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A task setting philosophy, part 1

This article presents practical advice for setting tasks in Race To Goal paragliding competitions. Underlying this advice is a philosophy - that tasks should be safe, fair and fun. I explain why I believe that this philosophy is the correct one and give practical advice as to how to achieve this, as well as identifying common mistakes in task setting. The goal is to promote good task setting - tasks that prove the value of paragliding competitions and that encourage all pilots to consider the development of their competition flying skills as a valuable and natural part of their progression as a pilot. Principles of a good task

The goal of any competition task should be to allow pilots to test their skills against each other. Pilots fly competitions for a variety of reasons. The new pilot looks for a challenge, the merely good pilot looks for an arena in which he can demonstrate his skills in public, but the very best pilot sees it as an opportunity to learn and to challenge his personal assumptions as to what is possible on a paraglider.

A good task will provide an opportunity for pilots of all levels to meet their goals. Underlying this, there are three key defining aspects of a good task:

Safe: Paragliding is an inherently dangerous sport and this is further compounded by the heat of competition. A good task ensures that pilots are not likely to put themselves in needless danger in the pursuit of achieving their goals.

Fair: The underlying principle of competitions is that pilots compare themselves to each other. This comparison can only be valid if there is an agreed-upon base, be it in choice of take off, weather conditions, route or (realistically) all three. Cross Country leagues, although they are fantastic in several respects, are a poor method of comparing pilots because they depend so much on each individual pilot's place of residence and availability to fly on the best weather days.

Fun: A good task is one in which every pilot lands having achieved his goal, be it demonstrating his skill or having learned. The sign of a good task is one in which pilots chat for hours afterwards about it using phrases like "I'd never been there before", "it was a great race" and "I never realised that was possible".

Signs of a bad task

There are many "task smells" that result in bad tasks being set. These include:

Proving the venue: Competitions are often used as a showcase for flying destinations, and all to often the locals want to prove to the world that large flights (typically measured in tens or hundreds kilometres) are possible at their site. This leads to tasks being set that are either inappropriate for the actual weather, inappropriate for the pilots present, or both. Key phrases to listen for are "we can fly as far as X today!"

Head banging: There is a philosophy that the best pilots are those able to fly in the most extreme conditions. Albeit true that only very skilled pilots are able to survive extreme conditions, the reality is that the vast majority of pilots present are at best unlikely to enjoy such a flight. Key phrases are "but pilots won't follow the straight course line, they'll go this (indirect) way..."

Doing the local milk run: Many sites have classic flights associated with them. Setting such flights as competition tasks is often an error for several reasons:

  • such routes usually achievable on "normal, good" days, but during a competition one is trying to fly XC every day
  • such routes often include little decision making and therefore provide few (if any) learning opportunities The smell phrases are "this is a classic" and "we always do this".

Dreaming the weather: often related to doing the local milk run, dreaming the weather occurs (to quote Mark Hayman) when the task setters chose a task for the weather they want, not the weather they have. This is typically characterised by an ambitious task accompanied by phrases such as "but conditions will probably improve and if we don't do at least X then we'll look stupid." Sometimes this works, but equally often it is does not.

Drag racing: In trying to seek the balance between interesting and achievable, it is easy to set a task that demands only thermalling and bar-pushing skills, and ignores decision making.

Getting it right

Assuming the task setters have understood that a task should be safe, fair and fun there are three key factors that make for a good task:

Correct duration: A good task provides ample opportunities for pilots to compare their skills, but without overly fatiguing themselves. Often the final race to goal only starts 20-30km from the goal line, and it is irrelevant if pilots have flown 20km, 100km, or 200km before this. Scoring systems have - for good reasons - concepts of nominal time and nominal distance built into them to ensure that there is ample opportunity for pilots to differentiate themselves, but there is little reason to massively exceed these. The pilot who is ahead after five hours was probably already clearly ahead at three hours, the extra two hours add nothing except fatigue. In my opinion the optimal task length is approximately two hours for the fastest pilots, which means that the slowest pilots will typically take four to five hours.

