The 2014 Snowbird Contest


Yes, it was as cold as it looks, but it was also more fun that it appears.

Ah, Thanksgiving!  Food, family, football....and flying?  While most of the soaring activity in the northern climates of the U.S. takes a winter hiatus, Harris Hill Soaring Corporation (HHSC) held its 72nd annual Snowbird contest on the Friday and Saturday (Nov. 28/29) after Thanksgiving.  (History of Snowbird is here)

Snowbird is not like most contests.  First of all, it's more of a fun-fly and contestants of all skill levels, from student pilot to seasoned experts have a chance to win.  The prize categories say it all - Best Junior, Best Junior Team, Best Family Team, etc.  Prizes are given for a combination of spot landing, distance from a designated stopping point, and adherence to a set duration.



A 2-33 landing during the 2014 Snowbird Contest at Harris Hill, Elmira, NY

Junir pilot Andrea Gaylord sticks the zero zone during the 2014 Snowbird Contest at Harris Hill, Elmira, NY


Each day, the contest director (last year's overall winner -no good deed goes unpunished), sets the duration.  This year it was 12 minutes.  Except when we could only tow to 1500 feet agl, then it was changed to 8 minutes.  Given the vagaries of winter weather in the southern tier of New York state, the rules are somewhat flexible and the primary goal is to enjoy flying as a group.  All contestants begin with a 1,000 point score from which penalties are subtracted.  Time is measured from the moment the tow starts until touchdown and a point is subtracted for each second over or under.  A zero point deduction zone is painted on the runway and marked with cones.  If a contestant lands short, several hundred points are subtracted.  Landing long has similar consequences.





End of day 2 rewarded with a gorgeous sunset.

In addition, contestants must bring the glider to a stop as close as possible to an orange traffic cone set a few hundred feet from the zero zone.  A point is subtracted for each inch the nose of the glider stops from the cone.  (See the official rules and score sheet here)  This requirement makes for some...interesting landings!  Too much energy and contestants overrun the cone, brakes locked, crushed cone beneath the fuselage, screeching and trailing tire smoke as they vainly try to stop.  Of course, the patches of snow and ice on the runway don't help, either.  There are usually some blustery winter crosswinds that add turbulence and sometimes sink to make it more interesting.  The machine of choice is either the Schweizer 2-33 for team flying or 1-26 for individual scores.  They're tough as nails, have effective spoilers, and are just plain fun to fly in a spot landing contest.


HHSC Junior Evan Harshbarger circles the field in the 1-24.

Snowbird also gives Junior members an opportunity to compete among themselves and with Senior members for bragging rights over the next year.  This year, our Junior pilots won the bragging rights again.  Both clubs have some very talented Junior pilots and they don't appear to mind the cold, either!

Meanwhile, inside the flight center, warm onlookers (or thawing contestants) eat soup or chili, sip hot chocolate, and rate the landings.  The hangar talk is as interesting as the contest itself.  On the final night, HHSC hosts a Snowbird banquet at the National Soaring Museum and hands out the awards and end of year kudos.

Snowbird is about as local a contest as you can get and more like a fun-fly.  Of course, there's a practical side to the contest, too.  It sharpens out-landing skills by challenging pilots to land and stop in a very confined area.

This year, our friends from Valley Soaring Association showed up and stole the best club trophy AGAIN.  VSA is a welcome and reliable participant in the contest but HHSC has got to find a way to stop them from winning every year!  Our friends from Wurtsboro also showed up and stole a team duration award.  Best pilot was VSA's Jason Kainu.  To give you some perspective, the winning times are usually either exact or within a second of the required duration and the distance to the stopping cone is often zero.