The essence of a world champion

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Read the full complete interview from Gordon Buckland. Abridged article found on page 99 in the January 2013 issue.

What is the essence of world champion Soaring pilots? What is the secret ingredient that sets them apart from those who want to be? Did they do things differently to earn such success? Maybe there is a common denominator that we could all grasp to emulate their performance.
These are questions I have asked myself at one time or another, and I realized that there was a unique opportunity to find many of the past world champions in one place at the recent F3J World Championship in South Africa and also at the World Soaring Masters in Muncie, Indiana. Each of these six men kindly talked to me about how they made it to the top.
    • Daryl Perkins (USA): four-time F3B and 2010 F3J champion • Joe Wurts (New Zealand): 1991 F3B, 1998 F3J, and 2011 F3K champion • Benedikt Fiegl (Germany): 2008 and 2012 F3J champion • David Hobby (Australia): 2004 and 2006 F3J champion • Arend Borst (Canada): 2002 F3J champion • Skip Miller (USA): the first F3B Soaring world champion (1977 in South Africa)
2012 F3J world champion Benedict Fiegl prepares his 3.8M X2 Xplorer on the last day of the preliminaries at the World Championships in South Africa.

Benedict Fiegl celebrates his recent win on the top step of the podium as he joyfully raises the 1st Place trophy high.

I hope you enjoy their interesting answers to my questions.
GB: What is your earliest memory of flying? DP: My father was a full-scale pilot and we used to often kill Sunday afternoons at the local airport. That piqued my interest in flying. JW: This goes back to when I was a teenager; I saved up for a year to buy my first radio unit. I threw it in an RC glider and walked up a hill and threw it off. I got maybe a minute-and-a-half flight. I walked back down, picked up the pieces, glued them together again with five-minute epoxy, and walked back up to do it again. BF: I don’t remember my first airplane. I am flying since I remember anything. I am 23 years old and I think I am flying already 23 years! DH: I tried full-size sailplanes around [age] 14. AB: I watched my Dad flying models around 1970. SM: I’ve been flying model aircraft as long as I have been alive. Actually, my Dad was an airline lifer and I started flying models when I was 4 or 5.
GB: How old were you when you began flying RC sailplanes? DP: I built a Sig Riser when I was 23. JW: I was 15 and I learned how to fly gliders by myself [by] throwing them off the top of a hill. BF: I think I was flying sailplanes at 4 or 5 years old. DH: About 15 years old. I couldn’t solo in full size so I tried RC Soaring. AB: When I was about 8 years old. SM: Not until 1975 when I was 28. I flew many types of models like U-Control and FF before that—but RC didn’t even exist. When I first threw a Hobie Hawk off a hill and got it into lift, I didn’t realize what was happening and was worried about getting it down.
GB: Who was your greatest mentor? DP: Joe Wurts. JW: I didn’t have a mentor, but my idol was Rick Pearson of the San Fernando Valley Flyers, who I read about in the magazines. BF: For sure my father, Peter Fiegl. He became German champion in full-size Triangle Racing and was a great influence. DH: Major influence was Scott Leonard. He was a similar age to me and was a good pilot, so he taught me a lot. AB: Joris Tenholt—an F3B pilot in Holland. SM: My dad was a pioneer in American Airlines. He and Lee Renaud of Airtronics and Dan Pruss were all a big factor in the discussion of Soaring and the elegance of flight.
GB: Which contest did you first win and where was that? DP: Hans Weiss Memorial—it was a Slope race near Los Angeles. JW: My high school had an aviation club and they had a FF and RC Soaring event and I won that. My first serious contest for RC Soaring was probably [the] 1977 US Nationals and I came second in that one. BF: I really can’t remember but I think it was a small Soaring contest in Bavaria when I was about 10 years old. DH: A javelin-throw, Hand-Launched Glider contest in the late ’90s in Melbourne, Australia. AB: Kootwijk, Holland. It was a Thermal Duration contest and my Dad was sick in bed and I had to go by myself with a friend when I was 17 years old. SM: In 1975 when the Rocky Mountain Soaring Association was being formed, I won local meets there and then my first national-level competition was the team selections in Denver in 1977 and I placed second.
GB: Did you ever fly and compete in other forms of RC? DP: Larry Jolly invited me and Steve Condon to an F5D (Pylon Racing) contest in Australia once, but I don’t like that sort of thing. It’s a tinkerer’s game. I don’t want to have to have the fastest thing to be competitive. I want to be able to show up with any model and still be competitive. JW: I’m pretty much a pure RC Soaring guy. Smelly castor oil and nitro stuff ... nuh! BF: No—not ever. Only RC Soaring. DH: Yes, F5B Electric Soaring. I went to five world championships before I saw the F3J Worlds in Finland and thought I’d like to try that. I made the team and won my first world championship the following cycle in Canada in 2004. AB: I competed in F3B and I also liked sailboats. SM: Yes, in the early ’90s I took a sabbatical and for a few years I flew Pattern at the Masters level.
GB: What is it that you like most about Thermal Soaring? DP: Every flight’s different. Every aspect is different. You learn. If you’re not learning every time you’re flying, you’re doing it wrong. JW: It’s the Zen aspect and becoming at one with the atmosphere. It’s just understanding what’s going on and how to to best optimize how to extract energy out if it. I just love that whole … I think the best word for it is Zen ... understanding. BF: It’s just perfect without a winch and without a motor. Just the sun and two guys towing you up. It’s with nature and outside and we do it with the whole family. DH: The competition I love, but mainly it’s getting together with people with a common interest. I like it and I like getting together with other people who like it. AB: Initially, when I was young, it was keeping things in the air as long as I could. It challenged me. SM: It’s the elegance and the aesthetics of what this all is. I’ve always enjoyed the motorless flight as my primary interest. Flying a sailplane is just a dreamy moment.
GB: What is your most useful strategy before launching to know which direction to go to find lift? DP: Experience. JW: I hate to say it, but it’s turning off the analytical side of my mind and letting the reptilian hind brain tell me where to go. If I try to analyze where to go, I do worse than if I close my eyes (in a metaphorical sense) and just let my instincts take over. It’s all about integrating all the little bits and pieces of data the mind registers, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, and then integrating them to say the most likely place to find lift is over here or over there. BF: I look to the flags. Some people think they are just for showing you’re proud of your nationality … that’s not true. I look for the velde and the trees and just for the weather direction. DH: Watch the good guys and where they’re looking! But seriously, I’m mainly looking for any activity in the air. Dust, birds, and other elements—with the proper glasses you can see quite a lot. AB: The easiest sign is to look at the wind. Wind vectoring, but I look for other signs too, like dust in the air. Everybody looks for birds. SM: I always study the group before and I have a fair idea when I hook up the line. Once I feel a thermal come through I pretty much always go downwind—I’m a downwind flier. My best strategy though is to have a plan as the airplane leaves my hand, but always be prepared to change. Sometimes on the way up you feel a change and you’ve got to be able to override that predetermined sense.

