Flying with the Masters in the French Alps

Wolf and Frauke Elber (written in 2009)


Some twenty years ago I flew with François Lucas into the French Alps in a Janus sailplane. François was an instructor at that time at St. Auban. It was a beautiful day and he went for a comfortable 300K flight up to the Glacier Blanc, over to the flatland, and back to St. Auban. That sounds simple, but some of the time we were very close to the ground near us. Yet, we were gently entering and flying circles within just a hundred feet of the sheer drops, only to reach the horizon again and see the splendor of this rugged terrain.

This year, we spent the summer in Europe, and I got an opportunity to fly with Antoine Lucas, the 17-year-old son of François. That kid simply declared a 500K-plus multi-leg course, and set out, with me in the backseat, to show that he can master the Alps. First, you have to know every detail of the terrain in the Alps, because the mild South-Westerly winds only address the valleys facing those winds.  We flew out of range of the airport almost immediately (probably to break the ties to the airport) and used all of the launch altitude to contact the first of the ridges or ranges. That left us staring at the bottom of the first range, but, right where the wind would address the first little valley. So, he dived into that core, found the 2-meter thermal, and left everyone else behind. And then, looking North into the Alps, he left that thermal way below what he could have reached, and headed straight for what I would have called a solid wall of rocks, but right on his course. Wouldn’t you know that there was a small ravine, facing just right into the wind, and he went right for it to find the next thermal for the next 1000 meter climb.

Slowly, I was beginning to recognize the importance of the day’s pilot- briefing (given two hours earlier), which emphasized the solar angles and the local winds.

Antoine’s  flight strategy seemed to pay off, because he stayed so close to the ridges that none of the gliders that tried to climb even a few hundred meters above us ever reached any of the peaks on course before we were way beyond those. I believe that we were never more than a few hundred meters above local terrain, as Antoine used the strongest lift below and just above the surrounding terrain, and as he stubbornly dived into each potential thermal core to get him the next 200 meters. Even as a young pilot he had obviously been taught this technique of entering the thermal by staying slow (42kts)  until the moment of maximum climb, and then momentarily diving into what appeared to be the core followed by a smooth recovery into a well-formed circular thermal pattern to optimize his climb. Yes, I was nervous for the first few demonstrations of this technique, but I soon tuned in to his expertise. While this thermal-entry is not much different from a spin-entry, I soon felt comfortable with it, even when we were only a wing-span away from the hard rock surfaces. All I can say is that youth has superior reaction speed.

Each time we abandoned a thermal to go deeper into the Alps, I learnt new lessons about the thermal structure; in these 5kt winds the lift nearly dies about 200 feet above the top of the ridges surrounding the ravine we had climbed up in. Antoine had no fear at all to  select an on-course ridge and stay no more than a wing-span from the rocks, and exploit the near-zero lift to cover the next few kilometers on course, while we scouted for the next windward facing ravine to repeat the cycle all over again. Soon I recognized that Antoine  had bent taught  another important lesson of soaring, which is to stay in the best lift-band. So we spent the whole six hours of our flight barely 60m above the top of the terrain in these 5kt winds. Each kilometer we made at that level was only 60m above the ridges and ravines, but the higher we got into the Alps the valleys below us got deeper, and the slopes of the ridges got steeper. Looking down into those deep valleys made me feel more comfortable, but looking at the slope of the ridges as they got near 70 or 80 degrees reduced that comfort.

Our first turn-point was at the peak of the Glacier Blanc. We were just inside the bowl at its peak, and climbed just enough to see the entire Alp Mountains, Mont Blanc to the west, and looking all the way into Switzerland to the North. But, we took no time to sight-see for more than a few minutes. Antoine wanted to complete his 500 km for the day. Of course, the second leg, straight south, was easier and had greater speeds. Again, Antoine chose a low level course, just above the ridges, and exploited all of the ridge-lift  as we raced down the slopes and were looking to reach the second turn-point  about 30 km south of our launch-point.  That was an easy and beautiful run, just above the many sloping ridges, and ending in the valley about 1000m above the terrain.  As we circled above the second turn-point, we started to concentrate on the cumulus structure above us, and used some of the third leg of the course using normal thermals. That got us intercepting the mountain slopes very much higher in the ranges. Antoine’s third turnpoint  was again up near the top of the Glacier Blanc, so we got to the point of copying much of the first leg, scraping our way up along the wind-driven ravines, and using the local ridges to help with all the climb we needed to cross valleys. Our speed was higher this time, mainly because the thermal heating at 4pm was so much better. We reached the third turnpoint without much effort, and when we turned to home. Antoine let me fly the last leg. At that time, when I asked questions about speed to fly, I realized that his instrumentation as well as his knowledge of computations was not up to the level that most modern flight directors would supply. Of course, this was a down-hill run, no thermaling needed, so I could just aim 100m above the  next mountain ridge to cross and find just the right speed to make that crossing. And again, and again, and again. We were cruising at 150 kmh at the time, and small errors in speed did not influence the outcome. Antoine took back over to fly the pattern, and we landed 6.5 hours after launch having covered 514 km.


