(In Australia, "boiled lollies" are very sweet Sweets, traditionally made by dropping molten sugar/glucose into boiling water. "Bickies" are English "biscuits" or USA "cookies".)XC story: Boiled Lollies To Broken Bickiesİ
Date: Wed, 7 Jan 2004
I had no idea what to expect. Not Patsy, larger-than-life owner of the Mt. Wycheproof Motel and breeder of spectacularly ugly yet strangely appealing champion pugs. Not the flies - slow, sticky buggers that don't budge unless you physically brush them off, and which fly into mouths and down throats with sufficient regularity to comprise appetiser. Not the dust that smells of Aussie summer and mixes with sweat to turn everyone's legs as brown as mine. Not the stubble, sharp enough to pierce a rubber sandal and - ouch! - the delicate parts of a girl's anatomy.
And, my God, I certainly didn't come within cooee of guessing the mind-blowing exhilaration of XC flight. All of you who said so were right: it IS different from the coast. NOT better- just different. One is expansive, soaring high linked only to clouds and air, the other intimate. One is thermalling like an eagle speck in the sky, the other the touch-and-go's of a gull. Icecream and chocolate: why choose just one? I want both! This story is about my first sweet taste of XC flight.
Birchip - or more accurately, the tow paddock 20 kilometres north of town - is home to a number of hang gliding competitions (Google "Birchip"and "hang gliding"). In central northern Victoria, it's perfect for XC, especially for nervous pilots like me. For a start, the paddocks are big - four square kilometres is the norm. The crops in this dry part of Oz struggle along on whatever scant rainfall sprinkles down during winter, so the immediate area lacks vines, orange trees or other glider-eating irrigated plantations that make such deceptively attractive landing zones when viewed from five grand. Instead, farmers earn their crust from wheat, oats and barley in the good years, of which this has been one. This season was late, so only half the crops have been harvested and now huge combines, each one the value of several nice houses, are rolling their way through the remainder. Although an emergency landing near the edge of an unharvested crop in fields this big would be of miniscule economic impact on farmers, we're asked to land in stubble or grazed paddocks whenever possible to retain goodwill. Stubble is easily distinguished from the air: the flattened stripes from the combines' huge wheels stand out like the proverbial. We're warned to avoid dark brown crops: dry canola slashes trousers and gliders to shreds.
There are sheep, too. Forget white and cuddly. These angular creatures are the same colour as the dirt in their paddocks and about as cute as hyenas. Still, unlike horses and cattle, sheep are safe to land beside. Late in the week, Kiwi M. is heard yipping enthusiastically from the air at a lethargic mob below him, hoping to mobilise them into triggering a bubble. We point out to the pilot that, being a New Zealander, he need only have told the sheep as much, to get them to flee!
Because the area is sparsely settled, powerlines are mercifully sparse as well, though they run alongside all main roads. The biggest danger is the SWER lines - one bundled line atop a single pole with no crossbar and just one insulator. They lead to every farmhouse and shed, cross paddocks at unpredictable angles, are practically invisible from the air and have caused nasty hang gliding accidents in the past. Fortunately, the number of cropped paddocks this year means they're more obvious from the pattern in the stubble or grain where the cockies have driven their machinery around the poles.
Straggly gum trees line the edges of most paddocks and roadsides, as well as the dribbles of rivers and dry creeks. Elsewhere, virtually none - perhaps a lone clump in a four square kilometre paddock - you'd need to aim well to hit them. Trees at downwind corners of paddocks often funnel thermals and are good triggers.
And the area is flat. Boy, is it flat. I'm guesstimating here but, at perhaps 300 feet, Mt Wycheproof is really a hillock. But hey, who's counting, when there's no natural landform rising more than about ten feet within hundreds - perhaps thousands - of square kilometres? All these things combine to make any pilot's first outlanding as stress-free as any first outlanding can possibly be. There are even dams, conveniently dotted about as wind indicators!
So the first morning, we're gathered in Patsy's Wyche Motel dining room with its bad paintings and good atmosphere. Our first pilot briefing. We're welcomed, then: "This is NOT a competition. The aim is to have FUN and to make Personal Bests."
I'm hopeful but sceptical. I'm afraid we'll get an incomprehensible weather briefing, drive to the tow paddock, and then everyone will fly away and there I'll be, floundering briefly about the sky in the hope of blundering into a thermal before blundering just as quickly out again and returning to earth. When learning new physical skills, experience of a lifetime sniggers that, for me, connection between neurone and muscle takes a long time to fire.
