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Written by Dr. Gary Fogel
The Origins of Competitive Hand-Launch Soaring
Featured in the April 2015 issue of Model Aviation Digital.




The International Hand Launch Glider Festival (IHLGF) hosted by the Torrey Pines Gulls RC Soaring Society of San Diego has a history that relates to the formation of FAI F3K: discus-launched gliders.

The IHLGF started in 1992 as a result of burgeoning interest in Southern California in AMA Class ARC gliders (60-inch wingspan or less) that were available in the 1980s. Several club contests in Riverside and Poway, California, led to the concept for a larger regional event. This competition was the first of its kind on such a large scale, and was itself the focal point for the continued development of stronger, lighter, more efficient designs, new types of competitive rounds, even new launching methods.

Before the early 1990s, few modelers were experimenting with low-altitude, small-scale thermaling via hand launch. Dave Thornburg, considered by many to be the father of hand-launch gliders (HLGs) noted in 1994, “Hand-launch RC has opened up a whole new world to me, a world of micro-micro-meteorology that takes place in the invisible air around us every minute … a world of miniature highs and lows, cold fronts and warm, that sweep and dance across flying fields no larger than a baseball diamond.”

Dave and others helped shift momentum from winch launching large thermal duration sailplanes to hand launching the smallest of designs, eschewing the winch altogether.

Model sailplane designers quickly caught on and helped feed the growing enthusiasm. Charlie Richardson, Joe Bridi, Mark Miller, Larry Jolly, Mark Drela, and others began offering kits. Some kits such as the Bridi Airplane Kits Tercel or Charlie Richardson’s CR Aircraft Climmax sold in large volumes.

Model pilots responded by competing at increasing levels of sophistication. Throwing the model “javelin style” into a thermal was difficult. Harold Locke, Phil Pearson, Dick Barker, and Greg Norsworthy helped introduce a new style of launching at the 1999 IHLGF, a “discus-style” launch where competitors spin like Olympic athletes before hurling their aircraft to the sky. Because of the significant launch height advantage, the field of competitors quickly switched to discus launching. The gliders had to be redesigned to withstand the incredible launch forces. This cycle of creative use and design has accelerated the sport tremendously. The best pilots can discus launch their gliders to as much as 300 feet, and then thermal higher from there.


Mark Canfield reads the air before a launch.



Toby Herrera winding up for one of his famous monster launches. He measured a 300-plus-foot launch during the weekend. Awesome!



In 1992, Torrey Pines Gulls’ member Steve Stricklett was the first to think of having a large club-led HLG contest, and the club’s president, John McNeil, supported the idea. The annual IHLGF has become the club’s central focus and members have continued working on the event year after year.

One member in particular, Ron Scharck, organized the IHLGF for many years. Ron was able to secure sponsors for the event and the well-known raffle/auction associated with the contest. Throughout the years, many sponsors have assisted including Maple Leaf Design, Airtronics, JR, Futaba, Hitec RCD, Skip Miller Models, Radio Carbon Art, Soaring USA, Spektrum, Horizon Hobby, MKS Servos, and others.

By the early 2000s, the annual spring event was truly international. Competitors traveled from New Zealand, Japan, Russia, Germany, India, Ukraine, Brazil, and other countries, simply to have the opportunity to be a part of the “granddaddy of HLG.”

Torrey Pines members began drafting the rules for a variety of rounds to test a pilot’s skill. For example, in one 10-minute round, pilots might be required to attain five 2-minute flights for maximum points. Another round might require all of the pilots to launch simultaneously, and the last pilot who lands in a 3-minute window is declared the winner of the round. These rules, developed around the concepts annually tested at the IHLGF, led directly to the formation of the international FAI F3K rules.

Pilots continue to attend from around the world and last year’s event was no exception. AMA District X Vice President Lawrence Tougas was on hand to help celebrate 20 years of soaring history as 72 pilots competed for top honors. In those 20 years, only a handful of pilots have won the event, and Joe Wurts has had eight of those 20 wins. In 2014, Joe returned to Poway from New Zealand in search of win number nine.



What an amazing turnout! New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, Brazil, and Canada were among the countries represented at the 2014 IHLGF.



The pit area, canopy row, and event headquarters—pretty high-class digs! We hope to see everyone return in May 2015.



Amardeep Dugal concentrates on a quick turnaround catch/relaunch in the heat of competition.



These pilots at the IHLGF were all flying the Concept aircraft. Back row center is Roland Sommer Sr. the father of the Concept series of DLG aircraft. He passed away on October 30, 2014. Roland was a master designer and craftsman, as well as a generous friend. We’ll miss you, Senior.


The contest is typically a two-day event. Day 1 begins early, even before the thermals become active, and continues through late afternoon when the typical sea breezes carry the thermals along at good speeds. Pilots read the air, determine where thermals are likely to be, launch, thermal, then return to the contest field (typically for a hand catch or relaunch) with incredible precision. Pilots’ techniques change to match the atmosphere throughout the day.

Day 2 begins on Sunday morning with the top 10 pilots competing in four additional flyoff rounds, jockeying for position on the field, in the sky, and in the standings. At the 2014 event, Paul, Mario Sergio de Lucca, Toby Herrera, Mike Smith, Reto Fiolka, Oleg Golovidov, Jon Finch, Mike Seid, Roland Sommer Jr., and Joe Wurts made it to the flyoff rounds.

With all of the other pilots watching and cheering, Joe Wurts turned in yet another impressive series of rounds with a perfect 1,000 score in three rounds and a 997 in the fourth.

This performance took Joe from 10th place going into the finals to the championship! Toby Herrera and Oleg Golovidov placed second and third respectively.

To most pilots who fly at the IHLGF, this event is as much about sharing good air with friends from around the world as it is about who becomes the winner. The Torrey Pines Gulls members have helped design a friendly, competitive environment that balances these two objectives. Experts and novices alike are welcome.



Congratulations to the 20st annual IHLGF top three (L-R) Oleg Golovidov, third; Joe Wurts, first; and Toby Herrera, second.



Team JR pilots (L-R) Sergio de Lucca (Brazil), Doug Cronkhite (USA), and Thomas Lee (Hong Kong).




Jay Smith visits Torrey Pines to enjoy slope soaring.




Dr. Gary Fogel gives a brief overview of the Torrey Pines Gliderport.




On May 2-3, 2015, the Torrey Pine Gulls will again host the IHLGF in Poway, California. We welcome everyone to join us for what promises to be a spectacular event! Help show your appreciation to our sponsors by shopping for your gear at hobby shops or online. We couldn’t do this without them. Additional information about the 2015 International Hand Launch Glider Festival can be found at www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=2318266. See Torrey Pines Gulls club website at www.torreypinesgulls.org.

—Gary Fogel


5 comments

We see a lot of RC and helicopter coverage, it's nice to read a glider feature. Thanks guys!

I would have loved to fly with you Jay in that video.

It was certainly a thrill to fly at the historic Torrey Pines Gliderport. It was actually my second visit there. The first time it was so calm we couldn't fly an unpowered glider. That was the only time I was unable to fly because it was too calm!

Thanks Dr. Fogel! I know you invest a lot into this hobby. Appreciate the article.

I'm a soaring pilot in training. I bought the Calypso to try my hand at gliders. Love it. Not sure I'll ever compete, but I hope to visit Torrey Pines someday.

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