Managing flying risk – flying in gliding competitions

Competitions bring together groups of like minded individuals to socialise, learn lots, compete and compare their performances when flying the same cross-country task, and all within a fairly tight set of rules that aim to ensure a level playing field. Competitions are great fun. Perhaps more so than in other aspects of gliding, flying in competitions demands a high level of threat and error management, judgement and flying skills. This guidance is designed to help pilots to prepare for and safely fly in competitions.

This guidance does not repeat information that is available in the BGA competition rules or commonly listed in any local rules. Both the current version of the BGA competition rules and the local rules are essential reading before flying a competition.

Before the competition preparation – glider

It is important that the glider is prepared. For example:

  • Is the FLARM aerial installation as good as it can be and the software up to date?
  • Are the soaring computer and navigation devices easy to view without restricting external vision?
  • Is the turning point and airspace data up to date and loaded in the navigation devices?
  • Are the glider batteries reliable? Have they been renewed in recent years?

Before the competition preparation – the pilot

It is essential that the pilot is personally prepared. Consider the following:

Current and appropriate flying practice?

In competitions, pilots invariably have to fly in gaggles, return to possibly crowded airfields, and finish a task safely. If a pilot is concerned they have not experienced those situations or feels out of practice, they must ensure that they are in current practice including via some training before flying in a competition.

Awareness of what goes on at a rated competition?

Consider crewing for a pilot at a competition – it is great preparation for all the ground based activities and timescales that occur during a typical day.

Read the rules?

It would be a shame to lose points by being ignorant of the competition and local rules. But more importantly, the rules are also designed to help competitors to stay safe and to protect others. Above all else, fly safely.

Familiar with the local area around the competition site?

A competition could be in an area unfamiliar to the pilot. Doing some flying in the local area can be helpful.

Familiar with the competition site?

Walk the airfield and know where it is safe to land and where it is not safe.

Airspace and altimetry knowledge?

A competitors airspace and altimetry knowledge must be of a high standard.  Air space infringements are illegal and potentially dangerous. There is no excuse for infringing controlled airspace.

Familiar with the glider?

Handling and detail such as canopy jettison vary from type to type. Unfamiliarity with on board kit such as soaring/nav computers can be very distracting.

Pilot responsibility

The pilot in command of a glider has responsibilities and accountability that do not change during a gliding competition. The law is clear. The Sailplane Air Operations (SAO) rules describe among other detail the pilot in command responsibilities. The Rules of the Air (SERA) describe, for example, collision avoidance and low flying rules. All pilots should be familiar with the detail.

The Sailplane Air Operations (SAO) rules and Rules of the Air (SERA) are available here.

The BGA competition rules aim to assist pilots with legal compliance. However, it is pilots sole responsibility to operate legally. So, for example, pilots should not rely on a competition task briefing for NOTAM and airspace information. They must check the detail for themselves and must not infringe controlled airspace.

The competition

Preparing the glider for flight

There are many potential distractions at competition sites. It is ESSENTIAL to rig carefully and carry out a daily inspection including positive control checks, all without distraction. These essential tasks are best carried out early and well in advance of any briefing or grid forming requirement.

You can view safe rigging guidance here.

Using a list can reassure that everything that needs to be in the glider for the competition day is there, and everything that needs to be out (e.g. car keys!) is out.

Preparing the pilot for flight

Get lots of sleep. Steer clear of alcohol at night. Try to avoid getting stressed.  A way of avoiding stress is to be well-prepared and flexible. For example, on a competition day the task may be changed resulting in limited time to prepare and mark up maps etc. Keeping map marking kit handy, as well as being prepared to re-programme navigation kit is helpful.

Making time to settle down before launch is also important. A few quiet minutes sat in the cockpit before launch to study the chart and think about airspace and other threats as well as likely good soaring areas on the first leg can be extremely valuable. Use this time to think about likely start times given the weather and how the conditions look from the ground, and any eventualities that may be relevant to the flight ahead.

Airborne and flying with others

Pilots will often collect in a few gaggles before starting. Sometimes these gaggles are the right place to be, but sometimes they are not, and are often stressful simply because they can be busy. Consider finding another thermal upwind of the start sector that isn’t occupied by others.

When soaring, it is not always obvious that there are others in the thermal. Where gliders are sharing a thermal, good situational awareness is essential. So whether soaring apparently alone or knowingly with others, it is essential to comply with the soaring protocol.

You can view the soaring protocol here.

