We Survived Coronavirus at the 2020 Seniors!
By Rich Owen
All photographs by Bo Michalowski
As I sit in our home office writing this article, contestants, crews, staff, and volunteers are emailing in their health status. Today is two weeks after the last day of the contest and a milestone for the Coronavirus. When the snowbirds started arriving in November, and the contestants were rolling in after January 1st, we could never have foreseen the challenges we would face. The news in late January and early February regarding the Novel virus in China seemed not so bad. The closer we got to the contest, the worse it became. In Florida, we had very few cases and they were mainly in the southern section of the state. The first week of March we still did not have a single case within 100 miles of the gliderport. Seminole-Lake is located in a rural area, but within 14 miles of Disney World and all the visitors that the attraction brings to Central Florida.
One of the favorite events of the week before the Seniors is the Geezer Glider Party. This tradition was started many years ago by Judy and Wes Lineberry. For the past several years, Connie Miazga and Shawn Knickerbocker have opened their home and cupboards to host this event. This year was no different when Ms. Connie put out a huge ham and coordinated the side dishes provided by the contestants. This was a great time to renew friendships and get back together for the first contest of the season. Of course, this was before social distancing directives were handed out.
Everyone came to Florida to fly and the weather certainly cooperated. The last couple of months had been dry and the early March flights were routinely over 300K. On March 11th we had our first 500K flight of the new year. Several more 500K flights followed and the contest had not even started yet. Due to the good weather, RV’s and campers had already been arriving for a couple of weeks. We had to open up the camping area and prepare the glider parking areas early because of the large number of early arrivals. Ken Goshorn got all the grass mowed in time for everyone. Karen did an outstanding job setting out flowers, new grass, and making the entrance look much better than it had been in a while. Chris Carter did a great job in registration and preparing to take over Contest Manager duties while I got to go fly. Especially gratifying was the arrival of 1E, Don Wasness. Don is the only pilot to have attended all 30 Senior Soaring Championships, and he won the first one.
As the practice day approached, new information was being released every day regarding the Coronavirus. The themes on the TV news bracketed “It’s no worse than the flu,” to “Many are going to die in the coming year!” We still felt as though the contest could continue but some changes were in order. The contest staff quickly made adjustments to how we would serve the dinners in the hangar. Tables and chairs would be disinfected before and after dinners. Servers would wear gloves; utensils would be handed to you with a plate and napkin by a volunteer in gloves. Even the ice tea would be handed to you so you wouldn’t come in contact with another glass. However, we still sat 8 to a table. Other measures included cancelling pilots’ meetings and the mandatory safety meeting. All information normally conveyed during these meetings would be covered in a written brief. These briefs were to be delivered via email and WhatsApp. Tasks were to be sent out electronically, but paper copies would also be handed to pilots on the grid by Rick Sheppe decked out in rubber gloves but still in bare feet (another Seniors tradition).
The first day could have gone better when both our email system and internet server suffered some casualties. There was a frantic couple of hours to get everything out, but with the help of John Good and Rick Sheppe, we were 95% successful.
The practice day started a little slow but soon the ships were all in the air. The start gate was opened on a 2:45 min Turn Area Task that sent the pilots to Winter Haven (5mi), Streamsong (20mi, a great golf course in Central Florida), Wines (8mi), Gore (5mi), CFI Plant (10mi) and Finish (2mi). John Seaborn, fresh off his win at the 18 Meter Nationals, continued his impressive flying by turning in a respectable 71.20 mph raw/61.59 handicap speed over 198mi. Second was Fernando Silva in his ship that was so new, it hadn’t had all the plastic wrap taken off from the factory. Jake Alspaugh finished in third, just 2 mph less than John. All in all, a great day with more fine weather on the horizon. However, on the evening of the practice day, the President declared the Coronavirus a National Emergency.
