Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Coping Without Soaring During COVID-19

With the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, Skyline Soaring took the unprecedented and appropriate action of shutting down all operations until this nasty virus runs its course.  Unfortunately, this leaves me unable to do any flying for the best part of the soaring season. I am coping with this lack of flying in multiple ways.

Mach 0.1 and Oculus

Flying is a perishable skill, and the longer you stay away from flying, the more rust you accumulate. To keep my skills sharp, I have been approximating the act of soaring to the best of my ability. I already have a nice flight simulator cockpit at home, including a Mach 0.1 cockpit and Oculus Rift goggles. Along with the soaring-only flight simulator Condor 2, I have been getting many hours of flying in over the winter and spring break.  Although the time in Condor does not count toward the total time in your flight logbook, and the takeoffs and landings can't be counted for your flight currency for 61.57, soaring in a flight simulator is far better than nothing at all.
In fact, I would say that this has the potential to sharpen my skills in some areas that I've been lacking for competition soaring. I'll get more into that when I bring up "US Nightly Soaring."
The Mach 0.1 simulator is essentially a comfy bucket seat, a bunch of PVC pipe and joints (all painted black), a bunch of wires hooked up to a fancy USB controller.   The joystick is between the legs (where a joystick is meant to be!) and not up on a table.  The rudder pedals are down on the floor, and feel like rudder pedals should. The spoiler handle is to the left of the cockpit, and the release knob is a yellow ball attached to a small string.
When wearing the Oculus goggles, everything is obscured by the mask, but groping around for the flight controls becomes second nature after a few flights.
You can purchase the Mach 0.1 simulator by going to https://www.gliderbooks.com/mach-0-1 . I originally purchased it with the idea that students could come over for flight training.  It has gotten far many more hours of use as my personal entertainment system.
The Oculus Rift S can be purchased by your favorite computer retailer, or online https://www.oculus.com/rift-s/?locale=en_US . The goggles have internal accelerometers that sense if you are leaning left or right, forward or back, looking up or down, twisting or tilting your head.  Every moment you do within the cockpit is faithfully represented on the screen.  It is really as if you were sitting in the aircraft. The goggles are worth every penny!  I have gotten enough hours with the goggles to make them very worth the purchase price.  I got queasy on the first few flights, but have gotten over the airsickness since then.

TeamXC.us Soaring

Starting in the spring of 2019, a group of low-key glider pilots started doing cooperative soaring adventures with Condor 2. Most of the original members were from Utah, flying with the same club as Bruno Vassal. TeamXC uses the chat program called Discord -- a voice over IP program that enables all of the participants to talk while flying. Those who are familiar with doing games online while chatting with friends are quite familiar with Discord. The format of TeamXC is to draw a line course, starting from an airport of the organizer's choice.  The line goes out about 50 km or so.  The object of that flight is to fly any course you would like, any path you would like.  The only criteria for scoring is that you make it to a point that is perpendicular to the course line.   Fly a triangle, fly an out and return.  Fly an out-and-retrieve, fly anything you want. 
The people who frequent TeamXC are all incredibly helpful, friendly, supportive. They're just happy to be flying and spending time with other pilots.  The atmosphere is very compatible with and similar to the club soaring environment.  After a few weeks, you'll learn to recognize everybody's voice, know something about what they fly and what kind of things they like to do.   After the flight is over, everybody uploads their flights to a lovely site called SkylinesCondor.com.  Learn more about TeamXC by going to teamxc.us. You can often find our club's Bill Bank in the crowd. 

SkylinesCondor shows the results after a flight in Chile

US Nightly Soaring

This is a different sort of crowd.   The crowd here seems to be more about being competitive.  There is certainly room for teaching and mentoring. It seems that the sort of people who join US Nightly Soaring (USNS) are trying to race around a triangle or polygon course as fast as possible.  There is a very short window for a join time, so you have to show up at 2100 or you won't make the contest.  There are penalties for flying into a cloud. The turn points are about a mile in diameter. There are as many as 70 people online in each session. Gaggle flying with 30 or 40 other gliders makes having the Oculus Rift almost essential for collision-free flying! 
You might be under the mistaken impression that I'm a great pilot, but this competition has certainly put me in my place. I had these grand visions I could be on the podium every night, but disappointment has replaced that fantasy.  I have found that I am a mediocre or low quality competition pilot compared to the other pilots here. The highest I have made in the rankings was at spot #13 of a group of 50. 
Flying "Sweet Red" a 1-26 on one night with US Nightly Soaring. As many as 50 gliders behind me.

The old expression goes "Practice makes perfect", but I think this expression is somewhat incomplete.  It might be something more like "Practice with purpose, retrospectives, lessons learned and guidance make steady improvement." That's kind of a mouthful, though.  
What I have learned about soaring in a competition is hard to write down.  There are many intangible skills that are hard to describe. Doing these practice runs really make me aware of where I have some weaknesses.  Condor has the ability to replay a contest.  I can replay the contest, chasing the leaders to see how they did their flight differently.  I still have a lot to learn, and doing these contests has presented me with a group of issues that I need to work on. 

Do Something Constructive

With the COVID-19 lockdown you can mope around about not being able to fly. I certainly have! I have been especially disgruntled after noticing some epic wave weather on we had last week (it was everywhere!) Just complaining about the lockdown doesn't do anybody any good.  Let's try to be positive about what you CAN do. 
Me? I choose to focus on identifying and addressing my weaknesses for competitive soaring. Maybe your goals are different.  Let me present some constructive actions to take.  You probably have a lot of spare time on your hands that could be used to studying for your FAA Knowledge written test. You could sign up for many FAA Wings Programs. You could read that book about soaring weather. You could read up on old issues of Soaring Magazine.  You could read the archives of rec.aviation.soaring, or you could look at the latest classified ads for used gliders. If you don't know much about that glider, go find a back issue of Soaring to read about Dick Johnson's flight report for that glider! Use Google Earth to review the mountains in the area around Front Royal. You don't have to have an insanely expensive setup to fly Condor missions.  Just a joystick and a reasonably fast computer will do.  Keep those flying skills less rusty by doing some Condor missions. 
I hope to see you back at the airfield when this is all over. 

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