Although the pilot briefing does start with a weather report, the synoptic charts are displayed AND explained. As the week progresses, we get more detail - temperature traces, why blue days are blue, how fronts and troughs will affect us here, and vast amounts of general meteorological stuff. On the first day, we're given XC safety tips - launching, landing out, radio procedures during tow and retrieve. Subsequently, the briefing is never less than an hour, based on weaknesses our tour leaders have noticed the previous day, plus lots of theory. Bernard's Cell Theory (clearly evident on two days in this flat, uniform country), thermal triggers, lapse rate, cloud formation, streeting, speeds to fly, search patterns, you name it. It's fantastic, not least because, often, we'd drive out to the paddock and - voila! - Bernard's Cells! Inversion layers! From whiteboard to real life.
There are about eighteen of us (a few arrive later in the week). Tour leaders are Rohan Holtkamp and Paul Rundell of Dynamic Flight Park. Steve and Colin are our tow drivers, retrievers, and all-round good guys. Participants range from experienced pilots who have come back year after year, to complete XC novices like me. D. and J. haven't cracked double figures in their logbooks yet; K. only gained his licence the previous week! (But when he then goes on to fly miles almost every time he launches, we discover that he is, in fact, a sailplane pilot as well). Tassie S. is back for seconds from Tasmania, Kiwi M. is here for the first time ("Auztralia uz beg, uzn't ut?"). After an encounter with a dust devil a while ago, A. has had a couple of seriously broken bones and is getting back into the saddle with considerable demons to vanquish (he does). Big Marko had his very first XC flight the previous weekend. Of about fourteen pilots, five have never flown XC. In fact, during the week, every XC virgin flies at least twenty kilometres, most of us at least twice and some every time they hit the tow paddock. Every pilot who has flown XC before, exceeds his previous best distance, often several times and doubling it or more.
Gliders include one rigid (Exxtacy), flown by quiet achiever Elder of the group, expat Brit S. There are several topless wings (one Aeros Combat-2, several Climaxes), several Novice/Int (Sting2 XC), quite a few Novice SS (Airborne Funs) and two Advanced Kingposts (Xtralite, Shark), plus the Flight Park's Fun 220 tandem. I've brought my Falcon 175 and my little Shark 144.
After the briefing, we gather our gear, load gliders onto the bus, Forerunner and Rowboat's van, and head to the paddock. We're all kind of quiet - nerves, probably. I've got the familiar mix of anticipation and butterflies that hits whenever trying something new in my glider. Several people eat their lunchtime sangers and the van fills with the smell of pickled onions and cheese. I resolve not to order onions again. Outside, the flat country unrolls, and at midday we drive into the tow paddock. We exit the airconditioned vehicles and heat smothers us like a prickly blanket. It's "only" about 37 C but, out here in full sun in the stubble, it can easily get ten degrees and more above that.
We set up the trailer in the southwestern corner because the light wind is trending N/NNE, and Steve and Col line up twin tow strips in the Forerunner and Suby. Everyone slathers on sunscreen and insect repellent.
I chuck battens into the Falcon. I've never flown country like this and it's been six months since I've car towed, so I resolved earlier that my first day here should not be on my Shark, which I've never towed and on which I've logged just ten hours. But - wonderfully - there's no sense of pressure to use my faster wing. That initial briefing (NOT a competition) has already engendered a supportive, collaborative atmosphere. Of course, as the week progresses, the more experienced and talented pilots engage in plenty of good-natured competition (GO, M! GO S!) but, in the paddock, these very same pilots cheer on us novices. M.'s enthusiastic yells of "GO, J.!! GO D.! GO whomever!" become a heartwarming and familiar battle cry in the paddock. When you're in the air, everyone on the ground is willing you into that thermal. At the end of the day, around Patsy's dinner tables, we are equals - pilots who love flying.
I have six tows on the first day. Doesn't sound many but I'm buggered by the end. That's because we rug up in warms, which is pleasant if you get away and hideous if you don't, although Marko proves to us during the week (T-shirt at 7 grand) that his Theory of Distance (Distance Flown = T x 1/clothing worn) may yet one day be included in gliding manuals.
D. chases wife J. downwind to Birchip. Novice K. leaves the paddock, too. Marko goes even further, after bombing out a few kilometres from the paddock, coming back, setting up and flying again. That's another thing: if we fly less than about 10 kms, someone will come and retrieve us ASAP so we can have another go. Others fly further: G. does 95 km from his very first tow. During the week, the disappearing speck of Elder S.'s Exxtacy becomes the norm.
