15 Meter Sailplane Nationals – Minden NV 1992

This Story was picked up and edited by the  “Sailplane Racing News” a limited circulation newsletter covering the US sailplane racing scene.  I wrote it after competing in one of my first national championships in Minden NVMinden is known to have some of the strongest soaring conditions in the states.  The sailplanes are all 15 meter wingspan (50 feet) composite German racers.  They have flaps, spoilers, water tanks,, a retractable wheel and a GPS enabled  flight computer.  While there is no engine noise, an audio signal from the computer gives constant advice on the optimum speed to fly and the vertical motion of the atomosphere .  There’s a fair amount of jargon in the story but here are some definitions that may help:

‘Lift’ is generally expressed in knots of vertical speed.  Conveniently,  1 knot equals roughly 100 feet per minute

‘Re-lit’ is to land and get another tow before the start of a race. Tows are to 2,000’ AGL

The ‘gate’ is an invisible vertical rectangle that goes up to 5,000’ AGL – pilots fly through it to start the task, and then fly through at the end of the task if they are so blessed. Speed is distance around the task over the time through the gate.  You only get distance points if you ‘landout’ somewhere other than the starting point.

The ‘POST’ is a Pilot Option Speed Task where each pilot can pick which turnpoints to fly around (in contrast to a normal speed task where everyone flies around the same set of turnpoints).  All tasks involve flying to landmarks and taking a pictures of them.  The photos are developed each night.  Now GPS data loggers are used and  the good ‘ol days of gates and photos are gone forever.

Water is used as ballast in strong soaring conditions. The water is carried in the wings and can be jettisoned if conditions weaken or just before landing.  Hauling 20 to 30 gallons of water around the airport and getting them into the wings is one of the joys of crewing.  Dumping the water during a low pass through the finish gate followed by a Chandelle is one of the great  joys of piloting.

“Cu”, pronounced ‘cue’ are cumulus clouds. They generally mark the tops of thermals unless the day is ‘blue’.

Charlie Spratt is the Contest Director – Charlie is an institution deserving a story all his own. Imagine a non-pilot calling tasks for  50 competitive pilot egos.  A single misstep will put 50 high tech aircraft and their pilots in the weeds (and roads and pastures and dry lakes).  


The following is an excerpt from the August/September 1992 issue of the Albatross “Pinions,” the newsletter of the Aero Club Albatross in New Jersey. Bill Watson is the writer, and this is some exciting reading from a guy who took on Minden for the first time at the 1992 15m Nationals.

The First Day on the High Seas of the Sierras

Without benefit of either practice day, the first day was filled with possibility. All the big boys were there including Jacobs, Striedieck, Mozer, Walters, Gimmey, Gatenbrink, and a lot of other Western names even though the field has only 46 pilots. Fair number of first timers to the Sierras here too.

The task was Minden, Hilton Ranch, Air Sailing, Silver Springs and return for 220 miles. The day was forecast to be rather weak for the Sierras, a slow start with only 2 hours of peak conditions. Lift would go only to 4-5 knots up to 11,000 MSL (6,500 AGL but below many peaks). Rick Walters said after the flight, “We don’t go cross country when it is that low.” He wasn’t kidding.

After talking to everyone in sight about how you fly out here, I felt well armed but knew that the lack of a practice day was going to hurt. After launch I began to get airsick. A few people re-lit.

Starts were generally low-speed affairs at the top of the gate followed by a glide into the crotch of the Pinenut Mountains to the east. The trick is to get to cloud base and get over this range which is 9,500′ at the peak but lower in the notches. The problem is that the 11,000′ lift is directly over the 9,500′ peak   In other words, you have to dive into the mountain and squeak over a notch.

Well, due to my stomach, I made a bad late start after everyone was gone and so I squeaked over alone. After crossing the range all you want to do is glide into the next moonscape valley but you realize that the lift is only over the mountains. After chewing on my balls for a while, I decided to spit them out, put them back where they belong and fly like a man, reminding myself that the mountains will not reach out and pull me down out of the sky.

