The Cognitive Modeler

By Mark Hansen

May 2019

Running a Combat contest

I know in my last installment I mentioned that I would be covering strength of material in a rigorous way, however as I have not made the apparatus for testing common modeling materials, I have no useful data to give the reader.  So, in that fascinating topic's stead, I will be discussing the finer points of running a Combat contest. 

Before I begin, I need to give the reader a bit of background as to why I feel qualified to produce an article on this topic.  When I first started flying Combat, the same people were running all the events, at the contest.  Those poor souls, were getting a bit burned out, or so they appeared. So, I sent away for a copy of the AMA Competition Regulations, read the entre book cover to cover, then re-read the areas that I was most interested in, and offered my services as a helper at virtually all contests I attended.  My first experience with officiating Combat came at a Raider Round-Up, helping Tom Strom with counting cuts.  Tom, as anyone that knew him would attest, was a rules stickler, and a veritable expert on the Combat rules.  He could tell you what page, rule and paragraph the rule you ignored was on, and he did.  So, from there I began my 20+ year journey of Combat officiating.  Some of the highlights are three-time Regionals Combat event director, 2001 Bladder Grabber Circle Marshal (43 flyers if memory serves me correctly), and membership on the Combat Rules Board.  This along with a way of distilling complex operations to the simplest possible procedure, make me the perfect person to present this discussion.

Before I begin: This is not a beginner guide, for a person that has never seen Combat, or never held an air time watch.  Being an Event Director or Circle Marshal requires experience, with the event.  That said, it only requires a willingness to do the job and knowledge of the rules, to be successful.  So, here it is:


Combat is a very contentious event.  People compete in a head to head format and at times tempers can flare.  To run Combat well one need not be a member of the active Combat community, but it helps.  If you are an active competitor, then the number one thing to remember is:  When you run a match, you need to be perfectly impartial.  Everyone deserves a fair match, and everyone expects a fair match.  If you are a person that cannot put your personal feelings aside, regarding your fellow competitors, then running an event is not for you.  I cannot state this strongly enough! Now that said, let’s get on with running combat.

Combat officials must be familiar with the AMA rulebook and local-event rules, so they can deal with any unusual occurrence. How would you rule if you saw the incident at right? Flying Lines photo.


There are several items that are going to be unique to running combat, but most of the following equipment can be purchased at a hardware store.

