Gliding into winning form
Even the All Black captain was no match for Paraparaumu's Vaughan Ruddick at a recent South Island competition.
Flying for 20 years, Ruddick, 41, showed his class to win three trophies at January's national gliding championships in Omarama.
He won the 15-metre class, the most meritorious flight and the trophy for the highest placed pilot from another island at the seven-day event.
"The person who wins the day gets 1000 points and it's scaled back after that depending on how fast, or [your] distance compared to the winner."
Ruddick soared above his nine- strong class, scoring 6578 points, 384 above second-placed Dane Dickinson, also of the Paraparaumu-based Wellington Gliding Club. Among his scalps was All Black captain Richie McCaw, who competed in a team which finished sixth.
"I was pretty consistent, I won five days out of seven," said Ruddick.
He said his 'most meritorious' flight came from a day when "it just clicked" and he averaged 140kmh.
The nationals alternate annually between the North and South Islands, and Omarama is one of the best gliding places in the world, said Ruddick.
"We're flying in the mountains . . . One day we're ridge soaring Mt Cook, which means our wing tip is five foot away from the top of Mt Cook.
"The highest I got was just over 17,000 feet [5.2 kilometres]. Above 10,000 you're sucking on gas [oxygen] . . . it's all set up, so all you've got to do is push the button."
The flying territory also covered Fiordland, north almost to Hanmer, east to Fairlie and south towards Invercargill.
Pilots fly about five hours a day, covering between 300km and 500km each day.
"The last day it was a fast day. It was a 500km flight and we did it at an average speed of 180kmh."
Like yacht racing, gliders follow a set racing task around landmarks. Pilots follow GPS co- ordinates to complete the task as fast as possible.
Gliders are fitted with computers linked to satellite navigation systems, which also analyse the performance of the glider against what it should be.
However local knowledge was still valuable, for knowing details like which way mountain valleys run, said Ruddick.
"Some of those mountain valleys, there's nowhere to land, so there's nowhere if anything goes wrong."
Ruddick, a member of the Kapiti Coast Airport-based Wellington Gliding Club for 20 years, said he has been competing at nationals since 1997, and won his class four times previously, the last about four years ago.
It was a strong performance from the Wellington club, with fellow member Grae Harrison winning the open and 18-metre classes, and former Raumati man Max Stevens runner-up in the standard class.
TAKING TO THE SKY:
New gliders range from $150,000 to more than $300,000, but can cost as little as $20,000 second-hand.
Racing gliders carry onboard computers, GPS navigation, radio, transponder, locater, and oxygen, and the pilot wears a parachute. Ruddick has never had to use his in 20 years of flying.
Full speed is about 300kmh, though the glider will top 450kmh at high altitude with a strong tail wind.
Pilots aim to rise above 6000 feet and "ride the wave" of smooth air.
Ruddick flies from Napier to Wellington in about an hour and has flown 1250 kilometres in a day. Some have done twice that.
- Kapiti Observer