The Green Swamp Sport Klassic is an annual mentored competition organized by Davis Straub at Quest Air Soaring Center in Groveland, Florida. We had excellent conditions all week, several people achieved personal bests, and on the final day, I made goal after fighting through the most difficult flight I’d ever had. This isn’t the story of the most epic sky battle of all time, nor is it even my personal best distance or time, but it does land under another category. Here’s the story of the April Fool’s Flight Where I Thought it Was a Joke that I Made Goal, Too.
April 1st was the last day of the Green Swamp, and I felt like I’d finally gotten into the swing of the competition atmosphere. I woke up early, ate a good breakfast, and set my glider up. We met for the pilot meeting at 11:00, learned the task for the day, and sat down with our mentors to talk strategy and things we could improve on. From noon to launch at 1:30, I double checked my gear and spent a lot of down time away from the hubbub. Competition makes me anxious and nervous, so this chill time was how I prepared to fly with a level head. By the time I moved my glider to the line up area at 1:00, I was mellowed out and focused on simply staying in the air.
That day, conditions were a bit more challenging than they’d been all week. We had blue sky with no clouds, so finding thermals would be more difficult. (Clouds are a good lift indicator, so without them, we need to use other, less obvious cues like circling birds). The wind was light from the west, and forecasted to strengthen throughout the day. Our task for the day was a triangle, flying from Quest to the intersection of the Florida Turnpike and 33 to Center Hill and back to Quest, for a total of 50 km. The first two legs were flying north northwest and west southwest, respectively, so into the wind, which can be challenging in sport class gliders. As long as the westerly wind remained relatively calm, it’d be a decent task.
The difficulty of the flight revealed itself just after launch. I started in weak lift east of the field, but found it challenging to maintain altitude. There were some gliders that had launched after me circling northwest of the field, and I decided to go for them. I arrived at 1200 feet and began the long process of working what little lift we had. Two gaggles formed, north and northwest of the field. I stuck in the northwest area, but it became evident the north crew was getting more altitude. The gaggle I was in began shifting east to the better area, but I glimpsed a bird circling even more west. Knowing I could always relaunch if I lost altitude, I went for the bird and found lift at 350 ft/min, strengthening with altitude. I radioed my team members over and they began thermalling below me. Pretty soon, the rest of the gliders joined us and I topped out at 5075 feet.
I watched as some gliders began flying on course line to the northwest, but stayed where I was for a few more minutes. It took us a full hour just to leave the 3 km start circle. Our mentor, Tom Lanning, flew out ahead and notified us of more lift to the north of Groveland, and we met up with him. Our team and a few other gliders hung out there for another 40 minutes, before finally topping out a bit too west of course line at 5150 feet. And that was when my radio died, cutting off communication between me and my team. This was when things were starting to look grim for me.
I didn’t see my team go on glide toward the first turnpoint, but flew with Rich Westmoreland until catching a thermal about 5 km southwest of it. At this point, it became clear that the calm westerly winds predicted were, in fact, most definitely not weak. Blowing in at about 10 mph, it was frustrating to work upwind toward the turnpoint. Stupidly, I went on glide to tag the point anyway, expecting to fly myself straight to the ground in the strong headwind. I hit the point at about 1200 feet of altitude, and luckily, the area had decent lift, however broken and ratty.
I still couldn’t quite get above 3000 feet, but saw gliders above me, and knew I should be fighting past the frustration to make it up there. At one point, I was extremely low and decided to set up my landing approach, knowing conditions were against me. Miraculously, at 508 feet, I found strong lift and decided to make a few turns. The thermal took me to 4700 feet, and suddenly, I was back in the game. I worked that first turnpoint for an exhausting 45 minutes.
Shocked at having gained enough altitude, I redirected toward the second turnpoint to the west southwest, basically completely upwind again, and knew I was in for another battering. Although there were large areas of 100-200 ft/min sink, which isn’t bad for going on glide, there were these extremely predictable areas of heavy sink at 700-900 ft/min that just murdered my performance.
My mental strength was beginning to falter as well, and I was having more and more trouble flying in a straight line. Rich was still flying at my side, and I could see a couple gliders ahead, so I knew there was lift out there. The thermals were weak, but finally, the air had smoothed out a bit and it took only patience to top out the lift. After another exhausting hour between the turnpoints, I finally made it the minuscule 15 km to Center Hill, and that’s when I started crying. I was just so happy to finally get there, and all the frustration built up and bubbled over.
When I turned toward goal, I was shocked to immediately spot Quest in the distance. I struggled that entire flight, for so long, and I was still within sight of the place I launched. I think that was the most humbling part of the entire flight. Inside my head, I was fighting and frustrated and getting beat down, only to turn around and be right there, having barely flown anywhere. GAH.
With another 18 km between me and Quest, I finally got my break. Rich had disappeared, and I was the last glider around. As I watched the sun get lower on the horizon, I thought every thermal would be my last of the day, and with those 700-900 ft/min down areas, I was still doubtful I’d be able to make it. Just after Center Hill, I took a thermal all the way up (6500 feet), and another miracle happened. Suddenly, my vario was telling me I had enough glide and enough altitude at goal to make it all the way to Quest. I was in disbelief. Knowing my statistics could change at any minute, I was still keen to utilize any available lift, but I was starting to worry the sun would go down and I’d be forced to land, so close to making it back. Tom’s voice was in my head, saying that with the headwind, today wasn’t a day to race, but a day to just stay in the sky.
About halfway back, I realized for sure that I’d make it. That utter relief combined with the physical pain and mental exhaustion of the last 4 hours bubbled up, and I cried, ugly, ugly, ugly cried, while on final glide. I relaxed over Mascotte (with few landing fields), but once I made it to Quest with 2800 feet of altitude remaining, I started crying again. I did it. I made it. I was there. And as much as I wanted to land, I still had way too much altitude to bleed. I unzipped my harness and let my legs dangle out and tried to make myself as un-aerodynamic as possible. I did wingovers until I was dizzy. And then I set up my second landing approach of the day, knowing that I wouldn’t be trying to thermal up out of this one. All I wanted was to stick my landing now, which would be pretty challenging since I was so tired. I was absolutely, fully focused, and BAM! I had a two-stepper landing and was back on planet Earth. That was definitely one of the rare moments in my life where I was completely content with being on the ground. And guess what? I cried. Again.
I could hear the people in the viewing area cheering for me, and it was all smiles and hugs when I finally brought my glider in. My mentor, Tom, was there, and so were Mark, Max, and James, the other 3 pilots who had made goal, a full 30 minutes before me. April, Mick, Heather and Rich were there, and they made me cry again. And I didn’t care how much I’d cried, because dammit, I did it, and if that makes me so happy that I cry then okay.
So hey, maybe it wasn’t the most epic flight of the century. Maybe I didn’t break any records or even earn a personal best. Maybe I was frankly frustrated the whole damn flight, but all of it paid off. It really showed how much I’d improved over a single week of mentored flying, and starkly highlighted the fact that I really need a better mental game. There was absolutely no better way I’d want to finish my very first competition than a celebration at goal. Flying does not suck.