Today was the last practice day before official racing begins. The weather was good enough to go places:
(That’s Mono Lake. And my finger.)
It’s more complicated than this, but: each day in a soaring contest, the glider pilots have to fly to a small set of waypoints, and the one who goes the fastest wins the day. The waypoints and associated details are called a task, and no pilot knows the task until an hour or two before the flying starts. This leaves little time for extensive strategizing, internet searching, number crunching, and other sorts of study and ratiocination that you might do if you had a few days to plan. Contest flying is meant to test immediate skill and proficiency, which means you do most of your decision-making in the air.
Here is a Google map image of the task we were presented today:
Departure from Tahoe, then southeast paralleling the eastern edge of the Sierras to Benton, California. Mono Lake is on the way, and Yosemite is on the other side of the snow-capped Sierras. From there, north to Hawthorne, NV, home of the sprawling Hawthorne Army Depot, then back northeast to Minden. It is remote, dusty country, but also breathtaking. I did not take nearly enough photos, and those I did take did not do it justice. Here is the eastern edge of the Sierras:
And I don’t really remember what this was:
Here is where we actually flew, seen in Google Earth (download KML file and view it yourself!):
So… we missed, right? Not really. Today’s task was a Turn Area Task, and the waypoints are not strictly points but enormous circles (not shown). You reach the waypoint when you enter the circle. Your speed is determined by dividing your actual distance covered (the length of the trace above) by the time it took you to fly it. There is a minimum time limit: you can’t just graze each circle or you’d finish too quickly. Sometimes it pays to go deep inside a circle if you think that can help you pad the clock—as long as you fly there quickly, and everywhere else too. We went southwest of Benton and then stayed west of Hawthorne, which we learned was probably a good call. Once you’re in Hawthorne’s valley, it can be tricky to climb back over Mount Grant and the rest of the Wassuk Range.
The long, flat glide back to Minden after that was a great demonstration of JOY’s gliding capability. We found patchy, weak lift on the way back, but nothing you could circle in. Eking our way over the Pine Nuts, we returned to Minden having flown 424 kilometers.
Back on the ground at last. The day ends by wiping the bugs off of the wings and tail…