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ALES & F5J Contest Tips & Lessons Learned By Paul Naton

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ALES & F5J Contest Tips & Lessons Learned

By Paul Naton - Radio Carbon Art Productions

In 2016 I won the 'Polecat', a big two-day Altitude Limited Electric Soaring contest (ALES) contest held in south central Pennsylvania. Even though I've been flying contests for over 25 years, I learned a few valuable lessons at this event and wanted to share some tips and techniques that will help others do better in their next competition and improve their flying techniques in general. These tips should be useful even if you don't fly electric launched gliders or compete.

For the past 5 years the Polecat has been the premiere North American e-soaring event with a full matrix of over 70 pilots from the U.S., Canada, and South America attending. While guys come to the Polecat for the challenging soaring, it's really the whole roast pig BBQ dinner Saturday night they dream about.

Contest Preparation Lesson

If you want to just fly for fun, your preparations can be lax, just remember to charge your batteries and don't forget the post-contest beer. If you want to place well however, your head has to be more in the game and detailed preparation is vital.

My prep starts with some practice the week before, and shooting some (lots) of landings as the contest will unfortunately be decided by landing points among the top pilots. A little practice against the clock will greatly focus your mind and attitude. I will even fly a few official full rounds, practicing a routine of getting the plane ready to fly, reading the air before the round starts, and having a game plan for launch.

I also start to look at the weather forecasts as they will determine which planes I might bring and how much ballast and larger motor packs I might take. This year the Polecat forecast was for hot conditions with light winds so I left the heavy planes at home and took minimal ballast for the planes I took.

A day or so before the contest I hit the workshop and go through the gliders nose to tail with FAA Inspector-like thoroughness to find any potential failures in the airframe, linkages or the wiring/radio system. I always find an item or two that needs preventative maintenance or repair, especially after a week of landing practice which is really hard on your systems.

I first make sure the entire motor system is in good running condition. Most of the contest-loosing tech issues I see others having at an event are power system related and could have been prevented easily. I've seen props and spinners come off, ESCs failing to initialize, loose motors and wires, and battery charging failures.

I tighten or reset the spinner collets or set screws, check the prop for damage, and torque the motor mount screws to spec. I also make sure the prop folding bands are in good shape, check the motor wire to ESC connections and the ESC to battery connections for any fatigue. Of course I also check the servos, radio, and test the altitude limiter for correct operation.

I really hate having technical issues at a contest (or even a fun fly day) and when I get to the field, I want to know that I can follow my pre-flight routine and step up to that first round flight line not worrying about the gliders condition or performance. Pre-contest preparation is a big confidence booster for any competitor and the first step in doing well in the standings.

Why Batteries Matter Lesson

For F5J and ALES events, having the best power system battery correctly sized and charged is absolutely critical. Why? Your battery performance determines your maximum airspeed and launch angle with your chosen motor and prop size. Any loss of power to the motor lessons your ability to get to the lift or penetrate into the wind within the limited motor-run window. Winning any e-launch contest starts with good choice and management.

At this last Polecat I saw many planes launch and you could instantly hear the motor rpms start to drop off quickly, telling me their packs were weak or not fully charged.

A few pilots even launched with totally depleted packs, costing them the heat and any chance of placing for the mugs. I noticed a few pilots flying multiple heats off the same pack without re-charging; that's not a good practice unless you have a small motor and a huge pack to feed it. A big mistake rookies make is to have lots of motor packs, but no way to know if those packs were old and past their prime and not up to a 30 second motor run without big voltage sags.

Battery Routine

I always monitor all of my motor pack's overall health with proper cycling and capacity checking routines. I'll never fly a contest heat with a pack that has shown any signs of a capacity drop or rising internal resistance measurements. Older packs are for practice or sport flying only.

For the contest, I make sure I have at least 2 or more new high quality packs that have been cycled and tested for my primary plane. Having a newer set of packs for your back up plane is also important, your chances of using your back-up glider are very high in a two day comp.

For each contest day, I take the two best performing packs and rotate them between heats, so after the heat I can charge the pack at a 1C rate safely and have one pack always fully charged and ready to go if needed. You may have to fly back-to-back heats so one good battery is not enough!

To be really safe, I use a LiPo voltage checker before the pack goes in the plane to ensure that it is indeed fully charged. A few years back I almost flew a fly-off heat with a mostly dead pack as in the stress of the moment I grabbed a depleted pack instead of the charged one, and only my routine of checking with the meter revealed the mistake.

If you want to learn more about how to optimize and track LiPo battery performance, I cover these subjects in detail in my Electric Sailplane Clinic #3 instructional video available at my r/c glider instructional video website, www.radiocarbonart.com.

