What are paragliding competitions about ?
For the major majority of the general public the term 'paragliding' either means nothing at all or brings to mind images of people being towed behind boats or 'jumping' off hills with a parachute - this isn't the case and we will try to explain a bit more about our sport with these words. A paraglider is a fully functioning glider (it flies forwards through the air) but also resembles a parachute in appearance, hence the name 'paraglider'. The glider is launched, normally, by running forward down a fairly steep hill with the glider inflated above the pilot (not by jumping off the hill as some people may think). The paraglider is 'inflated' and retains its shape due to the movement of air through the 'wing' and it is this constant forward motion which keeps it rigid and in the correct shape to be an aerofoil (ie a wing). Once flying, the pilot is suspended in a harness underneath the wing which acts as a seat. By skillful observation of local weather conditions, land features and other indicators a pilot can find areas of rising air (often thermals but there are other sources as well). Flying in air which is rising faster than the glider is descending will allow the pilot to climb away from the ground and paragliders frequently reach heights of a few thousand metres. By flying this way it is possible to achieve flights of 150 or more kilometres over a time of several hours. There are several forms of paragliding competition including racing, acrobatic flying, accuracy landing and open distance - these latter three are outside the scope of the Paragliding World Cup but a Google search will tell you more. The Paragliding World Cup organises an international series of racing competitions every year and we will explain how this works. The most similar sport to paraglider racing would be yacht racing where boats race around a course marked by a number of floating bouys in the sea - we cannot put bouys in the air so the racing is done around a number of 'turnpoints'. Some years ago these would be fixed points on the ground which were identifiable from the air (a church tower, a distinctive hill, a brightly coloured roof etc) and, in many cases, these points are still in use but modern paraglider racing now uses special GPS enabled flight instruments and the turnpoints are programmed into these so that the pilot flies a 'virtual' course around the sky. The use of these instruments means we can now define a turnpoint absolutely anywhere without the need for it to be identifiable by sight. The course can be, and usually is, different every day and is decided by a specially formed committee just before the start of each race - this allows the committee to assess the weather and wind conditions on the day in question and pick the best course to give a sporting and challenging, but hopefully not impossible to complete, race. The course decided upon is referred to as the 'task' and the task is to fly around the entire course and arrive at the end (the goal) in the fastest time. The turnpoints take the form of a vertical (normally) cylinder stretching from the ground up into the sky for an unlimited distance and the pilot has to enter each of these cylinders, normally in a specified order, before continuing on to the next turnpoint. Failing to enter a cylinder will mean that the pilot is not scored past that point and will, effectively, end his/her race there - the flight instruments carried by the pilots detect when they have entered a given cylinder and inform the pilot that he/she may now proceed to the next. A typical task is shown in the map below (this one was in Brazil) - you can see the cylinders (in yellow) at each turnpoint. The red line shows the optimum route around the course (the least distance), The takeoff is at the bottom right and the goal is the top left of this course. The window times are explained below - the task distance is the length of the red line, GPS distance is not really relevant anymore but it is the distance to the center of all the cylinders and was used as a check measurement in the past..
To allow us to keep pilots away from certain, possibly dangerous or prohibited, areas we are able to vary the size of these cylinders and it is not uncommon for us to use cylinders of 20km radius or more in some races. The start of a race can take several formats but the most common is for a large cylinder around a turnpoint to be specified as the start line and for all the pilots to start at the same time (other formats are discussed below). In this case the pilots will normally hold position along, or near, the edge of the start cylinder until the start time is reached. The flight instrument will have the start time programmed in and contains a GPS clock (highly accurate and synchronised by satellite) - the instrument will tell each pilot when the start time has been reached and this is when the race begins. The start cylinder can be either entry or exit based - for an entry cylinder the pilot must cross INTO the cylinder at the start time, for an exit cylinder the race begins when he/she LEAVES the cylinder. The flight instrument records the position, in three dimensions (ie position and altitude), of the pilot throughout the race as a series of track points and the scoring is done at the end by extracting this recording (or track) into a computer and comparing it to the tracks of all the other pilots. For pilots to start the race correctly they must have one track point outside the cylinder (or inside for an exit cylinder) after the start time has passed and they may then cross the line. The pilots then race around the course to the 'goal'. They can take any path they like as long as they enter each of the turnpoint cylinders in order and it is common to see them flying a long way from the ideal course line to take advantage of lifting air around hills or other thermal sources - the tricky part of the flying is actually getting to the turnpoints since these force pilots to fly to a specified position rather than using the air around them to keep climbing. The goal can be one of two formats. The Paragliding World Cup will normally use a 'goal line' which is a 200m long line centred on the goal co-ordinates perpendicular to the optimum arrival line and physically marked on the ground by a white line (this is not normally 200m long but is a visible reference to pilots coming into the goal). To achieve 'goal' pilots have to cross this line while still flying. Alternatively the goal can be a final 'cylinder' - normally 400m radius - and goal is achieved by entering this cylinder while still flying. Some years ago it was decided that having the pilots race all the way to the goal line was compromising safety - all aircraft, including paragliders, are affected by speed and flying fast near to the ground is not a good idea - to combat this problem the 'speed section' was introduced. The speed section will normally begin at the start line (though this is not mandatory) and ends before the goal is reached - in most, but not all, cases it will be a large cylinder around the goal with a 1 or 2 km radius but in places where this may not be a safe approach the end of the speed section can be at an earlier turnpoint. The pilot's time from start of speed section (SSS) to end of speed section (ESS) defines his/her time for the race. To validate the race, however, he/she must make goal by crossing