Reflections on the New Carbon Combat 12.7 and the PreWorlds 2014 (Valle de Bravo, Mexico)
The day—three days before Day One of the PreWorlds. The place — the famous (and infamous) El Peňon near Valle de Bravo, Mexico.
After several hours of racing around the local hills and valleys on the new Combat 12.7, delightfully winding my way up through the
fierce, snaky bullet-thermals for which this region is so well renowned, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the ease with which I
found myself gently touching down into the main LZ in spite of the turbulent, switchy conditions. At that moment, a single word erupted
from my lips — "Finally!"
Reflections on the New Combat 12.7
Finally, the moment I've been waiting my entire flying career for… Finally, someone has made a glider designed for lighter pilots
that was more nimble and pilot-friendly than any competition glider I had ever flown while clearly matching the performance of the big
gliders. As a lighter pilot (I weigh between 67-70 kg, or between 145 and 155 lb.), it has always been a struggle coming up with a
workable setup that has allowed me to keep up with the "big boys". It has generally been held as a truism in our sport that the smaller
gliders simply don't keep up with the bigger gliders — as a light pilot, if you really want to be able to match the performance of the
bigger gliders, you better just get used to flying gliders that are a little too big and stiff for you and carrying around a lot of
ballast so that you can keep up with the heavier pilots on glide. There's been a lot of speculation as to the reasons for this — perhaps
it's because larger gliders have more favorable Reynold's numbers (which has to do with the density and viscosity of the air relative
to a given wing); or because they have higher L/D since they generate more lift while not generating a comparable amount of additional
drag (for example, the parasitic drag of the control frame and the pilot doesn't increase when going from a smaller glider to a larger
glider, whereas the overall amount of lift does); or perhaps it's because manufacturers simply put more effort into the bigger wings
since there are more larger pilots on the market. But for whatever reason, this is a problem us lighter pilots have always had to contend
But now, after my first flight on this little glider, I suspected that this legacy had finally been broken. And as the PreWorlds
began, and I found myself flying head-to-head with the other gliders, my suspicion was quickly validated. There was simply no doubt
about it — I found myself gliding right alongside the best of the bigger gliders without having to wear any ballast, and most surprising
of all was the climb(!) I had the good fortune to be flying with some of the very same pilot/glider combinations I had just flown with
at the Australian Nationals in Forbes, and there was no doubt about it that in spite of now being on a smaller glider (I had been on the
13.2 in Forbes), my climb had significantly improved, and I'm pretty certain that I could even fly more slowly — go figure. With some of
the same pilots who had been able to sit on top of me at Forbes, I found that our roles had reversed, and I found myself now sitting on
top of them with surprising ease. And the real beauty was having all of this performance without the need to carry an ounce of ballast
(which is always a bit of a drag, especially when landing at these altitudes — 7,000 to 10,000 feet MSL), and without the need to destroy
my shoulders trying to battle a stiff glider in wild conditions — I just couldn't get over how much performance I was experiencing right
alongside such sweet handling. Finally!
By talking with other pilots over the years, I've learned that Combats have developed a reputation for being not so easy to land.
And in my opinion, there's a good reason that this reputation had developed. I remember being surprised by how challenging it was to
land the very early Combats well — especially those manufactured up until around 2001 or 2002. Actually, I still own a 2002 Combat as my
personal fly-at-home glider, and there's no doubt about it — it's a bit tricky to really "stick" a light-wind landing well on the thing.
But in the past few years, this has dramatically changed — only it seems that the word hasn't gotten out.
I remember several years ago when first flying the new higher-aspect, tailed Combats, how pleasantly surprised I was by how easily
and crisply they flare, and how wide and forgiving the flare window is. And I found that the 12.7 takes this ease of landing to a whole
new level. The landing conditions here at Valle de Bravo are some of the most difficult I've ever encountered, with small sloping
fields loaded with obstacles, very switchy winds, very thin high-altitude air, and bullet-thermals that love to pounce just as you're
turning onto final. And with the exception of one incident in which a well-timed pouncing thermal caused me to overshoot my field into
the lee-side of a large brick wall on a windy day, I managed to pull-off a no-step landing every time. I found that two factors
contributed to this: (1) the stall speed is surprisingly slow on this glider, allowing me to really slow down before the flare; and
(2) the nose rotates very easily in a flare, allowing for a clean, crisp flare without either the tendency for the glider to climb or
the nose to drop even if you're a little early or a little late in the flare timing. I suspect the high aspect ratio and the hang point
being well in front of the control frame apex contribute to these very user-friendly landing characteristics. (On a side note, I found
it interesting that I had a tendency to overshoot my landings a few times, and in retrospect, I think that what was going on for me was
that because this glider handles so much like an intermediate glider, I was unconsciously anticipating that it would have a short
ground effect like an intermediate glider. Of course, it's not an intermediate glider but a very high performing competition glider
with a correspondingly long ground effect, and this threw me off a few times. Or perhaps I can just blame the fact that I've become a
little spoiled flying the wide open flatlands for too many years.)