There are just two of us left in the paddock at the end of the day but, to my surprise, I'm not disappointed. I've learned a lot and this environment is so different to the coast and even the inland hill sites in South Australia. As well, Ro has flown my glider and noted a problem with my new harness that I thought had been fixed. He's fixed it some more and my landing flares have suddenly become easy again. He also points out that my ancient LRF vario is not working properly. This is kind of good news (an excuse! an excuse!); I borrow a Brauniger for the rest of the week. I've remembered everything from my tow endorsement course six months ago. Even better, after we release, Ro or Paul relays instructions to all who need it: go left, turn tighter... upwind a little... et c. They exponentially increase our chances of success.
But the biggest lesson of the day is the realisation that I'm still mentally chained to the tow paddock LZ. Circling back, I start to feel nervous the moment I think I can't punch back to reach it. So, after releasing from one tow, I grit my teeth and keep circling, even though I'm low and not certain I can either get away or get back. I land in the paddock behind where we're towing - barely five hundred metres distant but, somehow, helpful. Baby steps.
Lying in bed at the end of the day, I'm grateful my instructors back home were so tough re fast finals. On the coast where I normally fly, slack finals rarely snatch you from the sky and it's easy to get into bad habits. Here, landing in the middle of the day, in forty degree heat and unstable air, a slow final will eat you sooner rather than later. My fellow pilots mostly have good to excellent landing approaches, but the local country nevertheless claims the DTs of half a dozen gliders during the week, which is a rather awesome strike rate. Still, I'm filled with anticipation for tomorrow.
Boiled Lollies to Broken Bickies: Part 2.
Day two is light and variable again. When we reach the paddock, Ro peruses the sky and pronounces it one of the Top Ten Days he's ever seen. Cloudbase is predicted at ten grand, and fat cu's dot the blue invitingly. Textbook stuff. On the ground, dusties are ripping through our setup area. A. is, understandably, jumpy. You can spot the dusties easily in the dirt paddocks, but they are difficult to see when they start nearby in the stubble. Instead, you hear them first, a strange high whistling as they vibrate the yellow stalks. "Dusty!" someone yells, and all rush for gliders and hang on. One dusty flings several folding chairs into the air that day. They seem almost to have personalities, these apparitions. From a distance, they look as variable as the pilots around me: some tall and slender and sinuous, others wide and solid, some moving purposefully while others dart about in apparent indecision. Although I later learn during a briefing how dusties are formed and where, always at height, I can find the lift that generates them, I still believe, deep down, that some are just plain mean.
Towing starts. I'm in my Falcon once more in these very light conditions (too fast a run on the Shark). It's hot again, and it's torture to pull on my polarfleece immediately before getting into my harness. My harness itself with chute, packup gear, water, spare batteries, muesli bar etc weighs at least 15 kg. Getting into it the first time is not too bad but it feels a helluva lot heavier by the third tow.
I'm not having much luck today. I just can't seem to consciously "visualise" the thermal in the air and realise that, on the coast, I've been using landmarks below me to do so. Here, higher above the featureless stubble, this is impossible. Again and again I fall out, even though we are towing to 1800 feet and higher. My coordinated turns are not. After the third tow, I wilt onto a folding chair, drink another litre of water and contemplate the emptying paddock. On the radio, I hear some pilots are making big distances. It's four PM, but the sky still looks great. Ro thinks it will be on till sunset, 8.30 pm. I glance with loathing at my jacket. One more tow? Paul notices my look and my hot face and says, "Don't worry about the jacket, just go." So I launch in my red tank top and cargo pants. Bare arms and shoulders. Aha, Marko's Theory of Distance!
The tow is a good one and I hit a nice, blessedly WIDE thermal (thank you, Wind Gods). Ro directs me. Amazingly, five minutes later I'm still in it! Just turning and turning! I've no conscious idea of how I'm doing it, but part of me must because, even after I've drifted back... and back... and Ro is no longer instructing me, I keep going up! Three thousand feet! Drift is slow in these light conditions. At 3,500 feet al, I'm higher than I've ever been in my wing. There is no question or temptation of heading back to the tow paddock this time. I've cut the umbilicus at last and the sense of freedom is exhilarating. I whoop with glee, my heart is bursting, it is so full. The land below is breathtakingly beautiful. I'd thought this dry, flat, cropped landscape would be boring, but my perspective makes it otherwise. I fly over a bitumen road and radio my position again, though reading the map nauseates me. Farmers chat on the same band, pilots relay positions, Paul comes back to me with encouragement: just keep doing what you're doing, you're doing great! To be honest, I still don't know what I'm doing, but something in my subconscious or body does so I start to relax and enjoy. Up and up to 4,000 feet - chickenfeed to experienced pilots, mind-blowing for me. And then I fall out. I fly around in (sort of) the search pattern we'd been taught but no luck, so head straight downwind. Clouds everywhere, but I have no idea of whether I can reach them or whether they are growing or shrinking. Later, we talk about this kind of thing during briefings but right now it's too much to take in anyway.
