Flying high: the role of a flight controller

5 AUGUST 2019News
World champion Marie Riou is flight controller for the France SailGP Team.

It takes serious skill, attention to detail, and quick decision making to keep the F50 flying high on its foils. Getting the boat around the course tactically is the job of the helmsman, but keeping it fast and flying is up to the flight controller.

Marie Riou has sailed the Olympic foiling class Nacra 17 for more than seven years. In the Nacra, instead of trimming with a machine, she’s physically making adjustments, a skill that translates on a fundamental level to the F50.

“I constantly adjust the position of the foil to find the balance of the boat,” says the French flight controller, “That means that she is 1 or 2 meters high and only touches the water with the foils and rudders.”

The supercharged F50 is outfitted with the most advanced racing technology known to the sport, and the flight controller is at the pinnacle of it, armed with a tuning device that looks more like it belongs in the cockpit of a jet airplane or on a gaming console from the future. Dials on either side of the controller twist to adjust the fore and aft movement of the daggerboard, but that’s not all.

The flight controller is responsible for the roll, the differential of the rudders, and average rudder lift on two buttons, and it’s not a small job, especially when you’ve got to be aware of what’s happening around you on the racecourse, what the helmsman is saying in your ear, and how the boat is reacting to all the adjustments you’re making.

“You have a special relationship with the helmsman where you can predict what they are thinking, whether you need to slow down for a moment or really push,” said Luke Parkinson of the Japan SailGP Team. “A good flight controller makes it easy. You have a dry lap; you fly the highest, you’re the most stable.”

In varying conditions, like the ones seen on the racecourse in New York, the ability of the flight controller can make or break a team’s performance. One slip up or miscommunication between the helmsman and the controller can be a devastating blow to their results.

“You have to have laser focus, everything is constantly changing,” says Taylor Canfield of the United States SailGP Team. “We have all the controls right at our fingertips; we just have to get used to that muscle memory of where all the buttons are on the controller. It really has to become a part of us.”

To see the SailGP flight controllers take on the windy conditions and challenging tides of Cowes, UK, head to the SailGP APP for onboard views of the action.