Flying at the SA Nationals

2022! What an incredible flying season! I had two personal goals for the season and one big goal we set as the “Hannoverscher Aero Club” (HAeC): I wanted to fly more than 800 km and circumnavigate Berlin starting from the Oppershausen-Airfield. As a club, we were highly motivated to fly fast distances to move up to the second league in Germany. The first half of the season went okayish. I had one bigger flight in April but after that, I could not make free time for the good weather during the week. In July I started getting a little bit disappointed because I have not managed to achieve any of my goals. But August was about to change that and brought awesome conditions for the northern part of Germany.

On the one hand, the weather was very homogeneous which allowed my long-known friend Freddy and me to fly 850 km in the Duo Discus XLT. The day after we circumnavigated Berlin finishing the flight back in Oppershausen-Airfield with 890 km. The next weekends brought shorter, more intense days with strong lifts and long cloud streets. I could manage to fly more than 140 kph on average for two hours leading to ~130 speed points. I have never been faster than that. I thought the season could not end any better.

But then on the 1st of September, an inconspicuous E-Mail from Weglide fluttered into the mailbox. I could not believe it: An invitation to the Gliding Nationals in South Africa in Potchefstroom sponsored by Jonkers Sailplanes together with Zachary Yamauchi.

Four weeks of preparation for the trip. A quick call to my chief and I could get two weeks off from work for the adventure. Nothing stood in the way of the journey. Jonker Sailplanes took care of everything we needed in Potchefstroom to fly and helped us to validate our soaring licenses for South Africa. Oh no. During scanning my Flightbook, Radio license, and further documents I noticed that my flight medical was about to expire at the end of September. I had to call a dozen flight doctors but finally, I got an appointment on time and the journey could begin.

Two weeks later I arrived at Potchefstroom on Tuesday at noon so that I had three practice days before the competition started on Sunday 1st of October. Zachary arrived two days later. I had a very warm welcome in the organized apartment at “Birdsview” close to the airfield. Colourful flowers around the garden, a friendly turtle nibbling leaves, and a big and clean pool made me instantly forget the long flight. After a short break, I headed to the airfield where Jason Adriaan received me in person. He guided me around the airfield and showed me the LS1-D. Because of the night flight, I did not want to fly on the same day. In the evening I could get to know the youth group of the Akavlieg Potchefstroom. We had a nice dinner and drinks in town and shared stories about flying, politics, and life in our home countries. Because of the big university with 20000 students, there is a vivid life in the city of Potchefstroom.

On the next practice days, I was very excited because it was the first time for me to fly in conditions where I need oxygen and the first time flying an LS1-D. The runway in Potchefstroom has 1.8 km of asphalt. This makes the aerotow even with the heaviest planes possible. There is also a grass runway allowing you to land 90° off the main runway. On all three days, I had blue conditions. I needed to get used to the sandy-yellow landscape and needed to adapt to where to look for thermals. But I had a steep learning curve. From the first day when I only managed to stay up for one hour, I went to multiple-hour flights with turn points roughly 60 km from the airfield. I learned interesting facts about the area around Potch. In the south, there are several big mines. In Germany, you can usually expect strong lifts above such mines, because of the sandy ground. But that area south of Potch is different. Out of the mine shafts, cold water and mud are pumped to the surface which is cooling down the surrounding surfaces and disturbs stronger lifts. Thus, you need to pay careful attention to what the mines look like.

Until Friday Zachary and the other participants arrived at Potch. In total, we had more than 30 pilots and a lot of helping hands leading to a good mood and a full clubhouse each evening. This was accompanied by delicious food made by Jannie, the head of the Akavlieg in Potch. Every day he prepared different meals and desserts with love for us. In addition, he gave everyone a good start in the day by preparing a delicious breakfast with everything the usual glider pilot needs like eggs, sausages, fruits, bread, and different jams.

From Saturday on we had the weather briefing each day at 9:30 in the morning and the tasks for the different classes were shortly presented. Most days we should prepare for launching at 11:30. With the club class and no need to tank water, Zachary and I had no stress at all. Furthermore, the whole manoeuvring of the LS1-D and the Cirrus on the ground was quite easy: We had enough space to put both planes straight into the hangar. Getting the planes to the grid with the wing wheel and the car with a tow hook that we could use on the airfield was quite comfortable. Launching was well organized too: four planes were ready to tow each day and the whole grid was in the air in under 45 minutes. When the conditions were unclear a Stemme was launched as a sniffer to check for the first thermals. I would say everything that was controllable was managed well.