2016 Polecat Battery Lesson Learned

I was flying my Euphoria V2 this year and the fuse only fits packs of 1200mah capacity or smaller. During the day I was using two newer 3S 1200mah Revolectrix packs for the contest that I rotated out each heat. I hadn't considered the fly-offs though, which are 3 heats in quick succession with no time to charge in between launches. While I could have done a second launch on the 1200 pack, I knew that the power was going to drop off quickly as the motor in the Euphoria is a Neu 1107 with a 16-10 prop.

The only choice I had was to use a smaller 1000mah pack for the third fly-off heat, and this pack has seen many cycles! Of course the motor rpms and climb rate were noticeably less than the newer Revo packs, but fortunately for me the fly-off cut-off altitude was only 100 meters, and the slightly lower power didn't keep me from getting to the air I called located about 300 meters cross wind. Next time I'll have 3 good contest packs ready in case I make the fly-offs.

Enough with the technical and preparation issues, let discuss some thermaling and air reading, that's what gliding and contests are all about.

Basic Air Reading Mistakes Lesson

Practice, airframe preparation and battery management lead you to that moment at the flight line where you should not be thinking about your glider, but where to put it in the sky.

The thermals for the 2016 contest were just superb. Actually almost too easy to hit. I got a 10 minute warm-up flight at 8 am on the first day. Sure, there were some strong sink cycles, but the sink areas were small, and with the light winds, easy to fly through. You could not fly more than 300 meters without hitting some sort of lift.

So why were there so many heats flown when half the planes were on the ground with 3-5 minutes left in the task? These early landers were not always the Radians or the beginner pilots. There were many 4M mouldies flown by veteran pilots that just dropped out of a sky filled with lift.

I watched the thermaling action all day and lots of pilots made the same two basic thermaling mistakes over and over. First mistake was not having a game plan or a confirmed air read before the launch window opened, they just launched upwind with the pack hoping to hit lift. Second mistake was not reading the air well once you hit your launch altitude, and not making a quick decision to fly else where to find a thermal if the initial launch location at motor cutoff was not working out.

Lets discuss the first thermaling mistake and what you should do to correct it.

Like any man-on-man contest, you have some time before launch to look around and try to determine where the closest thermal is and if you can still get to it by the time the heat launch window opens. The Saturday Polecat conditions were a bit odd, huge lift was all around, but very few ground signs presented with minimal wind shifts and velocity changes, ground signs which usually indicate thermal locations and movements. The only sure clues to thermal location were a few Buzzards way up high and moving out fast.

I think I had only one sure air read from a ground sign all day, and that thermal was way downwind and off field by the time the heat started. The lift 'threshold' was a bit high the first day, the threshold describing the minimal altitude required to be able to take a thermal out. It was just about impossible to thermal out below 150' for most of the day, as lots of pilots found out the hard way. So with the lack of ground signs and a low thermal threshold, you were going to have to get off-field and find a thermal on the way up or right after motor cut-off. My game plan for most of the day was to read the plane on the way up, and not rely on ground reads at all. That plan worked every time.

After the launch horn, my plan was to fly out to the higher ground areas around the field and read the planes drift and climb rate as I gained altitude under power. My Euphoria has a bit of extra power, so I use that speed to go out and slowly climb through as much of the surrounding air space as I can sampling the amount of drift I'm seeing on the plane and noting any areas of increased climb rate or angle. I'll turn and change directions as needed to confirm a thermal read I might be getting.

For ALES you can use the full 30 seconds of powered flight to advantage and I have a count down timer set on my radio so I know how much time is left on the motor regardless of altitude reached. I'd like to have the plane right at the cutoff altitude at 30 seconds and hopefully in the thermal or darn close to it as glider bleeds energy after motor cutoff.

In the new F5J class, you still have the full 30 seconds of motor if you need it, but you get a better score the lower your launch altitude is. This low-launch altitude goal means your air calling and glider reading skills are even more important than with ALES.

If I read the planes responses correctly on launch, the thermal will be within a 100 meter circle from my max altitude point and I'll just start a search pattern to find the best lift, and try to find it as quickly as possible. If I don't find the thermal I was looking for or it turns out to be too weak, I'l just go to my fast flight mode and fly off to another part of the sky without hesitation. I'll give myself 30 seconds or less to find lift after motor cutoff, otherwise I will get the heck out of that area and find another thermal. The faster you make your decisions on where to go, the better.

So what is this drift attitude you use to read the air on the way up the launch? I cover this advanced thermaling subject in full detail in my latest two hour instructional video the Thermal Soaring Master Class, but here is a brief description.

