Delaware Water Gap, NJ
Soaring has never really been my thing. I got into it by accident. While flying a KingAir at a new job I mentioned to the captain that I wanted to get some tailwheel time. He suggested that I do what he did, tow gliders for his stepdad’s soaring operation near Wilkesboro, NC. That very weekend I became a tow pilot flying a Maule M7 powered by a snappy 265HP Continental. Truth be told, it was not the best tow plane. Visibility was poor enough when towing at the moderate speeds fiberglass gliders required and nil when towing something slow. Near misses were common. The pay for towing was, like the view over the nose, nil. But I didn’t care about money. I just wanted to fly. Wilson, the owner, did give me half off for all lessons which brought the cost of a commercial glider add-on down to around $400. I didn’t really want to fly gliders but it was hard to leave such a bargain on the table. For the next 20 years I flew gliders on rare special instances where it seemed like a cool experience worth sharing. On at least one occasion I think I failed to make much of an impression. I took a date up in a ship I had only flown once, a Chekoslovakian Blanik L-13. The flight went pretty well. We found a few thermals and stayed up for a solid hour. I explained to her that for the landing, we would float just above the grass and land near the far end so that the glider could be quickly turned around for the next flight. The landing was one of those that starts with sound of individual blades of grass just kissing the wheel. At that moment I was a king. To stop I pulled the spoilers full aft which was supposed to engage the single wheelbrake. But we kept rolling ever so slowly to a stop about 20 feet into a neighbor’s vegetable garden at the runway’s edge. (The wheelbrake was in fact a separate lever!)
Later I bought a biplane and took up aerobatics. My new airport home was a slice of New Jersey heaven called Blairstown. On my first visit there, two horses were hitched next to the diner while gliders launched one after another just a few yards away. I have never seen such a classic, lovely flying spot before or since. My plane is hangared across the parallel paved and grass runways opposite the glider operation. It’s pretty lonely on my end of the airport. I would fly 20 minutes, go for a run, fly, eat, fly, work on the plane, wash the plane and go home. I soon learned that the glider club had a spot back in the trees with a nice deck and a cooler they kept stocked with beer. Club members kept inviting me over and I soon helped empty their cooler more than unpaying guest had any right to. Guilt more than anything prodded me into joining the club. Aero Club Albatross or “ACA” is, in folklore at least, the oldest flying club in America that is still in existence. Most members are like me; occasional pilots who help fund the club but rarely fly. In the eyes of the club regulars this makes us both pathetic and heroic. The best of these regulars would launch at the first hint of lift in the morning and not return until just before sunset. Once, I sat on the deck talking politics as two 1-26s made a beautiful formation low pass, swooped into a chandelle then landed together in a nice echelon. Those two had flown 7 hours and 100s of kilometers just a few hundred feet off the Kittatinny Ridge at 80 knots, having their heads knocked about the canopy in the relentless turbulence. I have never worshiped fighter pilots–although I do respect what they do. Same goes for airshow types and weekend aerobatic pludgers like myself (yeah it’s a made-up word). Competitive glider pilots are, to my mind, a breed apart. They fly using math–constantly. Every minute of a glider cross-country has the pilot’s head filled with numbers: Speeds, distances, angles and polars. They push the limits of this calculus where every foot and second can be precious–sometimes left with little more than the hope that up ahead is an unseen thermal that will lift them out of errors in math, judgment or both. When that hope proves unfounded, they land “out”, a glider euphemism for landing on farms, golf courses and Dairy Queen parking lots. It happens about twice a year at our club and surprisingly it is rare for anything (or anyone) to get seriously broken. The language spoken on that deck was one I only partially understood. Serious glider pilots have a nerd’s fixation on the minutiae of weather and aviation science. They might know a week in advance when conditions might be ripe for wave. Wave? We have WAVE in the northeast!? On such a day they might trailer a couple of gliders off to New York just because Boston Center is more likely to approve flights above FL180. Flight Levels? Are you guys nuts!? Who wears two pairs of thick socks in July and flies with oxygen? (OK, really old people. But I mean those of us without emphysema.) Where do I fit among a group like that? In my world, gliders are motorless airplanes that I have used to scare women (including my own daughter at the tender age of 8) or myself, despite having never left easy gliding distance from the airport.