This is the first time I've flown a fully-carbon glider (full LEs and Xbars, that is) since flying the king-posted Predator many
years ago, and I have to say it was a real joy to experience the reduced wingtip-inertia in the air (significantly lighter, more
responsive handling) and the reduced weight on the ground (this glider weighs just over 30kg!) When first looking at these sleek,
oval/conical leading edges, I had to wonder why it's taken glider manufacturers so long to finally take real advantage of the potential
that carbon fiber offers. Having a much higher strength to weight ratio and being much more malleable than aluminum, it's about time
that we move beyond simple round tubes. These oval/conical shaped tubes allow maximum stiffness along the horizontal axis, which
maintains maximal trailing edge tension, while allowing maximal flexibility along the vertical axis, which maximizes handling. They
also gradually decrease in diameter from the nose to the tip, which minimizes overall wing inertia. What an elegant design! I imagine
it won't be long before the other manufacturers follow suit. (I found it interesting that a number of the non-Aeros pilots have begun
adding plastic and carbon tips onto their gliders which are strikingly similar to the Combat's Horner tips, and some are even using
Combat tails(!) — Signs of Combat envy? ;-)
Reflections on the PreWorlds
So, if the 12.7 is performing and handling so well, then a question that some would naturally ask is, why did I just win the
Australian Nationals on a 13.2 and then end up in the mediocre position of 9th on the 12.7 here at the PreWorlds. Well, I really do
wish that I could blame the glider — after all, one particularly effective strategy for assuaging a bruised ego is to blame your
equipment. But the truth is that my somewhat disappointing performance at the PreWorlds definitely can't be blamed on my glider. But I
first want to reflect upon the PreWorlds in general before reflecting upon my own personal flying within it.
Safety first… When I first learned that the next Worlds will be held at Valle de Bravo, I was highly skeptical that this
place would be a suitable arena for a World Championship. I had flown here 13 years ago in a meet with only about 25 pilots, and I
recalled the wild conditions, the low ceiling and the scarcity of good landings. So I thought I'd fly the PreWorlds in order to assess
whether I actually wanted to fly here at the upcoming Worlds.
On one hand, I found the conditions better than my previous meet here, presumably because it was about 6 weeks later in the year.
The ceiling was significantly higher and the thermals were generally spaced closely together--this opened up more landing options and
allowed us to extend our tasks much further than we had been able to do in that earlier meet. On the other hand, the conditions seemed
to be significantly more turbulent, and with a much larger (and more aggressive) field of pilots, I found the start gaggle situation
this time nowhere near fun and frankly quite dangerous.
As it turned out, I was nominated to be a member of the safety committee, so I was required to think a lot about how to maximize the
safety in these challenging conditions. Essentially, I found that there were three primary factors that contributed to serious safety
concerns: (1) large regions in which there were either no safe landings at all or in which the only available fields were small and
sloped; and even in the larger fields, pilots still had to contend with radically switchy, unpredictable, turbulent wind conditions and
very thin high-altitude air; (2) extreme turbulence leading to an increased chance of gliders tumbling; and (3) extreme turbulence
combined with dense gaggles leading to an increased chance of mid-airs. (*) Surprisingly, while launch conditions could certainly be
challenging at times, this didn't present itself as a serious safety factor. So, with these factors in mind, the safety committee and
the task committee worked together to define task parameters that would hopefully minimize the risks inherent in these factors.
