OLDS — Pilots lounge, chat, make last-minute checks … and wait.
Eyes are cast skyward, as nearly 20 glider pilots patiently bide their time as the ground warms and an invisible column of air rises to provide ideal launch conditions for their long-winged, fragile-looking mounts.
“We’re waiting for the trigger temperature,” explains Valerie Deschamps, a director in the Central Alberta Gliding Club, on Wednesday.
The small Innisfail-based club was thrilled to be granted this year’s Canadian National Soaring Competition, using the facilities at Netook Gliding Centre, just north of Olds.
When you choose to go aloft without a motor, lift is everything. And that is sustained by thermals, columns of warm air that rise, spread out and, at the hands of a talented pilot, can be ridden for hours.
About 1 p.m., conditions were ripe and 19 pilots strapped themselves into their gliders or sailplanes and waited to be pulled into the sky by their four tow planes. The whole operation would take only a few minutes — just as planned.
Time is of the essence when gliders have to circle lazily about waiting for other competitors to reach starting altitude — on this day around 2,000 feet above ground.
As the last gliders got airborne, a typical Alberta storm marched in from the west, marking its progress with flashes of lightning and roiling black clouds.
Competition organizers were unfazed. They are wily to the vagaries of weather and plotted two triangular competition courses to the east. Pilots were expected to be up for almost three hours.
Of the 19 pilots, 17 were participating in the competition. They were split between two classes of glider, a club class and the higher-performance FAIs, named for the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the sport’s international administrator.
The club-class gliders went out to Three Hills, Stettler and back, and the FAIs went to Drumheller and Stettler before returning.
Waterloo, Ont.’s Dave Springford, 51, made the 3,400-km journey to Olds towing his glider in a specially designed trailer.
The mechanical engineering instructor at a community college has been gliding since he was 12, introduced to the sport by his military pilot father.
“We spent out weekends at airports,” he says, listing off stops in Kingston, Ottawa, CFB Borden and even Germany.
As a youngster, he took to gliding immediately. “It seems that people are like that. They are either passionate about flying, or they are fearful and have nothing to do with it.”
He took a break from gliding for a few years while getting his mechanical engineering degree at university. But when he came out, his first paycheques went to a glider, not a car.
His skill has landed him a spot on Canada’s national gliding team since 2008 and he’s been to four world championships, in Texas, Germany, Hungary and Poland.
The next championship is in Australia, and he’s not sure yet whether he will wrangle the time off school and raise the funds to make the trip.
There’s more to becoming a world-class gliding pilot than being good on the stick.
“The flying is the smallest part of it. The thinking is the biggest part of it,” he says.
“As a glider pilot, you are always looking at the weather, assessing the conditions, reading the clouds, trying to figure out where the best lift is going to be so you can take advantage of it.”
In competition, whoever gets fastest around the course, hitting all the marks, wins. “So you need to optimize. You need to find the strongest lift and you need to take the straightest path.
“You need to beat the other guy on your wits because you’re all flying in the same air. It’s a little bit like sailing, where one guy notices the gusts on the water and takes advantage of that and pulls a couple of hundred feet ahead of the other guy.”
Further up the glider line, Jay Allardyce, 28, of Winnipeg, was making his final checks.
He works in business development for an aerospace firm and has 16 years of gliding experience, having been introduced to the sport by his father.
The lure of the sport is its intricacies, he says.
“It’s a very technical sport so there’s a lot of elements to it. I’m an engineer by training, so I’m very analytical and I like science and math and that sort of thing.
“Gliding combines all of that. It combines meteorology, aerodynamics, theory of flight, strategy — it’s just a whole bunch of different things coming together making it very dynamic.”
He is also attracted by the sport’s spirit of adventure.
“You can go basically anywhere in the world and where there’s the right conditions, you can fly gliders.”
Last year, he spent two weeks soaring above the mountains of France, just for the new experience.
“Gliding is just an adventure and it’s a lifelong pursuit basically. You never get bored of it. Every flight is different.”
As a case in point, in Wednesday’s races, eight gliders “grounded out,” landing on a suitable strip of land of choice. Several got back to the Innisfail airport and the furthest landing from home was near Acme, about 50 km southeast of Olds.
“We want them to make it back, but every contest there’s somebody who has to land out,” says Deschamps.
On the first day of the competition, eight gliders landed out as well. On the second day, there were three.
Each pilot must have his glider trailer hooked up to his truck, keys in the ignition, so race organizers can drive out to recover them.
Deschamps said gliders in this week’s competition typically flew between 4,000 and 8,000 feet above ground level. If you sink to 1,000 feet, it’s time to start looking for a makeshift landing spot.
Identifying the best spots is one of the first lessons fledgling glider pilots learn, she says.
It takes four days of competition to become official and it was touch and go all week, but they managed to squeeze in a final race on Friday afternoon after a storm blew through.
“We are very pleased we have been able to accomplish the competition in full,” says Deschamps.
Pilots also gave the event glowing reviews, which is a feather in the cap for the Innisfail club and its volunteers.