COVID-19 has left me afraid for my family’s health and for my own financial future, making me one of several billion humans in the same fix. At my rate of flying gliders maybe twice a year, the hefty ACA club dues do not factor favorably in this new fiscal reality. On the very day I was about to throw the renewal sheet in the trash I saw a club email about a Condor2 task set up for Wednesday night. That email generated a torrent of back and forth queries between glider pilots about joysticks and this weird app called TeamSpeak. The only guy in the group who seemed to have a clue was Daniel Sazhin, a 25 year old PhD candidate and soaring wonder who was the first to fly 1000 km in a Schweizer 1-26 that was potentially twice his age. The single seat 1-26 is the Piper Cub of American-made gliders. Produced by the hundreds, they are delightful to fly but very slow, making Daniel’s flight a world record. For him and hundreds of competitive glider pilots throughout the world, Condor2 is a fun tool. Many actually compete with one another in the real world only to do so again online in the virtual one. The sim itself is good enough that there is a rapidly decreasing amount of distance between the two experiences–outside of the expense and physical risk that comes with competing for real. As I’ve said, glider talk often leaves me lost. But in Daniel’s email it was mostly suggestions about “TeamSpeak”, “HOTAS choices” and “Sceneries”? These guys were finally speaking MY language! Maybe there was a way that my 35 year sim habit could finally pay for itself. I can now fly with my ACA friends virtually and perhaps pick up some of their precious, even mysterious, knowledge. Finally I might be able to visualize what they’ve been discussing all this time on the deck (which members call the “Library” by the way). Maybe, just maybe, I might someday fly a glider honorably, hot on a ridge and dozens of miles or more from home.
And this, dear reader, finally leaves us to my Condor2 AAR. (You have been too kind to read this far.) Condor2 is a teaching and competition tool. We sim types have never heard of it because we are not the target market. I believe this could, and should, change. In VR it looks amazing. In screenshots it reminds me a bit of Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 3–dated and dull. This is not true in-game where it looks pretty great. What is hidden by the screenies alone is, among other visual pluses, an extremely well-detailed topography. “Wurtsboro”, the 500 square miles of scenery that includes my airport, Blairstown, is 29 gigabytes. You might compare it to the HD Scenery that can be added to X-Plane. And you’d be mistaken. The sceneries for Condor are much more granular. Hills are pretty in X-Plane. Hills are ENGINES in Condor. They must be exactly right even when the ridge is just a few wingspans away. Air must shear and rotor, accelerate and lift in the same spots where these actions, given the same conditions, happen in the real world. Condor runs liquid smooth on any PC that a sim enthusiast might own. The smoothness comes, I think, from very clean design and a sharp focus on one thing, glider flight. The rich terrain is laid on top of orthophotos. The only 3D objects are dense, collidable forests and a limited number of buildings within towns and airports. It looks just good enough to be occasionally breathtaking in VR but never so good that the framerates must suffer.
The task that Daniel had set up for us was thermal only. It mostly stayed near the Kittatinny Ridge although the winds were not favorable to work the ridge. If done in 3 straight lines, which clearly it wasn’t, the task would be 138 kilometers. Condor2 comes with six gliders of varying performance. For this flight I picked the same glider that Daniel would be using, the Standard Cirrus, with no water ballast. By launch time at 1900 we had 17 gliders airborne. There were a few hiccups as Daniel corralled his herd of mostly middle aged and older men. There were unfortunately plenty of real hiccups too; along with coughs, grunts, some gum chewing, suspected beverage drinking and other uncategorized bodily noises. Setting up push-to-talk is a refined TeamSpeak skill. Before we get too deep into the flight, let’s talk a little about cross-country glider flying; specifically, competitive cross-country flying. And keep in mind that this is knowledge I have mostly gleaned over the last three days of pandemic house arrest.
Meet Paul MacCready. When it comes to the shoulders of soaring greatness from which we all stand, Americans hardly rate. (A clear exception goes to Orville and Wilbur). Soaring is mostly a European art. MacCready is another clear exception. Whenever a pilot asks herself, `What speed should I fly to the next source of lift?’, that speed is called “MacCready”. It was once ballparked by an adjustable ring around the variometer that Mr. MacCready invented called, you might have guessed, the “MacCready Ring”. (The ring in the picture is something different.) The concept behind it is simple: your speed should be based on how much lift (vertical velocity) you anticipate from the next thermal you are willing to ride. The more anticipated lift, the faster you fly. The speed also needs to be adjusted continuously for current conditions which is why, in its classic form, it is a bezel on the variometer (a fancy vertical speed indicator). When in sinking air, you fly faster. When in rising air, you fly slower. This was not new in the ‘50s when MacCready came up with the right math. The genius was in how the amount of anticipated lift was the entry point on the ring. With that set, the needle on the variometer pointed to the Speed-To-Fly. This and other pertinent calculations are now done with a PDA app or through some of the most sophisticated instrumentation in aviation. But whether it’s a simple bezel or an iPad app, the algorithms don’t know what the pilot knows: future conditions seen outside the canopy. These aids help everyone equally. So it is still a pilot’s knowledge, experience and fine aircraft control that makes the difference between win and loss.
