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My personal reflections about the recent Australian Nationals (Forbes Flatlands 2014)

Paris Williams

Taking in the big picture:

Those who have flown with me since my earlier competition days (beginning in the mid-late ‘90s),may recall that my old pattern was to charge really hard — all or nothing. I took big risks, nearly always led out (with or without anyone else), and won a lot of days but also bombed a lot of days. I flew every day for that day alone, going for the day wins and not really considering the larger picture of the entire competition. On one hand, I had a lot of fun flying like this and did win a few big meets. On the other hand, I also bombed a lot of meets and found myself riding one hell of an emotional roller coaster as I repeatedly went from hero to zero and back again. Now coming back into the sport after taking some years off, I’ve reconsidered my general strategy. I’m trying to look at the competition more in its entirety now, holding back the reins a little more as I focus on flying more consistently and taking more calculated risks. I think it’s this shift in my attitude that paid off for me at the Nationals. The meet was almost entirely blue and windy, with climbs significantly lower, more broken and weaker than we typically have at Forbes. I think my old “pedal to the metal” strategy would have been a serious mistake.

Risk Management:

We flew 8 out of 9 days at this meet, and many of the days were moderately to very difficult, with no clouds, light/broken lift, and low tops. As I mentioned above, this was definitely a meet to take in the big picture and fly consistently. There were only a few of us who made goal every day, with the exception of one day in which nobody made goal, where Mike Bilyk and I tied for second behind Carl Wallbank who tends to excel on these kinds of days. I worked hard on pulling in the reins and doing my best to stay with other pilots. I generally stayed in lift longer and skipped weak lift less frequently than I ordinarily do.

Learning to tolerate the gaggle:

One thing I’ve always struggled with is serious gaggle aversion. While many other pilots suffer from “gaggle suck” always being drawn to other gliders and gaggles, I’ve suffered from the opposite affliction, often avoiding and leaving gaggles even when they were likely in the best lift in the area. In my opinion, to be a good gaggle pilot, you need to ride a fine line between being somewhat assertive (not allowing others to push you out of the lift, and being prepared to turn inside someone when they fade a little too far from the core) and being blatantly inconsiderate and even dangerous (forcing people out of the core, etc.). While pilots who utilize the latter strategy generally do quite well in gaggles (I’m not mentioning any names here), they risk alienating themselves from others both in the air and on the ground. Personally, I’ve tended to be a little too far on the considerate side (“sure, come on in, there’s room for all of us in this core…,” “I’ll drop beneath you so we can both have our own space and climb more effectively…,” etc.) as well as the untrustworthy side (keeping the bar pulled in when below people to avoid climbing up through them, since I’m worried they won’t get out of the way). The problem with this is that by trying to minimize conflict in this way, my general pattern has been to not do so well in the gaggles, especially the dense ones. On the other hand, having as much experience as I do, I’m usually pretty good at quickly centering up on the core and maximizing my climb, so when I’m on top, I usually find it relatively easy to stay on top, and when I come in beneath other gliders, I usually climb up to them fairly quickly — but then I run into that little problem of catching up to the others but then not being comfortable climbing through them when the opportunity presents itself…

Because of the relatively weak, blue conditions, this meet was definitely a gaggle meet, and it forced me to (a) resist my impulse to avoid and run away from gaggles, and (b) to be a little more assertive in the gaggles (while still not compromising my personal values to the point of being an inconsiderate prick). No doubt, I still have a lot more work to do in this arena...

I’m really glad to see the up and coming “young guns”:

