16 April 2012

Flew my first soaring task

My soaring club established a 60 kilometer race course to create some friendly competition: the pilot with the fastest handicapped time each quarter gets a free 3,000 ft aerotow. This is great motivation for me to start learning cross-country soaring techniques and generally tighten up my flying. I flew the course for the first time in the Open Cirrus on Friday the 13th, my first attempt at any kind of task.

With the airport near the center of the course and conservatively high minimum altitudes set on each of the turnpoints (the red sectors in the image below), it is possible to remain within safe gliding distance of the airport the entire time. That's a good thing, because there had better be a good reason if I ever land out in a club ship before I'm signed-off to make real cross-country flights.

My handicapped time was 1:19:06. That's really slow, but I'm content just to have made it around the course. I learned a lot from this flight. It was good to see just how far I could glide at airspeeds well above the best L/D speed (the Cirrus is really spoiling me in that regard). The Fairground turnpoint is also the furthest northeast of the airport that I've been solo. I made lots of mistakes that I'll try to fix next time:

  1. Make a clean start. Shortly after crossing the start cylinder, I hit an area of strong sink and then circled in weak lift to claw back up. This wasted time. After gaining altitude, I should have doubled back. 
  2. Learn proper speed-to-fly. I maintained 60-70 knots indicated airspeed between thermals, which was conservative. Conditions should have safely allowed 75 knots or more in the Cirrus.
  3. Use dolphin flight where appropriate.When going fast through narrow bits of lift, dolphin flight didn't work so well. I'd pull up to slow down after hitting a bump, but by that point I'd blown well past the thermal. I had much better results when passing through larger areas of lift, so next time I won't pull at the first jolt unless it is a booming thermal or sustained lift.
  4. Thermal efficiently. I didn't core the thermals quickly enough, wasting time circling in the weaker lift (and sink) near the turbulent edges of the thermal. 
    • Be more aggressive on the pull to enter a thermal and use steeper bank angles.
    • Judge the best direction to enter a thermal. My evaluation copy of SeeYou tells me that I thermalled to the right most of the time. I'm sure that should have been closer to 50/50 right/left, since turning the wrong way requires 270 degrees of turn to rectify. Many of the thermals were blue, though (no clouds to mark the lift).
    • Don't thermal too fast. In turbulent thermals, I'd add a few knots for comfort so the controls would be more effective, but I suspect I was flying faster than necessary. That can hurt the climb rate. 
I'm still struggling to make a nice approach and landing in the Cirrus. I'm flying far too steep an approach, which sometimes requires a steep dive on final with brakes full out to bleed energy. That's fun, but not elegant.

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