Contest Strategy

by George Moffat

Two years ago at the first Symposium I talked about tactical flying-all the endless little ways you can save a second here, a second there-the whole theory of winning by not losing. Today I would like to consider the other side of the coin, the strategic choices that a pilot must make, and make correctly, if all the seconds saved by careful tactical flying are not to be thrown away by making wrong overall decisions--or perhaps by failing to realize that there are decisions to make.

We will consider this subject under four general categories based on the various kinds of tasks and problems. First, we will take that persistent relic, the free distance task. Following that we will cover its slightly disguised cousin, the cat's cradle. Next will come the speed task; and finally we will consider general strategic problems concerned with the type of ship and one's current placing in the contest. I hope to be able to illustrate all of these problems by reference to recent contest flights, and I will try to give you some idea of how successful I have been (or haven't been) an each type of task so you will know whether to listen or not.

First, let us take up the jolly old free distance dearly beloved of Minamoa owners. I have won two out of nine free distance tries, -by the way, in case you think the grapes are entirely sour. A.J. and Dick Schreder have equal records over the same years. No advocates of the task that I know of have won more than one. Since I have, many times, said all the nasty things I can think of about this expensive, pointless, outdated and luck-prone event, I will spare you my opinion of it now. Unfortunately, despite the low regard most of the better contest pilots have for the task, it is still very much with us (we had not one but two at the 1970 Standard Class Nationals, one of which turned into a no-contest day), so we might as well think of the smartest ways to fly the thing.

The reason that the free distance day is so luck-prone and thus detested by the better competitors is that one seldom has adequate or accurate weather information. For example, in 1964 there was supposed to be a 25knot southerly wind, so everyone headed dutifully north into nothing type weather. Actually the wind was quite light. A few of us decided to chance it and had the best flights, A. J. winning. In Adrian in 1965 it was supposed to be good to the west and raining in the south. One chap apparently got his directions mixed, went south and won easily. Those of us who went west found the rain. The weatherman apparently got his directions mixed, too. In 1969 there was an uncrossable front 200 miles north so the smart money went east for about 350 miles. As it happened the front had a big hole, and people who drifted off downwind to the north found it and poured through with distances up to 520 miles. And so it goes.

What does all this tell us from a strategic point of view? The first lesson is that you cannot possibly trust the weather information. The next is that you had better use a sort of fail-safe plan. By this I mean that, unless you are hopelessly behind, you had better try for a pretty good flight rather than a flat out winner. The logic here is that most of your serious competitors are in the same boat and will probably make about the game choices given the same information. The types that win big on free distance days by trying the radical are hardly ever the pilots that end up in the top places.

Obviously the most important information that you need concerns the weather. You should listen to the briefing with great care, noting especially such natural barriers as fronts and such speed producing factors as wind and thermal strength. If the free distance task comes after the third contest day, you should be beginning to have some idea of the idiosyncrasies of the weatherman. Does he, like Dave Oven, always seem very conservative on when thermals will begin? Does he never look out the hanger door to see what's actually happening? Does be consistently under or overestimate thermal strength? I like to go have a bit of a chat with the weatherman each day after the briefing, not BO much because I may get extra information, but just to get to know him and let him get to know me. This allows me to better judge the degree of certainty behind the predictions. I usually drop by once an hour before takeoff to see if there are any changes and particularly to see if the heating is going according to prediction.

Normally the weather briefing will show one or two definite directions to go. For instance in Reno in 1966 it was blowing 50-60 mph with weak thermals so no great concentration was needed. If there are conflicting choices, you should investigate the possibilities carefully. Too many pilots just turn downwind and hope for the best. You must plan to maximize flying hours and go where you can get the most distance. For example, in 1969 there was a front 200-250 miles downwind with little chance given to either cross it or run along it. West looked dead, east had a warm front. A narrow line to the northeast offered a crosswind turning to headwind after about 300 miles, with very weak thermals late in the day. The latter choice didn't sound very promising, but it was the correct one because it offered a chance to stay airborne for 8-1/2 hours. Even if you only averaged 40-45 mph you would have 340-380 miles, whereas the northern route offered 250 at most although with average speeds of 50-60 mph. I actually covered 376 to the northeast.