  1. Five good stopwatches that time to 1/100th of a second. These are for keeping track of Air-Time, one for each of the four judges and one for the Mid-Air watch.  They need to be in good working order, fresh batteries, good lanyards, clear displays without haze or fog, and the triggers must be tested to be positive.  Watches that start on their own or don’t stop when the buttons are pushed lead to angry competitors asking unpleasant questions about your competence.
  2. A good kitchen timer. One that can be set for a specific time, then when you push stop or start, it resets to the same pre-set time. This timer is for keeping track of the match time.  Set it to seven minutes if you use a two-minute countdown or to five minutes 30 seconds if you use a 30 second count down.  I liked to have this mounted to clipboard that I keep the competitors names on, it is always easy to see and easily at hand. 
  3. A good loud horn for starting and stopping matches.  These are available from marine stores, or from sporting goods stores.  This is extremely important, so the Event Director (ED) or Circle Marshal (CM) if you prefer, can start and stop the event in a way that the pilots can hear over the engine noise.
  4. 100-foot measuring tape.  This is for setting up the field, and for creating a line measuring station. 
  5. Wooden stakes of some sort, to be used to create the above-mentioned line length station.  Also, a hammer to pound them in, and perhaps some bright tape to make them so people don’t trip on the stakes in the grass.  Gary Harris likes orange surveyors’ tape, and it works quite well.
  6. Micrometer.  It doesn’t happen much, but sometimes you will need to help the competitor to use the right size lines. 
  7. 100-pound scale and a 25-pound scale.  These are used as pull test scales so they will need to have a custom-made cradle or handle adapter on one end, and a “T” bar on the other to allow the pull tester to hold on firmly.  Two scales are needed as the pull test for 1/2A combat is 15 lbs. and on a 100-pound scale it is almost within the error of the scale.
  8. Marking Paint (inverted can spray paint), and a way to apply/spray it.  This is the paint that will be used for field layout.  I like white and yellow, as they eliminate the Red/Green color blindness problems some people have.  If you are flying on brown grass try a dark color like blue for the field layout.  On green grass the white shows up about the best.  Now with this paint, you need a way to accurately lay out the paint.  I like a rope with loops that connect to the inverted paint sprayer, on one end and a stake at the center.  Try and get the paint applied as accurately as possible, but it does not need to be perfect.  It is hard to do well, and it’s a tiring job, so helpers are good to have.
  9. A table is useful to set equipment on, or a jug of cool water and cups.  A bulletin board makes a great way to post match order and results, or what streamer people are to use.  Top card, black.  Bottom card, red.
  10. Streamers.  You can never know exactly how many you may need, but more is always better.  You can give it a lot of thought, and I could provide some simple formula for figuring it out, but suffice to say there will be two used in each match, and every competitor gets one, and will need a new one each round.  So, make much more than you think you need. (See the footnote at the end of this discussion for the logic of the number needed) Just a note about making streamers:  In the past I have had help in making streamers, from members of the host club, that is holding the event.  I thought that was a good idea at the time, less work for me, right?  Now I would not allow anyone but myself to do the work.  All the knots need to be consistent; they need to be furled in the same manner and the strings need to be tied about the same point.  Consistency is essential to a fair contest.  Big knots are better than small ones.  Big knots are easier to see in the air, and break the string better.  I learned this from Jeff Rein, and he is right about it.
  11. 3x5 cards, something to write with, push pins, paper clips, stuff to keep things held down with, these things make life easier at the edge of the Combat circle.  Look at the weather forecast, do you need waterproof paper or pens?  Trust me, they can save your event.
  12. A current copy of the entire current Control Line Rules, available on the AMA website.  You will need to refer to them while running the contest.  Trust me, it will be used, and used often.
  13. Canopy to keep things dry, maybe some lawn chairs to rest in -- heck, a cooler with some food and beverages is nice, too.


The first thing you must know are the rules.  Read them over and over, if you plan on running Combat, the rules will crop up, often and in very strange ways.  Before I ran the Bladder Grabber, I read the rules twice through every day for a month!  Still things will happen you have to look up.  Running combat is never about just one funny thing happening at once, it will be two or three.  There will be a cutaway where the fuel shut-off will fail, at the same time there was a streamer handling error, or the plane doing the cutting away was running the wrong size lines.  You the event director will have to sort out the issues and determine who wins the match.  Oh, and at a contest with prize money, people will be angry if you make the wrong decision.

Pilots' meeting:  Once the appointed time has come, to begin, you have to hold a pilots' meeting.  I take this opportunity to spell out any variance from the rules, you are planning.  Often in the Pacific Northwest, there will not be a center circle judge, or the ED will not have a mid-air watch.  In the case of the mid-air watch, it will be stated at the beginning of the contest:  We will determine who is up first, then in the event of a mid-air rendering one or both planes unflyable, and all other things being equal, the competitor being up first will win the match.  Explain the number of rounds to be flown, the matching system, streamer assignments, who will be doing the pull testing and what the tests are.  These things seem routine to the veteran pilot, but they still need to be spelled out.  At the first contest of the year, if I am running Combat, I like to take the time to explain any rules that have changed over the winter.  It just can’t hurt to over explain things. There are other things too, like having fun, and playing fair, but those pretty much straighten themselves out.

