Guidelines for intending competition pilots

by Jenny Ganderton (updated by Mike Zupanc), Western Soarers HG Club


    This section has been contributed by Jenny Ganderton and updated by Mike Zupanc as a guide for those pilots entering competitions for the first time.


    During a competition, you need to be able to concentrate on flying the task and making decisions; where you will find that next thermal etc. The last thing you want is hassles with your equipment, so get used to carrying it and using it well before the competition. At least 50% of success in competitions stems simply from being organized!

    Naturally when you fly in a competition you will need all your normal flying equipment such as harness, helmet, glider, altimeter and vario, but there are some other indispensable items, which you may not routinely fly with.

    Most pilots who fly cross-country carry a parachute anyway, but many competitions stipulate in the rules that a parachute must be carried. Many also demand that the pilot has a back-up hang loop and karabina, though generally a single stainless steel screw gate karabina is acceptable. 

    A 35mm camera is essential in competitions to photograph turnpoints. Many pilots carry a backup camera also, in case the photographs from the first one do not come out for one reason or another.

    A small light simple cheap camera is best for the job remembering that the more features it has, the more chance it has of going wrong! However a data back camera which prints the time on the film is a necessity in hang gliding, as most competitions use data back time prints for start times. This eliminates the need to have officials timing launches and gives the pilot more flexibility in choosing the best time to start on the course. 

    Data back is not used in Australian paragliding competitions. Some international competitions still require it but none have set tasks requiring it for some years now. 

    One camera is probably sufficient for your first few competitions until you get the hang of aerial photography in rough thermals! Practice using the camera when free flying, and find some reliable and convenient way of attaching it to your harness.

    If your camera needs batteries, always carry spares. Remember that the databack usually uses different batteries than the ones that run the rest of the camera. Get familiar with your equipment and keep a check on the life expectancy of the batteries, keeping in mind that a battery that works fine when you are warm on the ground can fail when the temperatures drop with altitude. Alkaline batteries hold their voltage in cold conditions better than carbon batteries. You will also need film, Be sure to get the competition film at the appropriate time, as it may not always be available on launch.

    The use of satellite navigation equipment is now commonplace in hang gliding.

    It is likely that GPS equipment will supersede cameras as turnpoint, start and possibly goal verification. GPS's are generally reliable pieces of equipment, but they go through batteries at an amazing rate! The only practical way to use a GPS on a regular basis is to have rechargeable batteries, either a large ni-cad, gel cell or similar that is mounted on the GPS bracket, or 1000 mAh (or better) rechargeable internal batteries. Get familiar with the instrument before the competition. Sort out a reliable power supply that will last for the duration of a long flight, and arrange suitable battery charging equipment that will give you fresh batteries in time for the next mornings start. 

    Not essential (except in Towing Competitions) but extremely useful. Radios enable team flying, and are a valuable safety tool if someone is in distress. Most pilots now use UHF CB for hang gliding, and this gives very reliable and clear communication, and there are also repeaters in many places which make it possible to talk to a retrieve vehicle in another valley. The use of mobile telephones can also help with retrieves. You can often improve mobile service or radio coverage if you get yourself to an elevated position, even standing on a fence post can help.

    There are several brands on the market, all of which seem to perform well. I prefer to use a radio which has the channel selector on the top, so that I can change channels in flight, for example if coming into goal, and wanting to warn the goal marshal that I am almost there. While you can get by with just the radio, reception is often poor due to wind noise, and you may find yourself going into a turn trying to bend your head down to talk into it - not the best for efficient flying. A separate push to talk microphone, which you can clip on somewhere handy, is a big improvement, and sticking foam onto the front of it will eliminate most of the wind noise. Headsets are very good in that you never have to fumble for the mike, and they completely damp out the wind noise, but they are expensive.

    Head sets, finger PTTs, etc. all greatly increase the chance of equipment failure. A PG pilot can often get away with a chest harness mounted radio, on an angle such that the PTT is very close to the your thumb when holding the brake in trim and a piece of foam over the radio face.

    A UHF handhold will cost in the region of $600, a microphone about $65 and a headset about $100, but prices are extremely variable, so it pays to shop around. Car sets are cheaper at about $400, and most have a scan facility which is useful.

    There is no point in having a radio if the batteries are flat! Charge your batteries every night during a competition, unless you know the radio has had very little use. If possible carry spare batteries with you in case the radio dies while you are flying. At least you can have a functioning radio once you have landed.

