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2008 Montague Cross Country Challenge
June 13th, 14th, and 15th

Official Results Dieter Mahlein's Report Photos: Teams 1 2 3
thermaling at the turnpoint
Dieter Mahlein's Report

What can I say... once again, this event was outstanding!
When Marcela and I arrived Thursday afternoon under a blue and cloudless sky, the host Dean Gradwell and his helpers Bob, Ron, Roger, et al. had the hangar ready and the winches set up; in fact, people had been flying all afternoon. Ten teams participated in this 3-day event, including Team ALOFT from North Carolina flying an autonomous sailplane based on the SBXC airframe (more on that later).

pilots meetingThe blue and cloudless sky was with us all three days. Such a sky often signals poor conditions, but at least the wind forecast looked good: mostly calm for the entire weekend. There is no point in fretting over the weather, and after all, this event is called Montague Cross Country Challenge, not Cake-walk.

On Friday we flew a speed task with a 2-hour minimum flying time and open maximum, where speed is determined by dividing the distance flown by the flying time. As part of the task, every team had to first complete a prescribed sequence of turn points: from the start gate, 2.3 miles west to the course's central 13.6-mile loop; counter-clockwise around the loop; then go north 6 miles to the northern-most turn point and return to the loop; after that the course was open.

The Challenge part became obvious after launch, when teams could climb quite easily to about 1500 feet, where the thermals either fizzled out or disappeared. Several teams were bumping around under that invisible ceiling for quite a while, until finally the thermals slowly started inching higher and the teams got on course. Even though we never could get to our comfort altitude, the conditions were better than expected. There were no booming thermals but there also was little severe sink; at times, we could cruise along in 0/0 lift/sink conditions; the Germans call this "Nullschieber" (pronounced "noollsheeber"). John Ellias won that day with Jim Rolle nipping at his heels; they averaged 17.26 and 16.73 mph respectively.

team ALOFTTeam ALOFT finished in the middle of the pack with an average of 12.50 mph. A quick word about this young team and their effort: Adam, Chris, and Dan traveled from North Carolina to test their autonomous soarer in real-world conditions. The performance was astonishing, and I believe it even exceeded their own expectations! Essentially, they have loaded a SBXC with electronics,  for which they wrote proprietary software, which in turn makes the plane fly autonomously along GPS way points setup on a laptop computer from the ground.

That sounds simple enough, but this glider doesn't just fly a course: if it gets below a preset altitude, it enters thermal mode and searches for, finds, and climbs in thermals all on its own, until it decides it's high enough to get back on course. Read that last sentence again and think about it: this is an unpowered aircraft which finds thermals and uses them to traverse a set course!

In fact, in the three days of competition, the human pilot (Adam) only launched and landed the glider; the actual tasks, including searching, thermaling, and cruising were flown autonomously. For me, a highlight of the event was seeing these three happily smiling guys return to the field like spectators with no one looking up or holding a transmitter. They'd get out of the car and point toward the arriving plane: "here it is..."

On Saturday, in tough conditions, their glider flew 39.44 miles on its own, which again placed them in the middle of the pack. -- Saturday's task was open distance, which means teams are scored only on the distance they fly along the course, not on speed. Conditions were weak, and I don't remember our team (John Ellias) ever having to be grateful for such wimpy thermals or pushing on from such low altitudes. We labored along the course at a glacial speed, and managed 48.46 miles. David Portwood won that day with 53.76 miles flown, a great achievement on that slow, cloudless day. After such a long and hot day in the car, the fabulous Saturday-night barbecue really is something to look forward to...

waiting to be launchedSunday's task has become my favorite: a speed lap around the central loop. To illustrate the different conditions, last year, Greg Norsworthy and his team "Mister Bungle" did this in 29 minutes and 40 seconds and set a new course record. This year, our team took 30 minutes longer and still won. Last year, Mister Bungle started at over 1700 meters and cruised around the course without stopping. This year, we never even reached 700 meters, and we had to stop often.

This was also the flight where a bird helped us significantly: We desperately needed more altitude to make it across Montague, but the vario was moaning as John was "nullschiebering" at about 200 feet all over the quarry just south of town; the plane wouldn't climb, and this is a notoriously bad place to land. We needed help, and suddenly I saw a bald eagle circling only about 100 feet in front of and above the car. John quickly joined him, and the two happily climbed out together. The thermal was drifting behind us and I had to back up the car a ways, but is was worth it: the plane got high enough to finish the task. By the way, Team ALOFT's thermaling robot took only 12 minutes longer than we and finished fourth!

The Montague Cross Country Challenge must be the premier RC cross-country soaring event in the country, possibly anywhere. This was the 11th such annual event -- I have participated in seven -- and every time my appreciation grows for Dean's generous hosting and organization, the beautiful setting, and the challenge of the tasks; in that order!

Next year's event will be June 12-14, and believe me when I say that it is one of the hardest things to give up for Marcela and I, as we're moving to Colombia.

pilots and gliders
Official Results Dieter Mahlein's Report Photos: Teams 1 2 3

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