Local teens soar to the top at remote control sailplane world competition

Who says the French don't care for Americans? Three local teens, including two Redmond High School (RHS) students, won gold medals and even made the front page of a French newspaper, Le Progrès, after triumphing over teams from 28 other countries at the F3J World Championships in Dole, France earlier this month.

Sailplane pilots

Who says the French don’t care for Americans?

Three local teens, including two Redmond High School (RHS) students, won gold medals and even made the front page of a French newspaper, Le Progrès, after triumphing over teams from 28 other countries at the F3J World Championships in Dole, France earlier this month.

RHS seniors Michael Knight and Connor Laurel and their friend Brendon Beardsley, a Jackson High School graduate who’ll attend University of Washington this fall, were the three junior pilots who represented the United States at the remote control sailplane competition.

Laurel, who lives in Redmond and Knight, who lives in Kirkland, won their gold medals in the team event. Beardsley, a Mill Creek resident, won gold medals in both individual and team events.

At F3J competitions, pilots must demonstrate their skill in flying aircraft without engines. The planes must “thermal,” like an eagle in flight, to gain altitude.

The aircraft are made of carbon fiber and Kevlar and are extremely light for their 12-foot wing span. But unlike “toys,” these planes cost $1,500-$1,800 each with accompanying electronics running around $700.

The USA Junior Team members have practiced flying on a regular basis, in all sorts of weather conditions. They’re members of the Seattle Area Soaring Society and do their flying at 60 Acres South in Redmond and the Old Carnation Farm.

Sherman Knight, who is Michael’s dad and one of the team’s coaches, explained, “The task is to fly as close to possible to the amount of working time in a round. All rounds are either 10 to 15 minutes. Even with a good launch, if you don’t find at least one thermal, your flight will be short, losing valuable points. In addition, a landing bonus is scored on a graduated tape, with the circle for a 100 point landing only seven inches across.”

Also, said Sherman, “These aircraft are remotely piloted from the ground using computer-based transmitters. By placing a computer in the transmitter, you can manipulate all six control surfaces on the aircraft by moving sticks or switches. A good pilot can slow down and gracefully land an aircraft with a 12-foot wingspan in his hand.”

The F3J USA Junior Team and their entourage spent about two weeks in France, including early arrival for practice and warm-up events.

We asked if the trip included any surprises or challenges. Laurel grinned and said, “Well, all our equipment got there, with exceptionally small shipping damage,” which was good, considering that each of the young men brought four planes with them.

But a violent storm the night before the competition wreaked havoc on the field where events were set to take place. The Team USA tent got blown away and some other teams’ flying gear sustained major damage. As a result, the competition began a day later than planned.

The Germans were way ahead of USA for the first 8-10 rounds, Sherman noted. But then the Germans fell 500 points in one round.

There were also some major miscommunications regarding acceptable airspace in which to fly — in-between an active runway and a freeway — and some big mistakes in scoring that had to be brought to be to the judges’ attention. But diligent preparation, confidence and a sense of humor during tense moments ultimately paid off for Michael, Connor and Brendon.

What’s next for the team, now that they’ve taken top honors at the F3J World Championship? They admit they’ll probably have less time to practice flying while planning for college, or in Brendon’s case, starting college.

Michael commented, “I’ve passed the age limit for juniors now — you can be 18 the year of the contest and then it’s a lot harder to get on the senior team. There’s more people flying in that age bracket, more competition. Maybe I’ll go to worlds again as a helper and I’ll definitely keep flying as a hobby. I’ve also been looking into Army programs involving unmanned aircraft.”

Community members who would like to learn about flying remote control aircraft are invited to demonstrations conducted by the Seattle Area Soaring Society. Visit www.seattleareasoaringsociety.com.

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