Flight Recordings of Contests


One pilot's view, from the cockpit of the across America sailplane race.

When I first heard of the suggestion to organize this event my reaction was mild fear.   Maybe they would limit the entries to "qualified" pilots, and that might preclude me! Without hesitation I mailed the organizers and sent a check as proof of my desire to enter.   For years I had dreamed of participating in an event like this - similar to the "Smirnoff Derby" of the 1970's.   A coast to coast race, and the opportunity to land at Kitty Hawk on the 4th of July in the 100th anniversary year of powered flight.

The preparation for such a marathon soaring adventure is not insubstantial and I estimated that I spent more than a hundred hours in preparation for it, time that definitely paid off.   I re-read every one of the accounts of the Smirnoff Derby races and summarized everything: The conditions experienced.   The courses flown.   The areas that provided the toughest challenges.   The speeds achieved.   I noted every comment I thought would add to my understanding of what I might encounter on those same tasks.

I prepared maps of the courses.   Made up my own electronic data bases for each leg - changing these every time the organizers decided to change plans as the weeks wore on!   Accommodations had to be made.   I wrote to friends who flew in different areas along the course to seek comment and advice on local conditions - another effort that really paid dividends.   Not least of all, having decided to fly in the 18m configuration I set about accumulating some significant time in the Ventus 2 C in that configuration before the event.   This I considered essential, and to push myself I set some personal goals.   A 500 km out and return was one I set and achieved out of Terry airport the month before.   In short I managed to accumulate more than 4000 km of cross country flying in the 3 months preceding the race.   The only regret I had was that I had understood the event would be "dry", so I never flew with water ballast.   Would you believe it, the plans changed and the western pilots prevailed in a rules change to allow ballast the week before the event started.   I really wished I had flown with a full load of ballast a few times before the first race days out west.   My first contest day was the first day with ballast in a year or more and the scores showed it !

No sailplane race across the country has ever achieved 100% flying days and the RTKH was no exception.   We flew 5 race legs and several pilots flew an extra leg or two.   I managed to fly the Terry to Caesar Creek leg after that leg was officially canceled.   The total distance covered was just short of 1100 miles, and the crew car registered around 8000 miles ( twice across the country) by the end.   Every leg was different and not one was without challenges.   With the amazing GPS driven technologies every flight completed can be re-lived and for those that may be interested I have a complete set of logs, barograms and statistics from each leg.   Amazing stuff !

Day 1 - Crystalaire- near Los Angeles to Jean NV - near Las Vegas

After three days of hard driving and a couple of practice days at Crystalaire (Just north of the San Gabriel mountains on the north edge of the Los Angeles basin) the first race day took place.   Crystalaire for those who might not know is the home of the "Crystal Squadron", a dedicated group of pilots who fly straight-out flights ( usually more than 500 km ) each weekend.   There is a reason why.   When the marine air pushes in over the mountains from the Pacific Ocean each afternoon the lift in the desert areas is effectively killed and getting back to Crystal is nearly impossible on most days.

That's where LOCAL KNOWLEDGE plays a vital role.   Hannes Linke, a friend and highly experienced local pilot and ex Smirnoff participant was the guru I sought advice from that day.   "Don't try to fly the direct course line", he advised.   The marine air will stream up into the desert from San Bernadino through the Cajon pass in the mountains, and the lift will just not be there".   Even despite that advice which I took , and a 12000 ft. msl start height I only found my first decent thermal after a straight glide of 73 miles - a long way even in a Ventus 2C. Incidentally the marine layer was so complete that as we thermalled above the San Gabriel mountains at the start the whole LA Basin was completely covered with white cloud.   A good tail wind helped and I flew above the high ground as recommended by the locals.   The flight analysis shows an achieved L/D of 68.5 for the flight.

Believe it or not but a comment from Karl Striedieck about his experience many years previous came back to me as I crossed the last obstacle before Jean.   He had encountered very rough air after Clark Mountain.   It was there 30 years later too!

Unfortunately soaring lost one of it's most dedicated that day as Gene Carapetyan died in an accident before the start of the race.   Most unexplained as he was a very high time pilot (15000 hours) and flying out of his "home" field.   There was no worse way we could have started the event.   A reminder that we can never be too careful when flying.

