Greetings. Your US Team is on duty at the 10th FAI Junior World Gliding Championship, being held at Pociunai (about 20 miles south of the large city of Kaunas) in southwestern Lithuania. “Junior” is interpreted somewhat liberally, to include all pilots whose 25th birthdays fall in this or a future calendar year. This contest includes some 70 pilots in two classes: 38 in Club Class and 32 in Standard Class.
We’ve been here a week now, hard at work preparing three Std Jantar gliders for three US Club Class pilots: Noah Reitter, Daniel Sazhin, and J.P. Stewart. Weather for the past week has been quirky: northern Europe in general has had substantial cloud and rain, but eastern Lithuania has done reasonably well, with gaps in the widespread clouds visiting us during daylight hours and allowing a moderate amount of practice flying. The catches have been that the weather has been hard to predict and the good conditions have not been long-lasting. Yesterday was a good example, which saw Noah and Daniel doing well on a short Turn-Area task, only to have the day shut down early and cause them to outland east of here. (More on this anon.)
Pociunai is now a very experienced contest site, having hosted numerous championships including a WGC event each of the past 3 years. It’s a large grass airfield – roughly 1 km square – that is home to a gliding club and a parachute club (very busy on weekends) that manage to consistently play well together. Also here is the LAK (originally standing for Lithuanian Aircraft Constructors) factory, currently producing (among other models) the popular Mini-LAK, a 13.5-meter span glider available with a front electric motor that is capable of self-lunching this glider, even from grass.
Nearby (about 9km by road) is the town of Prienai. It has a population around 5000, and offers about enough stores and restaurants to support a World Gliding Contest. Particularly commendable are the hardware and auto-supply resources: while a bit short of perfect (e.g. no Velcro) they are well ahead of what savvy glider teams expect from a town of this size, and we have spent no mean amount of time and money there getting our gliders ready to compete. I should note that while Lithuania is in the EU and exclusively uses the Euro as currency, prices for just about everything are very agreeable (read: about half of what they would be in Germany).
Prienai offers another valuable resource: a bridge across the Nemunas River. This large stream flows in a leisurely path generally north toward Kaunas, then west toward the Baltic Sea. The bridge at Prienai is the only one in about 80 km of the river’s course, which means that it will be used on many trailer retrieves out of Pociunai. To fetch a pilot who has outlanded southeast of here, it’s perhaps curious to start by driving northwest, but that’s the only option.
We did just this yesterday, to fetch Daniel and Noah. They came to earth about 40km east, in an area that features lots of rolling hills and just a few small agricultural fields. Both landed safely (no mean feat in this area) but the retrieves were not trouble-free. Daniel’s field was just a couple of miles north of the main east-west road toward Vilnius (Lithuania’s largest city). The road north looked good on our Garmin GPS, but was under major construction and offered a single lane of soft dirt much rutted by heavy trucks. Our BMW crew vehicle (veteran of 288,000 km) was not happy, and bottomed out regularly. The entrance to the field was a crowned dirt track which we negotiated carefully with the exception of one lurking 70-lb rock which gouged out a portion of the BMW’s plastic underbelly. The field itself displayed an impressive collection of largeish rocks, but we managed to negotiate these without damage (as Daniel had), and to pack the Jantar into its trailer with little delay. To avoid the execrable north-south road, we set off on a 20-minute expedition along narrow dirt roads (thankfully with little crown and no opposing traffic) which eventually brought us back to pavement. Back at highway speed, the BMW shed some more plastic but rolled bravely along. Eventually, bruised but undaunted, it brought us home.
Home in this case is a cabin in the woods just northwest of the airfield, which houses all of us. It’s a short walk to where the three gliders are tied down, and just a bit longer to the large Soviet-era concrete hangar where morning briefings are held. Also nearby is Debesota, the small airfield restaurant now doing a brisk business morning, noon and night.
Evening update: The US Team is back from the Opening Ceremony. It was held this year in a gymnasium in Prienai, possibly because last year’s open-air ceremony was plagued by rain. The lack of any weather threat allowed the speakers, dancers, singers and band to perform without time constraint, but in the end the FAI anthem was played and the championship was declared officially open. Current weather forecasts for tomorrow seem to range from “Pretty good” to “Rain by noon”. We’ll see.