A post-cold-front day at Benalla. The front cleared through the area overnight, sweeping away yesterday’s cloud and rain, and we woke to clear skies and much cooler temperatures (today’s high was forecast as 76 degrees – about as low as a summer fair-weather day in northern Victoria is likely to see). Cold fronts tend to bring glider-friendly air: we had nice-looking cumulus by 9:00, and a plan for an unusually early (11:30) launch. The only issue was a rather brisk southwest wind .
Partly in response to the problem gaggles of two days ago, tasks today were long for the conditions, aiming to discourage long periods of milling around before starting. This worked: most pilots were on their way promptly. The 18-Meter class had an area task, which gives pilots a choice of routes and thus tends to spread things out. The Open class settled into several moderate-sized gaggles. Unfortunately, the 15-Meter class wound up with one very large gaggle, including most pilots in the class.
All tasks went north, then east. In this contest, more than half the pilots carry electronic trackers that allow crews and spectators to watch their progress. It was clear that the going was tough: through much of the course the best altitudes were often less than 5000 ft, and the southwest wind was a problem, especially as all gliders turned onto the final leg, as much as 200 km downwind of home.
Progress was much slower, but for a time all gliders seemed to be marching steadily toward home. In the 15-Meter class, Erik Nelson and Sean Murphy were in a small group some ways ahead of the giant “furball” gaggle that included a majority of gliders in the class. We noticed that glider 01 (flown by Stephen O’Donnell of Australia) seemed to be doing well, and had risen near the top of this gaggle. Just minutes later, the tracking display showed glider 01 on the ground; also on the ground in the same area was glider DE (flown by Michael Eisele of Germany). We assumed that they’d had to outland, a result of the problem headwind and unreliable lift. But it was strange to see this happen quickly – as a rule, pilots struggle at low altitude for a while before an outlanding becomes inevitable.
The unwelcome explanation for this small mystery came soon: it was not a pair of outlandings, but a midair collision. We don’t yet have full details, but there was apparently a serious collision that resulted in major damage to both gliders (one report said a wing of one and the tail of the other), requiring the pilots to bail out. Both did so, more or less successfully: Stephen was reported to have suffered a broken nose (possibly while leaving his glider); Michael a broken leg upon landing (in windy conditions). I stress that these details are unconfirmed, but it seems likely that both pilots can expect to recover fully. We presume the gliders are comprehensively damaged and probably beyond repair.
I’m not sure how to react to the fact of two midair collisions (one quite serious) in two days of flying. Every pilot here is both highly experienced and eager to avoid this sort of problem. Yet, collectively, they are not succeeding. Various ways to address the gaggling problem get proposed from time to time, including fewer gliders in a class, start schemes that discourage big groups, and scoring rules that better reward individual initiative.
An issue that gets increasing attention is complicated cockpit instrumentation, including displays interesting enough to distract a pilot from looking outside. At least one WGC2017 glider has been spotted with six (!) display screens in its panel. When these screens can show such things as where nearby gliders are finding the best lift, it’s easy to understand why pilots might like to devote attention to them. I certainly do not assert that this issue has anything directly to do with today’s accident. But I do feel our sport must find ways to do better.
John Good has been a member of the US Team at many World Gliding Championship events, serving as crew, Team Captain and report author. He was the Deputy Championship Director/ Task-setter at the 2012 WGC in Uvalde, Texas and brings a wealth of international rules knowledge as Captain.