from "Free Flight", Jan/Feb 2002

"It took far longer to overtake you..."

Winners rarely relate Interesting howidunnit stories: the last place pilot, however ...

Seth Schlifer

HAVING BEEN AWAY from the soaring scene since 1987, after eleven years of flying and over 1300 hours, only to trade it for a heavy involvement in hang gliding, and later still, ultralights of all things (I know, .... stop groaning), I dusted off some old notes of mine relating to tasks which I flew during the 1986 Nationals from my old home club, York Soaring. I had intended to convert these terse, point form notations and logbook references into story form someday. With the tireless editor beating the bushes for spacefillers between the ads of the latest free flight, the time is now.

THE SCENE IS DAY 2. I was unsuccessful in wrangling perission to use York’s Schweizer 1-35 for the event. Their decision to refuse me was likely fuelled by the memory of my having inflicted damage to the glider during an intentional groundloop, trying to land in a schoolyard on the third day of the ’82 Nats at SOSA.

To my relief, two days before the contest, fellow club members Kevin McAsey and Tim Woods offered the use of their recently purchased glider. Accepting no rental fees, they goodnaturedly made it clear that they expected me to go out and win first place. Not wanting to explain that there’d be little chance of me winning, I eagerly accepted their generous offer. There was little chance of winning for the combined reasons that this was to be only my third contest, after the previously mentioned ’82 Nats, and the ’84 Ontario Provincials (which had the last two of its three days rained out). The other factor to consider was that my borrowed mount for this upcoming event was far from state-of-the-art, having been designed some 24 years previous. I was to fly an HP-11A which Dave Webb and Ben Price built in 1965. They flew it for awhile until selling it to John Firth in 1968.

My only hope was that some small fraction of the flying skill and wisdom of Dave and John had somehow been absorbed into the molecular structure of the aluminum from which C-FRNN is comprised! After all, this machine had flown in the big desert air at Marfa, Texas during the 1970 World Championships, reached great heights in wave at Cowley and Lake Placid, and carried John Firth to many Canadian speed and distance records in years past. In fact, this was a one-of-a-kind HP-11A, in that the builders had extended the chord of the flaps and ailerons (adding 3% more wing area), incorporated a flap/aileron interconnect system, and performed much sealing and airfoil profiling work. Unfortunately, much of the wing surface filling was now cracking and bulging in spots due to its age.

Between organizing myself for the contest, adding a hitch to my car, and begging time from work, I managed time for just two flights to become familiar with the glider and its instruments. Knowing the ship had tip extensions which would bring its span to 17 metres, some of the 15 metre guys were pressing me to use them and fly as an Open class entry. Without one more long span ship, there were not enough to make an Open class field. They openly feared the prospect of having to compete against the big birds (notably the Nimbus 3) which would then be forced to enter the 15m class under handicap rules. I agreed, and took one flight with the extensions as practice. But, after tying the ship down, someone pointed out to me that one of the tips was not mounting solidly, so at the last moment I reluctantly notified the contest officials that I was back to being a 15m entry.

On Day 1, I flew 207 kilometres of the 227 kilometre triangle task. My crew eventually found me, despite my poor directions, and after derigging in the dark by lantern and moonlight (never having derigged or trailered the ship before) we arrived back at the field at 1:30 am. In fact, a dozen pilots who had landed some 50 kilometres behind me arrived home much earlier!

I awoke on Day 2 after just five hours of sleep, and felt pretty tired. The task for Standard and 15m was a 206 kilometre quadrangle: north 37 kilometres to Dundalk, then 60 west to Mildmay, 50 south to Monkton, and finally, 59 kilometres ENE to return. The forecast conditions were for thermal strengths of 4–5 knots. Achieved climb rates were mainly 2–3 knots plus. A light north breeze provided no real challenges. I went through the unlimited height start gate at 4000 agl at 2:48. As I was still becoming accustomed to the unfamiliar metric ASI scale, and learning that the total energy vario had some quirks, I relied somewhat on my “seat-of-the-pants” indicator during the first leg.

Conditions could almost support pure dolphin flight without losing height, even at my light dry wing loading of around 6 lb/ft 2 . I made just two circling stops of about four turns each. The rest of the time was spent dolphining and bobbling along nicely. I shuddered to think of the field day the boys in the ballasted glass birds were having in these conditions! At 3:20, I took my turnpoint shot from 3500 agl, having arrived in company with Chris Wilson flying a Mosquito, some 100 feet above me. My speed on this upwind leg averaged just over 69 km/h.

I began the second leg by heading 30 degrees to the north of track at first. Chris later asked my reasoning behind this deviation. I had noticed some thin cirrus ahead on course which seemed to be increasing. I just wanted to follow the courseline westward, but shift it upwind a couple of kilometres as insurance against the right crosswind in case of softening conditions later on the leg. This would prevent the situation of being drifted southward, and downwind of the courseline if forced to circle in weaker conditions. This area is noted for lake effect incursions from the north anyway, and so I viewed the minor diversion as a worthwhile investment.

