By Rich Owen, with John Good, Tom Knauff and Doris Groves
Photos by Bo Michalowski, Ben Johnson and Walt Connelly
Our History – Doris Groves and Tom Knauff had been coming down to Florida since the late 1940’s. Tom remembers staying in a Miami Beach hotel for $2.00 a night and paying 10 cents for a raw oyster. Can you imagine, a dozen oysters for a dollar!
Tom and Doris began flying 1-26 contests in the early 70’s where they meet Harry Senn with the Miami Glider Club. They also met Mahlon Weir who flew from the “Antiquer’s Aerodrome” airport community near Palm Beach. During these early days in the season, Harry was making some amazing flights across the Florida everglades. These pioneers discovered the fantastic soaring conditions of Florida. With favored winds from the south or southeast, cloud streets would run the full length of the state of Florida and stretching into Georgia. The longest thermal flight in the eastern US is an 851 km flight flown by Henry Retting in 2008.
Many pilots have discovered the “Florida Ridge” which starts at Bock Tower in Lake Wales and continues to Citrus Tower in Clermont. With the converging sea breezes, these air masses can yield very fast cross-country speeds. Tom and Doris saw the potential for a soaring contest in Florida but who could come during the early spring with the kids in school? The senior pilots of course! They have raised their families, their kids have started their own careers and they really enjoyed the sport of sailplane racing. Of course, these pilots have all won their regional and national championships. Been there, got the t-shirt was the phase most shared. They were looking for a more laid back competition. Hence a special set of rules were enacted to penalize pilots who were considered “over-competitive”. Cleaning dirt or bugs off your wings, finishing a task faster than the oldest competitor, or even winning a day resulted in a penalty! Your handicap was even adjusted for your age. To foster the notion this was a fun competition, a “crew day” was made mandatory so spouses and friends could enjoy all the fun attractions in the Orlando area.
Seminole-Lake Gliderport was chosen as the site of this contest and Charlie Spratt was the Contest Director. The first year of the “Senior National Soaring Festival” attracted 18 pilots and was won by Don Wassness. The third year the contest’s name was changed to the “Senior Soaring Championships” or by what we locals call it “The Seniors”. From its earliest beginnings all the pilots enjoyed the camaraderie, seafood, local color and festivities of the contest. Now the fun is still in the contest, but we have become the single largest one class contest in the US. Our competitors travel from several countries and all over the US, making this the most competitive field of pilots with the exception of the Worlds. Current and former US Soaring Team members compete in “The Seniors” on a recurring basis. To help the junior racing program in the US, we make a guest slot available for a junior racer. Last year JP Stewart joined us and this year saw the youngest competitor in the history of the contest when Patrick Good joined the grid on the first day at 19 years young.
Our 25th Anniversary Edition – This year was our Silver Anniversary of the Senior Soaring Championship and 80 pilots signed up for 55 regular entries and 5 guest entries. When the early arrivals appeared at the end of January, they were greeted by cold winds, low clouds and very poor soaring conditions. February was not much better but did yield a few days of good soaring. In March the tide changed and the real soaring conditions of Florida finally appeared. As time counted down to the first contest day, we had several pilots who drove down from the frozen north just for the off chance someone might cancel at the last minute. Those pilots on site were treated with flights exceeding 300 km with a couple of 500 km flights thrown in for good measure. Ken Sorenson (no stranger to long distance flights in his native Texas) had one flight that measured 499.98 km, just 20 meters short of the 500 km mark.
Besides the many pilots and crews that traveled to the contest, a large number of volunteers arrived on site to set up camp. Our local Civil Air Patrol ground crew led by Sue Martin pitched camp in a new area reserved specifically for the cadets. Plans are to add additional power in this area so the cadets can power all their electronic devices. Dewey Clawson, a former military fighter pilot and glider pilot, called to volunteer his services and was promptly named our Safety Officer for the contest. Of course, “Mr. Izumi” brought his students from Japan to the gliderport. They come to obtain their glider and power licenses as well as helping with the ground crew responsibilities. Local pilots Billy Kerns, Ken Goshorne, and Glenn Bezoldt were out marking the grid while Judy Lineberry, Susan Owen, Ann Green, Michelle Sorenson, Joan Jackson, Ted Holler, and Sharon Pixton were navigating local tax codes while registering all our competitors. Hard at work keeping the contest finances correct was Mihaela Luculescu, our very capable and friendly office manager.