As for the first factor (the landing situation), the safety and task committee devoted a lot of time to trying to set tasks that
maximized the safety of the landing options. Of course, we're flying the mountains, and we have no control over the general turbulence,
so ultimately, it's always up to each pilot to make sure they always keep themselves within an easy glide to landings they're
comfortable with; but we did our best to listen to the pilots' concerns and modify the task to keep the tasks as comfortable as
possible. In spite of this, however, I found that this general region presented one of the most challenging landing situations I've
ever come across at a comp, and while I found it personally within my own comfort zone (though just barely at times), a number of other
pilots chose to step out of the comp because of this factor, a decision I completely understand. I was fortunate to land at goal every
day, with reasonably nice fields and wind indicators, and I found even these landings to be a bit challenging at times — I certainly
sympathize with those pilots who had to land in small, sloped fields without any wind indicators.
As for the second factor (the possibility of tumbling), I did encounter some of the edgiest thermals I've ever encountered here
(especially right over the main ridge), and I was a little surprised that no tumbles occurred at the comp. I was very surprised to hear
that there had never been a reported tumble in the area at all. Some of the air here reminded me of the air I've experienced at Sandia
Peak, King Mountain, and the Sierras, all of which have had numerous tumbles. That said, this isn't a factor we could do a whole lot
about anyway, and I found that I personally wasn't too daunted by this factor, though I have to say that there were a number of times
when my attention was shifted abruptly to the contemplation of my tail and/or my parachute. I did, however, learn that this factor
played a role in a number of pilots making the decision to step out of the meet, which I understand. It did become apparent that the
most turbulent area in the entire region seemed nearly always to be directly over the mountain, and Jonny Durand, myself and others
suggested that we set the start cylinder in such a way as to position pilots away from the mountain, but some of the task committee
members didn't seem too thrilled about this idea, so generally speaking, directly over the mountain is where the start remained.
The third factor (extreme turbulence and dense gaggles combining to increase the likelihood of mid-airs) is the factor that I
personally found to be the most intimidating. Given the turbulence, I found the start gaggles and the early-on-course gaggles a bit
too dangerous for my taste. I'm the first to admit it — I'm really enjoying my life and wouldn't really like to see it all come to an
end as some wild bit of turbulence hurtles me into another glider (or vice versa). And I found myself feeling this way even after
nearly a third of the field had left the meet (due to either injuries or simply finding that their comfort levels had been exceeded).
When I consider whether or not I personally want to fly here in the Worlds next year, considering that there will likely be many
dozens of additional pilots and a few extra degrees of pilot aggression that typically goes along with a World meet, I find that my
desire to show up dwindles away to just about nothing.
But fortunately, I believe that there are a few things we can do to make this particular factor a lot less dangerous: (1) We can
set the start cylinder away from the mountain to keep pilots in areas of less turbulence; (2) we can use multiple start gates to divide
the field into smaller gaggles, for example using 3-4 different start gates set 15-20 minutes apart from each other; and/or (3) the
number of competitors can be limited — I personally believe that 80 should be the max (which is what we started with here), and even
then, only if we also adopt these other two strategies. Unfortunately, I'm not feeling too confident that others will agree with these
suggestions. For example, I was pushing hard for multiple start gates, yet the task committee continued to insist on what was
essentially a single-gate race start. (They did agree to put a second start gate 30 minutes later to cover people who got stuck for
some reason, but given the scoring system, a second gate so much later is so heavily penalized that this still essentially amounts to
a single-gate race start — very few pilots would voluntarily take this second start. A few of us did intentionally take it on the last
day, with my own main reason to avoid the gaggles, but not surprisingly, we got really hammered on our scores even though our times
were reasonably good.)
So, unless the task committee has a major change of heart, or unless we get a new task committee (which I've been told is unlikely),
we may be looking at 100+ pilot race starts taking place in the heart of the worst turbulence in the area. Hmmm… the idea of staying
home and covering a few casual miles with some of my local flying buddies is sounding more appealing all the time…
Some reflections on my own flying…
So, according to a lot of people's standards, coming in 9th place at the PreWorlds isn't so bad. But I tend to hold a very high bar
for myself, and considering how pleased I was with the glider I was flying, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in myself.
I've always been fond of saying, "There are two kinds of days in a comp — good racing days and good learning days." Well, let's just
say I had a lot of good "learning days" at this meet.
