Gaggle Safety by Phil Clark
by Phil Clark
This article, in line with the others, is written in the form of five points, hopefully ‘five things’ format is fairly easy to remember. It is intended that the first and last are kind of obvious and then the bit in the middle is just logical. With this in mind we want to present some tips and tricks for pilots that may be new to competitive flying or equally for those that are stepping up a level. You may wish to revisit this and other learning resources every few seasons. Some things you may know but then later comes understanding and revisiting a resource can often shed a new light on material because your new experience gives you a fresh perspective.
Turn the same way
This sounds so fundamentally obvious but it means more than just going to the right because that was what was written on the task board. Each day at a competition the turn direction will be set with the task, typically it alternates so that what we had yesterday will be the opposite of today. Some Meet Directors will go with an even date means this direction, some will go with odd task means this direction. From event to event the rule governing what direction is applied may vary but rule 1 of aviation always applies…. Do not hit anyone else.
You have to slot in and match with those nearest to you, this means not only going the same direction but also turning at broadly the same rate and on the same general path. Overlapping circles will lead to conflicts, trying to turn faster can lead to spinning the wing on the inside of the gaggle. These are some of the things which lead to carnage in the gaggle.
Plan your entry
Start gaggles are often large and unless you were first off at the window open you’ll need to join one. NUTA is the phrase to think of here… Notice, Understand & Think Ahead. As you approach you’ll typically be joining with gliders coming up from below. Plan to slot in behind with those at your level, check above and below and then avoid cutting in front of those across the intended circle. Use eye contact and aim to keep in a position where you are easily visible to those closest to you. Make sure you can see the helmet of the pilots nearest you and that they could see you if they chose to look in your direction.
In the gaggle
In the crowded skies of the gaggle, you need to be right in the moment and completely focused on flying your glider. You cannot allow yourself to be distracted by the radio or instruments. You have to notice what is going on, you have to understand what is happening with the situation and you need to think ahead. Have a Plan B so that if the glider approaching or converging with you cuts in front then you can manage the situation.
Rushing a decision leads to mistakes and heavy inputs which in turn makes you more erratic and less predictable. Observing and Anticipating can help you avoid conflicts too, if you Concentrate, Observe and Anticipate because you need both Space and Time to react.
Gliders only collide because they occupy the same space at the same time, give yourself space and time, allow others space too. When you cut in ahead you force the other pilot to turn tighter, they may already be on the limit before stalling or spinning.
Watch for gliders coming from below and be prepared to adjust, climbs work best when everyone works together to share the air. If you are climbing faster then again, be prepared to adjust. Rule 1 always applies… don’t hit anyone. Touching is not acceptable either and any incidents in flight should always be reported to the safety officer afterwards.
Plan your exit
You will need to widen you turn and exit along the course, the issues arise at the start because there is not yet an incentive to head down track and so pilots will leave in a variety of directions. As above, think ahead to where you want to be and plan a route that will get you there, you may need to take a couple of turns to widen out and head away on your chosen path.
Before the start you should head for the clearest and least congested patch of sky, losing a hundred metres and rejoining the main climb should be straightforward at most events.
Watch out for cloud base
Arriving at cloud base will sneak up on you surprisingly quickly at times, especially if you’ve been super focussed on the gaggle and pilots around you, so keep an eye out and be prepared to bail on the climb early, cloud flying is forbidden. Advantages gained in the cloud must be removed before you progress down the course. This doesn’t mean spiralling down into the gaggle though. Fly away to clear air and then lose your excess height. If you’re exiting the area with speed bar then be mindful of the turbulence at the edges of the climb/cloud.
What is acceptable behaviour on a cross country flight with three mates you trust is not acceptable in a competition with 100+ strangers. Leave a much wider margin with the wispy bits than you normally would.
Cloud flying only tends to happen at the start because down track, gaining all that extra height in cloud, often just costs you time. The start is the thing that most people are edgy about and low cloud bases early in the day exacerbate this. Base will often rise by a few hundred metres as the day develops too. Areas of convergence will often give different bases in different places so it is hard for organisers to call it and say stay below such and such level of altitude. It remains YOUR responsibility to take all steps to avoid a collision, this includes maintaining sight of the surface and being clear of cloud.
Work together to climb, forty five mins before the start is not the time to make your mark on the comp scene, take that ‘check-up from the neck up’ and chill the heck out… you’ll fly smoother and climb faster for being relaxed and flowing with the group. Keep a margin, stay safe and report it if you can’t. Call out your mates if they are being the problem, peer pressure will change pilot attitudes to safety practices.