I began to move along but my stomach was upside down. For the second time ever, I lost it and filled my water bottle and cockpit with turkey and sprouts on pita. And like any good Sierra pilot, I was fully hydrated. Bleech! All spirit was lost as I traveled another 80 miles before landing out at Air Sailing. About 130 miles. Fortunately for my ego there were other land-outs. I heard that Eric Mozer won at 70 mph and change. I took a $150 aero-retrieve.

The Second Day

Now I’m ready for some honest-to-god Minden weather. A 250-mile task is called, I bought some Dramamine, the sky is filled with cu and there is only a little rain and snow.

We launch but the task falls back to a 3-hour POST due to blow-ups, rain and hail in various quadrants. The sky looks most promising to the unpopular north, requiring some circumnavigation of the Reno ARSA.

I go for Nervino which is northwest of Reno, the only turnpoint allowing passage west of the ARSA. Thunderstorm avoidance slows me down but I pick my way around the ARSA and end up near Silver Springs which is northeast of Reno in a loose gaggle of 3 to 6 gliders. The sky between us and the airport has completely blown up with heavy rain, hail and air-to-ground lightning — and I was afraid the Dramamine would make me sleepy.

We all pick up a last turnpoint and I get up to 12,000′ or so. I don’t know what to do so I make a rookie move. Seeing two gliders 2,000 feet below heading out on a final glide, I follow. My computer says I’ll make it, not accounting for rain. They don’t have a chance – am I disoriented? Maybe I’m reading the ground wrong. I plunge ahead about 2 miles behind them. Three lightning stokes hit the ground in front of us. Jesus!

Soon I am near-IFR but I can see these two fools on the deck. I check the map and see that three airports lie along our track. I start paying a lot of attention to landing spots. The radio is full of distressed chatter. I only hope those two guys know what they are doing.

The rain has its expected effect and I fall below slope. I shoot for Carson City airport but hit heavy downdrafts and end up on a private dirt strip where the windsock is doing 360s. Whew!! Alicia is the ninth trailer to pass me on the road.

The score sheet is a mess. Fourteen pilots get speed points and seven get zero for illegal turnpoints. Some declared legs on their landing cards that technically bust the ARSA (Striedieck, Sorenson, Jacobs, Gatenbrink) and others (Gimmey) went to turnpoints beyond the 90-mile limit. Charlie Spratt is right, we can be real idiots sometimes. The ARSA stuff and the 90-mile limit were clearly explained and easy to manage (I may not be able to fly fast but I can follow instructions). There are some very sour faces. It must have been a long night in the scoring room.

The winner, Al Leffler, goes 240 miles at 76mph.

The Third and Fourth Days —  My Practice Days

Day 3 – first attempt: Thunderstorms predicted early. We assemble, water and begin to stage when thunderstorms threaten the grid so we put them back in the box and go fishing. Where the hell is that infamous Minden weather?

DAY 3 – for real: The forecast suggests a lot of thunderstorm blowups but the northeast portion of the task area may be okay. A 195-mile O&R is declared to Derby. This is more like it, ragged cu dot the task area and it looks like some straightforward soaring. I finally get a practice day. It is hard to imagine a devalued 195-mile task but Doug Jacobs does it at 94 mph. Some day I’ll figure out how to do that.

DAY 4: A 5-turnpoint, 288-mile task is declared. Now I’m getting in the swing of things. I fly a bit with Ray Gimmey and get a sense of how much more aggressively the pros dolphin-fly these conditions. Problem is, when I get within 4,000 feet of the terrain, I’m nervous and slow. A lot of what you need to do involves flying close to the mountains and flying for hours with substantial amounts of terrain above you. It is beautiful and it is fun and it does keep you fully awake.

The Fifth Day — Let’s go for it!

“Good forecast and I’m ready. Gonna put the nose down, follow the lift, fear no evil and kick some butt. Of course, it is a single-place glider and the only butt available is my own.