It’s been disappointing to watch the number of competitors dwindle and age over the years. But my hope for the sport has been renewed as I’ve had the privilege to fly with a number of up and coming “young guns” — such as Jonas Lobitz, Mike Bilyk, and Glen McFarlane (who’s a little less young than the others but flying great for a relatively new comp pilot). I was particularly impressed with Mike’s flying at this comp, considering he’s only competed in 4-5 comps prior to this one(!) It no doubt helped that he’s light on his glider, as climbing well was so important given the conditions that we had, but he’s also clearly a very talented thermaler. I witnessed that his strategy was to essentially latch on to the more experienced pilots (usually me during this comp) and minimize risks by avoiding leading out himself, which I found mildly frustrating at times since I appreciate it when others share this risk and fly more collaboratively, but given his experience level and the difficult conditions we had, who can blame him? I’m sure that with time, he’ll gain the experience he needs to become more confident leading out and flying on his own when necessary, and that he’ll eventually become a major asset to the U.S. team. Regarding Jonas, I found it interesting how similar he and I are with regard to decision making — no matter what happened, we nearly always ended up flying together, and I found him a real pleasure to fly with — not afraid to lead out, always fanning out on glide, and working really well with me and others to quickly locate the strongest core. It’s a shame he landed just short of goal on the last day, but given that he was less than 50 points behind first place, I completely agree with his strategy to take some larger risks that day. I was actually surprised that Mike didn’t take more risks himself (only 23 points behind me for the lead), but I think this is one of those times where Jonas’s extra experience and confidence revealed itself.

Having good equipment:

Finally, there’s no doubt that having good equipment is a very important factor in doing well at a meet like this one. I was flying a 2012 model Combat GT 13.2, the same model I flew in Florida 2 years ago so it is slightly outdated (not having the most recent rib templates, etc.), but still doing just fine (better than fine) in this field. One thing that I’ve come to love about the Combats is their ability to thermal nearly hands off — simply set the bank angle and let it go, so even though I was flying 4-6 hours every day for 8 out of 9 days, I didn’t struggle at all with muscle fatigue. However, the Combats do seem to prefer a slightly steeper bank angle than the Moyes RXs (based on what I observed of others), so I did experience a little incompatibility in the denser gaggles in that I had to work a little to maintain the flatter bank angles which most other pilots here seemed to want to fly at (since about 80% of the field was flying the same glider — the Moyes RX). Given that my model (2012) is approaching two years old, I was surprised to see how well I was gliding against most of the field, especially at the higher speeds. While most of us appeared to be gliding very similarly at the low and mid-range speeds, I clearly had an advantage over much of the field at the higher speeds (above about 45mph/75kph); but unfortunately, because of the weather conditions at this meet, we didn’t do a whole lot of flying at the higher speeds, and so I didn’t have the opportunity to use this advantage as much as I would have liked.

I will say that I flew all but the last day with ballast, so this likely played some role in my particularly good glide performance. I actually would have preferred to remove the ballast to sacrifice some glide for better climb, but as I fly in a second-hand harness not specifically designed for me, I have some CG issues with it (my head floats up when I remove the ballast which sits above my shoulders), so I had to leave the ballast in. Towards the end of the meet, however, someone told me of a way that I could fairly easily modify my harness to solve the CG problem, so I gave this a go and was able to remove the ballast on the last day, which was another weak, blue, windy day. I did notice an improvement in my climbing, and I still had a good high speed glide (though somewhat less than what I had with the ballast), as was made clear when I was able to outrace Mike Bilyk (flying a Moyes RX) into goal by a few seconds on final glide.

One final word about the Combat models — the Combats come not only in a range of sizes but also in a range of aspect ratios (higher aspect ratios generally have the benefit of improving overall performance but make the glider generally handle and behave like a larger glider than you would expect for the given sail area). To date, they have just one super-high aspect Combat on the market — the 13.5 (with an 8.5 aspect ratio) — which I flew at the Worlds and was absolutely delighted with the climb and glide performance. However, it is definitely a little big for me (I weigh 69kg/150lb), and while I found the handling just fine when flying on my own, I was struggling a bit with it in the dense gaggles (when having to do a lot of evasive maneuvering). Aeros has recently been putting a lot of effort into developing a smaller high aspect ratio glider (a 12.7, with an 8.4 aspect ratio), but unfortunately, it wasn’t ready in time for Forbes, which is why I flew the 13.2. If only I had the 12.7 at Forbes… who knows, maybe I could have taken a day off ;-) Anyway, the expectation is that the 12.7 will be ready in time for the PreWorlds in about six weeks, and then ready for the market shortly after that. Aeros is also preparing to unsheathe their fully-carbon option (which I believe will be available for most sizes) hopefully in time for the PreWorlds (with full oval-shaped as well as conical-shaped carbon leading edges and even carbon sprogs and synthetic sprog cables—the oval/conical shape allows for a maximal balance of high performance and good handling). I can’t wait!

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