    Spare battery packs are expensive, but with some brands of radio you can get a battery case which holds ordinary AA batteries, which slides on in place of the rechargeable pack. It is worth remembering that many landholders use UHF radio, and may be able to help you contact your ground crew if your radio has died.

    Get used to flying and talking on the radio before the competition otherwise you may find it distracts you.

    You will definitely need to fly with a map to be able to navigate your way around a course and find the turnpoints.

    Find out what maps you will need and obtain them before arriving at the competition. Many country towns do not have shops that sell topographic maps, and even if they do, they usually cannot meet the demand of a sudden influx of 50 or more pilots all wanting the same map. 

Map holder
    You can buy a mylar map fairing from most suppliers of hang gliding gismos, and they are fairly inexpensive.

    They fit most easily on the base bar, and it's easiest to read the map in this position, so if your vario is basebar mounted, you could be in difficulty - it might be worth moving it to the upright. It's less prone to accidental damage there anyway. Paragliding map cases are usually attached to the cross straps at the bottom of the harness, and lay over the legs in flight. If the case is not heavy enough, another strap may be needed to hold the case to one leg.

    Practice flying with a map, even if you are only ridge soaring. Look around and find the features shown on the map on the ground. See if you can pick out which road is which. This is hard at first but comes with practice.

    I often fly without a compass, and find I can orient myself just by reading the map, however they can be useful if you totally lose track of where you are - you can at least find out which way you are facing! As a means of avoiding disorientation in high fog, they are not much good, but quite helpful in deciding which way to head off when you come out of it.

    Many pilots swear by compasses and wouldn't fly without one, but if cash is tight, there are more important things.

Air Speed Indicator
    Again I feel these come in the category of useful and interesting, but not essential. I do not usually use one and when I do, I often forget to look at it! Good for comparing notes in the pub after a day's flying - what speed were you gliding at crossing that gap? etc. and such information can be useful. You can of course work out your glider's polar, and calculate your optimum speed to fly and use the ASI to fly at it, but I suspect that if you are new to competition flying, you will have plenty of other things to think about to start with.

Pencil, Ruler, Eraser
    Extremely useful at briefing to mark the task on your map. I usually use pencil to mark the task so that I can rub it out next day so as not to get confused with the next day's task. It is particularly important to mark the photo sector for turnpoints.

    Your old favorite vario which you are used to and comfortable with is best. Do not try out a new vario in a competition - unless you've had to because yours is broken.

    Make sure the batteries have plenty of life in them - carry spares in your harness all the time so you can change the battery on landing if you have had to go on to reserve. If you do not do it straight away you might forget.

    Most new varios these days are a combined package of variometer, altimeter, airspeed indicator, speed to fly calculator, barograph and even in-built GPS. These features are very important considerations for a performance pilot, but they will not lead you to your next thermal! Be practical when balancing cost against features when you select a new instrument. Get a second hand instrument first up and build on your flying skills. By the time you can make real use of all the flash gizmos new and better ones will probably become available.

Towing Equipment
    Bridle, lapsash, attachment point on the glider, weak link, and radio are all essential. Nothing happens at all without good RELIABLE radio communication. You need a quick easy way to clip on the mike for take-off. Think about it before you arrive in the paddock.

    Provide your own weak link - it is your responsibility no one else's. A spare bridle is handy or at the very least a spare release, because sometimes they break, and its frustrating if something like that prevents you from taking off. Have a hook knife somewhere on your harness so that you can get to it and use it in an emergency. When there are all sorts of ropes and lines about, there is the possibility that one could get caught in the wrong place, or your release might fail. Along with realistic weak links, a hook knife can get you disconnected if you need to in an emergency. Efficiency and organization are essential in a towing competition. Practice beforehand with the other members of your team is vital. I could write a book on this, but will leave it at that in this manual.

    A very important item of equipment. You may land out near a pub and where would you be without the cash for a beer? More seriously, you could be waiting a long time for a retrieve so it is only sensible to carry enough money with you for a meal, phone calls and possibly petrol. You may be retrieved by a car with an empty tank.

    Not really hang gliding equipment, but amazing how often it gets forgotten. Petrol stations in country towns are seldom open 24 hours, so make sure your driver fuels up before he/she comes looking for you - especially if you are far away.

    Fast efficient retrieval is a great advantage in competitions - you get back in time to sort out your gear, put your radio on charge and get a decent nights sleep ready for next days flying.


    Reading a map is an important skill in flying cross-country, and like any other skill it takes practice.

