18 Meter National Championship

By Rich Owen, photos by Ben Mayes and Maria Szemplinski

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The 18 Meter Nationals hosted by the Seminole-Lake Gliderport in sunny Clermont Florida are in the record books.

This was the third contest held on our site this year and we were just hitting our stride. The weather during much of the contest allowed us to fly 10 out of 12 days in very good conditions. Most days there were nice cu that provided 4-6 knot lift upward to 5,000-6,000 feet. Speaking about weather, Richard Kellerman did an outstanding job providing spot on forecasts via an internet video link called Zoom.

On practice day one his face appeared on the big screen, right on schedule during the pilots’ meeting. Remote weather can be a challenge but Richard more than met the call to duty.

On the first practice day, Jim Lee smoked the fleet with an 81mph overall speed; returning 3 minutes earlier than minimum time. He is one of two pilots that must forget about the adage that winning a practice day spells disaster for the rest of the contest. Rich Owen won the second practice day due to the fact only half the fleet went airborne. Flying with Dave Springford, they covered the 230 miles at nearly 77mph. Separated by only .03mph they started together and performed a formation fly by over the center of the gliderport.

The evenings are very friendly here at Seminole-Lake, this is the south by the way! Snacks by the pool and the DG hangar highlighted the practice days after flying entertainment. Gary Ittner was the big hit providing his famous Miss Turnpoint Ale and Bug Hit Lager both nights. With the pilots anxious, ships finely turned, and the facility looking great, we were ready for an outstanding contest and the flying did not disappoint.

Our business has been in operation for 50 years and we strive to improve on what we do every year. After 28 years of hosting the Senior Soaring Championship, we have a unique view of what works and doesn’t work when hosting an event. The advent of quality trackers and the ability of displaying the data in a meaningful way still may be a short time away. With the help of our CD, John Godfrey, we contracted with Event Tracking to provide hardware to all our competitors who wanted to fly with it. We also worked with Airtribune who provided the website that displayed the tracking information on a 15-minute delay to anyone who had a device that could access the internet. This information was also displayed on the DG hangar wall via a video projector courtesy of Sean Fidler. Our test had mixed results, but we did find some areas that could be improved upon easily. Hopefully, we can use this data to provide a system to contest managers that is both fiscally sound, easy to do, and give those who want to see the contest, a pilot’s view into the race.

The first day of the contest was a great day to fly. Richard Kellerman’s forecast told of 5-6,000 foot cloud bases and good lift throughout the day. Our CD, John Godfrey selected a racing task of 218 miles in the western section of our racing area. The grid was launched at 12:30pm and the gate was soon open. Sergei Morozov of Canada started very early and that was the key to success for the day. He covered the task in 2 hours 58 minutes for a speed of nearly 76mph, 3mph faster than the competition. Jerzy Szemplinski and Dave Springford rounded out the top three making it a clean sweep of the podium by Canada for day 1. Fear not my fellow Americans, there was a lot of racing left to go! The big risk takers who start last and try to catch the pack were disappointed today. As the day closed out, it turned into survival for the last few racers on the course. There were several engine starts and a land out. After everyone was safe and accounted for, we enjoyed a nice Italian dinner and some more of Gary Ittner’s famous craft brews.
Well ladies and gentlemen, the weather for the second day of competition was a carbon copy of the first. Pilots were seeing climbs of 4-6kts up to almost 6,000ft. For those of you out west that may not seem very high, but here in Florida that’s about right for May. Our four tow planes managed by Chief Tow Pilot Ray Smith got the fleet off the ground in about 30 minutes. Everyone climbed to cloudbase right away and the task was opened. John Godfrey sent us on a Turn Area Task of 214 miles nominal and a max of 286 miles. Cu was present throughout the task area and good runs were put together by most. Everyone also suffered at some point during the task. Sergei Morozov showed us the form he exhibited in this year’s Sailplane Grand Prix by stealing the day at a speed of 79 mph. Jerzey Szemplinski and Dave Springford again finished second and third marking another sweep of the podium by the Canadians. Dennis Linnekin volunteered to sing “Oh Canada” if this continues. A host of Americans were still making a charge. Robin Clark turned in a great performance with Bob Fletcher, Sean Fidler, Ken Sorenson, and Gary Ittner right behind the Canadians. The weather for day three was forecasted to be good again and the CD moved up the pilots meeting and launch expecting a much longer task.