Terrain features should be considered in plotting course. If there is a choice, try to be over reasonably landable country at the end of the day. You can cover a lot of extra miles if you don't have to break off at 1500 feet to take the last available field. I lost 30 miles that way in 1966. 1 gained a few additional miles in 1969 by being able to pass up an airport when I was down to 300 feet to get to some obviously good fields beyond.

Should one make major changes of plan during the flight if conditions seem markedly different from the forecast? I hope A. J. is going to talk about this one, but in general I would say yes. I think I am too slow to make such changes. However, it is very important not to mill around aimlessly. Too many people circle interminably at the top of used up thermals because they can't decide what to do next.

A few years ago Paul Bikle thought up the prescribed area distance task, more irreverently known as cat's cradle or Bikle's basket. The idea was to test the pilot's evaluation of weather and course possibilities as in free distance without incurring the long, expensive retrieves. Unfortunately the task has usually turned into either a nine hour race (in good weather or predictable conditions) or a straight luck job in questionable weather. Last year Paul thought up a great improvement on his system, but unfortunately contest directors, at least in the Standard Nationals often did not call the task on the sorts of day that Paul specified, so we ended up with the worst of two worlds. We have been averaging about two cat's cradles per contest lately, so the task deserves a good deal of strategic consideration. Incidentally, I have flown nine cat's cradles in national or international competition and won four, for a win average of about 45 percent.

In working out where to go in a cat's cradle the most important thing is to plan backwards. The key to doing well lies in being in the right spot three hours before the anticipated end of the flying day. A normal prescribed area envelope will be about 250 miles long and perhaps 200 high so there is quite a lot of room to move around. The whole point lies in being as far upwind as you think you will be able to fly in the last three hours so that as the thermals weaken you can take maximum advantage of the wind. For example, if you think the day will end at seven you expect to average 35 mph for the last three hours, and the wind is 15 mph, you should try to make your last turn about 150 miles upwind at around 4:00 o'clock.

Last summer in the Internationals in the second cat's cradle we had a 15 mph wind from the east. Wally and I chose to buck this wind up to Odessa (145 miles) and then turn southeast to buck it again to Big Lake for another 80 miles. We rounded Big Lake according to plan at about 5:00 o'clock, having covered only 225 miles. Next, we flew west to Wink with a quartering tailwind and finally turned downwind to Sierra Blanca, the extreme western end of the course, arriving there at about sundown with just enough altitude to glide the last 20 miles back into the dying wind for a total of 480 miles. During the last weak hour we passed many pilots who had allowed themselves to get downwind too early and were stuck trying to get upwind in 60 fpm thermals. At 5:00 o'clock some of these pilots mist have had a 70-mile lead on Wally and me, but they don't count up the points until you land.

An even more interesting example of the same sort of strategic planning came on the first day of the Standard Nationals in Elmira last summer. As many of you will remember, the wind was about 15 mph out of the WNW with about 400-500 fpm thermals predicted. With this in mind I planned to go downwind to Wurtsboro (140 miles), back west to Bloomsburg (140 miles), using the heart of the day to buck the wind, and, arriving there a bit after five, coast downwind as far as possible. In actual fact I soon discovered the thermals were far weaker than forecast so after about 25 miles, I turned south to go to Mount Pocono, arriving there about 2:00 o'clock. Once there I turned west toward Bloomsburg, bucking the wind in 300 fpm lift, and arrived about 4:30 with the day obviously beginning to die. I turned east in thermals which varied from zero sink to 100 fpm and managed to drift 120 miles before landing at about 7:00 o'clock for a flight of 262 miles. I later discovered that most of my competitors had gone to Wurtsboro first but then had not been able to get far enough upwind to use the last two hours of the day effectively, many of them having run out of course to the east by 5:30. The next best flights were about 210 miles.

The kind of planning that I have been recommending takes some rather close calculation of likely speeds. A successful pilot should be able to figure his average speed in a given set of conditions to within 3-5 mph. Always work out speeds when practicing just to see how close you can get.