This time Wolf did not fly from St. Auban but from Vinon south of St. Auban. This airport is the home of the Association Aeronautique Verdon Alpille and my first impression of the place was that of a world championship site because not only of the number of sailplanes that were located at the airport but also the many different countries of sailplane registrations and the languages that could be heard. This airport is a gathering place for many foreign pilots and national teams. The field is so big that the German pilots had their own landing strip to land close to their trailers.

In 2008 our young friend Antoine was the #1 pilot in the under 25 age group in all of France. Soaring is in his genes. Back in 1963, in my early days of soaring, I befriended his grandfather who was an instructor at the German airport where I learned to fly. Over the years I became an integral part of his family and the main babysitter of 4 young girls who later all became glider pilots. Antoine’s mother, Susanne, was the second youngest of the girls. Later two of the girls married French glider pilots and thus Susanne raised her family in southern France. Our friendship has now reached now down to the third generation of glider pilots.

At our arrival in France, Antoine < Susanne’s and Francois’ youngest child was at a youth camp at the Vinon airport just a few kilometers down from their home town of Volx. We visited Antoine twice at the airport. I was intrigued about the progress he had made in only two years of flying and set out to find the secret of his success.

During this year’s vacations Antoine flew the following distances:

7/26/09                                    368.6 km                                 Discus

7/28/09                                    417.2 km                                 LS4

7/29/09                                    514.3 km                                 Duo Discus

8/6/09                                      603.8 km                                 LS4

8/7/09                                      166.8 km                                 Discus

8/12/09                                    593.2 km                                 Duo Discus

8/14/09                                    308.9 km                                 LS4

8/16/09                                    344.6 km                                 Duo Discus

8/17/09                                    326.5 km                                 Duo Discus

8/19/09                                    302.0 km                                 DG300

9/6/09                                      221.8 km                                 Discus


Antoine’s mother Susanne, sent me the following report

“A deciding criterion in recruiting young people to soaring is the so called BIA (brevet d’intitiation aeronautique) or “a short introduction to aeronautics”. This year long theoretical course is being held in a local high school taught by senior instructors of the Vinon soaring club on a Wednesday afternoon, when French schools traditionally don’t have classes.

This course teaches the basics of flying and ends with an exam. The students who pass this exam are then invited to fly for three days. ( Initially Antoine had signed up for this course without telling his parents. He passed his exam and that how he got to his first soaring flights). Most of the young people who were introduced this way to soaring began their training in earnest. And by now probably all have flown their 300 km, which out of the Vinon airfield is easier than at many other glider ports.

A second important aspect of a well structured concept is the so called “livre blue” (blue book) which contains the training syllabus and serves as guidance for the instructors. It was compiled by soaring professionals over many years. Many believe that  this solid concept provides the impulses and offers an intelligent way to teach cross-country flying.

A third important point is that most of the big, French clubs have paid personnel. The Vinon staff consists of the chief pilot and his deputy. Depend on the season more instructors will be hired. In addition to these the staff consists of a secretary (or more), at least one mechanic and janitorial staff. Add to this all the volunteers.

Point four is the money issue. French clubs receive money from different sources. In order to access the money somebody has to search for the sources and do all the paper work. Antoine’s support came from different sources for his “outstanding performance”: the State (Department in France), the regional government, the Olympic Committee and the French Soaring Federation. The money is credited to the club, which in turn will credit it to the individual pilot’s account.

For the first two years in the club the young pilots can fly the club’s airplane for a reduced rate. For a fixed rate of EUR 800 and for as many hours they like they can fly LS4, Pegase, Astir and DG300. In addition to this are the costs for a tow, which range between EUR 30 and EUR 40. Since Antoine started to fly he received subsidies of  about EUR 4500 to EUR 5000. His parents chipped in about the same amount. Without this financial support many parents could not have afforded the flight training for their children and even with this support many of the Vinon youngsters come from medium to high income families. But performance will bring money. And the money spend by the parents is considered an investment in their children’s future. Many later find their way into military and civilian aviation.

From next year on Antoine will have to pay the full costs for the use of the club’s equipment since his two year support comes to an end. He will get his instructor rating next year. He also will partake in the government sponsored, high performance camp at the French National Soaring Center in St. Auban.

A fifth point is that the big, well-known clubs in France who accommodate many pilots and national teams from other European countries make a lot of money this way and therefore can invest in modern, high performance sailplanes and can afford paid staff.

A lot of motivation for these young pilots comes from watching the high performance pilots train and fly.

Antoine credits his early interest  in flying to building models and his father (a former glider pilot and now airline pilot. -His mother also was a glider pilot-) who instilled in him a sense of safety behavior, attention to the details and the ability to concentrate. He also believes into listening to the older, experienced pilots and considers an exchange with them important. Another important factor that attracts the young people is that Régis Kuntz, the chief instructor in Vinon believes in awarding flying skills and pilot performance to move the pilots to higher performance sailplanes  instead of an inflexible training schedule where the trainees have to go through fixed training levels and number of hours before being allowed to move on to the next level of high performance sailplanes.”

I am certain that in the years to come we will see the name Antoine Lucas on the roster of the French National Team.

PS: 2 years after this article was written Antoine is in training for the French National Junior Team. He is training in St.Auban, the French National Soaring Center. He will not yet fly in the upcoming Junior Worlds in Germany, because the team managers give the Juniors who now have a chance to move to the general team a last chance at the Junior Worlds.