Day 2 - Estrella-near Phoenix to Las Cruces, NM

The preparation for any glider race is important but when each new day starts from an airport two or three hundred miles from the last one, and a new set of charts and a new database is required to be installed in the GPS etc.  preparation really shows.   How about a curved ball too? With fierce wildfires burning across Arizona and New Mexico some Temporary Flight Restrictions had been published which now prevented us from flying the direct course line to Las Cruces.   My charts I had so painstakingly prepared were next to useless, and I needed to add a steering turnpoint to the data base as we now were required to fly down south of Tucson to avoid the fires.  340 miles over some very rough country was the task for the day.   Fortunately the Ventus 2 is equipped with a Garmin GPS with a US database which I would have to rely on that day.

As Estrella Airfield is in an area suffering from a prolonged drought no water ballast was available so we would fly "dry".   For me the start was good, and I left at maximum possible height taking a westerly route down towards Tucson.   The landscape is really unfriendly that way but the ground is higher and that was what I thought was the best strategy. When I met Doug Jacobs (DJ) halfway down the first leg I was sure my strategy was sound.

Lift for my whole flight averaged less than 350ft/min and on the first leg it was lower.   As I turned Ruby Star and started flying east however things improved.   Together with several gliders I found better thermals - usually downwind of the mountain ranges and on this leg I reached the best altitudes of the whole event - almost 15000 msl.   That's where LOCAL KNOWLEDGE paid off again.   A mutual friend of Brad Hays and mine flies out of Phoenix and Casey Lennox had written me saying among other things that this area provided in his opinion some of the best thermic conditions anywhere.   That belief kept me going until very late that day - I found my last thermal at 7:42 pm.  and squeaked into Las Cruces as the sun set at 8:12 pm.   A very good feeling.

With thunderstorms predicted for the leg to Hobbs, and overcast conditions on the day we were to have flown to Dallas the 45 pilots and crews took to the roads and the next race day was to be out of TSA ( Texas Soaring Association) - south of Dallas.

Day 3 - Dallas to Durant, OK.

The hottest day ever for me in the cockpit ( like a sauna).   Perhaps in part it was my fault as after launch I hung around the start for an hour and a quarter waiting for the cloud bases to go up.   The field at TSA is in an area more like Indianapolis than "the west" even though it's in Texas.   Greenery everywhere and hot humid air to go with it. This gliderport is home to the biggest soaring club in the country and many of the great names in the sport fly out of there, or from airfields nearby.

I had no hesitation in seeking LOCAL KNOWLEDGE from one of the most famous glider pilots in the world today.   Dick Johnson was on the field that day so I unashamedly asked him how to plan the flight.  "Well " said Dick "There is a good tailwind, and as the cloudbase will not be high, just get high and use the wind to your advantage".  "But" he cautioned "There are many good sized lakes in this area, stay away from them on the downwind side.   The sink is usually bad for a good distance downwind".

I started almost last, began to catch up with a few pilots and had final glide made from about 45 miles out.   All went well until about 16 miles from the finish.   I was exactly on glide slope BUT a fair sized lake lay exactly on course ahead.   I felt like I did not have sufficient altitude to deviate around the lake so plowed straight ahead .   To my peril.   All of a sudden on the downwind side of the lake the instruments began to signal I was falling well below glideslope to the finish.   Desperately I searched for and finally found a weak thermal that cost me many points, but allowed me to finish about 6 minutes slower than I should have.   Can you believe who's LOCAL KNOWLEDGE I had ignored!

The next race leg would be from Illinois to Indiana so on we drove to the St.   Louis area.   For any glider types who have spent time at Silver Creek in Illinois it will come as no surprise to hear that the hospitality there was as fantastic as ever.   Most pilots and crews enjoyed a barbecue meal, lots of beer and a campfire before camping on the field that night.   They had four inches of rain in the day before we arrived, but all looked good for the next day.

Day 4 - Silver Creek Illinois to Terry, Indianapolis.  

On this day ZA started first, not intentionally first, but early because I thought an early start would be better.   In my experience if the ground is wet here in the Midwest the thermals quite often die early, and the ground was very wet in places.   Today I would have to be my own LOCAL KNOWLEDGE.