Judges:  So, you have laid out the field, the pits, the line length area, and set up an official’s area, with such things as the draw cards and bulletin board, and streamers.  Now you need officials.  To be perfectly compliant with the rules, you need a ED/CM to run the matches and four air timers, all with the appropriate gear. There is seldom enough manpower to have four timers, so mostly this is done with two air time/cut judges.  It is about the same as with four, and is easily done.  I have run Combat with just one judge, and had to count for one color.  Two warm bodies is the bare minimum, but this is really not an ideal way to do it. Before setting foot on the field of battle, each aircraft has to be pull tested, and the lines measured to guarantee compliance with the rules.  It is nice to have a dedicated pull test judge, but not necessary.  At small contests I like the ED/CM just going down the pits pulling every plane with lines on it, then hanging the scale up until the next round.  This keeps things flowing well, and is the bare minimum amount of work. 

Drawing the matches:  I like to draw the first round before the pilots meeting and post it, so if there are any problems with the matching, you can resolve those at the meeting.  To be totally impartial, I like to mix the cards up and have a second party (a judge) draw them from the stack.  It makes the draw totally random that way.  In later rounds this may have to be modified, so people don’t end up flying the same competitor multiple times.  Most people like to fly people they have not flown before.  This is a tough call, as it may not appear unbiased.  I write the names of each competitor on a 3x5 card, and post them on the bulletin board and those on top are the first match, and the next down the second …  . Where there are an odd number of competitors, you have to give byes for each round, and those people will have to fly each other to get caught up. 

Starting the match: Next you have the competitors on the field, you need to make sure they are far enough apart to launch successfully, and not run into each other.  Gary Harris and other shy or soft-spoken types use a bull horn to call the names of the competitors.  Me being neither of the previous mentioned, I just yell at the competitors.  Once on the field, the competitors should be ready to fly.  In the Northwest, there has developed a method of asking the competitors if they were ready for the clock to be started, at 15 seconds (in the 1990s it was all rulebook, at 2 minutes, then it went to 30seconds and now 15 seconds).  Over and over I noticed the same thing, one guy was ready, and the other was rebuilding his engine, and wanted more time.  Again, and again, the guy that sat ready, would pop his bladder, blow a plug or some such, and end up loosing the match.  This should be discussed at the pilots' meeting, but the rules state you should be ready when you come to the circle.  I would argue that once both planes are on the circle, you call to start the match and start the clock at two minutes.  To put it plainly: To be accommodating to the person that is not ready, you are being unfair to the person that is ready. 

Here in Wisconsin, they have dispensed with the countdown altogether.  When the pilots have the planes ready to be started and launched, the CM yells Go!  Just some food for though on this, but this has been rationalized to me as saving time.  A quick analysis of this time argumen, really does not pan out. Running a seven-minute clock (five for the match and two to count down) with two minutes between matches, yields at most six matches an hour.  Cutting the time to countdown to 30 seconds with the five minutes for a match, and two between, would allow at best eight matches per hour.  A significant saving on paper.  Going to a 15 second countdown will only allow for 8 matches per hour, or the same as a 30 second countdown.  The reality is, that most matches do not take the full five minutes, but the time between matches is more than the two minutes.  I think doing it strictly by the rules is the fairest way to run Combat, but I am open to discussion.  Further, I think that at best on a single circle, I have run six matches per hour.  It is just hard to get the competitors on the field and have them proclaim their readiness.

The countdown is critical to a fair match.  Both pilots and their pit crew need to be able to hear the countdown.  So, a bull horn or a good set of vocal cords are needed at this point.  Yell, and yell loud.  The procedure for the countdown is:  Two minutes!  One minute!  Thirty seconds!  Fifteen seconds!  Ten! Five! Blow the horn.

Now, an interesting aside to the running of a match is that if you do the variance to the rules of no mid-air watch, as discussed above.  The plane nearest the circle marshal will, in the case of a near simultaneous launch, be the plane up first.  It is just a simple matter of perception.  You can see the near plane better and so it looks like it got up first.  Keep this in mind and ask the judges to call out when their planes are up.  It would be best to stand where you can see both planes at the same time and be equidistant from each plane.  This can be a hard call, when it may put the sun in your face, and compromise the official’s ability to see the planes.