Now the real contest starts. The electronic brief was planned to be sent out at 10:15am every day to mirror what would have been the regularly scheduled pilots’ meeting. After not doing coffee and donuts on the practice day, several of the pilots pleaded with the contest management to keep up this Seniors tradition. The pilots were treated to a full table of Dunkin Donuts with fresh coffee. Happy faces abounded! The ground procedures were easy since most of the field had flown several Seniors. After an efficient launch, the fleet was soon on their way on a 2+45 Turn Area Task from Start A (5mi), Avon Park (20mi), Bonny Plant (5mi), and Love Field (25mi) before returning to Finish (2mi). Starts were easy given an average climb of 5 knots to almost 5,000ft. The run south to Avon Park was very nice since we had some streeting that ended just short of the back of the Avon Park circle. Going northwest to Bonney Plant was also relatively easy. The difference between the top pilots was how and where they made jumps between the streets that were oriented slightly off the direct line to the turnpoint circle. Once turning Bonney Plant, we headed north to Love Field. This leg was more a climb and glide leg but the climbs were still around the 5-knot average up to 6,000ft. On this leg, Phil Gaisford found a 7.9 knot climb for just under 2,000ft. The final glide from Love Field was petty easy since most pilots went deep in the first turnpoint. When the scores were posted, Phil Gaisford led the pack doing 198 miles at 70 mph. Rich Owen was in second at 68 mph with Karl Striedieck (Team Lima) just 2 points behind. Day one was in the books and everyone geared up for a great Welcome Dinner catered by Texas Roadhouse. Sol Varrion provided the music and some of our participants even got up to dance. One couple on the dance floor was our very own Ann Lafford, current SSA Chairman, and her husband Rick.
Day two weather was a repeat of day one. John Good was sending us on a tour of central Florida. We had a 2+45 Turn Area Task from Start A (5mi) southwest to Myakka Head (25mi), east to Frostproof (10mi), north to Gore 10mi), northwest to CFI Plant (12mi), northeast to Grass Roots (12mi) and Finish (2mi). There were two distinct group tactics. Early starters had a harder run on the first leg compared to the pilots who started latter. Most of the locals started earlier due to the rapid end of lift experienced during the last couple of weeks. After the first turnpoint, lift got stronger and the cloud bases were over 5,000ft. On the way to Chinsegut you had several choices. The only problem, if you went deep into Grass Roots, the line to the next turnpoint put you in the middle of a big blue area of little lift. Some large deviations were required to stay airborne. After turning Norton, going to Gore meant crossing downwind of lakes and a large number of wetlands, making the leg a little slower. Those that did not need the miles on the leg to Gore were able to turn north of the larger lakes. Final glides were pretty easy but the late starters definitely made the right choice. Phil Gaisford again flew very efficiently, completing 183 miles at 65 mph raw, finishing in first place ahead of his former US Soaring Teammate Bob Fletcher and Dave Nadler.
That evening some of the locals entertained a number of pilots at a new venue in town. The Clermont Brewing Company has been in business for about a year and it has a unique business model. Their craft brewery is home of three independent food service vendors. One provides pizza and hamburgers; one is a fine sandwich shop and the last sells all kinds of macaroni and cheese dishes. During the contest, Ann and Rick Lafford, Pete Alexander and I tried them all. Not only was the food excellent, but their sanitary procedures were exemplary. Oh, by the way, the beer was also great! Only wish P7 was there to validate my call.
Almost Day 3
The weather forecast for Day 3 was slightly weaker than the previous 5 days but it appeared we could get the day in. However, just before the gate opened a large deck of mid clouds came in and totally cut off the lift. The day was called and all ships were safely on the deck that afternoon. A Contest Director’s worse day is one where the task is cancelled and a number of pilots complete the task. Today John Good had a good day. A number of pilots tried the task but to no avail.
As part of the Seniors unique rules, we must have a rest day for crews sometime during the 7-day contest. So, March 17th became the rest day and the St Patrick’s Day celebrations were a little less rowdy.
The Real Day 3
After a very nice St Patrick’s Day, with the exception of the Florida Governor closing all bars at 5:00pm due to the Coronavirus, it was a very successful rest day. The ladies even had a book club meeting that was a first for the Seniors! Everyone had a nice time and I think we should make this a regular event. We had another beautiful day in Florida with a low of 64 in the morning and a high of 88 degrees in the afternoon. This is our dry season and the soaring has been great.
