Logan 2011 – a more sympathetic view

I disagree with Frank Payter’s pessimistic view of the 2011 Logan contest and especially with a pessimistic view of this site.  I’m not a “local expert.” These are just my views based on flying half of the nationals there.

Overall, Logan is a very promising site. It has good weather, a good task area, a great airport, enthusiastic locals who would like to develop the site, and a very nice crew-friendly town with many alternative activities. It allows a style of mountain “ridge running” in anabatic lift that is common in the Alps, but not practiced in any other contest site in the U.S., or at any site where we are likely to run contests in the foreseeable future. The scenery is spectacular. US contests need more sites in the West especially, and Logan is ideally situated. If Logan tanks, where else are you going to fly?

The 2011 contest was marred by some unlucky weather, some organizational problems which are easy to fix, accidents which were by their own admission the results of pilots pushing too hard, some pilot controversies, and an unusual number of early departures. I don’t think these should stop development of this promising site.

The main organizational problem was the complete absence of a retrieve office. Poor Micki (contest manager) was trying to do it all herself, but with mass landout days and many crewless pilots we came close to leaving some people unaccounted for.

The contest manager simply cannot handle all retrieve office duties. And it is a fact of life that many pilots show up without crews. We worry about the cost and barriers to entry of contest flying, and a need to bring a crew adds substantially to those costs. The “buddy system” works fine, until all your buddies land out too.  It also does not work if your buddy squeaks back home and lands at 7:30, while you’ve been sitting in a field for 3 hours already, and 50 people are drinking beer in the hangar.

The pilots ended up setting up a crewless pilot system which worked well. The first pilot back became the retrieve desk, and rounded up other crewless pilots as needed. Each retrieve puts you lower on the list for subsequent retrieves. But this sort of thing needs to be in place on day one.

Many organizers bemoan crewless pilots. But if we want more participation, we have to make contests attractive to crewless pilots. It’s not that hard.

Pilots complained about task overcalls. As long as weather is uncertain, task overcalls will be an occasional part of  contest soaring.

Thunderstorms are also a common part of contest soaring. While we are having a general discussion about how to deal with thunderstorms in contests, and in particular whether CDs should occasionally stop tasks in progress, there is nothing special about Logan in having a few thunderstorm days.  In fact, by being further North, Logan is less susceptible to monsoon moisture that can blanket Hobbs, Arizona, and Parowan for days on end.

On both the thunderstorm and “overcalled” mass landout days, we were given MATs or TATs with large circles. Pilots could easily have chosen to come home early. It was perfectly possible to complete tasks without going in to the thunderstorms.

Overcalls and thunderstorms are not good things to be sure. My point is that nothing is special about Logan in these events. Cesar Creek had a pretty famous thunderstorm and overcall a few years ago!

That said, Logan does have some peculiarities and limitations which should be taken into account in running and flying contests.

Logan is a mountain site, and like all mountain and ridge sites (Parown, Mifflin, Minden) it can be “technical.” There are routes to follow, and bailout options to study. You can’t just push the nose over and race until the altimeter reads 500 feet. You may have to turn back or make a big deviation if your plan doesn’t work out.

The initial climb is difficult. Tows take you to the foothills, and climbing up to the start requires an exciting “low save” at the beginning of each day. This is much harder than, say, at Parowan.  You do figure 8 passes, within a wingspan of the hills, and transition to thermals that must be worked at a steep bank angle, close to the hill, in gaggles, while achieving 2 knots. You typically do this two or three times, moving back in the mountains each time, where it gets easier.

There were many relights at the contest, even among national pilots who think they are thermal hotshots. I had the first two relights of my contest career here.

Towards the end of the contest, they adopted 3000’ tows, which helped a lot. This may be a key for future flying at Logan.

However, I think that the combination of a tough initial climbout, the “ridge” flying, and the need to make transitions to other mountains for just about any task  means that this site is not the place for pilots to learn mountain soaring in a contest setting.

The site is a great place to learn mountain flying in a camp setting. Camps don’t have to fly every day, and don’t have to start sending pilots up as soon as the lift starts working. Pilots in a camp can edge towards rock polishing in more benign conditions.

Water ballast makes the whole business that much harder. This is a good place for a dry contest or a contest with a low (9 lbs/square foot) as allowed under regional rules.   Karl wisely declared no ballast for FAI classes over some grumbling.

