Secrets of champions: Oleg Bondarchuk

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In the latest of Dennis Pagen’s ongoing series of psychiatric examinations, Dennis visits Ukraine to interrogate the mighty Oleg Bondarchuk, current world champion and winner of the 2005 Flytec Championships

How do you go about improving your skills?
That’s difficult to say. But on every flight you gain experience whether it’s a good flight or not. Often progress is flat; skills seem to go up in steps. But to be a good comp pilot you must compete often. Otherwise you will forget your decision making and not have as much confidence.

When XC free-flying you’re much more relaxed and not learning as much. Also, you won’t have as many gliders around to judge the outcome of your decision making.

For example, one circle extra in dying lift can put you 40 metres (130 ft) below another guy in the next thermal. After ten thermals this is 400 metres (1300 ft) – or more often a missed thermal.

Competition is a great place to improve your skills, compare your flying and to hang around others who love to fly at the highest level and talk about it. I compete because I’m competitive. If not hang gliding it would be something else. If I didn’t compete I might not hang glide as much.

Could you tell us about your thermaling processes?
I find that if I don’t think when thermaling (or gliding) I can feel things better. I try to block out all external matters and logical thinking. This is very important when climbing.

When flying I’m always looking around and watching everyone and everything for subtle clues. I seem to react and go places without thinking. I let my body go with the flow – I don’t think “there’s lift here and I need to push out,” or “there’s a better climb, I must go there,” I just do it.

I remember one day when we were flying together low in Greece. We were climbing in a weak core thermal and you suddenly moved south to find a much better core. How did you know it was there?
I just felt the thermal we were in was slightly better on the south side, so I took a swing out that way and found a better core. It’s all feeling since I didn’t have a vario that day.

I’ve discovered for me when there are winds, I widen my circle more often downwind to find or stay in a moving core, especially if the wind is increasing at altitude. This applies even more with clouds to tell where the thermals are going. Maybe this depends on flying style. A person turning very flat may drift out the back of the thermal and have to search upwind.

When I’m gliding and feel lift I slow down and move to the appropriate side to keep the wings level or turn into the lift. But it’s incredible to me how many pilots don’t look around for a better climb when they hit the initial lift. They don’t see other gliders or birds climbing better.

Admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to find the best core in an area when you are alone, but if you’ve been in better lift earlier and the conditions haven’t changed, you should look around to find what you had before. If you are under a similar cloud or over ground similar to before on that day, then the thermal strength should be the same. If all the signs show a similarity to earlier 1 will look around to duplicate my earlier climb more readily.

You know, your vision is not required for thermaling except for avoiding other pilots or making better turns with other pilots. I use my feeling and vario sound for climbing and am always looking around and out for signs. I almost always find myself climbing to the top of a gaggle. That’s because lift is not constant and other pilots don’t always pay attention to following the core effectively.

Many pilots are not turning steeply enough. If you fly flat and slow you will get tired out because you’re always correcting. I often go inside of the circles of these flat pilots and core up above them. To do this you must know where everyone is and be able to track their trajectory.

What about leaving thermals – what’s the most efficient way to do this?
First off, if I’m quite high and the thermal is getting unsteady I will leave. Sometimes if I see a cloud starting to develop I will leave because then the next thermal is easy to locate. If I’m sure there’s lift ahead I’ll go readily. If there’s a gaggle ahead I’ll use that – I’m not averse to using gaggles. But if they are not on the best route I’ll avoid them and go my own way.

I’m always looking ahead one or two thermals before leaving. I’m always watching the clouds while I am climbing because you can’t see them well when you are high. Watch the clouds’ progress on your way up and watch for changes in the day.

On good days it’s important to leave the thermal you are in as soon as you can reach the next good climb. But it’s also important to slow down sometimes. I get very conservative (sometimes too conservative) when conditions get bad. It’s very important to be flexible and be able to shift gears. If you are very high you can afford to make one or two mistakes, but when you’re low you can’t.

When I leave a thermal I almost never leave it directly on the downwind side because that’s the area with the greatest sink. I angle out 45 to 60¼ (see figure 1). Then once on glide I continue to change lines when necessary to avoid sink and stay in the best lift. I’ll try to glide along cloud or wisp lines. If there are mountains, I’ll try to glide along ridges.

On the flats it’s best to glide over the better-looking fields or along tree lines. If my glider falls off to one side, I go the other way. Lift and sink are always changing, so my glide lines are always moving. It’s not good to just follow someone, for there are always spots of lift and sink and you can “see” the air better if you spread out. But it’s better to go to someone if they are getting a better glide.

At a past Quest Air meet, Tony Marty (top Swiss competitor) and I got in a convergence line and climbed to 1,700 metres (5575 ft) going straight. We glided into goal from 17 km (10.6 miles) out. That’s an extreme example of a great glide line, but even when there’s not a convergence there will be lifting or reduced sink lines.

Read more: The full article appeared in Cross Country issue 99


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