The weather conditions during the Worlds in Sth Africa included extreme cold, snow and near FAI limit wind strength. Joe was rugged up more than usual on the coldest day of the contest.

At the recent World Soaring Masters event, Joe Wurts was seen setting up a full stick of ballast for his 3.9M Maxa on the very windy Saturday afternoon.

GB: What is your routine before every TD flight? DP: I don’t have one. I don’t pay much attention any more. JW: I do best if I try not to overthink the situation. I walk up to the flightline and look around and I say yes, I need to go over there. I launch, and then once the airplane leaves my hand the rules change. The whole concept of “I’ve got a flight plan and I’ve got to follow it,” you’ll follow it downhill sometimes. BF: I just leave it to my feelings before I start. DH: I’m always trying to sense as much as I can—wind vectors and such. I usually chat to the other guys around me. At ease, put them “off ease” maybe … a bit of banter. AB: I look for wind directional indicators. Which way are the tree tops pointing? Also flags and streamers are a huge sign. SM: I like to be alone to watch the group before and I try to study the air and see how they’re doing it and try to incorporate that thinking into my flight.
GB: Where do most people fail when seeking lift? DP: They don’t read the model. They don’t understand what the model is telling them. It’s not just watching, but feeling the yaw. The thermals will pull you away from them. They don’t watch other models either. It’s so much easier to make your time in a TD or F3J contest with many other models than going out by yourself. JW: One failure is that they are not getting enough practice time and another is reading too much of what other people say rather than figuring out what works. BF: Others have struggle with floating conditions and very windy. My best performance is with floating. The nicest thing is if the thermal is strong enough for you but not for the other guys. DH: Hesitancy, particularly in very trying conditions you must make decisions very quickly. If you hesitate you’ll be lost. AB: I think a lot of people don’t pay attention—like their airplane wants to go left and then they’re turning left in sink when they should have gone right. SM: If they acquire a thermal, they don’t track it fast enough. The thermal outruns 50% of the pilots. I always like to go deeper than the thermal and then come back into it to core it. I come in from the downwind side of it and nine times out of 10, the others have missed the meat of it.

Gordon Buckland interviews Skip Miller (the first world Soaring champion) during the World Soaring Masters at the AMA Headquarters in Muncie IN in September 2012.

David Hobby of Australia is flanked by his team manager Gerry Carter, and Aussie pilot Carl Strautins, during the preliminary rounds of the World Championships in August 2012.

David Hobby has won two World Championships with Samba Pike Perfects and campaigned the new Pike Perfection in Johannesburg Sth. Africa in 2012.