What a great soaring day in Florida! With the pilots’ meeting and launch moved up, the CD sent us on a 4-hour long MAT for day 3. It challenged every pilot in the contest to do their very best. Richard Kellerman delivered the forecast with great style and promised we may have cu. Everyone doubted his forecast but while we were gridding, the first cu appeared. The day would be a mix of blue, haze domes/wispy cu, and big clouds with flat bottoms. Cloud bases were in the 4,500 to 6,000foot range and lift varied greatly. Some climbs were a meager 2-3 knots, but 7 knots was not unheard of. It appeared we had two gaggles that contained most of the competitors. There were a lot of thermals that reminded me of my younger days as a kid in the kitchen. Remember the old mixers that your Mom told you not to turn on with just liquid in the bowl. Everything went everywhere! That’s what some of the gaggle thermals looked like. Shifting gears at the right time and moderating your risk was key. I’m happy to report, a great friend, fellow Floridian and US Team member, Robin Clark, won the day! He completed all turnpoints for a total of 297 miles at 71 mph. Bill Gawthrop and Sergei Morozov rounded out the top three places. These pilots were the only ones that completed all the turnpoints in the time allotted. Overall the Canadians still controled the podium with Sergei in first, Dave Springford in second and Jerzy Szemplinski in third. The top five Americans were Robin Clark, Sean Fidler, Gary Ittner, Ken Sorenson, and Eric Nelson. The gaps were closing, and todays result emboldend the Americans. During the evening we had a great prime rib dinner provided by the Red Wing restaurant accompanied by a fresh batch of beer from the Papa 7 Brewery courtesy of Gary Ittner. It’s was a fun filled day with great racing, good food, and our ground crew was treated to the movie “Justice League” thanks to Sean Fidler.

As Meatloaf said in his song Paradise by the Dashboard Light, “we have a real pressure cooker of a game here.” On day 4, John Godfrey called a Turn Area Task with a nominal distance of 297 miles. The weather had some curves that cost some pilots a lot of time down low. On the way to the first turn point it was predominantly blue with an inversion at about 4,300 feet. Once we headed south the weather got good with strong climbs to 6-7,000 feet. If you could run energy lines and not lose much time in the northern half of the task, you were in good shape. Does that sound like anyone we know?

More about the winners later.

Our Chief Tow Pilot reported for work today riding a miniature 4 wheeled ATV. It looked like something you would give to your 5-year-old for Christmas. The morning tow pilot meeting attendees all broke out laughing. Not to be out done, I decided to ride the same vehicle down to my ship before grid time. The ground crew gave me a brief on the operation of the “toy ATV”. What they didn’t tell me is when you push on the accelerator and let it go, well it just keeps speeding up until you hit the brake. Luckily, I was able to stop before I ran into anything. To keep you from seeing the episode on You Tube video, I bribed the ground crew with a dinner at Texas Roadhouse that night.

Back to Day 4. There were still packs of gliders, but their numbers were greatly reduced from yesterday. The weak conditions in the beginning spread the ships out a lot more. Once everyone got south of “The Villages” (Google the retirement community, you’ll get a kick out of it), the clouds filled in and the lift got strong. You could string groups of clouds together and get large increases in your task speed. You may have guessed who the winner would be in these types of conditions, Jerzy Szemplinski, the master of getting the best out of the sky. He flew 315 miles at a speed of 73 mph, 3 mph faster than Sergei who finished in second. Eric Nelson flew a great race and finished in third claiming a podium spot for the Americans. Way to go Eric!!

It was still a close race among the Americans, but we will not raise the Canadian flag in the hangar just yet. Sergei was flying a superb contest and accumulated 3,941 out of 3,993 points available. I was thinking about placing some very nice Russian vodka in Sergei’s cockpit that night.
On the previous days weather forecast, a competitor joked about the glare from the forehead of Richard Kellerman on the video screen. This was caused by a bright light that shined harshly on the laptop’s camera. Taking the opportunity to bring some levity into this National contest, Richard showed up on today’s brief wearing a bandana around his head. Everyone had a great laugh until the weather brief told of a more challenging forecast.

