Having returned to flying in the UK this year it dawned on me that I have been flying and racing mouldies on the slopes for 20 years now. Apart from the many changes that life has brought in that time it seemed a good opportunity to sit back and think of a few things (if any) that I’ve learnt along the way.
A cursory glance at the classic VR98 video or other pictures of a UK F3F event 20 years ago and things do not look too dissimilar to now, flyers dressed more for practicality than sartorial elegance looking over their models and wondering if the next guy’s model is faster than theirs. The dominant designs I remember on the UK slopes were the Pikes, Ellipses and Acacia.
A closer look at these models compared to today’s would find fuselages with much more girth to grab hold of than many of today’s designs. Bolted to the top of the fuselages would be mainly 3 piece wings, almost all of which using an RG15 based wing section. It’s also fair to say that for many of the models there would have been far less carbon involved in their construction than today- getting your wings to bend was more of a sign of good air than a worry about the strength of the wing.
In the last 20 years there have been a great many model designs which have come to the fore as the ‘next big thing’. Progress has generally been an evolutionary process with a number of design blind allies to go with the undoubted successes. Each new model has aimed to solve the same problem in a slightly different way, with different priorities and compromises in the process helped by the continual improvements in building techniques. How much each factor has influenced any given model is debatable. As we have developed the Willow model series, whilst we have kept to the core principals there have been a number of opportunities and ideas that have enabled the models to move on.
With the different models falling in and out of fashion so quickly, for many years I do not remember there being time for enough modellers to congregate around 1 or 2 designs in the same way that Acacias and Pikes used to dominate UK races. However, as I have looked down the list of models used in recent competitions, it’s clear that the range of excellent models produced by Jiri Baudis make up the lion’s share of entries. Things have come a long way since the first Baudis Trinity models.
It’s hard to truly measure how much faster today’s models are, when compared to those I started out with. Looking back, I have several models in the ‘if I knew then what I know now’ category I’m sure I could have got much more out of them. After spending hard earned money on the newest machine, most pilots will tell you that their latest model is miles better than the last one- perhaps as much to convince themselves they have spent their money well. I have been guilty of chasing performance through a new model on far too many occasions. This could well be the biggest mistake that I or other pilots make.
The introduction of moulded models pre-dates my own racing experience but they would be rarely seen on local slopes. Commercially produced hollow mouldied models are pretty much the only option seen at most races. There have been other approaches to commercial models but own built designs are now a rarely seen novelty at races. This is a real shame, I remember being in aw of Mark Passingham’s big Stiffy and there’s nothing like standing on the flight line with your own model.
From commercial manufacturers, I remember the radically different design philosophy of the Miraji/Aliaji models from France. With their carbon skins pressed on foam core wings and a single fuselage mounted flap servo they showed a different approach to the problem of how to make a fast glider. These were also a lower cost entry into racing, for a while the 2.5m Miraji’s time of 30.XX was the world record holder- its not always about spending the most!
Whilst racing models produced in China feel like a very recent thing, increasingly good sports models have been produced there for a good while. I remember testing the Luna out over 12 years ago, more recently the sports models designed by James Hammond have gained a sold following. The evolution of my own Willow models feels like an accelerated version of the wider F3F model development of the past 15 years. The builder’s techniques and skills have moved on at a fantastic pace, the latest models are now stiff, light and strong.
Willow designs have some features which reflect how my own preferences and flying priorities differ from others. All the Willows have a slightly larger fuselage than those of Baudis or TUD models. I am not claiming which is better or worse but the Willow has plenty of access room fitting your servo tray and threading servo leads. As a pilot who launches his own models, having a solid piece of fuselage to grip ahead of the wing is a real help to me.
It is hard to say whether flying styles have driven model development or the changes in model construction have allowed for changes in flying styles but things have certainly changed. This is not a criticism of the pilots flying years ago but a reflection that we are now ‘flying on the shoulders of giants’. Getting back to our original race of 20 years ago and, as I remember in the UK at least, the flight from each competitor followed quite a similar pattern.
Launch, probably with 2mm of camber, float upwards as best you can for 30 seconds and then enter the course with a dive. If you were lucky enough to enter a course with good lift then your turns would stop being ‘bank and yank’ and become full reversals. The point when your model transitioned to flying full reversals and could hold it’s energy flying over the top of the turn was generally the point where you started to get excited about your time.
The height of the initial climb out would be studied eagerly by your fellow pilots, focussing on the prospect of thermal assistance. The principal was- if in doubt less weight was better than too much in order to ensure as high a climb out as possible.
The introduction of different flying styles and approaches, as I remember it, usually coincided with mixing of pilots from different countries. It is one of the huge positive advances in flying that more pilots seem to be travelling away from their home slopes to race. This all helps to speed up the spreading of ideas.
I can think of 3 ‘moments’ in the last years which affected me the most. The first of which was the arrival of the Czech guys flying Stings at the 2003 welsh open. The Stings used HM sections, rather than the ubiquitous RG15 and approached the task of F3F rather differently. These models were rarely seen to attempt reversals, but instead rather than flying around a base they pulled up a little in the turn and ‘pinged’ around the corner.
Along with a change in the aerofoils being used, the focus seemed to become more about bouncing off the turns- in the light winds of the UK summer at least! I remember this time being one of thinning aerofoils and larger, bottom hinged controls. The Pike Brio was one, much lauded example to use the MG06 wing section.