Now you the circle marshal and the airtime/cut counting judges are by your side.  It is time to think about just this, where are you all standing and how are you organized.  I have seen a lot of different schemes for this.  Judges and CM spaced around the circle, next to each other, the marshal wandering around during the match, there are too many to list.  The only way I have seen Combat run that is fair and consistent, is for the air time/cut judges to stand right beside the circle marshal.  The two to the CM’s left count cuts on (against) and time for one color streamer, and the ones to the right, count and time the other.  Combat has so many different outcomes, and they all happen in a split second, so the officials need to talk the match out.  This is why on one of the simplest of operations, the two safety laps, the CM is calling them out.  The cut/air time judges need to be primed and ready for the match to begin.  It keeps things on track, breaks momentary lapses in concentration.  It also allows the CM to look at the airtime watches and see if there has been a malfunction, or a mistake.  It really stinks for a competitor when they have won a match, and there was a watch error and has to re-fly, and then loses.

So, the planes are on the circle and you have given the signal to launch (blown the horn).  Each plane needs to make two level safety laps before the match begins.  Since typically one plane gets into the air first, you only really need to count the laps for the plane to be airborne second.  So, once the second plane is airborne, the circle marshal should speak clearly and loudly:  One lap red!  Two laps for red! (or whatever color it is).

Before you can begin a match, the aircraft are by the rules supposed to be 180 degrees apart.  They don’t need to be exactly, and it would be impossible to measure in real time, at the side of the circle, but the CM needs to make a good effort to see this is the case. Also, they don’t need to be apart for laps on end, but just for a second or an instant or so. This is not a trivial point.  I have lost a match where the signal to start Combat was given when my competitor was barely a quarter of a circle behind me.  This sort of start will bring up questions about whether the CM is impartial, and is a point that may be protested.  So, make every effort to see that they are 180 degrees apart.  So, the way I do this is:  The two safety laps are done.  As soon as I see both planes momentarily separated by 180 degrees, I blow the horn.  No hesitation.  Sound the horn!

The Match has begun:  Now all hell breaks loose.  As the planes maneuver to attack the strings and streamers, it is inevitable that passes at the streamer will be made, some will lead to a cut, some not.  But you as the CM will need to speak, loud and clear:  No cut!  Cut on RED!  Cut on black!  You will also need to listen to the cut counters/air timers, as they should be saying the same.  If they are not, the CM needs to pay even more attention.  The competitors cannot argue cuts, so it may become a real sore spot with pilots, when one judge can’t see the dark colored streamer and is regularly missing cuts.  If this is the case, a new judge may need to be found, or the assignments of colors switched.  We have all had it happen.  You are flying great, you are getting little cuts on the streamer, and when the match ends you think:  Wow, I’m up like 400 points—then you hear you lost on airtime!  It is not fair, and the one job the CM has is to be as fair as possible.  As the CM, you may have to overrule a judge, but that is just part of the job.  Be nice, but you have to keep things fair for the pilots, your judges’ feelings really don’t matter.

Everyone needs to talk through the match:  This is why, it is essential that all the judges and the CM stand by each other.  By the way, this was taught to me way back with Tom Strom at the Raider Round-Up in 1996, and it works and is the best way to run Combat.  Talking about what is happening, means you don’t have to rely on just one memory, and it helps to make the match a concrete experience for the CM and judges and this better encodes it into (everyone’s) memory.  Red is up!  Red is down!  Kill on red!  Talk about it.  Also, talking a match through allows the CM to keep track of a judge whose concentration is lapsing.  It keeps everyone on topic for the duration of the match.  To be brutally honest, I don’t think I have ever flown in a match that was well run, with the judges and CM, spread out all over; or where the CM wondered around the circle as the match went on.

Match complexity:  As the match takes place this is where things that will trip you up can happen.  Was that a kill? You don’t see kills, you hear them.  The string breaking makes a dull thud sound. Was there a mid-air where the planes are still flying?  Is a plane with a broken control rod, that stays flying until out of fuel, considered a “flyable” plane, and does it get airtime?  The permutations and combinations are truly bewildering.  What you as a CM have to do is, try your best to sort it out.

