Soaring is Risky Business

Michael Opitz: It was Day Three of the 1980 Standard Class Nationals at Harris Hill. I was having a good day, having caught up and passed the slow-moving gaggle. Now at the top, I started pushing ahead straight on course over the high ground. The sky dried up and went blue, but then I hit a five-knot thermal. Climbing up, I figured that the thermals were still working, just dry. I drove further out into the blue hole, only to find completely smooth air. I ended up hitting the dirt, while the gaggle slowly worked its way back home, deviating along the river valleys in order to use the ridges alongside for saves with the headwinds that we had picked up on that leg. That day cost me the competition.

Tony Condon: Gove County, Kansas is a place that I’d had wanted to visit for a while. The Smoky Hill River has eroded millions of years of sediment, exposing the impressive Monument Rocks formation and making the area a destination for fossil hunters. However, landing out in the early afternoon on arguably the best soaring day of the year was not what I had in mind for the method of my visit. As I worked out a plan to get home and watched a cumulus-filled afternoon sky float by, I started to seriously question my decision-making that led to this point. Here I was, a reasonably accomplished cross-country pilot, stuck in a field. I had a Diamond Badge on my hat and a National Record hanging on my wall. There were two stints flying on the US Team in my logbook. And yet here I am. Soaring can be a cruel sport sometimes and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, this sort of reminder comes along. Obviously, my risk/reward assessment on this day was incorrect. I had failed to quickly recognize a change in the air ahead, and by the time I downshifted my fate was sealed. It was time to go back to the books…

Daniel Sazhin: Many a soaring pilot can relate to these situations. How many times have you been forced on the ground, looking up and wondering what the heck went wrong? The most frustrating aspect is that it is never clear whether the decisions that lead to failure are bad decisions or simply bad luck. The guidance most pilots receive is that it is necessary to “shift gears”. But what does this actually mean? When should you do this? How does the gear shifting actually work? Experienced pilots will say to look out ahead, recognize that the weather is changing and that it is needed to slow down and become less selective about thermals. Conversely, sometimes it is time to “step on the gas” and start flying efficiently. But what classifies this actual change?

After several blown contests and getting rather frustrated at my own failures, I was in Elmira, this time prepping for the Junior Worlds. John Bird, a PhD candidate in aeronautical engineering who specializes in programming UAVs to soar was flying Penn State’s AC-4 in the regional. He was also getting the full Elmira treatment, occasionally blasting along on a cloud street and then digging around in the dirt. And sometimes meeting the farmers.

We got to talking and thinking. We recounted the adage, “If you’re landing out too often, you’re pushing too hard. If you’re rarely landing out, then you’re leaving speed on the table and you can push harder. Learn to switch gears when the conditions change.” But how do you measure these things? And what does the gear shifting actually mean?

Not content with waiting many more years to get better at this game, John and I set out to explain and define what risk management in soaring is all about. We formed a very natural collaboration, using my perspectives on decision-making and his experience in modelling and simulations. Source: ‚Soaring Economist, Daniel Sazhin, John Bird‚.

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