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Soaring championships in Minden

by Linda Hiller

Even young pilots can get the “blues” competing in national flying competitions.

At the Standard Class National Soaring Races in Minden all this week, pilots from the age of 21 and up competed against each other for daily wins and the ultimate contest triumph.

Tuesday was an unusually challenging day for most of the pilots – less than one-fourth of those who took off made it back to the Minden Tahoe Airport for a good night’s sleep.

The rest of the seasoned, top quality fliers “landed out,” finding themselves in fields and racetracks, distant airports and dry lake beds as far away as Winnemucca.

Tim Hanke, from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. – a 21-year-old pilot and competitor, who took his first glider ride at the age of 1, strapped on his father’s lap – took some good-natured ribbing from fellow pilots Wednesday morning as he washed and hand-dried his discus sailplane in the sunshine.

Hanke landed in a dry lake bed outside of Winnemucca and had to “leave his ship in the desert” to walk for help. He was found around 9 p.m. by air search.

“Hey, Tim, heard you spent the night in Winnemucca,” a passing pilot said with a laugh. “We missed you!”

“Hey, Tim,” another pilot said. “We only landed at Pyramid. What happened to you?”

Of course, the ribbing is jovial. Pilots know that tomorrow it could be them taking it from the next guy, because flying a glider is a different ball game every time you go up.

n Why so hard? What happened Tuesday was that the “task” set for the day’s race sent the competitors north when – in hindsight – the weather ultimately dictated that they probably should have gone south. But the course designers are only listening to the day’s weather reports and looking skyward for signs in the form of clouds and cloud patterns to tell them what is going on in the invisible world of air up there, and where the planes should go for the best ride.

After days of sending them south, Competition Director Al Leffler of Santa Margarita, Calif., who is the chief course designer for the contest, said he wanted to give the pilots a change of scenery in sending them north. Although only eight of the 37 contestants completed the task, he did take some solace. At the morning pilots’ meeting, he was apologetic.

“I know you all enjoyed the scenery yesterday,” he joked. “Sorry about the flat air out there. The stiff, cool north wind blowing over Pyramid Lake blew most of the lift out and made it very hard to get to Herlong.”

n Talking the talk. Every morning of competition, a pilots’ meeting convenes to assess the contest so far, discuss previous flights and plan for the task ahead. The “task” is a course that the pilots must navigate, returning to be clocked by the gate keeper, who flags them in and out of the race sort of like a checkered-flag holder in a car race.

At the pilots’ meetings they use soaring lingo: “Where’s the CU, the CV, the rotor, the wave or blue?”

All those terms relate to sky signs. “CU” is cumulus clouds, which are good and indicate lift, “CV” are cumulonimbus, which can be rough. “Rotor” is the bumpy wind that rolls off the “wave,” which is the long cloud that parallels the Sierra, indicating high, fast winds that gliders can “surf” like a water wave. “Blue” is when the sky has no clouds, which would usually indicate a ho-hum flying day.

The winner of the previous day’s race gets to talk to the group. Chip Garner, 48, flying a discus A, was the first place winner for Tuesday, and first place overall. Based in Santa Fe, N.M., Garner said one of the keys to his success was the fact that he’d flown many contests in the Carson Valley area before.

“That was a fun day yesterday,” he said. “I caught my last thermal at Pyramid and flew back with Billy Hill,” Garner said. “We kind of helped each other along. At one point, I looked over at him and said to myself, ‘He doesn’t have anything, either.’ As we came in, I looked longingly at the clouds over Dayton.”

Contest Safety Director Doug Jacobs told the pilots that he is convinced the cellular phone is probably the greatest invention for glider flying.

“I like knowing I can call my wife or my crew and tell them exactly where I am,” he said, adding that many of the pilots who landed out Tuesday were rescued as a result of calling their positions in by cell phone.

n 3-D sailing in air. Soaring has been called three-dimensional sailing – incorporating weather, luck, skill and equipment into the art of getting a long-winged, sleek, white airplane to fly and stay aloft for hours at a time without a mechanical engine.

Instead, the glider’s “engine” is actually the atmospheric power harnessed through lifts, thermals, waves and myriad air currents coming off the earth.

n How they compete. Races generally last five to 10 days, with competition each day the weather cooperates.

Each race begins at the home airport, and takes the pilots around a course anywhere from 50 to 300 miles long, where checkpoints must be clocked using their onboard Global Positioning System units, which keeps everyone honest.

The pilot who flies this course the fastest wins, usually getting 1,000 points that day. At the end of the five to 10 days, the pilot with the most points wins and may move on to the next contest.

One of the most dramatic sights of a glider race is at the day’s finish line, when the water which was hosed into wing compartments for ballast, is released as the pilots come in fast to land in a good time. Sometimes, they are coming in so fast and so all-at-once, that the line workers who generally “catch” the planes as they taxi to a stop, are reduced to scrambling for each plane to prevent them from piling up, and manually pushing them out of the way.

n Young pilots. Hanke, like fellow 21-year-old competitor Joe Walter, soloed in a glider at 14, got his private license, enabling him, at 16, to take passengers and began instructing at 18 years of age. By 21, these pilots have clocked enough hours in the air – Hanke with 1,000 and Walter with 900 – to be confident in the face of landing out, even if it’s way out.

Hanke and Walter are half of the USA Junior Soaring Team and will be heading to Holland the beginning of July to compete in the first World Junior Soaring Championship to represent the United States along with teammates Liz Schwenkler from New York state, with 700 air hours, and Dan Sorenson from Texas, with 500 hours.

“We have already raced in Germany, but this race in Holland will be a first for us, going as the junior team,” Hanke said.

n Tragic beginning. Following the death of fellow pilot Clem Bowman, who died the day before the competition began when his plane dove and crashed immediately after takeoff, the young pilots – who echoed the sentiment all around – said that Bowman’s death put them all on notice. The crash is still under investigation, but early on the cause of the crash was attributed to a mechanical and/or assembly error.

“It was bad, but the way I look at it is, you can kill yourself just walking down the street,” Walter said.

“The benefits of flying far outweigh the risks,” Hanke agreed.

Bowman, who was a member of the U.S. Soaring Team and the winner of the last nationals held in Minden in 1997, was to compete in Bayreuth, Germany, later this summer. U.S. Team Captain Mark Huffstutler announced that Bowman’s position on that team will remain open and unfilled for that contest, which will be dedicated to him by the U.S. team. Donations in Bowman’s name may be sent to the U.S. Team, c/o SSA, P.O. Box 2100, Hobbs, N.M. 88241-2100.