If a pilot is not used to flying in gaggles, they can be challenging. Always consider blind spots – above and behind around to below the nose. Keep a really good lookout, but if things get too much or a glider disappears into one of the blind spots, gently roll the wings level, while looking under and behind the upper wing and fly away. Do everything very smoothly (unless there is imminent risk of collision) to avoid flying into someone else you have not seen.

Remember the principles of circular motion. If a glider is catching up with another in a turn, reducing speed may make things worse (because of the increasing angular speed). Conversely, if a pilot is concerned that another glider is catching up in the turn, the best thing might be to tighten the turn by gently increasing bank. You can view a video that demonstrates these scenarios here.

Joining a busy gaggle needs great care.  Start on the outside of the turn and gently creep in, keeping a good lookout all the time. It is ESSENTIAL to adopt a constant full lookout scan, i.e. from the tailplane on one side, above the canopy to the tailplane on the other side.

Any pilot who does not understand any of the points made in this ‘airborne’ section should get an experienced competition pilot or their CFI to explain it before flying in a competition.

The task

As a rule of thumb, it’s usually better to start the task sooner rather than later (most tasks are not completed because pilots run out of good soaring weather). It is very tempting to follow others and there are times when following others will result in great experience and learning. Note that some competition pilots may not like others following them and particularly so if the follower gets close – so stay well clear.  Blindly following others is a bad idea. Pilots have entered prohibited airspace because someone else was there. This also applies to field landings. Don’t assume that another glider in a field means that that pilot’s field selection was good. That pilot may have been lucky and missed the wires, or may be in a field with a broken undercarriage.

Finishing and landing

Finishing a task can result in a relatively low, constantly descending approach to the home airfield. It is one of the riskier parts of the flight, primarily because when low, there is no time to develop a plan B. But also because there can be a heady mix of tiredness and adrenaline flowing. Think carefully in advance about the final glide and how to manage the flight after crossing the finish line or finish ring. Always plan to have a reasonable arrival safety margin above the minimum height for crossing the airfield boundary, not forgetting to take into account the prevailing weather conditions including wind and rain.

Remember that energy increases by the square of the speed – in other words 90 knots will provide for hardly any height after a pull up. It may be better to simply land ahead if there is room. The key here is to keep things simple and therefore safe. If the glider has too much speed and height to land ahead – which is always the preferred option – a ‘go around’ into the circuit may well be the safest option. Know in advance which way the circuit should be flown.

It may be that there are lots of gliders landing at the same time, leading to a congested airfield. This often happens after a short task in the afternoon when everyone completes the task within a few minutes of each other. It is important to ensure the glider radio tuned to the finish frequency and the volume is turned up. If approaching the run in to the finish with others, all pilots should transmit their intentions, keeping things as simple as possible. The usual practice is for the first gliders to land long to allow others the whole airfield to land in behind them. Try not to taxi towards obstructions or other aircraft – aim for a large gap if possible, or stop well short. Avoid turning left or right during the ground run unless there is a very good reason for it – the pilot behind will most likely be expecting the glider in front to keep straight. It may be appropriate to land short. The key here is to use common sense, and try not to do anything unpredictable or nonsensical.

Landing out

If heading for a climb in the distance that if not working or missed will result in the glider being low, always have a plan B (for example a nearby known landing area). Never glide on in hope.

Field landing training and experience is must-have for anyone entering a competition. A session with a suitable instructor in a motorglider before a competition can be excellent value.

Landing out needs to be treated exactly as normal. Some pilots may perceive that they should push the limits because they are flying a competition. They could not be more wrong. A damaged glider will not be flying the next or subsequent days. Always be ready to land before getting too low and please remember that most field landing accidents occur because of a late decision.

Of course landing out does not necessarily mean landing in a field. There are many available airfields. Once again, planning ahead can prevent problems. Knowing the rules that apply to ATZ’s, selecting the correct frequency well before it’s needed, and contacting a controller or FISO well before an airspace boundary all reduce the likelihood of stress and therefore reduce the likelihood of error, including infringing.

Threat and Error Management

Put in simple terms, threats are mostly external and errors are a result of us being human. Both threats and errors need to be understood and managed pre-flight and during flight. These two tables, originally published by Gliding NZ, are a useful summary of competition flight TEM considerations (click on the tables to expand them):


In closing

Competitions are great fun. However, they require a large dollop of common sense and teamwork to enjoy the week safely. A pilot who has prepared well and is willing to sometimes sacrifice a bit of performance to do the safe thing will enjoy the flying. And may be pleasantly surprised with the end result!

This guidance was developed from a 2011 publication by Mike Fox, who at the time was a BGA National Coach.