Of course the key to a successful area distance flight is weather information, and equally of course, the weather is usually absent entirely (as at Elmira last summer) or doubtful at best. Unfortunately cat's cradles tend to be called in rather chancy weather so results often have more to do with luck in not getting blocked by a big storm. over your turn than any great wisdom displayed by the pilot. As in free distance flying, the fail-safe method seems best. Try to avoid turnpoints that will leave you with no productive alternate if you find them blocked when you get within ten miles. The whole U.S. team got had this way on the first day of the Internationals last summer.

An interesting and typical weather decision turned up on the second area distance in the World's last summer. The prediction called for 600-800 fpm thermals in the western half of the area with scattered cu-nim, and 400-600 fpm in the eastern half with no chance of storms. The western sector would obviously produce the best flights if there was no blocking by storms, the eastern end would give less mileage but no blocking and the chance of a long downwind final glide. The whole U.S. team chose to buck the wind and weaker thermals to head east, partly influenced, in my case by being well up in the standings, very much influenced by our collective disaster with cu-nims on the first day. All turned out about as predicted except that there were no storms anywhere. Wally and I turned in about 482 miles, Neubert of Germany in the Kestrel 22 won with 500 miles, all done in the western sector. I still feel I made the right decision. In Neubert's shoes I would have done as he did since he had to have a very good day in order to climb back up in the standings. Wally should probably have taken a chance on the west in view of his relatively poor standing at the time, but he may have been partly influenced by the advantages of team flying. There is no question that our team flying worked superbly and helped both our scores a lot. A more effective teammate or a better pilot than Wally Scott would be hard to imagine.

The strategy of choosing takeoff times assumes great importance on distance days--always supposing you are not last on the choice list. Ideally I would take the earliest possible time plus ten minutes or ten minutes after the first man, whichever was later. The theory here is that you will have a few other ships launched ahead of you to mark whatever little early thermals there may be. Of course if you have reason to think that everyone is taking off far too late, it pays to keep your later time until the last minute and then move quickly up to the head of the line and get off. The reason for the last minute move is that sailplane pilots often show a depressing similarity to sheep in that they will do whatever they see some other pilot do, In the Internationals in 1960 Dick Schreder dashed to his ship, jumped in and took off in an obviously dead sky-and watched 60 of the world's best follow suite. He just did it for fun.

Assuming that you do get off among the first and it is very weak, don't be in too big a hurry to dash right out on course. Many such top pilots as Dick Johnson will mill around for half an hour or more waiting for conditions to improve and especially, waiting for some of the more impatient types to get out on course. Keep in mind that one can make fabulous time jumping from gaggle to well marked gaggle and soon be right up with the leaders. Of course if you realize that everyone is hanging back unnecessarily, you had better get going. Unfortunately, if you are at all well known, you will immediately attract a minnow pack of followers. The best bet is to ignore them, they usually soon get lost.

Speed tasks are, for me, much the most fun to fly, since the luck element is fairly low and one is somewhat less dependent on inaccurate or doubtful weather reports than in distance tasks. They are also cheap and relatively non-tiring, since retrieves are seldom involved. I am supposed to like them because they are a big specialty of mine, but actually I have won 23 out of 54 flown for an average of 48 percent as opposed to a 45 percent average on cat's cradle tasks. My experience has been that in an 8-day contest of all speed tasks all the elements of judgment and weak weather ability will be tested fully as well as if distance tasks were thrown in.

The basic strategy in speed tasks has to do with time and its proper use. As soon as the task and weather have been announced, the pilot should get busy with his computer and figure out likely speeds. He needs to know the best possible speed, the likely speed and a minimum likely speed. If the course is 200 miles and the maximum lift predicted is 400 fpm he might figure 54 mph as maximum, 46 mph as likely and 35 as least likely. The times thus are 3:40, 4:20 and 5:40. If the lift should be starting at noon and ending about 8:00 o'clock, the pilot would want to start between 13:45 and 14:00. The reasoning is that if the weather is much better than anticipated you will still be doing most of your flying in the heart of the day; if the weather is about as predicted, you will be utilizing the best 4-1/2 hour stretch; and if things really fall apart you will still make it home. With the latter in mind, a pilot should get airborne about an hour before the planned start so that he can feel out the day. This hour of leeway should be used to time climbs In order to determine lift strength and ceiling. If conditions seem markedly worse than anticipated, move up the start time accordingly. A false start or two during the pre-start period will often encourage competitors to start too early. There is a strong psychological pressure to get going which should be resisted. Those who don't resist it will serve as thermal finders for you all the way around the course.