Frank’s  “unlandable terrain” comments caused a lot of fuss. In fact, the terrain is substantially better overall than many western sites, including Minden, Owens Valley, Tonopah/Ely, Hobbs Caprock, Uvalde hill country.  It’s about the same as Parowan.

Much of the topography of the main task area is mountain ranges that allow an easy glide out to farmed valleys, at least from the mountain peaks.  As usual, pilots tend to delay leaving the mountains long past any hope of climbing up, and following a canyon out to the valley is an unpleasant experience. Making a transition from the downwind side is challenging, but not inherently unsafe, as turning around is always an option.

Logan allows the “ridge running” style of mountain flying that is rare in the US, where the mountain topography usually only allows flying over the top of the peaks. All the ridges that favor this kind of flying allow easy escape to the valley.

There is a bit of a tough spot at Mink Creek, on the northern end of the Logan ridge: it’s a long way out to the vallley, so flying much below ridgetop is dangerous. It’s also the go-to point for transitions back to Logan, and lies on the side of a substantial gap through which you can arrive from the East. Pilots tend to shoot the gap and get there low, rather than take the safety-preserving but costly decision to go around the north end of the ridge, or turn around to escape to near-certain landing in fields while altitude is still in hand.

Some of the terrain is poor, but with reasonable fields every 10 miles or so that allow a pilot to safely cover the terrain especially given the quite high thermals. An example is the Waggoner peak (83) to Meade peak (59) transition. The first time through it’s intimidating because things look grim directly below. In fact, there are bailout options to Afton airport and Geneva valley all the way. But, like all mountain decisions, you have to retreat with a good deal of altitude left over the ground. (One of Tim Taylor’s traces shows exactly such a retreat, followed by a climbout and trying again.)

There are a few larger areas of poor terrain without good fields. The valleys between Tiggert Airport (12) and Alpine Airport (13) are a good example, over which we flew several times. These pose a dilemma to the contest pilot.  You can’t necessarily get enough altitude to go all the way over. There are bailout options to the side, but you have to take those at quite high altitude, and doing so you are going 90 degrees to courseline, away from the best lift sources, and very likely to land. The terrain isn’t like Bryce and Zion which we overfly in Parowan, loudly saying “you will die instantly if you try to land here.” High meadows with dirt roads will likely eat glider parts, but the pilot will almost surely walk away. The result was that many pilots chose to fly over this terrain at uncomfortably low altitudes. However, all the tasks could easily be accomplished by flying around these areas, albeit a bit more slowly.

The area to the west of Logan, north of Salt lake, is a classic Nevada-style valley; flat and uncultivated with few and far between landing places. You go here at the extreme of a task, keeping landing places in mind, and beating a quick retreat rather than get low. We did not get to the very unlandable far eastern part of the task area. This is similar to the Grand Canyon tasks at Parowan, and flown only in similarly booming conditions.

All of these situations are common in western flying, and again, are substantially worse in many commonly-flown sites. So why was there a controversy? I think most pilots have become familiar with the other western sites, know where the few savior fields or roads are that let them cross tough sections. Going over such terrain the first time is intimidating. I remember when the Uvalde hill country was considered totally unlandable, and we were never sent there in less than perfect conditions. Now that pilots have gotten familiar with the isolated fields and airports we’re all blasé about it. The Hobbs caprock has seen a similar change in attitude. Perhaps we’ve become too blasé about these, just having gotten away with dangerous flying too often, but the fact is that Logan is perfectly normal in this regard. The desert West of Parowan, the Bryce and Zion areas, and the Grand Canyon flights to the south are much more intimidating than anything at Logan, but do not seem to cause similar consternation.

I never felt I was in any danger at all. I pushed a bit too hard once and got low over a valley with meadows and dirt roads, with a marginal escape route out to the better valley.  Even here, though there was some risk to the glider, there was no personal risk. And I got there by passing up many thermals and choosing the direct route under clouds rather than an indirect route, which proved quicker anyway. So it was an utterly avoidable (read “stupid”) decision.

In sum, then, I think the “unlandable” controversy was the result of pilots being unfamiliar with a new site, and understandably uncomfortable with handling the kinds of tricky decisions common in western contest soaring in challenging Nationals tasks.

