs. The problem though is that the boundary layer will go considerably higher than the shear layer, which in turn means that the thermals will be that much further apart. Secondly, if there are clouds, the pilot will not be able to take advantage of the “cloud suck” up higher. If shear exists, it often pays to stay patient through the layer and climb through it rather than simply leaving.

Why is it so difficult to become risk averse?

Like most people, pilots are loss averse, affected by present bias and the possibility effect. We hate admitting that we make mistakes and taking an inefficient “tactical climb” is quite painful. It is difficult for us to admit in the very immediate now that we have to slow down and are always optimistic about the possibility of things getting better ahead. We’re constantly looking for that seven knot climb that will get us out of trouble.

Most of the scenarios I noted above are transition points. Even if the pilot recognizes that they exist, often times he will get himself into even more trouble if he is already trailing on the day. As the pilot gets closer to the point one must shift and climb while the going is still good, the pilot is more and more desperate for that strong climb that will get him back those two minutes that he is trailing. However, as one gets closer and closer to the transition, the odds of finding even an average climb start to dwindle. The pilot looks above and still sees his competitors 500ft above and finally there is the point he passes the window of opportunity to take the small loss. Now, the pilot ends up in the worse air, taking much weaker climbs, sealing in his fate with a loss of 15-20 minutes or a landout.

The earlier a pilot recognizes transition points, the easier it is to make the mental shift. In his preparation, the pilot should consider as many possibilities for what could cause such transitions in the air and pre-plan his actions. It is easy to drive along, looking for the pennies. It is hard to have the discipline to become risk averse, bite the bullet and accept a small loss to avoid a bigger one. It is not glamorous; no one is going to give you a pat on the back for taking extra turns or weaker climbs to avoid the possibility of getting stuck. Fellow pilots always love the story about how a pilot says “Damn the torpedoes!” and drives in and finds that strong climb. But pilots who do this inevitably fail due to the way the incentives in our sport are structured.

But does this that the books and their methods are worthless?

Absolutely not! Becoming risk averse does not implicitly mean being inefficient. The pilot must always strive to center as quickly as possible, flying an appropriate speed and thermalling effectively. The game is after all about effectively extracting energy out of the atmosphere. In fact, being better at all of these techniques affords better pilots more opportunities to be conservative while giving up very little. This is the secret that lets them succeed over the long run. It’s just a matter of recognizing when flying at 95 percent and focusing on avoiding trouble is more efficient than flying at 100 percent.

So practice and get good at flying your craft. Just remember that the game is not all about who does better at the little stuff, especially on the more volatile “sorting days”. Try not to lose sight of how much you can lose by making the major tactical errors and how it is much better to sometimes pay up a few pennies to preserve the pounds.