“A 4-hour POST is called and there is promise of action in the Whites. The White Mountains are about 100 miles to the south and represent the highest terrain in the task area with peaks over 14,000 feet. Charlie had obtained SSA permission to include three further-than-allowed-by-the-rules turnpoints so that the Whites could be flown on a POST day.

“Well, I bombed down towards the south with a lot of other people. Honest 10 knot-plus lift under cu but the cu is only in certain places. Follow the cu and take pictures is the plan. Everyone ends up over the same thermal over the same turnpoint and decisions have to be made about where to go.

“Even though the Whites are blue, I sight down a line of cu that perpendicularly intersect the Whites. But the line ends over the peak of the ridge. The map shows a turnpoint just on the other side of the ridge that seems to line up with the cu line. Select afterburners and go.

Cu line works perfectly and deposits me at 17,000 feet directly over the ridge line looking directly at the turnpoint just 10 miles further on in the valley. But it is blue from here to there. A careful calculation would show that climbing up to 17,500 (highest permitted altitude) followed by a max L/D glide in to the TP and back out would allow me to get back with more than enough altitude to clear the ridge.

“However, no careful calculation (or even some quick Kentucky windage) was done. Nooooo — we figure with all this sun, and all this lift, there has to be some lift out in the blue. I slow to 90 or so and bomb into the TP. Upon turning I realize that one, no lift was encountered and two, I’m not getting back over this ridge without some lift.

“I spend the better part of an hour bumping up against this ridge without success. I finally got out and got back but I know that the rest of the field has smoked the course. Doug Jacobs wins the best day of the contest with 100 mph over 400-plus miles.

“Was the decision to fly that cu line to the Whites a good idea? Several days later I talked to Bruno Gantenbrink who is the only other pilot to claim that particular turnpoint. He left the ridge top at 17,500′, slowed down to near best L/D, and flew straight in and out without a problem. He was in the top 10 for the day. Where’s that butt?

Day 6 — A Return to Weak Weather — I’ve Had Enough

“The weather is forecast to be decent but turns out very weak (for Minden). I slink out late and get very stuck behind Hawthorne Mountain. The moon is a very pretty place but landing there does not look like fun. When I hear on 123.5 mh that everyone is slow on the 330-mile task, I climb up out of my hole and final glide back – screw the task. I am not alone. Richard “Tigger” Hall, the eventual contest winner, wins the day at 77 mph but people are still finishing at 7:30 that evening. Alicia and I found some good margaritas.

Day 7 — The Worst of times, the Best of Times

I saw more weather on this flight than I’ve seen in any 5 flights combined. Conditions are forecast to be good but with some over development. A 3-hour POST is called to permit circumnavigation of the hot spots but, as we discover later, it is hard to circumnavigate the home airport.

The launch begins and it is immediately obvious that the sky is already blowing up. Pilots were reporting rain and hail before I even launched:

“Charlie, we have rain and medium-sized hail southeast of the airport.”

“…only light rain falling to the north.”

“Charlie, change that to light hail to the southeast with some sleet.”

” Okay, guys, I understand but I just want to talk to my advisors. Let’s keep the channel clear… l can see the weather.”   Charlie Spratt has taken on the aura of Contest CEO, reminding me of one of our best fictional “chief executives,  Captain Jean Luc Picard.  He delegates, he empowers, he compliments, he chews ass, he listens, he judges, he is calm, he is professional, and he is in total control. He has turned into absolutely the best CD around. The SSA needs to put him on the payroll. (He’s also looking pretty good since he lost weight — Alicia)

Anyway, I launch my 1200 pounds of lead sled into one-knot lift combined with rain. People are struggling and I’m at the bottom of the stack. Finally I start to get up after 40 minutes of scratching. The gate had been delayed twice to give everyone a fair start but now it opens and the fleet leaves. I’m not up to the top yet but leave anyway.