Sufficient interest: A good task avoids obvious routes. Instead, it challenges the pilots with a several options with no clear favourite. It is worth pointing out that, as long as the task is of suitable duration and interest, then distance is not an indication of a good task. A 60km task lasting two to three hours with three interesting decisions to make is a much better task than a 160km task with three interesting decisions lasting five to eight hours. Think quality not quantity.

Increasing difficulty: Appropriate difficulty is a necessary component of any interesting task. However, a difficult part early on does little except frustrate the pilots who fail to make it. In the ideal task the difficulty increases progressively, ensuring that all pilots achieve a distance proportional to their skill.

Key responsibilities

On top of setting safe, fair and fun tasks, there are a few key responsibilities that task setters must assume:

The direct line must be safe: Pilots will follow the arrow on their GPS. Task winners win by taking the shortest route - the straight line - and not getting stuck. Put difficulty on the course line, but don't put danger. A pilot following the GPS arrow may glide to the ground, but should never be forced into unsafe conditions like lee-sides.

The task must be achievable by 75% of the pilots: This very much depends on the competition, but all appropriate pilots must feel that they have a fair chance of getting to goal on their glider. The definition of appropriate pilot depends on the level of competition. At a good FAI Category 2 competition (e.g. British Open) it should be possible to get to goal on an EN C; at a selective Cat 2 (e.g. the French Open) then EN Ds should be able to finish; at a Paragliding World Cup event it is appropriate to set tasks that are only achievable on an Open Class wing. A good sign that you're getting it right is that lower class wings get to goal, albeit much slower than the fastest pilots.

Timings

Window open: Window Open is when pilots will start to take off. Up until this point the task setters are free to adapt the task the conditions. Once the window has opened it is only possible to change the task if no pilots have taken off, pilots in the air are not able to change the task in their GPSes (this is a feature of the GPSes, and sometimes also the pilot). Ideally, Window Open should be set for a time when pilots know that they will be able to stay up, but before that they know that they will climb to base. This avoids a hectic rush to launch by pilots feeling that they're too late, but does not penalise pilots who choose to take off early. This is very much a matter of judgement, and there's no substitute for having a Meet Director who understands the site. But, as a general rule, it's a good idea to set the Window Open time to be as early as possible once you are sure that the task is correct for the day.

Window open to race start: The interval between Window Open and Start is critical. It must be long enough to give all serious pilots the opportunity to take off and be at cloudbase on the start line, but not too long that early launchers are penalised by excessive fatigue. As a rough guide, pilots taking off 30 minutes after Window Open should be able to make the start - just. A start where it is necessary to take off within 20 minutes to make the start will make the launch stressful, and requiring less than 15 minutes is effectively a ground start. The correct timing depends on the site, the conditions and the number and skill level of the pilots present.

Race start: This is when the race begins. Conditions can be weak, but they must be suitable for XC flying. As a rough guide, this is the time that pilots should be at cloudbase with the expectation of finding a good thermal at the end of their first glide. If in doubt, it should be set early to encourage maximum use of the day, knowing that the race is run in that latter part of the course.

Goal close/land by/check-in: There are subtle differences between the three timings, but the fundamental thinking is the same: this is when pilots should be either in goal or landed having tried. It's a critical safety/fairness compromise. It needs to be late enough to give all pilots a fair chance (particularly those on slower wings) but early enough that, if a pilot has a problem, there is sufficient time to launch a search and rescue operation. As a rough guide, it should be at least one and a half hours before sunset. If conditions are expected to deteriorate during the day then it can be much earlier, as long as a good fraction of the pilots have had a fair chance to complete the course.

What makes competitions different from XC flying

The key difference between competitions and XC flying, is that XC pilots will focus on the individual on the best weather days whereas, in a competition, the goal is to fly XC every day for a week - even if the conditions make flying XC tricky. Add to this that XC flying is typically focused on the individual whereas a competition task setter is sending 100+ friends of different skill levels into the air. Taken together, this means that competition tasks are generally shorter than what is achievable by a good XC pilot on any given day. This is a source of frustration for some, but the two areas - XC and competition - should be treated as two overlapping but different disciplines, and both equally valuable pursuits.

More to follow in part two, including task geometries, elapsed time tasks, pre-start and safety turnpoints, tasking a full competition week, and how to choose your task committee.