24 January 2017

WGC2017 - Reflections of a newb

I would like to express my gratitude for the overwhelming support of the gliding community in Canada. Your kind words of encouragement and support through out the competition were heartfelt and a big boost to morale.  I am very proud to have had the opportunity to represent Canada on the international stage.  Although frustrating at times it was a lot of fun to fly with and learn from the best competition pilots in the world. 

What follows is a bit long for my taste but there is a lot of data to digest.  These observations are made by someone with little experience so should be taken with a grain of salt and a big spoon of skepticism.

The pre-start gaggles have little to do with climb optimization.  Most of the time the lower guys in the gaggle climb faster than the guys at the top.  As the lower gliders catch up the gaggle compresses in the vertical axis and spreads out horizontally.  Near the top you are flying wide circles, low bank - high speed.  In the gaggle most of your concentration is spent on avoiding gliders you can see around you and not upsetting the system too much.  Guys who try to out climb the others generally don't succeed and cause others to react rapidly which causes more dangerous situations.  In the worst cases some gliders leave the gaggle because it isn't centered, hit the core on their way out and start turning in the opposite direction.  I have heard the gaggles described as "A knife fight in a phone booth", I don't think this description is far off.

The tactics for the most part seem to involve sitting on top of the gaggle until the guys below you get frustrated and leave on course; hopefully the guy leading the pack is one of the fast guys and if you can latch on he can drag you around so you get a high score.  If they aren't one of the fast guys they can still find you a climb or two as you use your height advantage to stay on top.  Because you left later than they did you have a speed advantage as well.  If they miss a thermal, this is not a big deal; you started higher so you have more range to find the better climb ahead.  One can choose to sacrifice a few minutes at the start and lead out, if the pack follows you just latch on and try to keep up with the group to get a good score.  If you are the adventurous type you can leave the group strike out on your own if an opportunity arises, this is a risk but if you succeed it can win the day.  If you leave too early you do not have the benefit of other gliders which is crucial on a blue day, if you leave too late you won't have the markers and you run the risk of not having enough time to finish the task.  The quote below is from Bruce Taylor's Facebook page, Bruce is a very experienced world level competition pilot:
"It is a sad measure of how this competition has been for me, that yesterday I made no real decisions of my own, and finished in third place! I just followed the pack, and for me, that is not a measure of skill. We need to do something about this. The answer is not simple, but many pilots I have spoken to feel very jaded about this problem."

Pair flying can be of great benefit provided it works, if it doesn't it will be a distraction and the pilots are better off flying individually.  As a member of a pair one has to be able to put away their ego and take pleasure in their partners success.  For some of the European teams this is easier to manage as they are funded and the pilots simply take orders from the coach.  As in any partnership being able to communicate effectively seems to be key to successful pair flying.  Sergei and I did try to team fly but communication was an issue.  Flying at this level is quite involved and having to tell your partner what you are doing or observing adds an extra layer of complexity.   Even if you succeed your partner may be busy and misses your transmission.  Personally I found it very difficult to express myself clearly, concisely and in a timely manner.  Quite often I would try to tell Sergei something only to find out he had already moved on and the information was obsolete.  On the occasions we were separated Sergei and I still tried to pass on information to each other.  It takes many contests to develop and synchronize a pair.  In North America this is nearly impossible as we do not allow pair flying.  Additionally Team Canada typically only sends one pilot per class as our IGC Country Ranking does not allow for a second pilot, so a pair does not have time to develop.

The team is essential to success.  Jerzy Szemplinski, Dave Springford, and Joerg Stieber have many years of world level experience which they shared with us;  I am grateful for their mentorship both in Benalla and over the past 10 years.  The team is not only the pilots and Captain, we were lucky to have a very dedicated and experienced crew with us.  Although crewing for other pilots Maria Szemplinska, Virginia Thompson, Jarek Twardowski and Marian Rakusan were always willing to land a hand.  2W crew, Marian Nowak, was instrumental in the smooth operation on the ground both before and after flying.

To improve one has to practice.  North American contests will make you a better pilot but do not prepare you for flying at this level.  Until recently the only chance we had to practice this kind of flying was at the WGC.  This is expensive, infrequent, and too late.  If we want to increase our world ranking the Pan-American championships are a good opportunity and we should do whatever we can to support Canadian pilots flying at these contests.  We should also look at developing a more structured coaching program.  As always all of this takes time and money, things most of us do not have in abundance.

I have been very fortunate to participate at the 34th FAI World Gliding Championships in Benalla, and will work hard to improve my results in the future.

Luke Szczepaniak - 2W
2W and MS after landing at WGC2017.  Photo by Maria Szemplinska

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