The Contest – As the pilot’s meeting started for the practice day, everyone was looking forward to getting back in the air. Some of our northern pilots scared the locals when they appeared wearing shorts for the first time since last summer! The 80 degree weather under cumulus clouds brought smiles to the masses as Virginia and I officially kicked off the beginning of the 25th Annual Senior Soaring Championship. Everyone was treated to a special aviation event, as a B-17 flown by our own Shawn Knickerbocker flew by the field at 1030 most days. Seeing the “Flying Fortress” reminded everyone of the sacrifices our military members make every day.
John Good called a practice day task that we could have called the “tour of the lakes”. We journeyed to Leesburg, Montgomery, and then to Winter Haven. All the locals and those that have flown a lot in central Florida know these areas can be notoriously weak. However, with 4 kt thermals to 5000’ the day yielded good speeds as Baude Litt flew his LS-8 to a daily win averaging better than 64 mph. The Team of Bennet and Gaisford flying an Arcus finished the course averaging almost 70 mph but after handicapping the speeds finished in second for the day. Not everyone had a wonderful day as Tom Kelly visited two of our local airports during the same task. He was not alone as 20 other pilots discovered the good number of airports that are located in our task area. Ted Holler did a great job in the retrieve office connecting crews and tow pilots to recover all the aircraft spread over central Florida. While on his retrieve, Roger Buchanan was closing the top of his trailer when a gust of wind moved his rudder at the wrong time. This resulted in aircraft damage that knocked him out of the competition. Gerry Simpson was the lucky one today – having driven down from Indiana for the number one waiting list pilot, he was in the contest! That night a Tiki Bar decorated with Christmas lights, hula girl, palm trees, with music from Jimmy Buffett made an appearance outside the hangar for a happy hour to thank our volunteers. It took a toll on the contest supplies as 2 blenders suffered catastrophic failures probably due to the number of margaritas made that evening!
Day one of the contest brought more warm temperatures and good cumulus clouds. Fernando Silva, our weatherman was pleasantly surprised at the long range forecast. Each day he would announce the predictive speed of the winner and most of the time he was able to get real close. The day was similar to the practice day but some cycling of the thermals brought speeds down slightly. Robin Clark (LS-6) won the day averaging just under 66 mph covering 168 miles. Bob Fletcher (ASG-29) finished in second, just 2 points behind Robin and the team of Bennet and Gaisford (Arcus) placed third. The welcome dinner was our Italian night with pasta from a local restaurant. Wine was provided by Mihai Tanjala and music was again supplied by Sol Varon. The ladies proved they were the fitter gender as there were very few men on the dance floor. Virginia showed superb leadership skills when she led a conga line around the hangar to the delight of everyone. Ben Johnson, our official photographer provided a number of prints highlighting airborne gliders in the Seniors for sale to the participants. Money collected during this drive went to the US Junior Soaring Team. Over $1,200 was collected due to the generosity of the Seniors pilots and crews.
As dawn broke on the second day everyone was wondering why they don’t just move down to the sunshine state. Again, warm sunny skies greeted the contestants as they filed into the DG hangar for the pilot’s meeting. Mihai Tanjala kindly provided Dunkin Doughnuts and hot coffee every morning to greet the pilots and crews. On a sad note, another unfortunate incident involving damage to an aircraft knocked Tom Kelly out of the contest. Sitting in third place at the time, Tom was hoping to repeat as a winner of this anniversary edition of the Seniors.
