Saturday, February 17, 2007

Manilla XC Comp

Apparently Eva's wild ride in the sky made the news around the world. I was in the air that day, but choose to go land early. It's a competition, but responsibility for safety rests with the pilots. It was dead obvious that conditions were totally out of hand--if I were free-flying I would landed earlier, but at some point reason still kicked in. About ten pilots were flying about 5K from me (toward the storm cell), I was pretty surprised to see them there. Apparently of these ten only a few hundred meters decided who got sucked up and who didn't (the organizer has the track logs). A Chinese man died, Eva lived. I hope all of us in the air use the experience to think carefully about what's actually important to us as pilots and humans.

Yesterday was epic, with many, many pilots going over 200K. I had a decent day until I got stuck low for an hour, which allowed the field to catch me. Ended up landing with the pack at about 220K, lots of good flying fun. This place is awesome.

The protest was resolved, I've pasted the text below. I was on the protest Jury, and the discussion was a long one. I felt strongly that conditions on the first day were safe--those of us who flew North made a bad decision. Many pilots flew south, where they had a fine day. The premise of this competition was open distance with pilots choosing their own lines, which means the organization has no responsibility for pilot decisions. Many of the pilots here are used to flying in competitions, where the organizers make a decision about course safety. With no official course line there is no chance to make a decision on the safety of it. Still, it has to be recognized that a large percentage of the field, myself included, did not make a great decision by going North...


Protest text (slightly different than final but close enough)
Re: Protest, 2007 Manilla XC Open

The protest brought to the organizers was just about the first day of competition, but it raises much bigger questions. This XC competition is based on the idea that pilots will take responsibility for their safety in the air. A tragic fatality and a several near-fatal situations on the first day prove that pilots need better guidance. The ultimate responsibility always rests with the pilot as described in section 7 of the FAI sporting code, but:

To improve pilot safety in future tasks the organizers and protest jury have decided on the following:

All future tasks will be along a defined course line. This will allow organizers and the safety committee to more closely monitor conditions, and also to set a line in the best possible direction for the day. In the event of a missing pilot this will greatly increase the odds of finding the pilot, as well as keep pilots looking out for each other in the air. Distance will be measured at 90 degrees to this course line. Pilots must still make good decisions about flying around hazards and thinking of retrieve, the course line only sets the general direction for the day.

The task may be stopped by the meet organizer or safety committee if the conditions on the course line are judged unsafe. Scoring will be done 10 minutes prior to the stop time. This encourages pilots to get out on course early.

Pilots will also have the opportunity to express their opinion of the day's flying at the mandatory evening check-in time by marking "Safe" or "Unsafe" on the check-in form. If more than 20 percent of the pilots believe the conditions were unsafe then the day will be cancelled. It's important to note that this puts a large amount of responsibility on the pilots to make an honest and sporting judgment on the day. This system has tested in some German meets, we will test it here now. Even pilots who do not launch must write a check-in form.

Tonight's check-in form will also have spaces to mark "safe" or "unsafe" for the first two tasks. If the majority of pilots mark the first or second task as "unsafe" then they will be cancelled. If 20 percent or more pilots mark the third or any future task as "unsafe" then it will be cancelled.

We hope that the above system will improve pilot safety.

Hans Bausenwein
Steve Ham
Stefan Mast
Will Gadd
Andreas Reik

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Manilla XC Comp and Worlds

I'm in Australia for two big paragliding competitions: The Manilla XC, which is a cross-country style competiton, and then the World Paragliding Championships. Yeah! Strange to go so suddenly from winter to full-on Australian summer, but the birds, sun and grass are great to see. Not much green here because Oz is in the midst of a seven-year drought worse than anything in memory--of course, as soon as we show up to fly there are thunderstorms and torrential downpours... We're staying at the River Gums Caravan Park in Manilla, a fine place to base with very friendly owners. A lot of campgrounds aren't so nice, this one is very clean and well-organized, a good scene for sure.

The first day of the Manila XC was eventful. There are no defined "tasks," just go XC, so it was a question of which way to go off of launch. I choose to go with the horde heading north, but the sky was tending toward thunderstorms. This tendency soon became a reality, and at about 55K I decided enough was enough. I know what thunderstorm inflow (air being sucked laterally and up into the thunderstorm) feels like--smooth, wide-spread areas of lift with a strong flow toward the thunderstorm. There were pilots closer to the big cells than I was, and I wrestled for a moment between my competititon psyche and the obvious safe thing to do, which was land. I choose to land, no competition is worth the ultimate risk, especialy a competition where only your best four days of eight count. I landed with some other pilots and soon had a ride back to the main road, then a ride to town in the local school bus. People here a super friendly and proud of their country, it makes for a nice landing situation.

Yesterday, day two of the comp, was excellent. We flew west, and I had the great good luck to be flying with two of Europe's top piots, Stefan Wyss and Chigrel Maurer. Chigrel has won the PWC twice, and Stefan is right there as well. We flew together for a few hours, and the experience really changed my view of paragliding. These guys glide so damn well, and just move around in the sky like nothing I've ever seen. I need to use more speed bar on the glides, and choose my glide lines carefully. I've done well in Canadian and US comps over the years, this is another level of flying for sure. Today I talked with them about the flight, and again learned a lot. I made about 100K yesterday, Chigrel did 130. He did that by flying faster on the glides, gliding more effeciently, and choosing his climbs well. Sounds simple, but until you see it in action, well, I'm pretty psyched to have learned so much.

There were several very wild tales of thunderstorm adventure from the first day. One pilot was sucked up to about 7,000M, where she passed out while the glider and her continued to climb to around 9900M. That's way above Everest's height, crazy. She spent around an hour doing circles above 9000M while unconscious, then descended enough that she woke up somewhere around 7000M. She was covered in ice, with serious frostbite on her ears and leg, but amazingly the glider was still flying despite being coated in ice. She landed it, and after a trip to the local hospital is doing just fine, all things considered. Unfortunatley another pilot did the same thing and died. Today, the third day of the comp, is cancelled out of respect for the situation. Both pilots who got sucked up are very competent by all reports, but perhaps let the compettion psyche over-rule their best judgement. I have always been much happier on the ground wishing I was in the sky than in the sky wishing I was on the ground. I've also seen explosive over-development a lot in Texas, there are some similarities here.

The style of this comp is meant to be more "open" just fly far and make good decisions, but it's clear after the first day that not all pilots will make those decisions in a competition situation. It's human nature to push in a competiton situation, but here we're expected to make good judgements about the conditions. There's a protest from the first day about the wild conditions not being suitable to the North, but some pilots flew South and did just fine, although they battled more of a head-wind. I'm on the protest committee somehow so can't write in-depth about this, just say that there is an intense philosophical discussion about what pilots will do if left to their own devices, and what the organizers should do for safety for the pilots. I'll write more about that once the committee makes a decision, it's a tough question beyond just the rules of the comp, which are that pilots are responsible for their own decisions on course (which there isn't technically).

Today is a good day to catch up on writing I've neglected, so working on that and enjoying a down day after the hectic travel and set-up (phones, drivers, somehow comps get really busy despite only actually flying a few hours each day). Keith, Nicole and I are the Canadian Team, but we're also here with Tom McCune, who would be flying if his glider weren't somewhere in North America still. He and Nicole are off flying today, while Keith and I are recovering from yesterday's near six-hour battle across the wind and around storms, it was taxing but one of the best days of flying I've ever had.