Day 9 at Minden

Gridding up: it’s the final day of the 2012 US Open Class Nationals.

Grid on the final contest day of the 2012 US Open Class Nationals

For the first time in the contest, our task took us north:

This modified assigned task (c.f. Day 0) had numerous turnpoints, many of them intended to steer pilots east around Reno and its busy  Class C airspace. After heading up and down the western shore of Pyramid Lake, the task runs down along the Pinenuts and then the Sweetwaters before leaving the return to Minden up to the pilot.

As it happened, increasing westerly winds switched on the famous Minden mountain wave. This phenomenon is known for sending visiting pilots tens of thousands of feet above the Carson Valley, and Gordon Boettger is attempting to use wave for lengthy distance flights as well. Unfortunately, thermals downwind and underneath the wave can be truncated, moved, or even suppressed altogether. This effect blocked all but one intrepid pilot from visiting all of the turnpoints. Team JOY, like most, got as far as “Double Spring”, situated just west of the “Wellington” label in the map above.

Mike was pleased with the northern half of this contest, where most of the contest ships made way together in a loose group. In these situations, it pays for the gliders to give themselves some room—not only for safety’s sake, but also to sample more of the sky for good lift. Occasionally one glider would find a worthwhile thermal, then the others would notice and join, and finally everyone would disperse again once they got to the top. Mike compared this dynamic to what he’d observed at some European contests he’d visited; by contrast, he recalled one or two times in American regionals in which packs of gliders trailed each other in roughly single-file lines.

In any case, the JOY strategy involved exploiting the great glide performance it achieves at slower speeds. Mike and I would watch other contestants pass us in cruising flight, usually sinking below our altitude and catching a thermal ahead. Eventually, JOY would reach the thermal—well marked by these other gliders—and climb for the next cruise. Through several cruise/climb cycles, JOY managed to keep pace with and even pass a number of the other ships, perhaps because JOY tended to thermal a little faster than the rest of the field.

Had JOY flown in a pack all the way to the finish, the final glide performance of the other, newer gliders would likely have left it well behind, since final glides tend to involve cruising at high speeds. JOY’s glide performance falls off more dramatically at speed than the performance of newer ships (more technically-minded readers may wish to learn about polar curves to see how glider pilots represent the speed/glide performance tradeoff).

Instead, the field dispersed as the lift became weaker and more diffuse: different pilots took different gambles. Mike chose to head directly to the Silver Springs turnpoint from the southern end of the Virginia Range, while other pilots diverted toward a cumulus cloud further east that signaled better lift there. We spent some tense time down low as a result, but eventually found lift and continued south along the Pinenuts toward Double Spring.

Once there, Mike knew that deteriorating conditions wouldn’t favor completing the task. This left a choice: continue on to bag just the next waypoint (“Ranch”), or head home. Ranch was only about 20 miles away, but the valley in between looked like sink city, and getting back over the Pinenuts from anywhere in that direction, and then on to Minden, seemed like a long shot. We felt our way about halfway to Ranch and lost our nerve. Forget the rest of the task: toward Minden and call it a day.

Hours later, when scores were announced, Team JOY learned that other competitors had similar struggles, and that we had done relatively well—well enough for us to earn second place overall in the competition. Rick Indrebo had done slightly better, and this combined with his ranking from previous days secured the championship…

…by 14 points out of 7,201 overall.

Had JOY made it successfully to Ranch and back, we’d have closed this gap and leapt to first. A failed attempt would have meant landing out and dropping significantly in the rankings. Mike and I will probably be haunted by “what-ifs” for a while, but we are very happy with our strong finish and with a contest that remained fiercely competitive until the very end. (Note: #3 was only three points behind JOY!) Congratulations to Rick and to all the participants!

TODO: Stay tuned for further updates of this entry, including annotations to this YouTube video:

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