The Annual Fall Soaring Festival - RC Groups
Shop our Airplanes Products Drone Products Sales

The Annual Fall Soaring Festival

This year's article is just a brief visual visit to the annual fall soaring festival on Saturday. There is a brief explanation of thermal sailplane competition for those that are not familiar with how it is done.



I attended my first Visalia fall soaring festival back in the late 1970s to cheer on fellow club members from the South Bay Soaring Society. Back then the sky was filled with sailplanes primarily built from wooden kits by the pilots themselves. A few of those home built kit planes can still be found flying at the festival, but very few. Today the majority of pilots are flying high tech foreign made sailplanes that perform extremely well in the hands of a practiced pilot. This year they have added an electric component to the event with ALES competition and that was my major interest in attending this year's event but I will try and give some coverage to all of the competitions being held to give a taste of what the competition is all about. My visit was limited to Saturday only and limited to hours during the competition. I was not around to cover the hand toss flying at the end of the day or the illuminated night flying. Participants please feel free to post your own pictures on those aspects of the event and the friendship that takes place. If you love RC, event if you have never flown an RC sailplane; this is an event worth attending to experience it in person. It has been well organized and run for years by people who love flying sailplanes and know how to run this event.

The Launch

Every flight starts with a launch. For most of the competition this is using one of the winches to launch the sailplane as high as you can get it. This means for many pilots hard launches that can strain the plane. I saw one plane break a wing and crash during launch and another plane severely bend its wing rod turning their plane into a pigeon (A plane with severe dihedral.) I think the second plane made it safely to the ground. I wasn't able to catch those flights with either camera but here is some coverage I did get.



Thermal Competition Explained for Beginners

Thermal competition involves launching your sailplane. At Visalia sailplanes are launched from a series winches. Electric motors are connected to a drum filled with line that runs down the field to a turn around that resembles a bicycle hub. The line goes around the hub and comes back to the winch. The end of the line usually has a parachute or ribbon on it and a loop at the end of the line. The loop slips onto an L shaped hook on the bottom of the sailplane positioned a bit in front of the sailplanes C/G. Exact location is determined by the individual pilot. Most pilots launch their own sailplanes. They remove slack from the launching line by stepping on a pedal and activating momentarily the motor which turns the drum and reels in some winch line. With the line taut and while pulsing the motor with the pedal the pilot launches the sailplane with a hard forward toss. The sailplane is pulled forward as the line is pulled back onto the winch through the turn around hub. The sailplane climbs on its own wing as it is pulled forward. Most pilots do a slight dive at the top of their climb and then apply up elevator and the loop slips off the hook and the pilot converts his sailplane's speed to altitude before leveling off and flying in search of lift.

The competition is divided into rounds and rounds are given an assigned target time. One such target time is 10 minutes. The pilot wants to fly exactly 10 minutes as timed by a separate timer from when the plane came off of the hook until when it touches the ground. Points are given for each second of flight up to ten minutes and subtracted from the total for each second over ten minutes. But more is required to complete your score then just flying and landing. There is a designated landing area and inside that landing area there are landing points. The pilots must land their planes in the designated landing area to get any points for the flight. Miss the landing zone and a zero is given for the round. Additional points can be gained by hitting the designated landing spot or landing very near the spot in the right direction as designated on the ground. Additionally, the sailplane is not to shed any parts.

Their are different classes of competition at the event and a pilot can enter more than one competition with an additional fee paid for each event entered.

Classes of Competition 2012

  • Open
  • Two-Meter
  • RES
  • Woody
  • ALES (modified)
  • Youth (under 18)
  • Gray (over 62)

Open class basically is open to any sailplane with no limit to how how short or long a wingspan the sailplane has. The longer the wingspan generally the better for staying up longer so larger sailplanes are usually found in this class. Two-meter class is limited to sailplanes with a wingspan of two-meters or less. RES the planes can be of any size wingspan but they can only be controlled with rudder, elevator and spoilers. No ailerons may be on the planes used in this class of competition. Woody is for the older designed wooden built sailplanes and requires the plane be of an approved design and proper materials to compete in this class. No modern fiberglass carbon fiber sailplanes in this competition. ALES modified is new this year and is for electric sailplanes. They have a device that limits the motor run so that the motor cuts off when the plane reaches a designated altitude above the field. There is also a limit on how long the motor may run time wise so that a pilot doesn't fly around at a low level eating up the clock. In this competition a group of pilots all launch at the same time making for an interesting start to the round. All of these classes of competition are given an assigned period of time to fly for each round.

