It's no secret that the number of pilots entering competitions is in decline, and if the trend continues, it's just a matter of time before paragliding competitions are a thing of the past. Don't believe it? It takes a minimum of 40 pilots to have a AAA competition. The AAA Comp at Corryong in 2010 had 48 pilots in attendance...
About a year ago, I was thinking about writing an article for Cross Country Magazine. The title was going to be "Why we compete". I wanted to find out why people would burn every last second of their vacations to go fly paragliding competitions.
I started the article, but didn't finish it because even after interviewing some of the top pilots, I wasn't getting as close to the answer as I had hoped. Fast forward one year: I just finished 2 weeks of competition in Victoria, Australia.
The second comp was in a little town called Corryong, and the flying is brilliant there, well it's brilliant during a normal "dry" summer. The incredible amount of rain during the past couple months has made the ground so wet and green that the flying has been extremely weak, so we aren't getting as high as we usually do, and this has made it harder to get good tasks, and it's late in the season, the site is an afternoon site, so the flying window was extremely short. The end result was that fewer people had an opportunity to get to goal.
I was camping with most of the newer comp pilots, which was cool as the buzz was energizing, and I got an understanding of what they were thinking about as the comp went along. And when asked why they compete, the typical things came up - comps are a great way to learn from others better than you are, and the thrill of the game, etc, but what I somehow missed in my past search for the answer became crystal clear, and it was amazing simple - people compete because they want to make it to goal. The real satisfaction for most pilots comes when they and most of their flying buddies get back to camp and swap stories and celebrate making it round the course. This is what I call the "happiness factor" - the more pilots in goal, the more fun people have and the more likely they are to show up for next years comp. If the "happiness factor" is as important as I think it is, I could be vital to the future of competition paragliding.
To keep competitions from going extinct, you need to do three basic things:
1. Create valid tasks that provide enough decision making opportunities to sort out the best pilots from the good ones.
2. Get as many pilots into goal as possible, and still accomplish item #1.
3. Bring in new pilots and give them a reason to come back next year.
Getting fully valid tasks and lots of pilots into goal are not mutually exclusive! Some one may say "If 70% of the field get into goal, it's not as valid". And that is just not true - sure the task will probably be shorter, but so what? You don't need to fly 4 hours to separate the best pilots from the good ones. The idea of a paragliding competition is not to make the tasks so hard or long that only a few pilots make goal, that will just discourage the newer pilots from coming next year.
Maybe it's time to adjust the validity parameters (again) and for task committees to change their philosophy and start setting shorter tasks that are still fully valid and get the most pilots into goal?