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Creating a safe and sustainable XC culture takes more than the Proving Grounds, but it helps.

Of course, Proving Grounds provides a easy to administer, stepwise development path for pilots interested in flying XC to identify the steps toward success and confidence – both for the pilot, and for the club, especially if at least the first few flights will be completed in club aircraft.

But what else might a club consider if they’ve struggled to create a culture supportive of developing the next generation of XC pilots?

Here are a few items we would encourage. No right answers, but things to consider. If you have additional key considerations, leave a comment with your thoughts!

1. Love the landout

Well, love might be a bit much, but at least tolerate, or accept it – do not condemn! Pilots who find themselves beyond final glide, struggling to get home, in a club that condemns the landout are at a much greater risk of developing a potentially fatal case “get-home-itis”. From a safety perspective, if your club doesn’t support making safe decisions on task, the risk is tremendous for your fleet and your people!

Work to develop good landout capacity culturally. When they happen, make the retrieve an adventure, introduce new pilots to the process. Ensure every pilot understands how critical it is to always keep an explicitly safe landing option within final glide/on course. For early XC pilots, this probably means another airstrip. If nothing else, review the ‘Glider Field Landings’ video below for some guidance on field selection if experience is scarce at your club. 

Be ready to landout before you take off. We encourage pilots leaving final glide to have their vehicle hooked up to the glider trailer, the trailer ready to go, gas in the tank, and keys in the vehicle or stored centrally. You might have to explicitly identify a retrieve person, or rely on the culture at your club to allocate a body for your retrieve, expecting you to return the favour in the future. Having everything ready for a retrieve back at the club is a vaccination against “get-home-itis”, one less burden to put on your friends. On the back of the Proving Grounds task sheet is a landout checklist to help with field selection – memorize it, or reference it on task to identify fields en route – don’t be surprised if you need to land, always know where you would land.

What happens after the landout? If your club has a positive safety culture, you might be accommodating to recording the landout as an incident. Yes, landouts are a part of the sport, but no, it’s not a normal process – and there is risk. The Cu Nim Gliding Club has maintained a weekly newsletter called ‘Turnpoints’ and members who landout in club aircraft are encouraged to share their experiences to normalize landing out, and to share some of the tremendous experience gained through landouts.

We can’t live long enough to make all of the mistakes ourselves. Speak openly, be humble, ask questions, share what worked, and more importantly what didn’t.

2. Flight Computers

A moving map or final glider computer can not only provide a flight trace which can be shared and/or analyzed, but is also be a confidence inspiring aide for novice XC pilots. Easily being able to identify the nearest airport, confirming your position above or below final glide, visualizing thermal strength through the boundary layer among other data points provide validation and confidence that what you’re doing is working, and that you are or are not reading the sky correctly.

It might be a rule that any club aircraft leaving final glide, must have a flight trace available to the club, ideally posted on OLC or Skylines as a rule. The club deserves the right to know if the pilot is making smart decisions with shared resources (legally and sensibly). With this common expectation you’ll be supporting the club’s performance on OLC, and won’t be singling out individuals who might have done something silly and aren’t proactive in sharing. If the expectation is that all XC flights in club equipment are posted, not posting requires clarification, where suspicion in a “post at discretion” context is destructive to a supportive, transparent and humble culture.

At the Proving Grounds, we’re big fans of XC Soar! The free Android app is a fully featured moving map and flight computer that can run on pretty much any Android device (or a variety of other devices). The Proving Grounds is powered by .cup task files to evaluate .igc file submissions, and we have created a number of guides to support easy setup of an XC Soar device weather that’s for the club, or for individual pilots.

  • Setup XC Soar and Proving Grounds for Canadian pilots

  • Pilots or mentors should be careful to stress the importance of using a MacReady setting of greater than 1 to have confidence that the altitude they have is enough to get them home safe. This risk is mitigated with a safe arrival height, but the two go hand in hand for peace of mind for the pilot, and the club.

    Start flying with a flight computer, increase the MacReady setting and test out some final glides. It’s hard to believe how far these birds fly, at least until you start driving them in (mostly) straight lines!

    3. Proving Grounds

    With a culture that accepts that safe and considered landouts are a part of the sport, pilots equipped with the tools to support navigation and safe transit from airport to airport, you are ready for some objectives.

    The Proving Grounds systematically develops pilots from the novice, local aviator, to a reasonably capable XC pilot. It is a guided system that provides social validation and recognition for objectively small tasks, develops a soaring vocabulary and requires next to no administration from over burdened tenured members of the club.