This was a day that featured a variety of weather reports. Depending on the source, we were predicted to see strong lift to over 6000’, a low cold front that would seriously limit lift, a late developing weak lift day or mid afternoon spread out that would end the day very early. John Good recognized the day was going to be slower to develop than the previous days and called a slightly shorter task. The lift was weak in the beginning but soon produced 4 kt thermals to 4400’. Dave Nadler in the Antares again provided outstanding service as a sniffer for the grid. As usual, our superb ground crew launched the gaggle in just under an hour. Soon everyone was one their way expecting to have an early finish to the day. Bif Huss in his Discus-2b (who drove from Colorado) flew the day with Baude Litt in his LS-8 (who flew in from Belgium) and this team finished first and second with just 4 points separating them. Don Koesch finished in third for the day in his Genesis. Remember last year, Bob Salvo won the last day in his Genesis II proving you do not need the latest and greatest to be competitive. The night was highlighted by an excellent dinner from Cheeser’s Palace held in the DG hangar. While everyone was enjoying their dinner, Jim Garrison and Ben Johnson went to help retrieve Eric Lambert out of a plowed field. After stowing the glider in the trailer, Eric invited the farmer and his wife to join the retrieve crew for a dinner. They were happy to tag along and suggested a great restaurant that happened to be the opposite direction from the gliderport. Eric did a fine job in maintaining the relationship we have with our local agricultural professionals.
Day three started with the forecasts varying greatly with the balance of the evidence coming down on the side of a weak blue day that would die early. Around launch time it was evident that this was too pessimistic as the sniffers found small cumulus clouds with descent lift to over 4000’. Conditions continued to improve and it turned into something approaching an excellent day. Bif Huss again scorched the competition to win the day covering 170 miles in just under 68 mph. The team of Bennet and Gaisford , again showing the speed of the Arcus, finished second for the day with Ron Ridenour’s Duo in third.
This night was very special for all the pilots that had every participated in the Seniors competition. Knut and Ingrid Kjenslie hosted a dinner at their home on the lake in Clermont and were pleasantly surprised at the number of pilots and crews that came. As the hosts for the Seniors for 20 years, they gave us a legacy we need to uphold and protect. To show our appreciation, we presented them with a special aerial photograph taken by Ben Johnson that depicted Seminole-Lake Gliderport as a pencil drawing of the grid during the Seniors. For their dedication to the sport and everything they contributed to this competition, they received a well deserved standing ovation from all present.
Day four we finally had the severely blue conditions forecasted for yesterday. Just a few small and short lived cumulus clouds were evident, but pilots had to struggle through most of their flights. This led to a few land outs, some motor starts, and speeds that were well down from those seen earlier in the week. It was another good day for Bif Huss, who notched his third straight day win with 54 mph over 150 miles. Bif noted that his long drive from Colorado to Florida was mostly in the rain, which had him wondering whether this was a sensible journey to undertake in March. Eight straight days of good soaring weather in Florida eliminated all his doubts.
At the Seniors, we do have a unique rule that requires us to have a rest day sometime during the contest. The Contest Manager is responsible for picking the day, and in our case, Mother Nature did not help Virginia out. It seemed that every day during the Seniors was a fly day, even the rest day. Not many people flew but Sam Zimmerman had a great flight and returned to the gliderport with a big smile. However, I don’t think Sam ever has a frown on his face when it comes to soaring! During the rest day our score sheet was very close. From second to twelfth there were only 200 points separating the pack at the top. In first place, can you guess, Bif Huss (Discus-2b) with a 201 point lead over second place contender Rich Owen (LS-8). Karl Striedieck (Duo) was in third, only 3 points behind Rich.
Wednesday’s dinner was hosted by the Red Wing Restaurant. When we asked how many of the pilots and crew had been to the establishment, almost every single person raised their hand. Pat the owner was rightfully proud of his staff and thanked everyone for their support over the years.
“Summer in Florida” was the short summary of day five’s weather, which featured temperatures near 90F (this is March!), too much moisture, mediocre visibility, decent thermal lift and some chance of both vertical and horizontal cloud overdevelopment. It clearly was not our best, but how many contests in the US fly every contest day! Almost everyone made it around the course and the top of the score sheet got even closer. Bob Fletcher (ASG-29) and Henry Retting (Discus-2b) tied for the day, each garnering 1000 points. Henry took time during the pilot’s meeting the next day not to discuss his winning flight, but to introduce our youngest pilot, Pat Good age 19 (Standard Cirrus), to the group. Pat is a freshman at Emery Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, a CFIG and active member of the Eagle Sport Aviation and the Citrus Soaring Glider Club at Pierson Airport.
Day six was the 12th straight soarable day in central Florida, which is possibly a record for east coast contest weather. It certainly is remarkable for 2015, which until pilots began assembling in earnest for this event had seen about the worst winter soaring weather in anyone’s memory.