Then I luck upon another thermal! Back to four thousand feet. Five thousand. Six thousand. I yell with delight. I'm the one who's turning but it feels as if the whole landscape, the whole world and universe are turning around me! Turning, turning, turning... Urk. My stomach begins to do the same.
My double-sided laminated map has large scale on one side, smaller scale on the other. Not expecting to fly far, I'd faced the larger scale outwards... but now, to my astonishment, I've flown off it! Twenty kilometres! The accuracy of my radio communication to notify base of my position, not good to start with, deteriorates further. "Bitumen road going southwest from, um, third set of silos south of the town with the wheat storage thingies?" Another "road" I follow turns out to be a railway. In my excitement I occasionally say SW instead of SE but, because I've been radioing regularly, retrieve have a good idea of where I am and patiently radio back affirming things.
On the coast I'm in the air, but married to the ridge. Here, I'm truly separate from the ground, the trigger that has generated my thermal far, far away. All I need to know is that I am in it still. Never before have I felt so much a bird, a part of the air.
Do birds get cold? My fingers are clawed around the base bar - I've forgotten to use my fairings! My hands creak open and I slip them into the mitts. It's cold but not freezing, though goose-bumps cover my bare arms. Adrenaline is no doubt keeping the chills away. Climb, climb. 6,600 feet. Wow, the view! Yeee-haaaa! Such a sweet, sweet moment. Boiled lollies, for sure.
Suddenly the air gets rougher, pitching the glider about. Later, I learn it's an inversion layer but, right then, I don't know that. The thermal is going up but no longer smooth, and my stomach protests ever more insistently. I fall out of the thermal, but it is fear that causes it, I think, and I don't search for it very hard. On glide.
I reach the highway. Most of the pilots who left earlier have headed S - SSE, but the wind has changed since then and I am heading ESE. I decide to follow the highway cross-downwind towards Wycheproof, to make it easier for retrieve. Besides, maybe the road or railway beside it and the trees and silos will be good triggers. Yes, another thermal! I stay in it briefly, but it carries me too far east, so I leave and head south again. It is after 6 pm by now but the air is incredibly buoyant. I reach Wycheproof at about 3,500 feet with my stomach complaining bitterly.
Wycheproof is a typical small country town, distinguished by a railway line running down the middle of the main street, separating north- and south-bound traffic. After years of drought in the region, neglected shopfronts display dusty crocheted teddy bears and hand-lettered opening hours on yellowing paper sticky-taped to the front doors. Later in the post office, I read the final newsletter of the town's small Catholic school - with just 20 or so children, it is finally closing. But the people here are friendly and welcoming, the two pubs are alive with smoke and conversation and it is harvest time, with trains on the lifeline rails and huge grain trucks on roads around town. Wyche will survive.
From the air, I can barely make out the mountain - it seems no higher than a schoolboy's BMX hump. I completely forget to look for the motel where we are staying. It's awesome flying near the town, but I'm nervous about landing so close to a settled area with all its houses and powerlines. I take a deep breath and divert around the eastern side of Wyche. Flying between a big dark dirt paddock and what I think might be the rubbish tip, I find another thermal, a beauty. I turn in it a few times and realise I'll puke within five minutes. Decision time: what might it be like flying for another five days in a harness and helmet that reek of chunder? Quickly, I glide on.
To be honest, I'm ready to land. I've been in the air for nearly three hours and my roiling stomach is now seriously detracting from my enjoyment of the experience. At a wasteful height that will make seasoned pilots cringe, I decide to land. Five minutes later, I'm still at 3 grand! It's ridiculous! Lift everywhere! Another few minutes, same height, I realise I really need to get down. I choose my nice four square kilometre stubble paddock near an intersection, radio my position, grit my teeth, and pull in to shut up the vario.