I am careful to say ‘UK’ with my reflections as 2004 was a year which opened my eyes to international soaring and showed me just how little I knew. A trip to Stavanger in Norway very much put me in my place. The main racing site there is a low straight cliff, topped by a granite wall, facing out into the cold north sea with a very focused lift band.
When I arrived for the first time I thought ‘these guys don’t post much on the F3F forum’ bet I can do well here. Launching my Sting I applied comber and tried to follow the Uk flight pattern of floating up, I got to around 5m above the wall and that was it. The lift just didn’t go any further up and neither did I. Round after round, regardless of ballast, the height gained was the same- My brain started to scramble. I would enter the course, it felt good lift- everyone else was going fast, I would go for the turn and either flop around the turn or end up miles from the lift band. I consistently took 10 seconds a round more than the locals. 5 flights later, the day was done and so was I.
For the next 2 days Espen Torp patiently tried to show his guests how to set up a model the right way for these hills. Lots of weight, even more differential and my learning the illusive Nordic style began. The model and style flown on these hills had been similar to the UK back in the mid 90s (search YouTube if you like) but racing evolution had taken a different path here. The models we flew in the UK, such as the Acacia 2 with it’s 500g ballast capacity were being challenged in a very different way.
Other than the flying I learnt from Espen, I learnt that there is not a linear relationship between posting on English language forums and flying skill. 2004 was the year that Rugen was used for the VR for the first time.
Diving, much publicised in the 2008 VR, was seen as ‘just not cricket’ and was effectively outlawed so the next real step change I remember in UK F3F followed the 2010 VR in France- pumping and EM turns. Legend has it that style, model and aerofoil were all developed together by those cunning French in preparation for their hosting of the Viking Race. It clearly worked!
Heavily weighted models were soon completing sweeping turns in UK F3F races, their pilots targeting that moment when they would present their (model’s) underside to the wind and receive a speed kick. The possibility of applying camber and floating into the blue is often next to none for such heavily ballasted models. Repeatedly diving through the strongest lift band has become the favoured way to increase the model’s energy before a timed run. Yep, energy- not height.
Ignoring the cries about potential energy and all that, the point for me is the pilot mindset. Heavy racers with energy rather than light sailplanes gaining height. I’ll be the first to admit that I have rarely changed quickly enough but time and perspective will do that to you.
The record time for F3F is now far faster than 20 years ago, also the slope records of most regular race locations and it’s pilots. The difference today between a model flying with all or no ballast is almost a doubling of weight, with the limitation set by FAI rules as much as model design.
This has put an increasing strain on the models being flown, demanding stronger and stiffer models than ever before.
It’s easy to ring your hands at the price of some modern racing models. Back in 1999 when I was looking for my first mouldie a Pike WR cost me £550 and an Acacia 2 would have cost £450-500. With inflation over the past 20 years these prices are equivalent to around £920 and £750 today. Although you can look at exchange rates as well it’s clear that many of today’s euro-models cost up to double their 1999 equivalents.
Price is a different thing to value for money. If the model you have bought makes you happy then it is fulfilling it’s main function. I am not sure what it would feel like to fly £2,000 of model on the edge of the slope. I have more fun flying a Willow or Merlin close to the slope and being less worried- it’s one of the reasons I fly these models or a Wizard compact.
Participation and leagues
I have always been attracted to the models used in F3F because they simply fly wonderfully well. As soon as I started flying my Pike WR it became the model I flew almost all of the time. Each time I went flying, looking at the models I had, the Pike always seemed to be the one which was the best one for the conditions long before I was consumed with optimising a racing set up.
F3F is fundamentally easy to do and very difficult to do very well- it’s addictive! The challenge of racing has given me the drive to improve my flying and the opportunity to learn from some of the best pilots in some amazing places.
The landscape of the British F3F league has change significantly in the time I have been flying. The league scene I remember was based largely around 8 league weekends, the Welsh Open and the Woollybacks. Yes weekends- a racing weekend would consist of 60inch pylon racing on the Saturday (newly converted to EPP to help numbers) a night in the pub and then F3F on the Sunday.
Whilst I was one of those who’s participation in 60inch racing fell away I do miss it. There are arguments about model availability, price and the arms race to get the best performance out of those foamies but ultimately the league did not last. As an entry to racing, a source of friendly banter and just dam good fun the years of racing £50 models were fantastic.
F3F racing is often a long term relationship rather than a short term fling and many pilots have been involved for much longer than myself. Whilst their participation may vary as their circumstances change- like me they keep coming back. The numbers taking part in the different leagues have led to discussions about limiting the entry numbers as often as how to increase the interest in F3F.
A sport that is primarily based on standing on top of a hill on your own will always attract a broad range of unique individuals. F3F has been blessed with a number of long-term participants who have given huge amounts back to the sport. The development of regional winter leagues is a fantastic example of this. I hope that my own contribution to the league, from co-ordinator to developing the Champion of Champions has been a positive for the sport.
Remembering those pilots who have raced (or may still be racing), their names come in groups of friends. Flying together on your local slopes and then having weekends together at races. Those who have been negative or destructive have not been around for long. Remember that this is meant to be fun!