If your chosen starting time is 3:00 o'clock and everyone else seems to be long gone by 2:30, consider the advisability of starting early. Those others may know something you don't. You will also lose their valuable thermal marking service--especially helpful on weak days--if you stick too closely to plan. Another general rule: if in doubt, start earlier. You may not win the day, but you may save the contest. Wally Scott got shot down in just this way in the last Internationals, and I missed sharing his fate by only a couple of minutes. I probably lost the 1968 Hahnweide contest in Germany by starting too late on a 300 km triangle--I had great time until I hit the ground 60 miles short of the finish--and certainly scuppered. myself on the first day of the 1967 Nationals by starting a bit too late in my greed for a few extra points.

The growing prevalence of designating starts causes a strategy problem. Especially on good days with fairly short tasks one is often launched two to three hours before the best starting time. The endless milling around while awaiting the magic hour is very boring and extremely sapping of the competitive drive so necessary for winning. I try to get off by myself so as to spend as little energy as possible while waiting out the clock. Almost everyone starts too early under these conditions, and you might want to adjust your strategy accordingly. When flying under our good old pilot selected takeoff system, it is a good idea to keep an eye on unpredicted weather which may influence takeoff time. Early observance of the growing cu-nim that turned into The Great Tornado of the 1967 Nationals allowed me to move my launch time up an hour and win the day. Such sneaky maneuvers are best done quietly. If you always have your ship out on the line early, less people will wonder about your sudden activity. Make sure the crew is loitering nearby.

The other strategic aspects of speed task flying, such as knowledge and use of terrain have been covered under the other type tasks. Heedless to say, you always round downwind turns at maximum altitude and upwind ones as low as you dare, but these are more nearly items of tactics than of strategy.

We have covered strategy for particular tasks; now what about overall strategy? There are two major considerations, ship and place in contest.

First, consider the ship. You will be unhappy to learn that not all of us always get to fly the best ship for a given contest. A. J. first made his reputation in an LO-150, hardly a world beater even ten years ago; Dick Schreder and I both had our first wins in the HP-8 which, at close to eight pounds wing loading, sometimes left a few things to be desired. The point is to utilize up to the maximum the things you can expect to do with your equipment.

If you fly a Ka-6 you cannot hope realistically to win speed days. Trying to beat the lead sleds at their own game will result in your taking too many chances and ending up on the deck. The trick is to pull a Dick Johnson. Dick has never won a speed day as long as I have been flying against him. On the other hand he never loses by all that much, and with our point system, which gives disproportionately small encouragement to speed, he does very well. With a light ship you must do as Dick does, become a weak weather specialist. A Ka-6 is right up there with the latest glass jobs when the thermals drop into the 100 fpm category, as John Seymour kept demonstrating last summer at Elmira. Consistency when others are being inconsistent wins a lot of contests. Ed Makula, flying a Foka. in Reno in 1966, gave a perfect illustration of this principle. Conversely, if you fly a heavy ship you must do well on speed tasks in good weather and just try to hang in there very cautiously in bad weather. I find it very hard to discipline myself to fly at max L/D when I am used to cruising 30 mph faster. There is an almost ungovernable tendency to drop the nose and lose the trailing gaggle, but it is very depressing to watch from the ground a few minutes later as they drift cautiously on overhead.

Your ship's performance may very much influence your overall approach to the contest. In Marfa last summer I was confident that the Nimbus' performance edge would bail me out even after the first disastrous day. Consequently I flew quite conservatively, especially towards the end. Neubert's bad luck on the second day allowed me to do this; otherwise I would have had to push really hard. In Elmira I decided to fly extremely cautiously, never really trying to win a day (and seldom winning by much of a margin) because I felt sure that in the very weak weather my ship had no real advantage but that consistency would be every-thing.

