A very unsatisfying day today. The forecast was for cooler temperatures (a high around 100, instead of yesterday’s 107), few clouds, and reasonable lift strength and height. But our task area is now quite smoky and likely to remain that way for perhaps a few days, which everyone knew would present problems. Area tasks of 4 to 4.5 hours were set for all classes, and the launch began at 11:30.
It was immediately evident the smoke issue was not theoretical: visibility was well down from the first two contest days. But it was above the stated minimum of 10 km, so the launch proceeded and tasks were opened on schedule. Many pilots were clearly unhappy with the struggle to see others, to spot indications of lift, and to keep in touch with good landing possibilities (of which there are many near Lake Keepit, but fewer in the hills north of here, where all classes were sent). We started to wonder whether a special rule adopted due to the smoke concerns here – that a task could be cancelled after it was declared open and pilots were on their way – might be invoked.
Things seemed to settle down at a “grim but acceptable” level and pilots proceeded with their tasks, finding good lift to around 9000’ in a few areas, and occasionally struggling to reach 6000’. Our local expert pilot and Task Setter – Bruce Taylor – launched as a scout. His initial report of 20+ km visibility was encouraging. But around 3:30 he encountered troublesome smoke and haze – bad enough to make final glides and finishes potentially dangerous. His advice, various forecasts and other input led (shortly before 4pm) to the decision to cancel the task. It was a serious disappointment to many pilots, most of whom had been racing hard in challenging conditions for 3 hours and more. They now had to fly home – up to 140 km, through the thickening smoke – with their efforts rendered meaningless.
This may not be the only day on which we face what is obviously a serious problem. No one likes the idea of launching 47 gliders into conditions that may without warning drop below a “marginally safe” standard. Nor at any glider contest – let alone a World Championship – is it appealing to sit on the ground in conditions that can support 400-km flights.
I owe my readers a description of Lake Keepit and its task area. This is a large gliding club that manages to prosper far from any sizeable city (we’re about a 5-hour drive north of Sydney). The local terrain has lots of agricultural fields (always known in Australia as “paddocks”, and currently rather dormant due to the drought) making it friendly for outlandings. Australian farmers tend to go in for enormous fields – in some areas it can be difficult to find one that is less than a kilometer long.
But it’s by no means flat and featureless here – many local hills help glider pilots find lift. Much high terrain is found in directions northwest through southeast. There’s even a true (at least by Australian standard) mountain: Mount Kaputar: at 4885’ its summit rises about 4000’ over the surrounding plains – a prominence that’s unusual for this country.
This is a sparsely populated area. The local towns are Gunnedah (population 9000, about 30 minutes drive) and Tamworth (40,000, 45 minutes). The latter is something of a problem in that it includes an airport with a few scheduled flights a day. Perhaps on the principle “take plenty, we’ve lots” the amount of airspace assigned by Australia’s Civil Aviation Authority to this quiet airport is something impressive: measured in cubic miles per passenger per day, it may set a world record. For the purposes of competition, gliders are forbidden to enter this airspace, which intrudes uncomfortably close to Lake Keepit. We’ve already seen several airspace penalties.
The high terrain east of Lake Keepit is a reasonably effective (though by no means absolute) barrier to the intrusion of marine air from the east coast. This contributes to the hot & dry conditions that prevail here (even in non-drought years), and helps account for Lake Keepit’s reputation as a fine soaring site.