GB: How much do you practice doing landings versus flying thermals? DP: I don’t practice thermals. 100% landings. JW: It depends. For this world champs, I would go out maybe twice a week and if there were thermals I would practice two-minute precision. If the air was difficult, I would try and do 10-minute flights. That’s when you want to practice trying to scratch it out, and if the air is good, well then, everybody’s a winner. BF: We don’t practice; we just go off flying. DH: I do very little practice but about 1/3 landings and 2/3 thermal and launch settings. AB: 90% landings; 10% thermals. SM: Back in the day, I practiced more. But before a major contest I’ll go out for six sessions and shoot some landings. Get in the groove of learning the aircraft, in all conditions. If it’s windy I still go out and I might only shoot 10 landings. If I like them, I’m good to go.
GB: How do you determine how much ballast to use? DP: People often get it wrong by measuring wind speed at ground level to determine how much ballast. Each individual site has topography issues, which dictates how much wind gradient you have. I ballast for lift and sink conditions. JW: Tough question! If the air is flat, I want just enough ballast so that in minimum sink mode I’m not drifting downwind and not going upwind. I want to match my minimum sink airspeed to the wind speed. I want the highest possible launch altitude (which is really light) and I don’t want to push or have to push to keep the airplane over a set point on the ground. If the air is active, I want a little bit more ballast so I can run through sink to find air so I want some penetration ability. BF: I just look at the wind and put in some ballast and hold the model into the wind. If it doesn’t feel too heavy, maybe some more and hold it again. I just go with my feelings. DH: It’s based on thermal strength. With strong thermals, more ballast (wind velocity does have a part) but with no thermals in wind I would ballast a little, and with strong thermals to the max. AB: I still go by feel. I should probably take it a bit more seriously. SM: I take more than one choice to the flightline and decide there.
GB: What is your all-time favorite model? DP: Comet 89T. JW: For which task? I love sport flying the old foamie JW. The F3B Eagle and the old Icon were favorites. BF: My Xplorer X2. DH: Pike Perfect. AB: Supra. SM: It has to be the Aquila. For a period of time there, I was dominant in the sport with it.

Daryl Perkins (the most-crowned world champion ever with five titles) prepares his Maple Leaf Design Icon2 with the appropriate ballast in South Africa at the 2012 Worlds.

During the World Championship fly-offs Daryl Perkins was assisted by his long time friend and excellent South African pilot Craig Goodrum.

GB: What aircraft do you prefer to fly today and why? DP: Icon 2, because it has such a wide performance regime and it does what it takes to win contests well. JW: I’ve really fallen in love with the Maxa the last few weeks. BF: All of the models are very good at the moment, but the X2 is the best because NAN Models is my very good sponsor and I get it for free. DH: Haven’t had a lot of time with the Perfection yet. I’d like to see the Perfection with an ET wing—I think it has slightly more capability of ranging. AB: For fun, the Supra, but for contests, the Maxa. SM: I fly two airplanes today. The Satori I’ve flown for four years and the Egida (Jaro Muller’s latest creation) is slippery—it has less induced drag. At certain times the Egida is the best choice and the Satori is my more traditional planform.
GB: What is your favorite contest to fly at and why? DP: The world championship experience is second to none. I’m addicted to FAI contests. JW: I have to say cross country and Montague. That’s pure Soaring. BF: The world championship because we have to fly four days of prelims and it is very difficult flying well in every condition. DH: Worlds. AB: F3J World Championships. SM: I like the US team selections event. I think I’ve made six teams in my time. I like to compete against the highest level pilots.
GB: If you could change anything about the current F3J rules what would it be? DP: I would carry the preliminary scores through to the finals. I can’t stand that we fly for a whole week and then throw the scores away. If you can outlaunch, outland, and fly longer, then at the end of the contest you’re going to win. I don’t care who you’re flying against. I don’t like a format where every flight doesn’t count. JW: I would cut down the landing score to about 40% worth of what it is. BF: Nothing—it’s great like it is. DH: Make it harder! Like a shorter towline length. AB: It would be a challenge to shorten the lines, but I’m not sure it would be a good idea. We’d have to try it out. SM: It’s a pretty good program, but I don’t like how precise it’s gotten. It’s hard for humans to get an accurate time on a speed tow. Same for the landing—we almost need a photographic camera to make sure nobody lands late. That’s the problem, but I don’t know how to fix it.
GB: What apparatus do you launch with when practicing? DP: I have a “bungee from hell,” because I don’t want to walk too far. A short line, a short bungee, and super powerful gets me about a minute-and-a-half high. JW: A bungee with 3.5 meters of 7/8-inch OD rubber. Inside diameter is about 4mm. I have 65 meters of line on it. It probably has about 80 or 90 kg of tension capability, but I use a scale to premark on the ground and set the tension at about 40 kg, which is a good starting point for F3J. BF: Bungee. Towing is too much trouble for us. DH: F3B winch. AB: A triple bungee. It’s short and quick and gives me about a 150-foot launch. SM: I use a “death-match” hi-start. That’s 50 feet of strong rubber and 35 feet of monofilament.
Arend Borst, world F3J champion from Canada (on right) calls the air for David Webb during the 2012 Worlds, while another Canadian pilot, Keith Thompson, looks on.

Many pilots think it is the magic of a particular model that might give them limitless maxes and help them win contests, but these men get it done with all different models, and judging by their answers, the essence may well be in how dedicated you really are to learn and how hard you want to work at the necessary skills.
These champions are all defined by one common thread. They were absolute gentlemen and they all shared a desire to genuinely help others to be better Soaring pilots.
I hope this small insight into their Soaring success might inspire you to great things, too.
Fly downwind and soar!
SOURCES: League of Silent Flight

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