Textbook indicators welcome me - a dam nearby indicates a light NNE at ground level, even though it's ESE at height. I have plenty of time (more than my stomach wants, actually) boxing the field. Trees and a road line its southern boundary, powerlines and another road the west, with farmers working a paddock a few kilometres to the east. I set up over the trees, refine my direction and scream in with my stomach forgotten, my heart in my mouth, and the bar pulled in as far as it will go. It is my first ever landing out. If I stuff up, I'm on my own. I'm glad I'm in my familiar Falcon and not the Shark. Come in fast, fast, fast, into ground effect, whizzing just above the stubble and then reach for it, and I'm there, a perfect landing! I unhook quickly from the glider, feeling safer that way. "YES!!!" I yell at the sky, "YES, YES!!!" I've done it, my first XC! I feel powerful, humbled, exhilarated... nauseated.
An hour later, my glider packed up, a muesli bar consumed to settle my midriff, dusk falling (had retrieve got my message?) my radio says, "Helen copy A. in retrieve..."
6,600 feet above launch.
A banner day, unforgettably sweet.
Boiled Lollies to Broken Bickies Part 3
When I wake up, I'm still on a high from yesterday. Other pilots flew long distances - Elder S. 180+kms, landing at the Flight Park, G. at Ro's parents' farm nearby. Marko and M. are chalking up the miles. Everyone else is doing great, too, although Sc. had a hard landing in his Xtralite, remembering only that his glider was suddenly pointing straight at the ground at 200 feet. A dusty is the suspected culprit.
The uninitiated have also discovered another essential item of clothing required for flying in this country. After two mornings of grass seeds and prickles in socks and shoes, canvas bootguards are high on everyone's list of must-haves. The local hardware store quickly sells out and A. generously gives me his spare pair.
Because the forecast is 40C , several pilots decide on a rest day, but a bunch of diehards heads out to the paddock. M. has damaged his elbow and Marko has a scraped knee but they come along to cheer others on. It's scorching out in the paddock, tolerable only when cloud shadows march across. Their effect is very noticeable on thermal activity - a big shadow shuts everything down until ten minutes or so after the sun is back on the soil.
Winds are again light and variable and, though I'm dying to fly my Shark, it's not a *literal* desire! I'm too nervous to have my first tow in it when it's still this light, though I'd go if we were using a dolly. The tows till now, and right through the week, have been incident-free, which is impressive considering the number of tows, and testament that skiting criteria do work. Everyone is foot-launching, but our drivers are very experienced and are familiar with many of the pilots and their preferred tow pressures. Radio procedure is followed on every single tow:
Driver: Ready to take up tension
Pilot: Helen on the Falcon 175 here, take up tension please
Driver: tension my end/on
P: Tension my end too
Locking on radio
Picking up glider
Wind X strength/direction
Wings are level, bridle free & clear
Go go go
Climbing nicely (indicate height/turbulence, more or less pressure, etc regularly)
Thanks for the tow, unlocking radio.
Often Paul or Ro do the talking for less experienced tow pilots so we can concentrate on flying, and also get hints about the potential of thermals we traverse while on tow. They also help judge when it's safe to go, describing what the streamers are doing up the strip and what they imply for launching and thermal activity. Still, the wait is rarely longer than a few minutes, and there's no need for any cross-wind launches (later in the week we move paddocks, and the tow strip direction is modified during the day). All of us are expected to cap our climb rates for the first few hundred feet to help minimise surges in pressure and low level weaklink breaks. In fact, the only minor hiccups all week are a pilot with a slightly disordered bridle (released and landed safely), and a few unscheduled releases at the car end of the line when pilots were at the highest point of tow.
Up in the air, we hear lots of farmers, busy with harvesting, on our open channel. They're occasionally irked by us ("Helen, unlocking mike, thanks for the tow," is answered by, "Helen, you know where you can shove the bloody mike!"), but we generally rub along together okay ("Sc., 10 k's southeast of Birchip, 7,500 feet," answered laconically by, "Mick Smith, 20 ks west of Wyche, one foot.") Or the reply that came after M. radioed his landing position: "Hey boys, we know where one of 'em is! Let's go get 'im!"
I don't have a mobile, but learn that SMS transmits better than voice in these areas, and that pressing "send" and tossing the phone into the air sometimes helps! As for UHF, standing on a fencepost is often enough to transmit/receive when the country is this flat.
Paul, Ro and other pilots have offered tips to minimise airsickness. Like, read the map and radio position when on glide, not while thermalling! Look at the horizon or in the direction of circling, not up at the highest wing or instruments, or straight down at the ground. Take deep breaths. Pop Kwells before launch. Today, I've also taped a GPS to my vario, so I can simply radio bearing and distance to retrieve - much easier than trying to read a map!