The second leg presented few cu, but fortunately, the thermals outnumbered the clouds. Although this leg was mostly blue, I discovered that progress went well by varying airspeed between 80 and 130 km/h, and just bumping along. With each pullup, I experimented with a technique I’d been playing with. By concentrating to feel which side the lift was on, I would often bank steeply towards that side while reefing upward. The difference was obvious. It offered a stronger boost, or gust on thermal entry, and provided a most satisfying duration of time during which the nose could be held up, zooming steeply, yet with airspeed decaying quite slowly, till finally bunting level at the top with the climb continuing. The effect during the zoom felt as though I was carrying water.

Some 40 kilometres along this leg, I stopped at 3000 in a strong bit, with the notion to gain 500 feet before continuing on. During my first circle, I spotted someone approaching from about a mile back. As I completed a second circle, he passed about 150 feet below without stopping, and I recognized the pilot as John Firth, flying a DG-400. I completed a third turn, then straightened out to follow. As expected, poor NN and I were soon choking on his dust as he gradually pulled away into the hazy distance. Soon the call of nature was upon me, and I was eager to try my nifty new relief system. I’d scrounged up several feet of clear polypropylene tubing, and a small funnel. The funnel was simply routed up past my shoulder and over the wing spar behind me, and then down into an empty plastic milk jug secured down behind the spar. I took a long drink of water, then got the glider settled down into a handsoff trim at about 100 km/h. Flying hands off, I corrected any banks with that nasty, awkward rudder bar, slewing the ship to level the wings. As I unzipped, and generally got everything sorted out and in position, the glider sort of continued waffling along, heading in roughly the right direction. Everything was situated, and the moment of truth had arrived. Ready ... set ... go! Something was terribly amiss. I checked the system, and finding no kinks in the tubing, simply tried again. I met with damp disappointment. I had underestimated the amount of pressure necessary to force a fluid up and over my shoulder in the semi-upright seating posture. Even scrunching lower down into the seat had no effect, because the tubing was still routed over the spar.

During my wild adventures with indoor plumbing, Stan Janicek went (if you will pardon the expression) whizzing past me in the mighty “Tinbus” (this was another Dave Webb creation made with a homebuilt aluminum fuselage and tail mated to Nimbus wings). I had to wonder what Stan was thinking as he closed from behind, observing NN weaving along like a drunken sailor! I immediately abandoned my fumblings, put all the toys away, slammed the bathroom door shut, and rushed back to the controls to give chase! I flew on for several minutes until I could no longer ignore the call of nature. From necessity was borne a leap of inspiration, and I quickly gulped the remains of my water and used the now empty container fulfil my dire need. Done! Finally, I was able to return to the real task at hand.

Some 10 kilometres later, I approached the second turnpoint at Mildmay. Here, several gliders were whirling about, taking their turnpoint photos. Among them were those pilots which had overtaken me earlier. They were now only 2–300 feet above me, and less than a kilometre ahead. I took some encouragement in this as I went in for my photo at 4 pm, having averaged 90 km/h on this crosswind leg. In the time it took me to take two photos, I looked around to discover that everyone had vanished into the haze as they headed south to Monkton. Now facing towards the sun on the third leg, the effect of the haze reduced visibility to under four miles. The haze conspired with the irregular road layout of the region, and I found this leg needed lots of attention in order to navigate the courseline.

The sky here became littered with what I call cumulus cadaverous clouds, and plenty of time was wasted in lots of lift that wasn’t there. I felt quite out of phase with the sky here, and any lift which I did find seemed to quit soon after I arrived. What lift I managed to really work at was quite feeble, and I needed to stop and circle quite often, which of course exerted a heavy toll on my speed. The cloudscape suggested to me that I should deviate in toward the centre of the quadrilateral as I went. As a result, my path to Monkton described a gentle arc rather than a straight line. Despite the questionable conditions, and the fact that I had not had any company on this leg, there were no real surprises or scary low points. Eventually, Listowel airport emerged through the murk, and as it passed beneath the port wing, I corrected my course about 30 degrees to the right, heading southwest, directly towards Monkton.

A short while later, I spotted Ian Grant, flying SOSA’s Club Libelle. He was circling about two kilometres to my left, and slightly higher. I decided against joining him, instead continuing toward the turnpoint about six kilometres ahead, and in particular, to some cu about halfway along. Before reaching the clouds, I entered a region of weak lift which enabled me to boat along at minimum sink speed while maintaining my 3500 agl. I continued flying straight in this manner until flying out the other side of the lift just short of the turnpoint. This region of rising air was a convergence zone created by a sea breeze blowing in from Lake Huron to the west. I rounded Monkton at 6 pm, took a photo, and tiptoed back out through the same lift region as I headed home. Unbelievably, the 49 kilometre leg to Monkton had taken me two hours, which cost me dearly in speed, and was now jeopardizing my chances of even getting home.