    Fly with a map all the time - even if just ridge soaring on your local site. Get used to associating a feature on the map with its actual appearance on the ground.

    The best maps to use are 1:250000 topographic maps, but if these do not cover a large enough area, the 1:1000000 WAC Charts are good, as are the military ONC and TPC maps. They are designed for pilots and show features recognizable from the air. Failing either of these, a road map is better than nothing.

    The smaller scale maps (i.e. 1:50000 or 1:100000) do not show a large enough area for most XC flights, and the scale can be confusing because you can see so far from the air.

    Practice flying courses rather than ambling off any old where down wind when you fly cross-country.

    Study the map on the ground, and decide where you want to go, and pick some obvious feature as your goal. Not just "Narromine" for example, but perhaps Narromine Silos, or the road junction just to the north of town.

    Once you have decided where you will try to go, look for obvious landmarks along the way.

    Roads which are marked red or brown on the map will all be gray bitumen from the air, and possibly not easy to tell one from another. On the other hand, railway lines tend to stand out, as there is usually only one.

    Major rivers and lakes can be useful landmarks particularly if they have a distinctive shape, but beware of small creeks - there may be loads of them and not all will be on the map.

    Draw a line on the map along your intended course, and circle the major landmarks along the way so you can pick them out on the map easily. When you are in the air, you can pick out the landmarks from a great distance away and fly towards them.

    In mountainous terrain, mountains and valleys provide the landmarks. Before you take off, identify all the peaks you can see from launch on your map, and pick out large obvious ones by the contours on the map, which you should be able to recognize on your way. Again, lakes make a useful marker, as they are highly visible from the air.

    When you have flown several times in the same area, you will get to know what the towns look like from the air, but at first, they all look very much alike unless you know of some particular distinguishing feature.

    Remember to use the sun as guide to direction - especially if you don't have a compass. Obviously, the sun will be in the west in the afternoon, so if you have it to your left, you must be facing north.

    Make sure your driver (if you are lucky enough to have one) is using the same map as you - then you can explain where you are more easily e.g. Just below the C of Cookamidgera etc. Alternatively, with a GPS, tell you driver your distance and bearing to the goal or next turnpoint. The driver can get your position with great accuracy this way. In addition, if the driver has a GPS (and knows how to use it) you can radio the coordinates of your obscure landing position and sit back and wait.

    If you find reading the map in the air hard, don't despair - keep practicing, and if all else fails, you may be able to follow other gliders in a competition - there will be heaps about. Just hope they are not all as lost as you are!


    Taking turnpoint photos can be a fumbling disconcerting task, as you try to fly one handed, avoiding all the other gliders in a gaggle, getting tossed about in rough air, and sinking like a brick as you round the turnpoint, take the photo, try to put your camera away again, and beetle back to the ridge or thermal as fast as possible and attempt to get up again.

    Familiarize yourself with the rules for turnpoints - they are standard FAI rules, and you will find them elsewhere in this manual. Mark on your map the area you will have to be in to take the photo.

    You must demonstrate that you have gone around the TP - vertically above it is dangerous. If it is a building, take the picture as soon as you can see the back wall. This will prove irrefutably that you were past it. If it is a road junction, you will just have to go far enough past it so that it is obvious in the photo.

    Use vertical objects such as trees or power poles close to but beyond the TP to judge this. Remember you must not be more than 1 Km away from the TP. The TP itself must be visible in the photo.

    Devise some arrangement whereby you can get your camera out and put it away again with a minimum of fuss and bother. Velcro on the back of the camera can be helpful to stick it to the harness temporarily when you get close to the TP. Needless to say, tie the camera firmly to your harness with string or bungie.

    Taking the photo quickly can save a fair amount of time when you are racing, and may mean the difference between getting that next thermal and missing it. The more you can cut down on the fumbling the better.

    Finding a fumble-free system of using two cameras is harder so it may be better to just use one to begin with.

    Remember you need to be organized. You need to be familiar with your equipment and know when to replace or recharge all the different batteries. You need to practice flying courses like you would be doing in a competition, and you need to practice flying with, and using, maps cameras and GPS equipment if you have it. You need to watch other pilots. Watch their successes and failures and figure out flying strategies for yourself. Launch early so that you can fly with the faster pilots (for a while at least). If you launch after them, they will disappear into the distance and you might not see them until you make it to the pub. Learn to lead out confidently, because as long as you follow, the best you can do is second.