John Good decided to send us on a tour of Northern Florida today. We set out from Start B (5mi), north to Grass Roots (5mi), west to Chinsegut (10mi, we can’t pronounce it either), northeast to Norton (18mi), south to Gore (11mi), and then east north east to Green Swamp (8mi) and the Finish (2mi). That worked out to a TAT (Turn Area Task) of 178 miles nominal distance with a minimum time of 2:45. Our superb groundcrew led by Dewey Clawson and Don Grillo did another fine job getting everyone airborne in a safe and expeditious manner. We had a towplane that had to abort a takeoff early due to an engine problem. Martin Holtz (tow pilot) and Bob Fletcher (90) did a great job of deconflicting their path on the runway. In short order we had Bob in the air and the Husky had the day off. The Pawnees’ picked up the slack and we were soon on task. Cloud bases were around 4,500ft around the gliderport rising to almost 6,000ft later in the day. Lift averaged 4.5kts on average with some topping out at 8kts. Biggest blast of the flight was a cloud street that went almost 70 miles from Norton to Gore. How you handled this leg was the difference between the leaders and the rest of the field. As you approached the southern section of the task area, the clouds were disappearing in some of the area around Winter Haven. However, there was a small line of clouds you could work towards the lakes. The trip to Green Swamp was very short and most pilots did not go very far into that circle. Final glides were pretty tame due to some nice cu on the way home. Karl Striedieck and Sarah Arnold took the day running away from the field in Team Lima’s Arcus. Their 216 miles was covered at a blazing 77 miles an hour. Phil Gaisford finished second with a raw speed of 68.32 mph in a Discus 2b with Rich Owen finishing third in a trusty LS-8 at 68.09 mph. The score sheet was now really tight with the top 10 pilots separated by about 200 points. Overall, Phil Gaisford was in first with Karl and Sarah in second with Rich Owen in third. Ken Sorenson, Tom Holloran, Fernando Silva, Jake Alspaugh, Nico Bennet/Ryszard Krolikowski, Bob Fletcher, with John Seaborn rounding out the top 10. It is was anyone’s race but Phil had a pretty good lead and he was flying soooooo good!
Once the ships were put away there was nothing left to do but enjoy another quality meal, this time Prime Rib, catered by Texas Roadhouse and served by our volunteers wearing their personal protective equipment.
As the sun came up over the evergreens, everyone seemed to be up early today. The dogs were walking their masters and the runners were out in force. Bo, our contest photographer, was making plans to take the official contest picture. The Seniors Rules Committee, headed by Ron Clarke, had a meeting to discuss possible changes to the contest format. As 10:15 am approached, we did not know how many of the pilots and crews would attend the photo op. We had made attendance optional, but to our surprise, many of the folks came out. Of course, we had a good amount of space between each individual, so much so that Bo needed a wide-angle lens for her camera. Everyone came with their Hawaiian shirts which is a tradition at the Seniors. You can tell who the rookies are, they’re the ones not wearing a colorful shirt!
The grid was shifted to the north end of the runway which usually causes problems. It is a little tighter, three gliders in each row, you need a wing stand for the two inside gliders, the tow planes land in the overrun and taxi between the sailplanes on the grid. This year we were lucky since Dewey ran Operations and Catherine was there with extra flags. We had a good number of visitors from town so I guess we were the only show in town. The launch finished in an hour and soon the start gate was open. Today John sent us on a tour of the central spine of Florida. The 3 hour Turn Area Task took us from Start A (5mi), Green Swamp 4mi), Streamsong (22mi), CFI Plant (4mi), Osborn (5mi), Inverness (16mi), Leesburg (12mi), and Finish (2mi). Given those last two turnpoints we must have made the CD mad last night. They are some of the wettest and least hospitable places in the task area. The only worse place is Umatilla, where many venture and few return! The weather had cloud bases starting at 3,000 feet at launch to right at 4,400 feet when the gate opened. Lift varied between 3 knots to right at 6.5 knots in the task area. Most of the pilots were looking for the nice streets that were around the task area yesterday, but few were found. Rich Owen finished in first place with a 64.19 mph raw speed over a course of 194 miles. Phil Gaisford finished in second one point behind, flying 196 miles at 64.07. Fernando Silva finished in third. Rich had a pretty good following today in the start circle and was asked if all his darting around the start was trying to shake some of these ships free. Simple answer, no, he was just trying to find a climb when the day cycled right at the start.