If you can’t see a knot, blow the horn and have the competitors fly level, and see if there is a knot.  If there is, get them separated and re-start the match.  If there is no knot, then the match is over, and go record it.  The faster you can make decisions, the less chance of a mid-air collision, that cost equipment and compromises safety.  Don’t be afraid to blow the horn to stop a match.  Few problems occur when the planes are flying level, and in most cases once you determine the right course of action, a re-start is acceptable to the pilots.

Let’s talk about the mid-air in the situation above as it happened to me at the Bladder Grabber.  One plane makes a pass at the streamer/knot/string, and the prop of the attacking plane hits the push rod for the other plane, and cuts it into two.  The hit plane, is trimmed perfectly and just flies along level.  As the CM, when I heard the mid-air contact, I did not start the watch.  Both planes were still in the air, and flying.  The plane that hit the push rod, broke its prop and shook violently until the engine died and it glided to a soft landing.  I then started the mid-air watch, and went and looked at it.  The plane with the broken prop was flyable so I stopped and erased the time on the mid-air watch.  While the down plane was pitting, the plane flying level ran out of fuel, and landed so I went and checked it, and found it had an “un-intact control system” So, by definition, it was actually not flyable, despite flying for several minutes.  It was an example of an unflyable plane flying—which is an oxymoron.  I got together with the CD that year, Jeffrey Rein, and we discussed this, and determined at the point the push rod was cut, the plane was un-flyable and the match ended.  The plane that had the broken control rod won the match as they were up on airtime prior to the mid-air and there were not cuts.  This took a committee of six people and two rule books to decide, and the right decision was made.  This is a fairly simple example of what will happen in a Combat match.  An un-flyable plane flying around … .

The best way to handle this sort of complexity in the rules is to know the rules inside out.  Tom Strom was a bit of thorn in my side when I ran Combat, but I didn’t let it bother me, I just decided to use him as a consultant.  Never, let your ego get in the way of providing the pilots with a fair, unbiased decision, and in the end, they will thank you for it.

In Closing:

There is a lot of other things about running Combat that I could talk about (stay hydrated, bring sunscreen … ), but they will all avail themselves to you as you gain experience.  So, get out, don’t be shy, and run some Combat matches.
Note about streamers:  There is some guesswork involved in knowing the number of streamers needed for a Combat contest, as you don’t know how many people will show up to fly.  But here is the logic for figuring out how many you need after you guess how many pilots will be there.  I will start with a single elimination contest. 
If 24 people show up, you will need 24 for the first round.  Half the competitors will be eliminated in the first round, so the second round will take 12.  The third round will take 6. Now there are three people left, and so a fly off will need 2, the loser is third, and the other two, will fly for first and second so 2.  Summing these gives:  24 + 12 + 6 + 2 + 2 = 46 streamers.

In a double elimination contest, half the people will lose in the first round, and half will lose in the second round, but they may not be the same people as in the first round.  So, after the third round then there will be 12 people left, with a starting group of 24.  So, (3x24)+22 = 94.  This is the maximum, so if each of the losers from the first round loose in the second, then it is 94-24 or 70.  This can be thought of as 70 to 94, but bank on the bigger number. 

For a triple elimination contest the logic is the same as the double but it has one more loss for each pilot which leads to: (5x24) +22=143.  This again is the maximum; the minimum is 118.  If I had to come up with an expression for the maximum number needed, I would say: 

n equals the number of rounds; then P equals the number of pilots.
              Streamers Max = (n+(n-1)xP+(n/2+n/4+n/8…)

Not pretty but it works.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Here's a slightly less precise but simpler formula for anticipating the need for streamers. Multiply the number of likely entries times the number of eliminations and double the result. Then add a dozen or so extra for flyoffs, handling errors, rematches, etc. What you are doing is counting the number of losses (and doubling it because for every loss there is a win). So, for a triple-elim contest with 20 entries, the formula is: 20x3x2, plus a few extra. The result of the calculation is 120 streamers, plus extras for flyoffs, etc. Following Mark's advice to make more than you need, tie up 140 streamers.

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