One big thing was of course not controllable in advance: the weather. The whole time a high-pressure system was lying above Potch. Therefore, most of the days we had blue conditions with some rare development of clouds. Besides that, the major weather services were quite far off with their predictions. Most likely wildfires and more dust in general in the atmosphere lead to less radiation reaching the ground which was not anticipated. But the conditions are the same for everyone in the contest and with 30 gliders in the air, it was manageable to find the strongest lifts in the blue.

During the competition, I learned quite a lot too. It was the first competition for me to fly ever. I participated in two practice contests with the D-Kader in Germany, but I have never been flying a competition before. On the first day, we had a 270 km racing task. Between the thermals, I have been flying too slowly. It gave me a kind of safe feeling because it seemed like I was not losing that much height. But because of the strong sink in between, it was not helping to reach the turn points at a higher altitude. Philipp Jonker on this day was flying in the LS4 more than 20 kph faster between the lifts than I did. The next days I increased my cruise speed without losing much at my glide ratio.

All of the tasks could be characterized by some crosswind leg, one challenging headwind leg, and a final one with a long backwind leg. The best conditions in my opinion were on the second and third days. On the second competition day, we had no clouds but quite homogeneous conditions over the whole day with strong lifts reaching about 2200 m AGL. Also, multiple pilots in the club class decided to start a quite similar time slot, so usually, someone was around to indicate some lift. On the third day, the second leg was about 100 km with 30 kph of wind against us. This was super tough because on the way to the south the thermal heights dropped from ~2000 m AGL in Potch to 1500 m. Next, the thermal strength reduced significantly at the first turn point. After the first third of the second leg, I was getting quite low and was in survival mode. After 15 minutes of struggling in weaker thermals, I got up to 1800 m again in a thermal above Hartbeesfontein. The 15 m class gliders were catching up flying far lower than me and showing me the next two lifts until they were out of reach again. I was lucky that a wildfire with its smoke reaching about 2000 m indicated the next thermal. The weather was getting better the further I got to the North. Besides that, ~1/8 of moisture was visible in the north giving me the feeling that there was a different air mass. But with the 30 kph headwind, I still had quite a far way to go. The last lift before Lichtenburg played a crucial role. A lot of fields were around and therefore I was confident going down to 500 m together with another glider. We found the best lift of the day: A 2200 m climb with 2,8 m/s on average. For the next 20 km to Lichtenburg, I refused to take lifts because I knew only because of the wind alone I will be ~ 50 kph faster on the third leg. Also, I expected strong thermals underneath the clouds. But I needed to give it a 2000 m glide until I found the next appropriate lift under the clouds. The clouds probably reached 3000 m AGL but the lift weakened at about 2500 m. Not as good as expected, but of course good enough to make it back to the airfield. The flight brought me to the 3rd place in total.

The next days were cancelled, because of strong winds. This gave us time to see the University of Potch and we went on a Safari. We could see Rhinos, Buffalos, Zebras antelopes, ostriches, and many other animals. The other day we had a tour at the Jonkers Sailplane factory. It was awesome to get a look behind the scenes at how the Jonkers gliders are manufactured. About 150 hands across multiple hangers are involved in manufacturing the Jonkers Sailplanes. It was breathtaking to see with which love for detail the engineers worked on redesigning air brakes, retractable and steerable back wheels, and the safety canopy. I am convinced that this is a great place to work for every aerospace engineer with an interest in gliders.
Until the end of the contest, the conditions were quite similar to the described days before and I could manage to hold third place. Before the award ceremony, I could fly with Timothy for one hour in the Falke. It was really relaxing cruising during the sun slowly settling down in the calm air and spotting some buffalos herds. After that, we had an awesome dinner and a great after-party at the clubhouse and later in town.

Saying goodbye the next day after such an intense time full of new experiences and friendships was more difficult than expected. I am very thankful for all the people supporting Zachary and me before, during, and after the trip. Jason Adriaan and Katrin Senne did a great job on the logistics and organization of the contest. Especially a big thanks to WeGlide for hosting this amazing platform and Jonkers Sailplane for sponsoring the trip. Source: ‚Niklas Hahn in the Jonkers Newsletter‘.

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