    The Proving Grounds is made up of 3 fixed tasks, the same tasks, every year. We suggest the first task be a rhombus around the airfield that pilots can complete laps of without ever getting more than 10-15km away from home. This creates a task of about 50km in length. A second task takes pilots over accommodating terrain, usually a triangle of approximately 100km – this will require a few climbs beyond final glide of the home airport, and the pilot will need to move their “local airport” to an en route airport. The final task should expand on the middle task so pilots are familiar with the terrain, landout options and other airports. At approximately 150km with 2km turnpoints, this isn’t an easy task for the novice pilot – completing this should be confidence inspiring for the member, and the club. The club’s newest XC pilot is born!

    The fixed tasks build capacity and a common vocabulary which in time becomes ubiquitous among members – eager novice or formerly novice pilots, mentors who may use the tasks for training, mentoring or shepherding. While many flights celebrated after a day of flying are described merely as a list of small towns, the Proving Grounds tasks become racing circuits with known characteristics, and a leaderboard.

    And there are the trophies! Since novice pilots so rarely have the opportunity to be celebrated, beautiful task boards accompany the system and strips of magnetic white board material to record flight details and rank in order of average speed. Novice pilots will celebrate achievement, top pilots might validate the platform and duke it out for top spot.

    The enabling element of the whole system is the automatic scoring of successfully flown tasks. Pilots attach their .igc file from their flight to an email and send that to the club’s custom configured ‘bot’. The trace is automatically evaluated against the tasks and a result is emailed back to the requesting email address in :30 seconds (or less). If the task is successful, the details in the email provide the information required to complete the magnetic slip and rank the flight – no waiting, no SeeYou, just results.

    In a club that at least tolerates, but maybe values the landout, pilots equipped with tools to support safe decisions and provide navigational support, and a stepwise platform that requires little to no member time to support, the foundation is laid for a safe, systematic, and supportive XC culture to grow.

    We believe that personal growth in this sport is the key to it’s survival. When growth becomes part of the culture, we will thrive.

    The type of person attracted to soaring is undaunted by a challenge. Soaring XC provides limitless opportunities to grow, learn and experience this spectacular technical challenge, emerged in the most beautiful landscapes, doing what most people can’t imagine is possible. When this kind of person reaches an impasse to their development and growth, there is typically one of two responses – frustration or surrender.

    One is bad for culture, the other is bad for viability – both can be managed with a considered strategy to support the best of the sport – the challenge and relative ease of flying XC tasks.

    Fly deliberately. Fly tasks.



    I’m in a DG-1000S, outside of gliding range to the home field for the first time, I’m getting low, but I’m with the club CFI and XC virtuoso Chris Gough. All of my brainpower is consumed to make decisions based on very little experience in this situation, but I’m working through the issues and figuring it out with expert guidance.

    Rewind 3 months.  The world has entered a pandemic, where public health guidelines say that we should physically distance from others, outdoor gatherings are acceptable, and UV more than likely kills the virus on surfaces quickly. I turn to the woman who married me, an experienced glider pilot, and we say “Let’s rope our gliding friends in Okotoks into joining the Cu Nim Gliding Club and we can all hang out together responsibly!”

    I climbed up through the Canadian Air Cadet Gliding Program, but I have also flown at numerous soaring clubs in Ontario and at Edmonton Soaring Club in Alberta, albeit as a Tow Pilot mainly. I’ve flown a few nice hour-long trips around the patch, but I never had the knowledge or experience to spread my wings and try some of the things I’ve read about for decades in Free Flight.

    We enter Cu Nim as a family, and instantly feel connected to the geography and the people – what a feeling! Underlying the inescapable positivity towards our membership is something else that I can’t put my finger on initially. As the first few weeks lead to check-outs and transitions to single-seat performers, we notice an unmistakable “XC culture” bubbling below the surface.

    My many newbie questions about everything from “what kind of cloud is that” to “why does everyone fly with their cell phone” are kindly answered and further questions encouraged. The culture that surrounds us demonstrates a burning desire by all to fly higher and farther with every subsequent flight.

    After chatting with one of the clubs experienced XC pilots and instructors (Patrick McMahon) I am briefed that until you earn your Bronze Badge, you are considered a “local pilot”. There is no shame intended with this title, but it carries an underlying tone of “you should strive to shed the local pilot brand as soon as able and let us show you how”. This leads to a conversation about the clubs’ Proving Grounds and a copy of the FAI Bronze Badge requirements. I had heard others talking about the Racetrack, and I had seen the task board in the clubhouse, but it took a confluence of topics to realize what was happening behind the curtain.

    I am green – greener than green when it comes to soaring any distance away from the practice area or the circuit. My cone of mental gliding range has very steep sides and has only ever funneled to the home airfield.  I have tinkered with XC Soar before, but I have never used it while soaring – in the sense that I am using it as a tool, not just as a moving map. The XC culture senses this curiosity and soon I am attending an online XC Soar seminar hosted by the CFI with other similarly motivated members of the club.