Lower cloud bases, weaker lift and some chance of rain would really put the pilots to a test. Day 5 was a 2:30 hour TAT that kept us mainly to the west and north west where the better conditions prevail. Some pilots were seen watering the grass on the grid before the launch, not a good sign of things to come. The launch was commenced, and it looked like the day was already in jeopardy. The first three pilots all reported rain in various quadrants, moving into the gliderport area. Cloud bases were only 3,500 feet but lift was still consistent. When the rain invaded the start circle before the launch was complete, John Godfrey made a wise decision to cancel the day. Everyone returned to earth and most got their ships put away dry before the rains came. Richard Kellerman, when questioned about the following day’s weather quoted Exodus 20:10 that basically states, “Sunday is the sabbath and you should do no work”. And so, it was written, we cancelled the next day because it was Sunday but also due to a front pushing thru Florida from the southeast.

Since the day was cancelled, we moved our “Cinco de Mayo Party” earlier. This traditional party was held at “The Glider House” of Connie and Shawn who live across the runway from the clubhouse. Everyone showed up in colorful grab with an enthusiasm brought on by the next day being a rest day. Mihai Tanjala, the owner of Seminole-Lake Gliderport, provided the Honey Baked ham and smoked turkey. Soon everyone was reliving the events of the past week. Susan Owen brought in a large container of margaritas that could have taken out half of field if the next day was a flying day. Everyone had a great time, and no one fell in the pool, this time!

After all the rain we thought we may have a problem with the runway turf being too soft and not able to withstand the weight of John Murray’s big RV. No problem at all. This is Florida and the soil is very sandy. The weather for Day 5 was expected to be great. The sun was shining, with just a little fog to bring out Maria and her camera to take some more great pictures. With 4 days to go, there would be lots of excitement left in the contest.
The American flag was flying high at Seminole-Lake on Day 5 since 2 out of the 3 podium spots were won by Americans. More about that later. Richard Kellerman’s weather brief was very encouraging, but we did get a lot of rain yesterday. The CD originally set an Assigned Task of 269 miles which seemed very doable until the sniffers launched. After 20 minutes the first sniffer was on the ground and the other had started his engine. After an hour everyone was on the ground and John Godfrey wisely changed the task to a 3-hour TAT. The sniffers were sent airborne again into predominantly blue skies. It took about another 20 minutes to get good enough lift to start the general launch. Soon pilots were reporting climbs of over 5kts to 5,000 feet. The task was opened, and it was a blazing start over the first 2 legs. Cloud bases were climbing to 7,000 feet and 8 knot thermals were reported. Then we headed back to the gliderport where the lift was significantly weaker. The next leg gave more pilots trouble and speeds were starting to slip. A good thermal appeared on this leg which allowed late starters to catch up. The leg to Norton and the final glide home saw speeds climb again. Ken Sorenson flew a superb flight of over 80 mph to take the day win. Dave Springford and Gary Ittner also flew great flights finishing in second and third. The Canadians did have a good lead in the overall competition with only 70 points separating the top three of Sergei, Jerzy and Dave. The top 7 American pilots were separated by less than 100 points, so it was still anyone’s race. Gary Ittner was in a familiar spot leading the American contingent just 200 points behind Sergei.

Well after all the ships were put to bed everyone returned to the DG hangar to enjoy another great rib dinner from the Oakwood Grill. Jane Rosenbolum again provided live music. Jane is a local Seminole-Lake glider pilot who is also a phenomenal guitar player. You could tell that we have been flying a lot when the hangar was cleared out very soon after the dinner was done

It was a beautiful morning around the gliderport on Day 6 when I made the trek to the office to post the active runway for the day. Just before the pilots’ meeting I went back to the office to check on the delivery of our trophies and I took a peak at John Godfrey’s string board. Everyone knows that Charlie Spratt used a board that had a map of the task area. On each of the turnpoints there was a screw, and a string were attached to the home airport. The CD loops the string around all the screws to determine the mileage of the task and to ensure it is safe. Well the one in our office looked like he used an entire ball of yarn. When the assigned task came out, it was planned to cover 359 miles. That was a very good task for this time of year, but everyone was pretty tired!

