Beyond Thermal Soaring

by Michael Lachowski

In thermal soaring, much of your flight time is spent in lift and everyone understands what to do when in lift. The other part of the flight is searching and finding the lift, and you need a method to practice this to learn how to improve. How fast should you fly through bad air? How does all that ballast stuff work?

There is a good way to learn how to improve your flying skills in looking for lift (other than waiting for the friendly hawk or local guru to find it for you). Jump into multitask soaring. It can be done with any multi-channel thermal ship and even a polyhedral ship. This type of soaring goes by the names of SMT (Sportsman Multitask) and F3B. Practicing the tasks will help you improve your flying skills and find any problems with your glider control system or alignment.

What do I mean by multitask soaring? It means you fly three different tasks, one task per flight. These tasks are Duration (you know what that is), Distance, and Speed. If you read your AMA rule book, these tasks are listed under the AMA Thermal Duration rules section. The F3B rules are slightly different and can be found in the FAI Sporting Code available from the AMA. I’ll save some space in NSP’s catalog, skip the duration task and talk about the other tasks and how they improve your flying.

Let’s start with Distance, which I consider to be the most interesting task. In Distance, you trade off duration and speed to fly as many laps on a closed course within a fixed time period. A typical course is 150 Meters (492 feet) with the ends being two imaginary vertical planes. Sighting devices are used to measure passing through the plane in a contest. You can pick some object on the ground as a reference when sport flying. You complete a lap by passing through these planes and you can do this to the left or right of the sighting devices. This gives you room to search for lift on the course and you don’t have to depend on lift being right over the field. Circling in thermals is discouraged, since that just takes time and does not complete any laps.

You already use some aspects of Distance flying when you search for lift in thermal flying. A Distance course gives you the opportunity to measure how well you trade off speed and time in the air. It teaches you the importance of ballast selection for different wind and lift conditions by measuring your performance. Turning is important, too. You don’t want to waste energy through copious control inputs. Smooth, efficient turns must be made in both directions (how many pilots always turn left?). Picking a heading and keeping that heading parallel to the course reduces the distance you fly. This is a skill you want for thermal flying when you know the location of the lift so you can get there faster.

The Distance course and time constraints prevent you from circling in lift. You have to make the best of the lift wherever it is on the course. Since you have to fly back and forth through the lift, you get to explore the shape of the thermal. You may find the air is better on one end of the course than on the other end. This gives you a great opportunity to learn how to manage speed through different types of air. Wow, that’s a lot of different ideas, trading of speed for time, ballast selection, smooth turns, keeping a good heading, and exploring the shape of thermals. Now you know why I find Distance to be the most interesting task and I didn’t even talk about the man-on-man strategy for F3B contests!

Speed provides some real excitement. Precise control inputs and a good control system coupled with timing on the turns are just part of a good speed run. Every control input adds drag. Sloppy control systems with bad centering show up quickly. You want the same precision for thermal flying too. It’s just harder to see it if you routinely fly in circles. If you are a thumb flyer, you might try using a few fingers on the stick. It will take a while to get used to and it is hard to measure this difference in thermal flying. You might try a transmitter tray or strap. Speed sharpens the control system link between the eyes and the transmitter.

The first speed runs really worry people. Will my glider survive? If you do zoom launches, you probably have stressed the glider almost as much as a speed run does. Don’t add tons of ballast. It’s not needed to learn how to fly speed runs. In fact, a light glider shows mistakes in controlling quickly as a loss of speed. Many modern glider kits can easily handle a speed run. If you want some friendly competition with thermal ships, restrict the wing loading and score poly ships separately.

One final note on F3B; tasks are flown in defined flight groups and everyone has the same working time in which to complete the flight. This replaces the traditional AMA sandbagging tactics with strategy in how to use the working time and when you should relight (relaunch). Scoring is against the flight group so having bad air does not put you out of the contest. It only tests how you can make the best of a bad situation compared with the other pilots in your group. F3B is not suited for every pilot, but flying the tasks is something anyone can do with any sailplane. Trying it will make you a better pilot.

Give multitask soaring a try. It’s a great way to learn more about soaring.

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