As I mentioned earlier, I was not having any fun in the start gaggles, so I did my best to hang out in less crowded thermals in the
vicinity while waiting to start. While this was fairly peaceful, these peripheral thermals generally weren't taking me as high as the
thermals located over the mountain (where the main start gaggles formed), and they were usually further away from the start position,
which resulted in me having a relatively poor start nearly every day. In other meets, I've usually been pretty good at catching up
after making a poor start, but given how dynamic the air was here, I was unpleasantly surprised at how rapidly a somewhat poor start
would turn into being 10-15 km behind the lead gaggle. So, the typical pattern for me on most of the days at this comp was to blow my
start, fall behind, then fly very aggressively in an attempt to catch back up (diving low into the bottoms of mountains, skipping
weaker thermals with the intention of holding out for a stronger one), which then unfortunately resulted in my having to make low saves
in weak lift and falling even further behind. Ouch! My usual tactics just weren't working out so well. The only exception to this was
the day I won (day 4), in which my aggressive flying did pay off.
While getting stuck low is always the risk you take when flying aggressively, the common reward is that you avoid wasting time in
weak lift, spend more time gliding, less time climbing, and leap ahead quickly. And this is a particular tactic that I generally
consider myself to be quite skilled at. But for whatever reason, at this place and at this meet, I just kept rolling craps again and
again, and I found myself having to make low saves in weak lift again and again. By the fifth day, I found that I had pretty much lost
my confidence with using this strategy here, and I began to back off the gas pedal and fly somewhat more conservatively. So considering
that I was still blowing my starts due to an unwillingness to duke it out with the start gaggles, and now that I'm flying more
conservatively, the result is what you would expect — making goal every day, but not particularly fast.
So what did I learn? Well, I think it's important to acknowledge that cross country racing is not unlike playing chess with dice.
On one hand, there is a lot of strategy, and good decision making is essential if you want to do well; but on the other hand, there is
always some element of luck. And when learning from your mistakes, I think it's important to try to discern what was an actual mistake
and what was simply a bit of bad luck. To win a big meet, I think it takes a fair bit of both — a lot of good decision making combined
with some good luck. Just a little over a month earlier, I won Forbes — a "big meet" by most pilots' standards; and I'm the first to
admit that while I feel I did make a lot of good decisions (and a few not-so-good ones), there was no doubt some luck on my side. Now
that I'm reflecting on the Pre-Worlds, I find that I actually feel pretty good about most of my decisions — for the most part, I feel
that I took appropriate calculated risks, although they unfortunately didn't always work out so well (some genuine bad luck, I
believe), and I felt I generally shifted gears (speeding up and slowing down) in a way that was mostly appropriate for the changing
conditions. I feel like I generally did the best I could with what was presented to me at any given moment.
So why did I finish in 9th place and not on the podium? I think that essentially there were three major things that added up to
losing those 6 to 8 places: (1) My conscious decision to avoid the start gaggles, a decision I actually don't regret at all — looking
at how much I'm enjoying my life at the moment, the risk/reward ratio of mixing it up in those gaggles just simply wasn't worth it to
me. (2) I did make one terrible mistake that cost me dearly, when I went diving into goal on task 3, thinking that I had won the day,
only to discover too late that I had completely forgotten about the last waypoint(!) That was a serious "hero to zero" moment that
resulted in me going from possibly winning the day to not making goal altogether — I don't think I've ever made a mistake that bad in my
entire flying career — perhaps I can blame it on just having spent a little too much time over 14,000 feet…? And finally (3), some
genuine bad luck. On most of the days, I simply found myself seriously out of sync with the thermals/clouds. Any experienced pilot
knows that thermals come and go in a kind of rhythm, and there are those wonderful days where you keep hitting the thermals right as
they're amping up, and then there are those frustrating days where the thermals keep petering out just as you get to them — this comp
consisted of a few too many of these latter days for me.
Anyway, this kind of roller coaster ride (good racing days, good learning days… good comps, bad comps, mediocre comps…) is one
of the things that I find makes this sport so exciting and interesting, and in order to continue to learn and to enjoy myself, I find
it helpful to maintain the larger picture regardless of what may happen on any particular day or particular comp. And taking this
larger picture one step further, I also find it really helpful not to forgot why I was so drawn into this sport in the first place — to
feel the joy of being so in sync with my glider I feel like I've grown my own personal set of wings, and to appreciate the camaraderie
of working together with my flying buddies to cover miles and miles of beautiful terrain. Really, does it get any better than this?