Even in poor lift conditions (known as sink) it will take the sailplane some time to come down from launch altitude. However, it will take skill by the pilot to find lift and use it to maintain or increase altitude to fly the full assigned time for a round. Fly to high to assure making your time and the pilot may have trouble getting down to land at the assigned time. It takes practice, skill and some luck to land your sailplane exactly on time exactly on the landing target to get the landing points. Lift cycles through and is definitely affected by the weather. Lift goes with the wind so on a breezy day you may find lift but you have to fly with it and that can take the plane away from the field. Some pilots launch into the start of a lift cycle when they easily find lift at the field and have no trouble making their time. Others will launch when sink is prevalent at the field and their skill can't stop them from coming up short. Due to these variables the best pilots usually come out at or near the top of the competition but not always. It can be exciting to spectators to watch and observe the human drama of this competition, especially at the landing spots. The same competition to the spectator in a lounge chair back in the camping area it can all seem very calm and peaceful as they watch the planes circle in the sky.

Thermal Searching

There was a lot of good thermal activity around the field and a number of ways to spot where the lift could be found. The thermal tells included dust devils, a hawk, a black bird, and dust clouds. At one time I spotted 12 dust devils indicating lift spots around the field. Another time I spotted a hawk that attracted nine sailplanes to his portion of the sky and all went up. Several times a black bird that was flying down field attracted attention and rewarded pilots that joined him with ten minute flights. Farm machinery working up wind set off clouds of lift and these drifted over the field and if you were at their altitude they signaled a place where lift may be found. Of course fellow pilot's planes were the greatest tell of all. If you or your spotter/timer saw someone's plane going up that is where many pilots went.

If thermals were always easy to find everyone would get maximum time and there would be no challenge to fly sailplanes. But that is not the case. Sink thermals between the lift and sometimes only weak lift could be found. In one round I saw Larry Jolly scratch out several minutes of flying below 200 feet going from weak lift to weak lift. Its rounds like that where you get to see some real skill and Larry was by no means alone in doing that while I was there. Here are a few pictures of sailplanes in flight. The planes at altitude can be great fun to watch but are poor subjects to photograph.

The first three pictures were some of the thermal tells on Saturday.


Every flight ends with a landing. Land outside the designated landing area leads to the walk of shame to retrieve your plane and no points for the round. Slide through the landing zone so that part of the plane crosses the dreaded foul line also results in zero points for the round. The landing circle where landing points are won and lost is of course near that dreaded foul line. Sometimes you win with a perfect round of time and landing. I start this section on landing with two winners ... at least for that round and you really earn the joy of these wins.

Some More Landings


Some Pictures on the field

The New E-Flite Mystique

One of the reasons i was excited about going to Visalia this year was to see the new Mystique and hopefully talk to Pete Goldsmith the designer of the plane. Unfortunately, Pete did not make it to Visalia but the Horizon team had the Mystique on display and had flown it on Friday. They planned to fly it on Saturday after the competition for the day was over and while I hoped to see it fly the people i came down with decided to go home at 3:00 and so I left before competition ended and no sighting by me of the Mystique in the air. I do have some still shots of this new plane on display on the ground and two friends plan to but one after seeing it fly on Friday.


I was only there for about six hours but it was great to see old friends and all the beautiful planes and great flying. the Visalia members can be justifiably proud of how well the contest was run while I was there.

Last edited by Michael Heer; Oct 08, 2012 at 10:11 AM..
Thread Tools
Oct 18, 2012, 04:40 PM
Registered User
Michael Heer's Avatar
If any of the still pictures above is of interest to you just double click on the picture to see it in a much larger size. Mike Heer
Oct 18, 2012, 04:41 PM
Registered User
Michael Heer's Avatar
Saved for future post. Mike Heer
Oct 18, 2012, 04:53 PM
AMA 3959
alstrahm's Avatar
Mike, nice video of me launching my E- Ava! Thanks!

Oct 19, 2012, 12:19 AM
Registered User
Michael Heer's Avatar
My pleasure Al! Mike H
Nov 12, 2012, 02:17 PM
can ya do that??...
electroboy's Avatar
Good lord. That style of landing is so ugly.
Mar 01, 2013, 06:34 AM
always looking for clouds
socommk23's Avatar
Originally Posted by electroboy
Good lord. That style of landing is so ugly.
its not really "landing" in my opinion! and that fuss design is like an arrestor hook on the nose! i certainly wouldnt want to risk my bird putting it down like that.
Mar 01, 2013, 11:02 AM
Team JR Air
tewatson's Avatar
The airframes are designed to do that.