The grid time came and the sniffers were launched. Just like the previous day, the day started a little slower. It was quickly evident the big task was not going to be possible, so John dropped it back to his task B plan which was another assigned task of 291 miles. It wasn’t too long until everyone was on course. The first leg up to Williston was a little slow going. Climbs were in the 4kt range and the cloud bases were only 5,000 feet. For the first hour it did not look like we were going to have 80 mph speeds like day 5. Soon the lift started getting better but great climbs were sometimes hard to come by. Once we got on the last half of the flight, that’s when the fun really began. Cruising at 6,000 feet under nice cu without losing much altitude is a wonderful feeling. Soon the miles speed by and the last leg was upon us. We were going to Burntwood which is in a low-lying area to the southwest of Seminole-Lake. With all the rain we had, it was very weak, and several pilots got into a little trouble on final glide.

Missing from the podium for a couple of days, Sergei Morozov made a great comeback by posting a flight of nearly 76 mph, just .62 mph faster than second place finisher, Gary Ittner. Dave Springford continued his consistent flying by finishing third, only .16mph slower than Gary. These were close finishes! Looking at the score sheet for this day, you will see another close bunch of Americans all wanting that nice trophy of an eagle sitting on the CD’s table. The top 4 are all within 100 points of Gary. I have a feeling he was not worried about the next 2 days of flying. He has been in this position many times before and has closed the deal. However, these pilots are not conceding the contest to him just yet. That will occur at the banquet when the final scores are released.

Day 7 saw the sun shining and the dogs taking their masters for a morning walk. What’s with these Canadians! That has been one of the topics of conversion during the US 18 Meter Nationals. It seems like the boys from across the border have found some holy water sprouting from the Great Lakes! The pilots’ meeting started like usual, right on time. Thanks Virginia!! After Richard gave the weather brief it looked like another fast day in central Florida. Gridding was delayed to 11:30 due to the weak conditions immediately surrounding Seminole-Lake. The sniffers got another work out again today as Jim Lee and Bill Gawthrop took their JS-1’s airborne to sample the air. We finally started the launch around 12:20pm and the conditions were just starting to pop. Right around opening time for the 251-mile-long MAT, cloud bases were already around 6,000 feet and the lift was steady at 6 knots and getting better the higher you got. Within 20 minutes everyone was on task and speeds were high on the first few legs. I thought I needed to find a climb around turnpoint three, but I was already at 5,000 feet!! When the course went by Seminole-Lake for the second time, smoke had filled the task area choking off lift. You had a decision to make at Grass Roots to the north. Do you return early (like some folks did and accept a time penalty) or risk flying in the smoke and weak lift to the next turnpoint adding over 20 miles to your task. You couldn’t see down track very far due to poor visibility, so several people took weak climbs to stay high. Unfortunately, there was a great climb at Green Swamp that got everyone home who made it that far. Eric Nelson flew a flawless flight and traveled 243 miles at 76.63 mph. Gary Ittner finished second less than 1 mph slower than Eric. Jerzy cruised home 1 mph slower than Gary in third place. The top 3 at the contest had not changed for a while. Sergei, Jerzy and Dave have the overall podium right now demonstrating a combination of very good flying with sound racing strategy. The next time SOSA does a racing camp, I am definitely going to go! The Americans (this is the US Nationals!), were closely spaced at the top going into the last day. Gary Ittner was in first, but Eric Nelson had come on strong in the later part of the contest. Only 36 points separated them, and Robin Clark was right on their heels.

Here we are, contest day number 8. After two great practice days and 7 contest days there are only 50 points separating the top 2 Canadians, and only 36 points separating the top 2 US contenders. Richard Kellerman gave us his last weather brief for this contest. I am supposed to make a funny remark about his presentation but I never take advantage of volunteers. It is real honor to have Richard do this job for the competitors, and both Virginia and I could not have been happier for the experience and quality of weather brief he provided. Thank you kind sir!
The last flight of the contest was going to be a real test of flying in weaker conditions. At launch, there was a high cirrus deck that was arriving from the south. Our task area took us pretty much to the north west. Everyone in the start circle was low when the task was opened. Weak climbs and large gaggles prevailed. As time was approaching 2:00pm, everyone knew they had to start out on the 3hour TAT or risk not getting back home. A slow glide, from a lower start height than we have had so far, highlighted the beginning of the flight. Weaker climbs only lasted 30 miles, when our normal strong climbs to 6-7,000 feet returned. Most pilots went to the back of the first cylinder and flew back on the same path. There was a convergence line along the west side of the state that gave some of the guys a good ride. The day was getting even better the later it got. The last turn area had lines of clouds going in the right direction. Final glide was easy for most folks. Ken Sorenson was accused of trying to get more OLC points when he stayed out an extra 13 minutes in the last turn area increasing his task speed. Jae Walker flew a great flight at 71.13 mph to finish in third place for the day. Gary Ittner took second place with a speed of 71.57 mph. When the day looked like the winner would only average 55 mph, in the end, Jerzy Szemplinski flew 72.20 mph.

