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Gliders to rule the summer skies

View from the cockpit as Grae Harrison takes a spin above Papawai airfield. PHOTO/MARY ARGUE

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A gentle hum in the air and streaking shadows across the ground will be the only clue to a fierce sky-bound competition next month.

The skies above Papawai airfield will come alive at the end of February as 40 gliders compete in the Central Districts Regional Gliding Championships.

Event organiser and Papawai airfield manager Brian Sharpe said the competition was a “big opportunity for local pilots” and was delighted his home club would host the Diamond Jubilee.

He said New Zealand’s first gliding championship in 1962 was held at Hood Aerodrome in Masterton.

He intended the competition to return to Hood for the 60th anniversary. However, restrictions at the airfield meant the competition moved to Wellington Wairarapa Gliding Club [WWGC].

He estimated $130,000 would be injected into the Greytown economy during the weeklong competition.

Longest-serving WWGC club member Grae Harrison will be one of two task setters for the championship.

Harrison said a different course [task] would be set daily, and the goal was to “maximise cross-country distance”.

The fastest finisher would be declared the day’s winner, with an overall championship winner announced at the end of the contest.

Harrison said the prize for first place was “prestige” until the next championship.

He said there would be two classes in the competition – open and racing, determined by glider wingspan.

Harrison said larger gliders tended to have a greater performance range and could fly longer distances.

Anything with a wingspan of more than 15m will compete in the open class.

He said the weather on any given day would dictate the task, and the gliders would be hoping for thermals.

“There are brilliant flying conditions in Wairarapa, and the hotter, the better.

“The pilots who can interpret the conditions will be faster around the course. It’s very similar to yachting.”

He said the competition would be capped at 40 gliders, and the already 32 pilots entered indicated a strong appetite.

Four to five tow planes will spend just over an hour each morning launching the gliders where they would circle in the air, waiting for the start gate to open. Harrison said the starting point was like a 5km wide “beer can in the sky” which will remain open for two hours.

He said this allowed gliders to be strategic and determine the location of the best thermals.

Harrison said the region was also famous for the westerly “wave” shaped by the Tararua Range.

The long flat lenticular clouds forming as air moved over the range created an “energetic day”, he said.

Harrison anticipated the maximum course would take gliders as far north as Dannevirke, east to Castlepoint, and south to the coast.

He said GPS tracked the gliders, so the ground crew knew when a pilot was flying, circling, or had landed.

He expected a handful of gliders to make a forced landing each day but said they were trained to do so safely.

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