The score sheet was still very close. The last day could be anybody’s race
On the last day, the top 5 pilots were separated by fewer than 200 points. The weather was forecasted to be excellent and we were all looking forward to a fast race. The task had a nominal distance of 200 miles and 2+45 minimum time, commencing from Start A (5mi), to Wines (10mi), Streamsong (18mi), Burntwood (5mi), Inverness (24mi), Osborn (4mi), and Finish (2mi). The day started good and was expected to stay good until after 5:30pm. This was no banquet task! The top 21 pilots all completed flights over 300K. The leg to Wines was really good with climbs in the 4-5kt range to 5,000 ft. Highway 27 is always the route south along the east side of the state. The leg to Streamsong was a little weaker but still had good cu. The best of the day was the trip north. Bruntwood was just a steering point to help pilots avoid the Tampa Class B airspace. Everyone knows the area around Inverness to be very wet and usually a dead zone for sailplanes. Today the cu was very honest and there was a line all the way from Streamsong deep into the Inverness zone (about 80 miles). If you shaded to the west of Inverness, it was a nice ride out and back. From there it was an easy trip home. However, if you chose to go more to the center of the state, you were met with blue skies with very little lift. Everyone made it home safely and ships were quickly put in their boxes.
We were all looking forward to the “hangar banquet” with Mexican food from Groveland’s Coyote Rojo. Mihaela was making margaritas and we had lots of cold beer! It was a great celebration of the conclusion of another fine Seniors Soaring Championship. Due to the Coronavirus, we had cancelled our off-site banquet in favor of another hangar dinner. Normally we keep the last day scores under lock and key until the awards ceremony at the banquet, but this year they were released early. Rich Owen finished in third for the day with John Seaborn in second and Phil Gaisford in first. The difference between these three was less than .5 mph over a 200 mile task.
The contest results were announced after the day winners. Team Lima, comprised of Karl Striedieck, Sarah Arnold, Larry Timpson(the owner of Lima), and Lee Lauderbach (owner of Stallion 51), finished in third overall. In second place, Rich Owen, who fought hard but could only manage a one-point gain on Phil during the entire contest. Phil Gaisford won the 30th Anniversary of the Senior Soaring Championship in style. He flew a near perfect contest, only losing 37 points during the 5 contest days. His skill in getting the most out of the airmass and choosing the correct route on the TAT’s is worth reviewing his Seniors flights on See You.
The Seniors is in the record books for another year and Seminole-Lake Gliderport is returning to normal. After the contest, the local pilots and a few die hards from up north, have been flying every day, while always being careful to maintain social distancing. We would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the support of our staff and volunteers. Our contest ground crew complement spanned from teenagers to young adults, Americans and Japanese flight students. Some have been with us for a long time. Others transitioned from line crew to tow pilots. Without them, we would not get off the ground. Enrique Mertins laid out the RV parking plan and took care of all our visitors during their stay. Ted Haller and Anne Mongiovi did a great job in the Retrieve Office. Anne’s husband Gene Franklin is always a person we can plug into any slot that opens up. Anne and Gene have been with us for years and are a valuable resource. Dewey Clawson and Don Grillo ran Operations and kept the launch/recoveries efficient yet safe. Bill Foster, a fellow Delta retiree, was our Safety Officer and kept everyone on their toes. Ray Smith handled the Chief Tow Pilot duties with skill and kept Izumi, Franklin, Zack and Martin in line and flying straight! Fernando Silva provided us outstanding weather briefings, while Rick Sheppe kept us all honest with our scores. Our Contest Director, John Good, provided us with interesting tasks that challenged the pilots and made each day fun. We also had two wonderful ladies that made most of the magic happen. Mihaela kept the office running, dinners handled, and bills paid while Chris ran registration during a time of social distancing. She also ran the entire contest after flying began even though she needed a golf cart to get around due to foot surgery. These two ladies deserve our undying gratitude for the hard work they put in during this contest.
We hope the pilots, crews and volunteers all enjoyed their stay at Seminole-Lake and we expect to see you next year on March 12th, 2021 for the 31st edition of the Senior Soaring Championship. For those of you who have never been to a Seniors, you should put it on your bucket list. Just talk to anyone who has attended.
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