Being lighter in the air isn’t the advantage you’d think – in fact, it’s a real problem for some athletes.
Eli Egger (AUT4) is the lightest athlete in the 2023 Red Bull X-Alps. This is why she flies with a 7kg weight vest and an extra 8kg water ballast. Eli’s choice of wing, the Ozone Zeolite is fairly specialist and the manufacturer only makes it in three sizes, so even the smallest size is quite big for her. Normally she could forgo a bit of performance and use an intermediate wing, which come in smaller sizes.
But Eli opted to stick with her wing, so she needs to fly in her glider's weight range of 65-85kg. Race reporter and Red Bull X-Alps veteran, Gavin McClurg explains: “Larger wings fly better and faster. Smaller wings are more prone to collapse and are more “twitchy”, and are also slower, so the larger the wing the better. But to be light on any wing (ie bottom of the weight range) sucks as you have a much worse feeling, and no penetration in wind…”
So why the water ballast as well as a weight vest?
Athletes usually want to fly in the top half of their glider's weight range. Beginner pilots are always told to aim to be in the middle of their weight range, but experts will have a specific weight they want to reach to maximize the performance of their glider.
They also have to be careful of being too heavy for their gliders, as the flying behaviour could be different.
It’s a complicated balancing act, but we've done the math: Eli is 158cm tall, weighs 50kg and her wing is 2.9kg, and her harness and reserve are around 3kg, it’s a total of 56kg.
7kg would put her at 63kg, which is 2kg under the weight range on a wing that goes to 85kg. Eli probably still wants more weight to be nearer the top.
Eli is not the only Red Bull X-Alps athlete to have done this during the race. Pal Takats (HUN) revealed that although he was in the weight range, he opted to carry more to get higher up in the weight range.
In the recent World Championships, Maxime Pinot’s (FRA1) gear and ballast weighed 45kg so he could fly a larger wing at the optimum weight. Maxime weighs 66kg, so this was an extra two-thirds of his body weight!
There are also benefits to carrying water as an extra weight. It means that the athlete can easily dump it if, for example, there is a tricky landing ahead and it looks like they may hit the deck, or if conditions are weak and the pilot wants to “float” a bit more.
Normally in a hike-and-fly race, athletes would want to avoid using ballast as they will have to carry it. So you might be wondering if Eli has to hike with the extra weight too. Eli’s supporter Nadine Beck explains that Eli does not topland anywhere and any hiking must all be planned in advance. On landing Eli has to wait for two supporters before she can hike up again. She can’t hike alone as the supporter carries the extra weight or uses an e-bike or car to get it to her when she’s about to fly.
Top image © zooom / Lukas Pilz