Reading the drift angle is a technique of finding the possible location of a thermal by watching how the glider drifts or yaws off course when influenced by the inflow currents around a thermal. A glider flying through a thermal inflow wind shift will tend to yaw the tail towards the thermal. Seeing and interpreting the subtle changes in your course angle while in flight is a hard skill to learn, but it's one of the best ways to find new lift in the absence of any ground signs or other lift indicators. I used drift indicators to find my first thermal in about 75% of my heat launches at the Polecat. Often I could read the whole pack of planes launching and could see how they all reacted to a nearby strong thermal by drifting across the thermal inflow wind shift. The Thermal Master Class video teaches you how to read the drift angles to find a new thermal core.

Move Your Butt Quickly Lesson

The second thermaling mistake is reading your plane effectively after motor shut off and not deciding to move away from sink quickly enough.

If you have no idea where that first thermal is and you just launched straight up wind, and at 20 seconds you hit 200 meters, you've wasted 10 seconds that you could have spent flying through more of the thermal air space looking for lift. Lots of pilots would execute this exact plan, hoping to find lift right after motor cutoff, then not deciding fast enough to move out of the area when they realized they launched into an area of sink. I saw this scenario play out over and over again at this contest as 4 or 5 planes would begin circling in the general area of the upwind altitude cutoff height, not even knowing if they were in lift or sink. They would all loose altitude together, though one might luck into some lift and start to climb. Most would just loiter in the same area hoping to hit 'the big one' until they got too low to be able to look else where. Down in 5 minutes with lift everywhere. Herd mentality and not making a quick decision to move else where when not gaining altitude.

You must read your own plane first and ignore the crowd. The crowd is only good for clues to new lift if the crowd is in different airspace. If your glider does not want to circle or feels dead on pitch, get out of that area fast, you will have plenty of altitude at 200 meters to do 2 big search patterns across the entire field. If you move out of sink quickly, your chances of getting your 10 minutes goes up fast. The thermals at this Polecat where everywhere, and even if your glider was of low performance, if you just flew a short distance away from neutral air or sink, you were bound to find lift. There was no excuse for not getting 10 minutes from 200 meters up no matter what type of glider you flew.

Getting Down Safe Lesson

As our electric gliders are getting lighter and lighter, they do have their structural limits and you have to keep that in mind in stronger lift conditions. I spent most of my rounds trying to safely dump altitude as I was launching into big lift right off and was high enough in a few minutes to get my ten. My Euphoria has a stout airframe for an F5J model, but it gets bendy at higher speeds and with the aft CG I like to fly at, I have to watch the airspeed and unplanned pitch departures as the airframe bends. There were a few 'boomers' on Sunday, I was in full camber #3 and the Euphoria was still screaming and climbing like a rocket. I've got the small and light MKS 6100 HVs controlling everything on this big 4 meter glider, and it was a real job to keep the ship from over-speeding. At around 60 mph I was loosing pitch control as the boom flexed and twisted going through the violent lift. Just had to be conservative with the speed until I got out of the lift and was able to work my way down safely and hit the landing tape without blowing up anything.

Landing Too Early Lesson

The only big mistake I made all weekend was to drop about 20 seconds off an otherwise perfect flight. How did I do that?

I was killing time over the field with about a minute 30s to go in the round, I was doing big circles staying up wind of the tape and out of the incoming traffic. Lift was everywhere and it was easy lift even at 100'. At 45 seconds, I turned left to position the plane for my usual pattern entry. Then with 40 seconds left, the air changed, and changed drastically. I could barely turn, the sink was coming in hard, the wind shifted, and I was suddenly way lower than I wanted to be and far from the tapes! At 30 seconds left I was at 10' high and still out over the wheat field which was a Zero heat score if touched. I knew I was going to be way early, I had to make the field first, then decide if I could make the tape and salvage some landing points.

I had just enough energy to get back on field, line up the tape and hit a perfect 50 landing. Just I was 20 seconds early! That mistake in reading the local field conditions cost me the Sunday daily first place mug and 3 positions on the board. Lesson Learned: I was a little too busy with spotting traffic and visualizing a landing pattern to notice how strong the sink was at the other side of the field. I then was late by a few seconds in adjusting my speed and altitude to the sinking air. I should have noticed the changing air sooner and put some extra altitude in the bank before setting up for the last 30 second pattern. A basic mistake in situational awareness. I still won the fly-offs and got the overall trophy win despite this big error.

Don't Worry About Making Mistakes Lesson

Those who take the risks of making mistakes learn the most. Try new tuning set ups, make that crazy thermal location prediction and see if it works. Launch low, land early a lot, don't give up on that ragged little streak of lift. Walk for your plane once in a while. Don't always fly in perfect conditions.

I'm happy to answer any questions you might have about any of these subjects, contact me the usual ways or through the radiocarbonart.com website.

Here a link to watch a short HD video I shot that gives you a taste of the action at the 2012 Polecat ALES event: https://youtu.be/55PuCcke1a4

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