The skies over Western Nevada will be filled with aircraft for the next two weeks.
But not the kind that fill the air like those at the annual air races.
These planes are silent, motorless gliders competing in the 18 Meter Nationals — an annual competition to determine the best glider pilots to send to the biennial world championships.
They are flying out of the Minden-Tahoe Airport in Carson Valley, long considered one of the finest places to fly sailplanes — in part because of the wind thermals and updrafts generated by the Sierra.
John Godfrey, contest director for the event, said this year attracted 20 pilots including some of the best 18-meter fliers in the world.
The planes are called 18-meter craft because that’s their wingspan — roughly 59 feet. That is one of the glider classes competing in events around the country ahead of the world championships. The other three classes are generally for smaller gliders
“The 18-meter class is kind of the big dog,” Godfrey said.
The 10 days of competition that began today is the national championship for 18-meter planes and the winner will be in position to represent the country in the biennial world championships which happen every two years.
To get to that world championship, the winning pilot has to get the total highest score in a two annual competitions.
“That gets the luck factor out,” Godfrey said.
Despite not having engines, the competition is a race. For the next 10 days, pilots will try to post the fastest time around a different course each day.
Monday, they were in their second practice day at Minden, tackling a 150-mile course that ran south to Mono Lake then northeast to Aurora and back northwest to Minden.
The route and other information including speed is all recorded electronically in GPS units aboard each glider.
While the gliders themselves are light weight, they pump water into the hollow wings to add weight because, according to contest manager Reba Coombs, the added weight makes them fly faster. Her husband Alan, also a pilot, said the weight also makes the gliders more stable in the turbulent air currents the Sierra is famous for.
The pilot with the fastest time each day gets 1,000 points toward that trip to the world championships. Those behind are awarded points according to their percentage of speed behind the winner. Godfrey said if a pilot’s finishing time is 90 percent of that of the winner, he gets 90 percent of 1,000 points — 900 points.
Their two-year total is what decides the winner.
The planes themselves are sleek with long, slender wings designed to take maximum advantage of any updraft. Despite appearances, they aren’t fragile. Nor are they inexpensive. Reba Coombs said the competitors’ aircraft parked at the Minden Airport range all the way from $40,000 to more than $250,000 for a couple that have fold-away propeller driven engine or, in one case, a jet engine to make it unnecessary for a tow plane to get them into the air.
During the competition, all craft will be lifted to 2,000 feet by the four tow planes on duty at the airport. After that, it’s their task to fly the designated course each day as fast as they can hopefully land back at the airport.
She admitted it’s an expensive sport, which she said is discouraging young people from getting hooked. Many of the pilots, she said, are seniors.
“We’ve got two pilots in their 80s and still competing — and very effectively,” she said.
Coombs said to encourage young people to get involved, Soaring NV collects donations to give $1,000 scholarships to teens interested in soaring. They can afford eight scholarships this year to get those young people started.
Those interested in following the soaring competition from today through June 19 can do so on the Soaring Society of America website at ssa.org. Coombs said they will be able to actually see the GPS traces of each competitor in real time as they navigate the course each day.
Or they can simply look up.
Sailplanes will be aloft each day sometime in early afternoon.