It’s fair to note that today was not the best of this stretch of weather. We had a very late starting day that taxed the patience of our sniffers (Dave Nadler and Hal Lokin) and led to more than a few to question whether a task would be possible. Around 2 pm, soaring conditions went from desperate to adequate, and a short “banquet” task was called. The day winner was Jim Lee in a Standard Cirrus averaging just shy of 60 mph, with our favorite Texan Ken Sorenson (Ventus-2cxb) was only 9 points behind. Baude Litt finished third for the day in the trusty LS-8.
Awards Banquet – We make an attempt to keep the results of the contest secret until the awards banquet. This year was no different. After all the aircraft were put in the box, and everyone had a chance to change into something more than shorts and a t-shirt, we descended on the Mission Inn and Golf Resort. For the fifth year in a row, Riki Turofsky (wife of Charles Peterson), did an outstanding job working with the resort staff to put on an outstanding dinner.
The sun was setting over the lake as drinks were served and we had a chance to say hello (and goodbye) to Opie the pig. The chef was attending to his main course as we walked into the banquet room. If you think arranging a nice meal and entertainment is easy, let me tell you it’s not. Technical problems were abound as we tried to find a laptop that would play a video highlighting the P-51 ride Ken Sorenson took as a fund raiser for the US Soaring Team. My good friend Adrian drove an hour in under 45 minutes to deliver the video just in time for the beginning of the ceremonies. We worked for a couple of months to gather photos from most of the old Senior contests only to have 92 photos make it on the final slide show. None of this mattered because everyone enjoyed the sunset, great meal, and spending time with old friends. Don Wassness who is the only pilot who has attended every Seniors and was the first winner, received the “Ironman Award” for his achievement. Tom Knuff also received recognition for his part in the establishment of the contest by receiving the “Founders Award”. Tom also won the “Uf Dah” award that is presented for the biggest/funniest event during the contest. Doris’ daughter Maria is a godsend during the contest, always helping fill the gaps you have during any major event. Maria volunteered to go on a retrieve for a crewless pilot. Of course this was the night of the Kjenlies’ dinner and she gave up a wonderful meal and a great time. When she returned to the RV tired, hungry and in need of a shower she was only greeted by a locked door that Tom forgot to leave open.
Time came to announce the winner of the contest. In third place was Karl Striedieck with 5630 points, Bob Fletcher was in second place with 5643 points. However, he only had the trophy for a short time. When flying home and going thru the local TSA checkpoint they shattered his well deserved award (it was replaced). After flying a near perfect contest, Marvin “Bif” Huss finished solidly in first place with 5785 points. Bif and his wife Ceil drove about as far as anyone to get here; they leave with a nice trophy and a conviction that 3 days on the road headed east in March is a good plan.
Farwell – When Virginia Thompson and I agreed to be the Co-Contest Managers for three years, we had never run a contest before. Over the years we learned a lot about pilots, vendors, trinkets, food service, and the friendship our two families have enjoyed for eight years. From the “Change of Command” ceremony during the first contest day pilot’s meeting, to the “Ask Virginia” button on my hat, this has been a wonderful experience. One individual that is always in the background at the Seniors is Virginia’s other half, Dave Springford. An outstanding racing pilot and fixture on the Canadian World Team, Dave acts as our confident and sounding board for all the crazy ideas we come up with. He does our grid sheets, financial spreadsheets, and answers late night Skype chats to help solve problems. Of course my wife Susan is a saint for allowing me to invade the spare bedroom with clothing samples, entries, contest paperwork, and food contracts from October to April. Susan was able to attend the banquet but we both wished that Dave could have joined us when the competitors were so kind with their recognition.
Sailplane racing is a sport that has a wide variety of people that both of us have felt honored to serve. As Virginia and I step down from the contest management front office, a new man is taking over. Ky McAteer was introduced during the final pilot’s meeting and at the banquet as the new Contest Manager for the 2016 Senior Soaring Championship. He is a local pilot that lives on the gliderport that has provided us with aerobatic displays, low level smoke runs in his Ag Cat, and a close friendship that you will all enjoy. Virginia and I will be working on Ky’s staff in whatever position he deems helpful and we look forward to seeing you all in 2016.