Ask yourself the following question before reading my article.  Does the diagram on the task sheet below look like like a race?

Over the past 20 years, United States soaring competition tasks have changed significantly. Soaring competition used to consist of mainly assigned tasks. With the introduction of satellite GPS position tracking and “planned economy socialism” types, our SSA (United States Soaring) rulebook has become a huge, highly complex, equation-filled monstrosity. Unsurprisingly, it tries (of course still fails) to protect every pilot from any chance of landing out or any situation that may drop them down on the score sheet. But what about real objective competition?

Is a timed, 20-mile radius Assigned Area Task a race? Many US tasks today feature several 30-mile radius areas (that’s s-i-x-t-y miles across)! 30-mile radius turn areas are 2827.43 mi² or nearly 3000 square miles. Is a choose your turn points, timed, Modified Assigned Task MAT (or more commonly referred to as a “half-ass task” or HAT) a race? The answer is clearly no. Neither is a timed, long mat. Neither is a US version assigned task where pilots can add two extra miles in every turn by going to the back of the 1-mile radius turn point. Here is why (more installments coming) the above is NOT RACING (and why it hurts US pilot competition skill in general):

Rules which empower competitors (gamblers) to “start” whenever they wish. By definition NOT RACING.

This awful concept, in and of itself alone, destroys the idea of racing competition. It is not unique to US rules but is the foundation of the problem in my opinion. There were some reasons (albeit relatively weak ones) for allowing pilots to start at a different time (creating what amounts to a “draft legal” time trial competition format). The concept remains mainly to protect the one or two (usually) pilots who are unable to climb or need a relight to “still have a chance” to race (sorry, time trial). But in all other racing sports, if one fails to start the race on time, they suffer significant competitive consequences. That’s why almost all race sports have a starting line in which all competitors start together and race the same course together! The sport of soaring is simply not real racing at all if the competitors are allowed to start at times of their choosing AND fly a different race course (of widely varying total distance and even over extraordinarily widely different tracks with turn area tasks).

And in soaring, the variable of start time (often an hour apart) results in the dynamics changing dramatically as different pilots fly it at vastly different sections of time (and therefore often vastly different weather). The start time variable has a huge effect on sailplane racing the results. Huge advantages exist for those who start behind most other sailplanes (draft legal time trialing). Of course, this assumes an assigned task with the same exact “race track“ for all pilots, which we are NOT doing in the USA, ever!

Sadly, in the SSA “grand experiment,” we are all forced primarily fly a task type which allows pilots to fly up to 60 miles apart in each of 2-5 turn “areas?” (yes, seriously). This huge additional variable creates a mutated form of pseudo-competition that allows choice of both start time and “race track” (again, seriously). This mutated and bizarre “thing” is barely a sport, and belongs in a cheap Casino with free drinks.

Back to open start times. For example, one pilot may go down a leg of the task in good lift. 20 minutes before or after, the lift on that leg may be non-existent. And so on… In SSA soaring competition today, it is not rare for various competitors to start one-hour later than fellow competitors and then fly an entirely different course with different flying conditions. That period, one hour, amounts to a virtual eternity in the world of changing soaring competition weather. Even a slight increase or decrease in the strength of the lift can have dramatic effects on the speed that a pilot can complete their task. Allowing pilots to gamble on starting time ruins the sport of soaring and indeed wastes the excellent opportunity for at least occasional actual racing competition. The concept of an open start time morphs soaring into a game of significant weather chance and luck. In objective terms, it further increases the number of variables that will affect the outcome of the “race?”

Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, in US gliding “competition” (notice that I never refer to US soaring competition as racing, because it is NOT racing, not even close), choosing when to start has become THE critical tactic. This rule is now exploited to the Nth degree and has mutated into the most important tactical decision of our competitions. No different than putting your chips on the roulette table. The concept of being able to change the portion of the day you fly a given task is an enormous variable which, in many cases, can decide the result regardless of the pilots flying skills. Much of that variability is pure luck. No pilot can predict perfectly what the weather is going to be three hours into the future. They are allowed the option to make a guess and to take their chances. Start times (early or late) are essential, ALL IN, plays! This is especially so if the pilot chooses to start very early or very late.

I’m compiling data on these trends and cross-referencing it to contest results…don’t worry about that….it is coming.

The way we start in the US is a disaster and ruins competition and destroys the opportunity to race our sailplanes.

Sean Fidler