the line or entering the cylinder but there is no time limit on this and it makes no difference if another, slower, pilot makes the goal ahead of him/her. Completing the speed section but then landing short of the goal will reduce the pilots score quite considerably. Once the task has been decided for the day there is a briefing given to all the pilots on the takeoff area - this will cover the details of the task along with any special considerations (these can be restrictions - airspace, no go areas etc, general advice on the local area and any special instructions to pilots). When the briefing is finished and the pilots have had a chance to enter the task into their flight instruments the window times will be decided and announced. The launch 'window' is a period of time during which a pilot may takeoff. This will normally be in the region of two hours and is specified by the Window Open and Window Close times. Launching is only allowed while the window is 'open' and launching outside of these times will invalidate a pilot's score for the day. The start will normally be during the window period although this is not a requirement. In most competitions only a single launch is allowed and if the pilot ends up sinking and landing that is the end of the race for the day - in some situations, however, multiple launches can be approved. It is normal that not all of the pilots will get as far as the goal - in fact it is a sign of a badly set task if everyone makes it. Pilots who do not reach the goal are said to have 'landed out'. Pilots who reach goal are scored on the time to end of speed section discussed above and their result is expressed as a time - pilots who land out are scored on the total distance along the optimum task line that they reached and this is expressed as a distance. The majority of competitions run a 'retrieval' organisation to collect the pilots who land out and return them to the headquarters (though some smaller comps will expect them to make their own way). Scoring is normally done at the headquarters (though we have done this in a field and some other, more wacky, locations in the past) and is handled by specialised computer software. The Paragliding World Cup has its own proprietary scoring system - CompCheck - which was built from scratch and is constantly maintained by or own scorer Ulric Jessop. The pilot's track is downloaded from his/her instruments (more than one is common and, where there are minor differences in the recording of different instruments, the track which is most in the pilot's favour is used) and analysed by the software to ensure that all the conditions above (correct start, all turnpoints validated, crossing of goal line etc) have been met - if any have been missed (eg a missed turnpoint or, worse, starting too early) the score is adjusted accordingly. The actual points scored are calculated using a very complex formula which takes into account how long the task took, how many made goal, the spread of pilots landing out and a lot of other factors. A good task with the expected percentage of pilots in goal and with the task taking around the expected time will award 1000 points to the winner with the other pilots being awarded various scores below this according to how long they took to get to goal or how far they flew before landing out. However, if the task is not so good (nobody in goal or everybody in goal, too quick or the task is stopped - see below) then the points available will be lower than 1000 and, on a bad day, it is not uncommon to see the winner only get 200 or 300 points. Such tasks are said to 'lower quality' and the points reduction is designed to reflect this. The scores for each day are then summed to give the overall result and the pilot with the most points wins the event. Paragliding takes place on days where there is a lot of weather activity - this is necessary for the gliders to be able to climb but it does mean we are always on the verge of potentially bad weather. Paragliders cannot fly in rain and if a day develops too much activity it can lead to thunderstorms (which are very bad news for an aircraft). Consequently the weather is constantly monitored by both the pilots and the organisation to ensure that the conditions are safe to continue. If it is decided that things are becoming potentially dangerous the task can be stopped and the pilots can land safely. Under these circumstances (and subject to how long the task has been running and a few other rules) the score will be reduced but it is still possible to score the race. In the Paragliding World Cup pilots are awarded a bonus for how high they were when the task was stopped but this is not necessarily so in all competitions. The scenario above is the most common and applies to, probably, 90% of paragliding races but there are a number of options which can be exercised to allow for weather conditions or simply to make a task more interesting. There are several options for the start :- RACE TO GOAL - as described above, all the pilots start at the same time and it is a race to the end of speed section and then cross the goal line to validate. ELAPSED TIME RACE - normally (though not always) a first start time and a last start time will be given. Pilots may take the start at any moment between these times and their time to ESS will be calculated from the moment they took the start. This tends to be an unpopular option for a number of reasons and also makes the race very difficult to follow since there is no indicator as to who started when. CLOCK START - similar to elapsed time but a number of distinct start times are given (usually 15 mins apart) - the pilots time is calculated from the start time which was available immediately before crossing the start line. If a pilot decides they got a bad start and could do better they can normally go back and take the next available start time. GROUND START - very rare and generally considered as quite unsafe. The start time and the window open are the same - pilots then race to get off the launch and on the course (the safety implications of this when 150 people all try to take off at the same time in a, usually, fairly small space should be clear). We are also not confined to the 'take the turnpoints in this order - in fact there are an unlimited number of options because of the 'virtual' nature of the course. Some that have been used in the past are 'fly 50km from the takeoff in any direction and come back and then go to goal' or 'fly to the goal then away in any direction fo 20km and back to goal'. Other things being considered are take all the turnpoints in any order you like, take 6 of 10 available points and the list goes on... In the last three years we have adopted Live Tracking which is probably one of the most significant changes to Paragliding since it began. In the past 150 pilots would take off and we would only know anything about them when they either landed in goal or reported a landing out position. With Live Tracking it is possible for people all around the world to watch the race live, in real time, on Google Earth. Along with this we run a live scoring system which allows the viewer to see how the positions are changing during the race so Paragliding races are now a spectator sport. Hopefully you now know a bit more about how our sport works - feel free to have a look around the website and try out the Live Tracking during a World Cup Event.