My current homeward course brought me back to the area where I’d last seen XR and I noted that the twelve kilometre round trip to the turnpoint and back had cost me only a hundred feet without circling once. Things were looking up for a change. I craned my neck, searching along the belly of the dark cloud mass, searching for Ian, looking for a clue to a good core of lift. The lift here was quite disappointing. Scarcely more than zero sink, in fact. The cloud seemed all show and no go — no surprise really, considering the late hour. The cloud was beginning to decay, but after heading east beneath the huge cloud, I was rewarded with a weak climb a few kilometres along the way, and I tightened up in 1.5 knots of lift. Peering ahead revealed an expanse of dead looking sky, and I switched solidly into survival mode.

Circling, I probed for any indications of something stronger, but with no luck. This was the only game in town. While grinding slowly upward, my mind turned lightly to thoughts of a final glide, and so the cockpit began to resound with the sound of crunching numbers. While circling, I tried without success to ascertain the wind by watching for drift as I had become unsure of its speed and direction. Not being able to include the wind factor into my fun-with-numbers game made me uneasy. Safe to assume though, that the wind was now very light indeed. I chose to assume a 10 km/h headwind as a worst case, and tossed it into the mix. This suggested that 6000 asl was the magic number to arrive home without inducing heart failure. I needed to gain 1000 feet. In a homebuilt glider which had been designed nearly a quarter century earlier, I was teeing up to begin the longest final glide of my soaring career.

Six minutes later, just below cloudbase, I straightened out and headed for home, continuing to climb slowly as I tickled along beneath the belly of the last cumulus of the day. I had hoped to reach the fuzzy mist at cloudbase and then begin accelerating, but reached the edge of the cloud too soon. I could have gained another fifty feet or so, but feeling committed, decided to carry on. Somewhere, invisible in the distance 43 kilometres away, lay the finish gate. I was thankful I was able to retract the wheel today, unlike the gear jam of the day before! Still unsure of the wind, but going on the assumption of a light headwind, I decided to fly slightly above best glide speed, and so chose 100 km/h — it’s such a nice round number! I figured that would be a speed sufficient to offset any slight subsidence, or gentle headwind, if the beast existed.

The air was glassy smooth now, and there was nothing for me to do but contemplate my past sins, sit quietly, and watch the drama unfold. While waiting it out, I thought I could hear a faint imaginary drum roll. I kept myself occupied by pouring over the air chart, and my concession road map, checking my progress against the altimeter and my watch. Eventually, this exercise revealed that no headwind existed. Go, baby, go! Passing over Conestogo Lake with 29 kilometres to go, I peered down, waiting for the light to glint off the surface as I passed, hoping to read the surface wind. If anything, it suggested a light quartering tailwind, at least down low.

Home was still not visible, but through the haze the town of Arthur soon emerged into view. A couple of minutes later, the York Soaring hangars became faintly visible, and I placed a finger on the canopy, carefully lined up with the main hangar. Continuing to freeze the airspeed at 100 km/h, what I hoped to see was the sight of the hangar gradually sinking beneath my fingertip. I soon encountered a series of thin, spread out ex-cu, and held my breath, hoping they wouldn’t provide any sink as I passed beneath them. My luck held out. Several minutes later, my fingertip was ever so slightly above the hangar. This could work. We droned on like this, with me holding my head and left hand stationary to form the sightline, until it became obvious that I had the finish in the bag.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I removed my finger from the canopy and massaged my now stiff neck. I must have had a gentle tailwind component the whole way. Some folks use computers and GPS to work their final glides; I must look into that sometime! At 1400 feet, Arthur passed beneath the port wing, leaving just over seven kilometres to the finish gate. I gradually accelerated, juggling the negative flap setting as the speed increased — largely guesswork due to my lack of airtime with NN. It seemed I had underestimated the old bird, because we eventually wound up bounding along at 200 km/h for the final four kilometres. It sure made for a stylish, if noisy finish, flashing by at 40 feet before zooming to 600 to join the downwind leg at 6:40 pm. My speed over this leg averaged over 88 km/h.

The still suspect gear lowered smoothly and on final, I tossed out the anchor, as those big flaps clawed through the air, providing that nice solid sensation on final approach. Just like a whiffle ball! After rolling to a stop, I sat quietly in the cockpit for a couple of minutes. It felt good to get home. As my crew and I pushed the glider back towards the tiedown area, I began to wonder about XR. Had he finished ahead of me, or outlanded somewhere? Just then, he came whistling through the finish gate. What a delicious sound. God, I love this sport.

Unfortunately for me, I had committed a pre-start blunder by exceeding the 45 minute recognition time interval and so my speed (if one could describe 54 km/h as speed) was downgraded to 41.2 km/h. No one to blame but myself, and a mistake which won’t be repeated. On the start grid the following morning, John Firth approached with a smile, saying: “Seth, I saw you out on the second leg yesterday. You were doing rather well! It took me far longer than it should have to overtake you.” Although he meant the compliment in earnest, I smiled and thunk to myself ... "Why, thank you John, I think."