    Soon after at the field, on a good soaring day, one of the members radios ground and asks, “What was my takeoff time?”. I’m curious about this and ask the others on the ground about the request. They answer that she is trying for one of her 2-hour Bronze Badge duration flights.  This one request lit the fire for me – let’s do this!

    I planned my attack.  I would use XC Soar every flight to learn how to interact with it.  I would ask questions on Slack about anything that I stumbled on.  I would ask questions while airborne about weather, XC Soar, performance – I became a humble sponge.

    I think the most important piece of information I was able to glean early from the team was “plan on losing 1000’ for every 10km of distance”.  This piece clicked into place with an audible “snap”.  Every flight after, if I had 1000’ to burn, I would point in a direction, look at XC Soar, and see if this held true.  What this typically looked like for me and my steep cone edges, was that if I was 5km away from the field, I would fly over and then 5km past the field and see if I lost 1000’.  After a few of those, I felt confident that it would hold true in the mysterious air farther away from the field.

    The second most important piece of information was “Arm Start” in XC Soar.  I had read the notes, and attended the seminar, but until I was airborne and had loaded a task, I couldn’t understand why every time I thought I entered the start cylinder and exited, XC Soar pointed me back into the start cylinder.  After learning the function of “Arm Start”, and subsequently the “Arm Turn” feature, tasks were now in my reach.

    Cu Nim’s Proving Ground task sheet

    Throughout, I had Cu Nim’s Proving Grounds task sheet pinned in my kitchen for the family to see and interpret.  Every day I pictured the Racetrack and measured how high I needed to be to make a turnpoint and maintain gliding distance to the field.  At Cu Nim, those Gas Tanks look extremely far away…

    Over the next month, I probed the Racetrack – soar to Millarville then back to the practice area. Verify the 10km/1000’ rule. Soar to Big Rock then back to the practice area. Verify the 10km/1000’ rule. Constantly in my peripheral vision were the Gas Tanks – a galaxy away.

    Then one booming day, I pull the trigger.  Groundwork is laid, 2h duration is the goal, Racetrack is the dream.  I use Leighton Lakes to the north as my start.  I am in no rush for the Racetrack, but I look for thermals towards Big Rock. Soon it’s in the rear-view mirror, and it’s time to focus on the Gas Tanks with determination.  I’m confident in my ability to thermal, but reading the sky is at a Grade 2 level.  I remember the clubhouse talks about “aim for the darkest part of the underside of a Cu”.  Soon, XC Soar is telling me I’m 5km from the Gas Tanks.  I’m at 7000’ASL.  I begin talking to myself, “If I fly there and straight back here I should be at 6000’ASL.  If I was at 6000’ASL right here, would I be comfortable gliding back to the field?” The math makes sense and I go for it.  Pointing away from the field and doing a 5km straight glide to what seemed like another universe, I make the turnpoint and a triumphant turn North towards Millarville. I’m rewarded with a 5kt thermal just north of the Gas Tanks and climb to an easy final glide for the rest of the Racetrack and back to Cu Nim!

    My speed was the slowest to date on Cu Nim’s task board, but my pride and congratulations from peers made me feel like the outright champion!

    One small step for a rookie, but the XC Culture didn’t end there.  Encouragement to post the flights on the internet through Skylines and OLC further boosted my pride in the achievement. Soon after, the Bronze Badge tasks fall one by one with timely mentoring by a team of instructors.  It’s now time for the Bronze Badge dual training.

    Successful Cu Nim Task 2 trace

    Present-day. After evaluating the conditions, CFI Chris Gough decides we shall do Task 2 of the Proving Grounds. What better way to transition to XC flying than fly XC? I had studied Task 2 for months, eating breakfast in my kitchen.  I became familiar with the area, but always focusing on the yellow line between the turnpoints. What I learned that day was that the meat of the task lies outside the lines. Where can we land? What is the sky showing? What is the sky over the home field looking like? There was no yellow line in the sky, it was a wandering path whose trajectory was steered by good decisions and constant re-evaluation.  You could have cooked an egg on the top of my head! Though at times uncertain through the flight, with good thermalling, supportive conditions, and good planning, we eventually had to fight to get under controlled airspace on the final glide home – emancipating!

    After a townhall-style Bronze Badge online seminar hosted again by our CFI, the bow was tied, and the Bronze Badge was mine! True to form, there was no time to rest. The XC culture and main proponents were already whispering in my ear what the requirements for the Silver Badge are. My breakfast focus has shifted to Task 3 with inbound and outbound legs that would satisfy the distance requirement for FAI Silver…

    Mel and Tyler ready for launch in Cu Nim’s DG-1000

    Tyler Paradis is a Nav Canada IFR controller, he and wife Mel were first-year members of Cu Nim Gliding Club in 2020 and parents of 3.