A Sample Polar (FAA). The starting point for maximizing performance
By the time I had figured out how to get to the launch gate, Daniel and his gaggle were 3.9 km ahead and climbing in a thermal marked by a well-defined cumulus with bases at about 4500 feet AGL. With me was a Libelle and two other ships. Behind us was another gaggle. The Libelle and I hit the same thermal but by the time we had left cloud base Daniel was 5 miles ahead. Even though I had the benefit of watching him find the best lift ahead, I could not stop bleeding time. More humbling, he managed this while helping others with technical issues and sharing a wealth of knowledge through TeamSpeak and text chat about technique and judgement. An example would be when, just before we made the first turnpoint, I asked how far off course should one be willing to turn in order to catch a CU or other suspected source of lift? His answer was clear and based, like much of soaring, on trigonometry. “30 degrees”. If you go 30 degrees off-track, 13% of that distance will be wasted. But 13% is a small enough loss to be easily gained back through altitude converted to speed. Even though you are making no forward progress when thermalling (“Velocity Made Good”–VMG in glider-speak), always err on catching the elevator ride up and put that potential energy to use in the fast glide to the turnpoint. On my way to turnpoint 2 I left the Libelle in my dust. Skill had nothing to do with it. It was because my Cirrus penetrated at a faster speed for the same glide ratio. The curious way soaring math works is that everyone, regardless of performance, ends up gliding at roughly the same ratio of distance over altitude. It’s just that the high performance ships with far superior glide ratios sacrifice their ratio advantage for higher speed. Rounding turnpoint 2 Daniel and his gaggle were now 14 km ahead of me. I was still far enough away from Blairstown by the time he landed that he could watch my external view and give me some advice on one of the most important aspects of racing, Final Glide. The final guide decision is one that weighs whether to climb higher (with no VMG) in order to go faster, or to accept a lower altitude with the benefit of no further turns but at a lower speed. MacCready takes care of this too, sort of. The thing about soaring is that, when in soaring conditions, MOST air is sinking, not still. So if you plan aggressively, your computer might display a nice comfy buffer at the finish line only to leave you thermalling or landing out when mother nature failed to cooperate with the math. The key as an innocent beginner, is to feed the MC (MacCready Calculation) a conservative value, fly the speed and if the estimated height above the turnpoint consistently improves, increase the speed if you wish.
Delaware Water Gap, NJ
I made it! I felt good about my flying. Actually I felt good just finishing the course. Through Daniel’s hand-holding I gained a huge amount of knowledge that I was able to apply where it is most effective: in real-time. I could guess how things would play out and then see that my guessing was largely correct. In other words I could visualize myself flying this task in these conditions for real. What was a mystery before was now less so. With several of the players still in-game with their ships parked just left of the grass runway, I buzzed them at Vne a foot off the deck. I then swooped up for a perfect base turn and kept it nice and tight against a couple of trees (which do exist in that precise spot in reality), feeling great. Until I clipped one, lawn-darted into an embankment canopy-first and likely died. Thus ended the days of Eric: show off. Gliding can be pretty boring. Whereas soaring is unmatched bliss. Flying in the tight core of a thermal at 50 degrees of bank and just a knot above buffet is thrilling. Watching a hawk share the same thermal and to see her snatch quick peeks at you as she shares your circle is life-changing. As of now, Condor2 does not attempt to simulate the hawk. But almost everything else is there.
Mount Cook NP, New Zealand
Huge Gaggle Over Slovenia. 50+ Players in Alll! (US Nightly Soaring Server)
Catching Up, Slovenia. (US Nightly Soaring Server)
I’ve made some corrections at Daniel’s request:
1.) He’s 25, not 29.
2.) The distance/time wasted in a 30 degree off course heading is 13 percent, not 11.
3.) He doubts my story about trucking off to NY for wave, but I heard it over beer on the deck so it must be true.
He also had this to say:
Some reflections from this morning, especially as it regards to some of the themes in your writing.
I think that soaring is a balance between the mathematical, deliberative, top-down thinking and the intuitive, fly by the seat of your pants kind of flying. A lot of the calculation you talked about becomes totally automatic over time. Most of the optimization decisions from the next several seconds to several minutes are completely trained into you.You still have an awareness of what you’re doing and every once in a while you make some tweaks top-down.But in a sense the intuition gets you in the ballpark. And then you might make some adjustments.The longer range decisions, (15 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hours, days even!) are generally cool and calculated. It’s hard to do that intuitively (sometimes impossible). This includes things like planning what route you will fly on a ridge task like the Alps.
I think that what makes soaring so unique is that to get good at it requires optimizing both systems.