Competition at the intermediate level is great fun. Sailplane clubs throughout the country offer events for every skill level. These include local "floater", nostalgia and novice events for beginners all the way up to national level competition with hundreds of entrants. Competition go well beyond who wins the contest. In fact, the majority of contest fliers have no intention of winning the contest, but attend for the fun, camaraderie and practice. Competitions are great places to meet people, exchange ideas, and gain valuable flying experience.
Let me also note that you don't have to have the latest world-beater 1000 sailplane to enter a contest. While its true that high end composite have advantages in certain conditions, most any sailplane can win if flown in the right conditions at the right time. Pilot experience is more important than sailplane as Joe Wurts recently demonstrated by winning a major 1997 2-meter contest with a TG-3 trainer. I've had similar experience, placing one time in a local unlimited F3J style event with a 2-meter Spirit. All of the planes I flew against were high-tech 3-meter wonders, but I lost only one of my rounds to a competitor's plane. Flying in any competition will teach you important lessons that will ultimately make you a better sailplane pilot, even if your main focus is sport flying.
The precision times for rounds are varied, sometimes at the discretion of the pilot. For example, a three round short contest might have a five, seven and ten minute tasks to be flown in any order. The pilot, then, must make a judgement during the round as to whether he wants to fly a short five-minute task and wait for better conditions or push to complete a longer task. Another popular format is to provide a total target time for a set of flights. For example, the goal might be 20 minutes for three flights with a ten-minute maximum on any given flight. In this case, the pilot can use any combination of times to arrive at the total time, as long as no single flight goes over 10 minutes.
Several methods may be used to score landings. The landing is always measured from the nose of the airplane after it has come to a complete rest. Hitting any object or person results in zero landing points. The plane must be immediately flyable, and not inverted. The simplest is a landing circle measured with a tape staked at the center. On the AMA official tape, the tape is only 25 feet long, marked four points per foot. The bullseye (100 point circle) is only six inches in diameter! Another popular AMA system uses a fifty foot landing tape staked at both ends as a centerline. The plane can land anywhere along the tape. Points are measured in inches from the centerline of the tape. For example if the nose of the plane is within one inch of the tape, it scores 100 points. If it is 23 inches from the centerline, the score would be 77 points. While these are the two most popular methods in most of the country, west coast fliers are known for coming up with much more imaginative systems. These include ladder and pie shaped landing zones, in and out rectangles, the hand-catch, limbo, and many more.
Most precision duration contests are flown from winch launch, though a few in the country are now hand towed or use high-starts. While the two-meter and standard competition classes were at one time popular, the majority of US contests are now flown with unlimited (over 100") sailplanes. Larger contests may divide pilots by skill level, with novice, sport and expert classes separating the beginner from the expert. Very large contests, such as the US Nationals (NATS) also have junior classes for teenagers and senior classes for older pilots.
F3J is based on Great Britain's BARCS thermal duration rules with the addition of a precision landing. The basic F3J format is a man-on-man maximum precision duration within a 10-minute window for preliminary rounds. The launch is via hand-tow using a 150 meter monofilament line. Landing is scored as 100 points within a 1 meter circle, 95 points for a two meter circle and so on. Landings outside of 15 meters score no points. One re-launch is allowed within the working time, but only the last flight is scored. Groups of up to ten pilots fly in the same 10-minute working time, and scores are normalized to 1000 points based on the best raw score in the group. Each pilot may have up to three planes. Planes and parts may be exchanged at any time.
The 10-minute working time imposes interesting constraints on the contestants. If the pilot exceeds the 10-minute working time, he loses all landing points as and suffers a penalty of 30 points. The goal, then, becomes to launch precisely at the beginning of the working time, minimize the launch to 5 or six seconds, and then hit a 100 point landing 1-2 seconds before the end of the time, producing an ideal time of 9:54 or 9:55.
Scores are totaled for all preliminary rounds, and the highest scoring eight to ten pilots then move on to the final rounds. Scores from the preliminary rounds are discarded, so a pilot could just squeak into the finals and still win the contest. The final rounds are flown with a longer 15-minute working time, forcing pilots to really work to make their times.
Though F3J is a relatively new event, particularly in the US, its popularity is growing. Some trends are emerging. First, the event is not quite the cheap alternative to F3B that the founders originally intended. Two planes are required, one for light conditions and an F3B style plane for windy conditions. To be highly competitive, both planes must be carbon fiber planes capable of powerful zoom launches. Hand towing can actually put more stress on the plane than most winches. A full size unlimited plane can pull a 200lb man off his feet during the zoom. Still, F3J has gone a long way towards introducing hand-towing and the man-on-man formats here in the US. The fact that it is an alternative to the serial US thermal format has reinvigorated many competitions.
The model is launched using a specially designed F3B winch with high strength monofilament line. The length from winch to turnaround is limited to 200 meters, for a 400 meter total winch line length. Each round must be completed with the same plane. The only change allowed is the additional or removal of ballast. Two planes are allowed per pilot, but switching planes is only allowed between rounds. Each round must be completed in the constraints of a given working time, adding additional pressure.