Practice days can be quite important strategically. One should never lose a chance to defeat another ship in either climb or glide, and one should never continue a comparison flight if the other pilot can see he is beating you. A. J. and I took great and planned delight in Poland in flying rings around all the Fokas we could find just to demoralize the opposition. I did the same with the Nimbus last summer. Pilots who think they will be beaten are beaten.

Your place in a contest or your anticipated place is another major strategic consideration. Generally speaking, the farther up you are in the standings or the higher you expect to be, the more cautiously you fly. Winning individual days is not important. It is not losing days that counts. On the other hand, if you are tanked for some reason as Dick Schreder, I, and so many others were on the first day in Texas in 1967, you had better consider a go-for-broke approach. My thinking that year was influenced by the fact that I didn't expect I could get on the U.S. team for the following year unless I was in the first five. As a result I took far more chances than I usually do and finally made it to fourth spot.

Strategy by itself will never win a contest. Tactical flying is still far more important. Still, proper use of strategic considerations can often save the pilot from hasty and rash decisions which will waste the valuable seconds saved by careful flying. Strategy consists of taking the long range view of a course of action to see where it will get you at the end of the meet. Too often a failure to consider overall objectives causes a pilot to take a chance which is not justified in terms of the long range result desired.

Questions And Answers

Question: (John Ryan) Are there cases where you should seriously consider going around twice on a speed task?

Answer: It should never be a consideration and in recent years has not been. In the early sixties it was common to call speed tasks of, say, 60 or 70 mile lengths. I can remember one case of going around three times. I think this was Elmira in 1963. In the last three or four years committees have generally not called tasks short enough for you to effectively get around twice. My thinking is that it is far better to choose the one best time if the task is, say, about three and one-half hours, rather than have an early and late trip both in not so hot weather.

There is another factor. Dick Johnson, I thought, was a superb team captain in Marfa last year, but the only mistake I thought he made was encouraging Wally Scott to go around a 250 mile task on, I believe, the fourth day. I think Dick was thinking very competitively but I don't think he was thinking effectively on long range and degree of weariness. Effective speed flying is very, very tiring and I think probably it cost Wally more on energy to make that second run than it was worth. Incidentally, he didn't up his speed. He didn't leave until about 4:00 o'clock which meant he couldn't possibly finish until around 7:30 and the day was beginning to die by then.

Question: (Doug Gaines) When do you make the decision that things are not as good or that things are better than you originally predicted? Answer: That's a very good question because that is a very hard decision to make. I'm sure that a lot of it is just based on plenty of experience.

Now, to give a finite example, on the first day at Elmira I decided that it wasn't going to be any good when I couldn't find any decent thermals to begin with. If in ten miles you find no decent thermals, it may be just bad luck; but if in 25 miles you find no decent thermals, then probably it is because there are no decent thermals. Another thing is you begin to look at the clouds. In this case this was a basic northwest weather day which in this area gives us sharp well defined clouds with obvious cores. But this day the clouds were rather straggly looking and were not developing as they should. They looked flat and they were flat. Experience shows that this would be likely to lead to an early demise of the day. I think generally what you work on is a general feeling based on experience.

Question: (Leo Buckley) You are critical of the distance task because of the possibility of isolated air mass thunderstorms blocking the turnpoint. Isn't this an equally valid criticism of a speed task, and if not, why not?

Answer: No it is not, because if a large air mass thunderstorm is blocking the turnpoint when you get there, you can assume that it has been blocking the turnpoint for a bit of time and is going to block it for a bit of time. What you do is wait on the outside for it to go away. If it doesn't go away then everyone is going to land pretty much in the same spot and the day might as well not have been a contest day because everyone will wind up with approximately the same score. Now if it does go away, then your patience in hanging around will be rewarded. However, if you do this on a distance task or cat's cradle, then you are absolutely had. You have to shovel off to the next turnpoint, perhaps 80 miles or more away, and in doing so give up a weak day three hours. There is no known way whatsoever that you can get this back and yet it was not poor judgment that got you there. In fact, it may have been very good judgment. It was just a. chance that you could not foresee nor could the weather man.

Comment. (A. J. Smith) It is a rare situation where everybody is in the same unfortunate incident in a cat's cradle.

Comment: (Moffat) Yes, I feel that this is a very, very important point.

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