My start was good from the top of the height band at around 5500 msl. The flight seemed to me to comprise three distinct sectors.   The first third we had some marker clouds, and as if to vindicate my early start decision I flew for several thermals with DJ, usually a sign that you're doing it right.   The second third of the flight only an occasional wisp of cloud was seen although lift when encountered was still good.   The last third of the flight was completely "blue" and lift was harder to find.   By 4pm pilots began calling for their crews to "stand by" at this or that airport.   I took full advantage of a very good thermal that Dick Mockler (IT) was marking near Clinton, IN, but when Dick sped off, something told me to hang around for a few additional turns.   The last 40 miles into Indy were really tough, and the final 1000 ft.   I needed to make it in were gained at 72 fpm.   For me there could be no sweeter way to arrive in Indy - the only 18 m glider to complete the task that day.   I was really happy to see my crew , my club mates and most of all my family.   Everyone in the event I know really enjoyed the Terry stopover.   How could they not with the Hoosier Hospitality delivered by the CISS members and Montgomery Aviation.

Unfortunately the soaring gods did not hold back a front that moved across the area as the launch began (a little late perhaps) on the day we were to race from Terry to Caesar Creek, so that day was canceled. For me it worked out well as Dick Hutchinson and John Dittrich were to take over as my crew for the "Eastern" legs of the race.   We decided to fly the next day, which had been declared a "rest" day and test all systems.

The bonus was we retrieved the floating trophy, and as of this writing no one has flown up to take it back yet.   I'm sure they will shortly.

Day 5 - Caesar Creek to Gallia Meigs Airport ( on the Ohio river in Eastern Ohio)

This race was for me one of my best even though the analysis shows it was by far the most difficult conditions we encountered.   The average lift was only 166 fpm.  and never in the entire flight did I get higher than 3500 ft above the ground.   The ground by the way was heavily forested rolling country in the eastern sector, with few places to land.

As I felt I had to push a little harder now I elected to start late - and hopefully "catch the pack".   In fact I started about 30 minutes after almost all the others in my class and maybe close to last of all. To survive and hopefully do well the only way was to use the clouds, as the height band was so narrow that no one in their right mind could ignore the certainty of the lift under the clouds.   By using the streets .   Deviating when I had to, and straining to search out any glimmer of a shimmering wing up ahead I was able to steadily "catch up" with the stragglers at first, then some serious contenders and finally some of the pilots I knew it would be good to finish with.   The final 25 miles were very interesting.   A high overcast and no obvious thermal markers .   So now that I had caught them up taking advantage of thermals marked by George Moffat/ Mike Bird and Doug Jacobs seemed to me to make perfect sense.

The final glide ( of the whole RTKH event as it turned out ) was to say the least, very interesting.   There had been no one with LOCAL KNOWLEDGE to share the fact that the airport we were all final gliding to was hidden behind a range of hills and out of view.   Only as our altitude was getting desperately little did a small portion of runway finally show in a gap between the hills.   Some pilots I know had to fly through that gap as the hills were too high for them to make it over the top.   My strategy to start late worked and for the second day in a row I managed to win the day this time with the fastest speed in any class (a blistering 43 mph).   Thus endeth the racing.

On to Kitty Hawk

The entire fleet stopped over in Petersburg, VA for a night en route to Kitty Hawk.   For anyone who has the opportunity in the future to stop by at the glider field in Petersburg, in the heart of the Appalachian mountains at Newcastle don't even think of missing that unique experience.   The scenery is spectacular, the field and hospitality legendary.   Just ask my crew members John or Dick.   At Kitty Hawk the grand finale of the event was the ceremonial arrival of the sailplanes .   Each glider was towed aloft and flew in over the inland water way to Kill Devil field, to that very "hallowed" ground where the Wright brothers had made their first powered flights 100 years ago.   This area used to be beach at that time, but is now grassed over ( with small prickly pears growing everywhere) and has never been landed on by an aircraft in recent memory.   Due to some very persuasive talk by the organizers including Ray Galloway agreement was reached to allow the RTKH sailplane fleet to land on that area.   This was no doubt the highlight of the trip for most, especially as the opportunity to repeat a landing there may never occur again.

The camaraderie among participants was superb with pilots and crews from at least eight different countries around the world.   Well done to the organizers and the SSA for organizing this historic event.   It will be very well remembered by every one of the 45 participants for as long as they live.

Ron Clarke (ZA)

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