Many glider pilots find enough challenge matching wits with nature for a few quiet, beautiful hours of soaring flight, but others have a 'Racing Gene'. Air Racing has always been a dramatic part of aviation. However, when racing sailplanes, there is a special tension involved - you have to go fast AND stay in the air.
Racing a sailplane is one of the most challenging and utterly fascinating endeavors in aviation. The top guns of sailplane racing have the strategic skills of a championship chess player combined with the tactics of a fighter pilot. A racing pilot must find the strongest thermals, use them efficiently, then glide as far and fast as possible by picking the most efficient route to the next thermal. To race any aircraft more fun than a glider will cost far more. Skill takes the place of money in glider racing.
In the early days, rules were simple. Points were awarded for altitude, duration and distance. Altitude and duration were quickly dropped for safety reasons when it was found gliders could reach altitudes pilots couldn't survive and stay in the air longer than pilots could remain awake. Distance stayed around until pilots were landing so far away they couldn't get back in time to finish the contest.
Like endurance and altitude tasks, distance was dropped because sailplanes and their pilots were just TOO GOOD for practical, safe contests if those tasks were used. That left races flown around a closed course of a few hundred miles which got pilots home for the barbecue. Although huge fun for the pilots, the gliders are out of sight for most of the day.
The very exciting FAI World Grand Prix series makes it a spectator sport. 20 seeded pilots, flying similar gliders, race against each other with real-time position data and multi-camera video telemetered back to the airport audience and to the Internet for everyone. Grand Prix racing introduces sailplane racing to a mass audience, creating the possibility of sponsorship and prize money. This is racing at its best and equal in gritty drama to Grand Prix auto racing. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FAI_World_Grand_Prix_2008
There are professionally made videos about glider racing which are among the most riveting, white knuckle aviation videos available. I guarantee they'll keep you on the edge of your seat. I strongly recommend "A Fine Week of Soaring", "Gladiators of the Sky" and "Wind born/Champions of the Wave" available from www.ssa.org > SSA Store > Videos & Music or http://www.cumulus-soaring.com/videos.htm.
A schedule for the 2009 US racing season can be found at http://www.ssa.org > Sailplane Racing > Calendar. Visitors are welcome at these events but if you choose to fly in, make sure you check NOTAMS since airports sometimes close for contests. The best action for spectators is 10AM to 1PM as the glider stage and launch and again about 3 hours later as they scream across the airfield streaming contrails of ballast water.
The On-Line Contest (OLC) provides a racing opportunity for pilots who can't attend a sanctioned event. Ten years ago two German glider pilots, Reiner Rose and Martin Petz with a team of volunteers and in cooperation with the German soaring web magazine Segelflugszene, created the OLC. Their goal was a decentralized, worldwide soaring competition that would promote cross country flying and be available to many more pilots.
To compete, you fly any glider, any where, any time. Go as far and fast as you can while recording the flight on a GPS logger. Upload the encrypted logger file via the Internet to the OLC servers for scoring. Gliders are handicapped so club trainers can compete with expensive racers.
The result has been amazing. In the 2008 season, OLC competitors logged 15,749,731 miles of cross country glider racing. Virtually every glider flight in the world of any consequence is entered - including those from sanctioned events. The vast database of on-line flight logs told a story few would have believed. It gave experienced pilots a way to realistically judge their own abilities while analyzing the techniques of others. It allowed objective comparison of soaring sites and soaring clubs from around the world. To see the latest US flights go to www.ssa.org > Sailplane Racing > Online Contest 'OLC'. To view a map and altitude graph, click on the blue button to the right. Move your mouse pointer left and right across the graph to see how the flight progressed.
Perhaps most importantly, the OLC offered armchair pilots the opportunity to vicariously ride in the cockpit. If you register with the OLC you can download flight logs. There are KML files that plot a flight on Google Earth. IGC flies can put you in the cockpit with the pilot. You'll need a free Google Earth plug-in "IGC Flight Replay" from http://www.ywtw.de/igcsimen.html.
Next time, diamonds in the sky - 318 miles from the New Mexico desert to the Colorado mountains.
Soaring Club of the Week: The Philadelphia Soaring Council operates a modern fleet of sailplanes at their own turf airfield located north of Philadelphia at Hilltown. See: http://pgcsoaring.org/