Saturday, March 24, 2007

Catching Up

By Tom McCune

How many times have you gone out to fly XC with your fellow pilots, only to find that they are halfway to Enumclaw when you are setting up to launch? Or perhaps you are in a competition and didn’t quite get high enough to go on course when the start cylinder opened, but the rest of the pack is out on course gaining distance. How do you catch up to them? It is not always easy but if you can identify the type of lift the day is offering, and combine it with current knowledge, you can then make it work to your advantage to close the gap or maybe even win the day. While it is often fun to be out in front of the pack, only one pilot basks in this glory; the rest are simply catching up.

Tom McCune and Bill Belcourt

At the PG Worlds Comp in Australia, Task One has been cancelled, but Tom McCune (left) and fellow US teammate Bill Belcourt are still smiling. Photo by Conrad Kreick.

I remember years ago Will Gadd said, “the distance between thermals is two to four times the height of the thermal from ground to cloud base”. When you are flying, each day should find you analyzing how high you are and how far you need to go to find the next thermal. This is ‘in theory’ because you can also find broad areas of lift and broad areas of sink. In addition, terrain will play a big role in lift and sink around Tiger. Remember to be flexible while you think your way through the sky because things change as you cover more ground.

Competitions make good examples of what works because there are so many pilots to see at once. During the 2005 Rat Race at Woodrat Mt. cloud base was fairly low on all five days. Since cloud base was low, it would make sense that thermals were scattered around everywhere and one need not go too far to find lift. With that being the case, it made no sense to go all the way to the cloud even though it was a low base. Those who did had nice elevation but were getting farther behind with each climb. With a higher cloud base, I find it more useful to maximize the lift as far as I can. Sounds ironic or backwards but with the lift spread out farther, it will be harder to find the next thermal source unless you can actually see it via clouds or dust devils. Obviously at Tiger we want to get as high as we legally can when going XC regardless of how high cloud base is because of limited LZs, however, I once left Tiger from 2700’ MSL and flew past Enumclaw. I used to have a rule that I would not leave unless I could get to 5 grand but obviously that rule is now in the trash. Keeping in mind this thermal distance rule can help you decide to go when there is a low cloud base.

Using speed bar to catch up when we are higher is a natural tendency but when lower we tend to back off the bar. If the distance between thermals is relevant to the height of the thermal, then it really should not make a difference when we push bar. Or does it? If it is totally thermic and there is no interference with other types of air currents, then speed bar can be pushed regardless of how high base is. In all conditions, pilots sometimes find themselves on the ground after cramming bar racing ahead for the blue ribbon. You can go faster but you also need another thermal to stay on course and thermals do not always line up with the course you desire to fly. I think the speed bar is a whole story unto itself and full of technical decisions which vary constantly. Identifying and utilizing the type of lift will help you get through the sky better on any day and also help you in speed bar decisions.

Some pilots will stop and work every scrap of lift they fly through so they can ‘top it off’ before continuing. While this can be advantageous in tricky areas it is not the best thing to do if winning a comp or catching up is your goal. A good comp pilot will normally pass up small thermals and only core big lift. I have seen this style and it works in places where there is plenty of big lift like Chelan, but in the mountains with varying lift, the decision to be flexible about which thermal to use will keep you in the air. Normally it is best to find strong lift on days that provide it and only utilize weak lift when needed, but at Tiger we are often forced to work the weak stuff.

Tom at Tiger Mountain

Tom launches from his home site, Tiger Mountain. Photo by Kerry Ryan.

Another way of gaining ground would be to work a convergence. As nasty as they can be at times, the convergence is a great way to cover ground without losing elevation. One mistake we often make while using this type of lift is that we turn in it too much or fail to properly track it and thus end up in the sinking side. A convergence is not seen or easily identified unless there are clouds, dust devils, or smoke revealing its presence. Regardless of how we identify it, it must be flown by feel. The lift it provides rarely gives us a defined thermal so try to keep from turning in it too much and do not expect it to take you on a direct course line. Take it as far as you can and then cut across to where you really need to go. In a Chelan competition, I used this technique to gain a lot of ground one day. I was low at the start and one of the last pilots on course, but when I identified a convergence, I passed dozens of pilots, turned very little for several miles and nearly caught the lead gaggle. A convergence will normally have a trashy side and a lift side. When you get whacked hard in a convergence — and you will — identifying it is the first step to utilizing it for all it has to offer.

When starting at the back of the pack, there is a distinct advantage of seeing pilots going up or down all along the course. You can see the stronger thermals and even observe pilots wasting time in lighter lift. If you are forced to use this strategy, use it to help yourself out but do not use it as an exclusive source of finding lift because you will not be challenging yourself. If you are new to XC, utilize this till you become brave. With several pilots out in front, you may also see a line of lift that you can ‘surf’ instead of stopping for the thermal. That strategy will definitely help you to catch up if you work it properly.

Those types of lift and flying styles will cover most cases but there is also ‘wave lift’ which can be flown. High pressure and low pressure will give a different type of lift. Wave lift is another topic all to itself so let’s save that for later discussion.

Try something new occasionally. It can be a risk that puts you on the ground quickly, but if you learn something, you just might find yourself flying farther next time. Going to the north ridge at Tiger often puts pilots in the LZ when they first try, but they eventually learn how, and then become regulars out there. Crossing a difficult area with a gaggle will normally get everyone better results so do not get far behind if you can help it. This will save you the challenge of catching up to those who are in the lead.

Challenge yourself to learn something new. Nobody knows it all and paragliding is a new adventure with seemingly new twists. It can only make you better when you put forth an effort. Then when you do learn something new, share it with me because even I find myself trying to play the ‘catching up’ game. As you can see, I’m still learning too!