Mar 02, 2013, 08:17 AM
Registered User
R.M. Gellart's Avatar
Mike, nice work here. It is interesting to hear the statements about the fuse, cause use to you heard that about the skegs, now it is the fuse that is the problem.

Also, EB, the landings that you do not like were brought on by the very landing tasks you are watching. Visalia basically has two events, one is a qualifier and the second is where the winners figure out who wins. The first is making all your time, and then you get to the landing contest and that determines the winner. Lots of guys make time, but that micorscopic landing spot requires that you stick, and not slide. Form follows function for the required task. Not pretty, but you are seeing 40 years of evolution in RC Soaring, and FAI is not any different.

Mar 10, 2013, 02:04 PM
Detail Freak
target's Avatar
Nobody requires that you:
A- Have a landing skeg on the nose to arrest the forward motion of the plane.
B- forces you to land that way.

If you nay-sayers are so skilled that you can make your time, then slide on grass to a controlled stop at the landing spot, that counts just the same as stabbing it in....
The problem comes from where the sliding landing ends. If the plane hits you, or crosses the foul line, you get zero landing points (typically, depends on the contest rules), and if you hit someone else, you get zero flight points.... Often the morning conditions have you landing with a light tail or moderate cross wind.

My point is that yes, the planes are designed to be "landed" this way, and also, that landing other ways are less consistent.
Hitting your shin is a great way to damage the LE of your wing, by the way.

Mar 10, 2013, 10:20 PM
Claude Turner
claude60's Avatar
The landing task in Visalia last couple years have been very generous the last couple years as we are using the LSF landing task. You see a lot more pilots getting landing points. One other thing that Target failed to mention, if any part of your plane comes to rest past the foul line you get a zero flight. Claude
Mar 10, 2013, 10:53 PM
Detail Freak
target's Avatar
Thanks Claude.
Yep, skegs are handy to help prevent that......MOST of the time!

Mar 14, 2013, 06:14 AM
Registered User
Originally Posted by target
...If you nay-sayers are so skilled that you can make your time, then slide on grass to a controlled stop at the landing spot, that counts just the same as stabbing it in....
The problem comes from where the sliding landing ends. If the plane hits you, or crosses the foul line, you get zero landing points (typically, depends on the contest rules), and if you hit someone else, you get zero flight points.... Often the morning conditions have you landing with a light tail or moderate cross wind.

My point is that yes, the planes are designed to be "landed" this way, and also, that landing other ways are less consistent.
Hitting your shin is a great way to damage the LE of your wing, by the way.

Am I the only to consider the request itself of such landing, questionable at least, to not say much about the honorable judges ?
Actually it's the main reason that led to the plane design, not that this design would be the most optimal for soaring. Useless additional weight only to make plane sturdier for the final moment...
Mar 14, 2013, 10:30 AM
Detail Freak
target's Avatar
There is no such landing request. No one is required to land their planes on the nose. Just to land it on the spot at the end of required task...

As for making the plane sturdier for the final moment, I think you might be kidding. The stress of launch is the first thing that you might be concerned with. The tail boom will need to be of adequate strength, and that also means you'll need compensation of nose weight to balance. So there is not much reason for the nose to be too light.

With the competition planes such as Supra and Xplorers coming in at below 60 oz for a 3.4 to 3.8m span, exactly how much lighter do you think they should be?
There is little point in making them lighter and weaker only to add ballast on the CG to be able to travel back upwind from a thermal.

Last edited by target; Nov 29, 2014 at 10:35 PM. Reason: spelling
Mar 15, 2013, 10:57 AM
Team Hello Kitty
SoaringDude's Avatar
It's interesting to see comments from outside the thermal duration contest crowd. Landing can be hard on a plane, especially if it's loaded up with ballast for windy conditions and you don't land "straight". That said, with the exception of occasional downwind landings, the pilot can decide his landing style and the amount of stress he puts on his plane.

What works best for me and my Xplorer 4.0 is to bleed as much speed/energy as I can so when you nose down on landing it's very easy on the airframe. This takes more final approach speed-distance judgement (IMHO) but it fits my style better. Pretty sure my plane likes it better too

Chris B.

Thread Tools

Similar Threads
Category Thread Thread Starter Forum Replies Last Post
Article Event Review: Visalia Fall Soaring Festival, Visalia California Michael Heer Thermal 40 Oct 22, 2008 12:02 AM