Psychology of the Final Glide

Final glide on a Governor’s Cup flight.

There are two ways to get more points than your competition. The first is naturally to go faster. The second is to avoid making mistakes that others routinely make. One such mistake is the tendency for pilots to make an inefficient final glide. Many pilots will accept weaker climbs and for too long relative to an optimum before final glide. Rephrased in the context of risk-management, many pilots enter risk-minimization when they could still be racing. As such, this opens up a predictable and exploitable inefficiency, sometimes on the order of plus or minus several minutes. If you can consistently finish strong, this can have a big effect on your score over the course of the competition.

Optimizing final glides consists of the same risk management problem we have to contend with over the whole competition; balancing the risk of landing out with losses in efficiency. Note, I am talking about the sporting side of final glides.

One factor which drives this loss in efficiency is the susceptibility to the “certainty effect”. To illustrate the certainty effect, consider a gamble where you have a 95 percent chance of winning $10,000 in a settlement. Conversely, you can take $9000 for sure. Which would you take?

Many folks would take the “sure” option. Despite the expected value of the the first option being higher, you would feel really stupid if you lose the gamble. As such, the economics of this concept is that we are willing to pay too much to achieve perceived certainty. It’s the opposite of a lottery, which is the case of the “possibility effect”. While the likelihood of winning a lottery is so low that you are essentially giving away your money, there’s the hope or possibility of winning which drives folks to buy the tickets anyway.

As such, there is a subjective tendency to over and under-weigh probabilities close to 100 and zero percent respectively. This leads to suboptimal choices.

The reason is that the losses are quite visceral, coupled with the fact we have a hard time dealing with decimal values. If I tell you that there was a shark attack at a beach a week ago, despite the fact that the odds of this happening again are .001%, you would probably think twice about swimming. Conversely, the idea of coming up short by several miles and blowing the competition is something we would intensely regret. Since we are averse to regret, we go out of our way to ensure that we can make it home. Furthermore, the earlier we can “make” final glide, the earlier we reconcile the uncertainty of the sport. Couple this with the fact that most pilots are generally fatigued at the end of the day and you have a perfect recipe for pilots to accept inefficiency.

Optimizing Final Glides

The final glide optimization begins well before the actual glide itself. First off, you need to pace yourself during the task to be sure to finish strong. 15 minutes before the last thermal, get some glucose in your system. This is the time to kick in gear.

The first stage is the set up. This occurs after you round the last turnpoint. Look ahead and decide where you want to be in relation to the course line. Is there a better line on one side or the other?

Next, it is especially helpful to be at cloudbase in the second-to-last thermal. This gives you the fullest range to optimize the last climb and make a solid glide home. Furthermore, thermals later in the day usually work better higher, not so well down low.

Should you be in this state, you have two major options available. The first is to slow down and attempt to work your way up to a marginal-to-improving final glide and float on home. The other is to dump the nose and blast along at M/C speed for a strong final thermal for a McCready final glide. You have to look at the conditions ahead and determine which strategy is better; naturally if the day is falling apart it’s not worthwhile to gamble on hooking the final thermal lower. You have to pick one strategy or the other, no half-measure!

That said, many tasks do not end as the day is falling apart. At times, you can find average or better thermals! How many times have you finished and hit a five knotter in the pattern? One way to think about this situation is to imagine that the task is another 60 miles longer, beyond the airport. If you would be perfectly willing to drive half-way down into the band, then do the same at this point. Many pilots will hug the top of the band at this point, desperately trying to keep a low MC glide. They will do this because they are reassured by the green in their glide computer to achieve the feeling of certainty earlier.

Watch your competition and be willing to hold out. At this point, the seconds do really count and if you see your competitor make a bad turn, don’t go with them! Bump along in lift that is marked and resist the temptation. You’re on, making the seconds count.

If you hit a thermal, ask yourself if there’s a better one out there. Often there is. If there’s a time to double down, it is now. But don’t let yourself drop more than half-way in the band. Then you’re asking for trouble.

When you hit that last thermal, you have to be on 100%. You are working this thermal to perfection, every second counts. Dial in the MC to the 20 second average. If the thermal was weaker below and is stronger now, it makes all the sense in the world to stick with it a bit longer! If it is weakening, sticking with two knots won’t help you just because you had six knots 1000 feet lower.

When the 20 second average equalizes with your climbrate, leave. Don’t take that extra turn. The guy behind you who does will finish behind you, always.

Once you are established on the glide, now your job is to make it stick. At this point, even I’ll admit that I’ll often underfly the MC speed. I don’t see much reason blasting along off the end of the polar to maintain the glide angle, to then hit sink and have to scrape it on home. I like to build in a little bit of a buffer, especially when the glide is far out.

Remember that your glide depends on the quality of the air along the way. Deviate, even up to 30 degrees to stay in the better air. Look for streeting or ground references which suggest better air. Stay just downwind of infrastructure. Watch other gliders and adjust when it makes sense.

If you are coming up short on the glide, make the transition to another thermal early. Remember, once you get half-way below glide, you’re in trouble! Don’t drop out of the band before committing to the glide.

Lastly, practice, practice, practice. When you finish a task, if you find a thermal, fly in another direction and then make another final glide. Use Condor to play with all sorts of strategies and techniques. And most importantly, don’t succumb to the temptation to give up valuable seconds to ease the pain earlier. It adds up over the long run!