Once out of the Minden valley, conditions look great. I find three turnpoints surrounding two fat-looking cu and decide to run these turnpoints until I’m forced out. Glad I was able to keep the ballast because it is smokin’!   Starts at 8 knots, then 9, then 10. The clouds get bigger and then merge. Looks like they’ll blow up soon but the lift just keeps getting stronger.

On my third circuit around, I’m barely circling at all.   Now, cloudbase is at 17,500 which happens to be the contest’s ceiling. As I approach my seventh turnpoint the lift is off the scale, airspeed is approaching redline (what about true airspeed?) and I’m being sucked into the cloud.  I’m afraid to pull the spoilers (excessive control forces and vibration) and don’t want to go in the cloud so I just kind of keep going faster, flying as smoothly as possible. Suddenly, I can see a stream of hail come down from the edge of the cloud and turn back toward me. I’m being hit by hail from below  Yikes!

Finally I clear the cloud and bleed off the speed as I fly into a perfectly dead, clear sky. A final glide in would be easy but it looks a little dark over the airport. I glide over to the Pinenut Mountains that surround the Minden valley and see a giant mass of rain, hail and lightning completely blocking out the airport. While I can’t see any other pilots, I can hear the calls:

” Charlie, say your winds and conditions”

‘Winds 10 to 15 out of the north, no precipitation”

“Charlie, is it raining at the airport?”

“Negative, winds 10 to 15, gusting to 25 out of the northeast”

‘Uh, Charlie, say your conditions again”

“Winds 10 to 15 out of the northwest, no precipitation”

Well, it doesn’t seem possible to me either, it has to be raining at the airport! It becomes clear that people are going to penetrate this mess and finish this task. For reasons that escape me now, I feel the same way.

I spot some light between two rain shafts and decide to go for it. I have plenty of altitude and a lack of good sense. Air-to-ground lightning is striking all over but I press forward as I hear a regular stream of finishers – unbelievable!   Pretty soon I’ve got lightning in front, behind, and to both sides. Rain and sleet all over. I find myself fascinated by the visual differences between the big bolts and the smaller ones as they hit the ground, which is interesting because at the same time, I am scared to bloody death.

I pass between the two big rain shafts and spot the airport. After a high finish I line up behind two others in the pattern. It is turbulent as hell and the wind is constantly shifting. I turn high final and hit the spoilers. Seconds later, a big drop and I find myself 10 feet off the runway holding a 20-degree crab. A last second kick gives me a greaser but I’m rolling out of control. The wind has the plane and all I can do is keep the wings level. Charlie, having observed me experience the latest wind shift, is dancing out of my way while broadcasting another runway change. I roll out more or less where I’m supposed to but it certainly wasn’t my doing.

With lots of help, the glider is secured and i get in Fitch’s van. The effect of a lightning strike in the air can vary, but a strike while standing on a wet runway is pretty certain. There are 10 to 20 people running around at this point, bless their hearts, but I decide to spend as much time in an insulated vehicle as possible.

Then a heart-chilling radio message from Dick Mockler, ‘I can’t see ahead of me, I’m about 50 feet in the air and I don’t know where the airport is, I’m going to land out.’

This is not good when flying over moonscape. He must have picked the worst spot to penetrate the storm and he sounds like he is IFR. He then reports seeing a dry river bed and says he will land there. My mind raced as I tried to remember a dry river bed big enough to land in. I can’t and neither can anyone else. But Dick landed and it was a great relief to hear a circling tow pilot report talking to him. In fact he landed without incident and only required a 4WD vehicle to handle the mud.

Bruno won what turned out to be the last day of the contest, at 97 mph. One person who intelligently decided to land somewhere else that day said, ‘It sounded bad but everyone I talked to about penetrating that storm was smiling. I feel like I missed something.

The contest ends with me at the bottom, but again, enough with mere statistics. There are no accidents, no damage, no injuries. Minden is a super place to fly. The best way to describe everything about it is BIG. The weather, the task area, the mountains, the speeds, the scares, the retrieves -everything is BIG including the excitement. I can’t wait to go back.