After the ships were all put to bed, we adjourned to the Mission Inn and Golf Resort for the awards banquet. Virginia began the presentation of awards with what we call the “Uff Da” award. During the contest, the CM usually receives a few funny stories of pilots or crews that had a miss step during the contest. Virginia tells the stories at the banquet and the winner is chosen by the amount of applause from the audience. For the 18 Meter Nationals, Bob Fletcher (90) won the award by landing out just south of I-4. When he called the retrieve desk, he reported his landing spot as Gore airport. Unfortunately, he was at the Toyota dealership that was located across the highway from Gore airport. Good thing he didn’t call for an aero retrieve!

The top ten pilots for the contest were:

10. Jim Lee
9. Jae Walker
8. Sean Fidler
7. Robin Clark
6. Ken Sorenson
5. Eric Nelson
4. Gary Ittner
3. Dave Springford
2. Sergei Morozov
1. Jerzy Szemplinski

Pictures were taken by Maria Szemplinski and trophies were handed out. The joke of the day was when a pilot called out when they were just about to announce the third-place pilot, “and now the Canadian Nationals”. Yes, the Canadians held all the podium spots for the contest. However, they all flew faster, more consistently, and with better strategy than our boys. Every one of the pilots on this Canadian Team is a champion and has participated in many world gliding events. It makes the US pilots work harder and it improves our skills by competing against these fine aviators. We should not take anything away from Gary Ittner’s superb performance during this contest. Gary was the winner last year in Uvalde and again this year at Seminole-Lake. Two completely different sites, a good number of contest days, and long contest tasks. In the end, he was only 138 points behind Jerzy, out of a total of 7,757 points. Great flying Gary!!!!! And, oh by the way, thanks for all the beer from the Papa 7 Brewery.

Virginia and I would like to thank all our staff and volunteers that supported this contest during the past 2 weeks. John Godfrey (CD), Sandra Danoff (Scoring), Catherine Eaglin (OPS), Richard Kellerman (Weather), Mihaela Luculescu (Office Manager), Ted Haller (Retrieve Desk), Frank Spital (Recording), Michelle Sorenson, Judy Lineberry and Laura Betzoldt (Registration), Ray Smith (Chief Tow Pilot) and our tow pilots Franklin Burbank, Tom McLinskey, Jake Burkett, special thanks to Tampa Bay Soaring for the tow support. Our local pilots and by volunteering to help during the contests. Billy Kerns, Frank Spital, Glen Betzoldt, Ken Goshorn, Connie Miazga, Shawn Knickerbocker, John Farrington, Ky McKateer, we would not have been able to put on these quality events without your support. Karen Geisinger is responsible for making the gliderport shine year-round. What you see when you visit is the way Karen keeps the place every day! Thanks to Ken Sorenson and the entire SSA staff for their support. They paid for half of the cost of the trackers with Seminole-Lake Gliderport picking up the rest of the tab. Thanks also to Leigh Zimmerman for putting our social media posts on the SSA Facebook page. The old folks may not use this platform but the kids sure like it.

I would personally like to thank my co-Contest Manager Virginia Thompson and her better half, Dave Springford, for being outstanding friends, keeping me in line, and working so hard to make these contests the best in the country. For the next 4 months we will not spend multiple hours on Skype calls that usually results in missing the dinner bell. Dave and I fly a lot together and I am a better pilot for it. So, thanks for the flying lessons Dave and the loan of your partner and former crew person.

The 18 Meter Nationals are in the box along with all the gliders. It seems quiet today at the gliderport with most of the competitors having left this morning. However, the next day we have a 50 plane fly-in and bar-b-cue lunch so the staff will not get a break in the action. We hope you had fun and enjoyed your experience at Seminole-Lake. See you at the Seniors Soaring Championship or the Sailplane Grand Prix next March. Stay high, go fast, and come home soon!

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