Suggestions:

Still, there are things we could do to improve the situation. Tim and Karl offered an excellent briefing. And only about half the pilots showed up! Putting the briefing in writing, such as Karl wrote for Mifflin, and coordinates for some of the “stepping stones” through tough areas would be very useful. It would help pilots a lot to get familiar with the area and overcome the incorrect feeling that they are flying over miles of unlandable terrain. A good example would be the farm in the valley between Waggoner peak and Meade peak. You can’t see it from the air, especially once you’re past it. Knowing about it, and looking at it on Google Earth at home before arriving at Logan would calm many fears.

There are a few areas that are marginal, but are tempting to contest pilots on a frequent basis. Mink Creek (north end of Logan ridge), and especially shooting the gap from the East to arrive low at the Mink Creek ridge, and the Tiggert-Alpine plateau are examples.  On less than booming days, the CD might avoid these with steering turns. Alternatively a CD might place an SUA in these areas, specifying a minimum altitude. Below that, you are treated as if you landed out. Though we usually leave such things purely to pilot discretion, the big points at stake and the evident fact that pilots do not choose wisely (and I have the tail booms to prove it) argues for removing the points incentive to try low saves in these common unlandable areas.

Needless to say, any contest at this site must require ELT or spot.  Again, the site is not too unusual in this respect – Mifflin and Newcastle have a similar issue. And they require ELTs.

The controversies:

In the end, I think Tim Taylor’s RAS post got the facts right. And Frank Paynter’s posts captured the pilot mood right. Pilots were unnerved by three mass landouts, some slightly overcalled tasks (with 20/20 hindsight), glider damage, and making transitions over unfamiliar terrain.  Several new pilots got the impression this would be a good “learn to fly mountains” contest and either left early when the necessary skills became clear, or got quite discouraged.

I think the organizers erred a little bit in trying to “show pilots how great the site is and what big flights you can make here” rather than “gently introduce pilots to this gorgeous but advanced site” in the first few days. It’s a bit like the classic pilot who takes a ride up for a 500k xc in a duo discus and gets the passenger sick rather than just do a 20 minute sled ride. But really, once we’re all home and seeing things rationally, none of the mood issues are intrinsic to the site.

This is a very promising site, which I think we should all struggle to rescue from the brouhaha of this contest. It would be a real shame if, like Tonopah, the teething pains of a first nationals lead to abandoning a very promising site. We need more sites, especially in the West!  I will certainly return to Logan, and I hope they run a contest again soon.

 

  2 comments for “Logan 2011 – a more sympathetic view

  1. John Weber
    February 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    I think these are very perceptive and realistic comments. It appears to me to be a terrific site, albeit one that deserves a notch up in terms of respect. I made some really dumb decisions over the contest, landed out a lot, and had a blast. LEft early only because I was exhausted, not because it wasnt terrific.

  2. Sean Fidler (F2)
    January 3, 2013 at 10:38 am

    I would certainly support a contest at Logan. I know Frank well and have met Tim. Both great folks. I view this slightly differently that all of you (John, Tim and Frank) as I am completely unfamiliar with mountain racing. I see these technical sights pure learning opportunity and requiring GREAT RESPECT. In Parowan this year (Sports Class Nationals) I flew my first mountain contest. My only other experience was the week prior in Salida, CO for fun flying (3 days up very high). I did not rely on others for briefings or familiarity in Parowan. I planned each flight as if I was a private pilot 100% responsible for my own flying. I set conservative minimums and always flew to safe landing options. As much as I would like to be, I am no hero. I am devoid of superpowers! The competitive juices MUST be controlled and de-coupled from ego. When ego and competitive juices mix in mountains that you are inexperienced in, risk is way into the red zone. I imagine this must be maintained even when experienced and capable of victory. When the winds got high this year at Parowan (30 mph +) during launch, I pulled my glider off the grid and ended my contest. I relaxed for the remaining days enjoying the fact that I flew very well in the first 4 or 5 contest days in complex mountains against pilots who had great experience at this site. For me it was a great victory. My key lesson was that extreme risk is not required to be competitive in the mountains. The top pilots did not take dumb risks to win. They flew smart, sensibly and safely. Being excellent in the mountains is a function of experience in THOSE mountains. You cant do this from the get go. If you try, you might feel frustrated and upset (scared). I would have the same attitude in Logan.

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