But map-reading turns out to be moot for me today. The oppressive heat saps everyone's energy. After just three tows, with half an hour or so between each, I'm completely bushed, though no doubt my big flight yesterday and all the adrenaline I expended then has something to do with it. Pilots do get away from the paddock, and I hear them reaching great heights. I'm flying badly - too fast, with poorly coordinated turns - I seemed to be doing fine up high in the big thermals yesterday, but now I'm struggling with those same pitch controls. I'm trying too hard and not letting the glider fly. Ro and Paul repeatedly tell me to relax my elbows and feel the air and, though my brain takes note, my limbs stubbornly refuse to comply. I'm pissed off at myself. It is my first taste of broken bickies after the boiled lollies of yesterday, but I don't realise it yet. It will be a big lesson for me to learn, but I don't even know yet that it is there to be learned. I contemplate a fourth tow but, when I can barely lift my harness, I figure my body is hinting it's had enough. Instead, I offer M. a flight - my sweet handling little Falcon will be gentler on his elbow than his own Combat-2 - and the next moment he's off and gone from the paddock. Later, M. describes his final cross/upwind glide to just south of Wyche, losing 7,000 feet over 5 kilometres! Very different from his Combat!
There are plenty of big smiles around the table that night. A. has had a very nice XC flight but, incredibly, has battled again with a dusty, *after* landing this time. This one spotted him, flipped him, then tangled the bridle so he needed a good twenty minutes to extricate himself! I re-read the section in "Performance Flying" about handling dusties but figure that, frankly, if they want to eat you when you're hooked in, there's not a great deal you can do except pray.
I want to try so much of the theory I've learned, but can't do it till I get away! Better luck - and skill - tomorrow, I hope.
Boiled Lollies to Broken Bickies Part 4
A cool front has moved through, bringing the wind around to the west. Cloudbase is lower, and there's not as much blue sky but I don't mind because, with a consistent 6-10 knots on the ground and less thermic air, I at last feel good about trying the Shark on tow. Temperatures in the paddock are more pleasant, too. Someone sets up a spot landing because conditions look challenging for getting away.
I'm very nervous before my first tow but the Shark behaves beautifully! It's very stable and responds reassuringly promptly to inputs under tension. The consistent breeze means high tows to 2,000 feet. I go up four times and by the end of the day, even though I don't get away, I'm satisfied with how it's gone, especially my landings (except for one where I'm thinking too much about "spot" and not enough about "landing" and zoom up six feet). The more upright adjustment in my new harness makes the flare much more aggressive, and it's a relief to know that my timing has not, after all, suddenly gone to shit, as I'd feared before coming on the course.
Unfortunately, though, I'm finding coordinating the turns in the Shark even more difficult than in the Falcon. I keep either over- or under-correcting so the glider either doesn't respond at all or goes into a diving turn that takes high-siding to correct, which is exhausting and wastes precious height. And it's no better the following day, either. Conditions are slightly stronger than previously; cloudbase is lower. The wind is a bit much for J. in her Fun 160 so Ro takes her for a tandem and they are quickly out of sight. Other pilots start to vanish. I become increasingly frustrated as I wrestle my glider about the sky above the tow paddock, flying through and around the outside of thermals, or turning in them too fast so that I'm losing height instead of gaining. The more frustrated I get, the less subtle my controls become and the worse I fly.
Those reading this who are naturally co-ordinated individuals will have such inputs come easily. You'll instinctively know how to move your body to achieve a certain effect, in the same way I use language in my writing craft. But for those of us whom the coordination fairy forgot to bless, it's a mystifying combination of complex movements which we luck upon and which, through trial and error, we are finally able to lock in place. It's not enough that the brain knows what the body should do - the body needs to know what the body should do! Imagine trying to teach someone over the telephone how to ride a bicycle! Hang gliding constantly brings my own physical limitations into sharper focus than any activity I've ever undertaken. And it's a challenge to my psychological limitations, too, especially the fear factor. But the exhilaration of that first dream-come-true introductory tandem flight was enough to motivate me through a painfully slow learning curve. From first lesson to first solo soaring flight, coming to the bunny hill every single weekend that was flyable and many that were not, took me almost eight months.
Now, discouraged, I watch other pilots fly their beautifully coordinated turns out of the paddock and away, and it occurs to me that if it takes me as long to learn this technique in the Shark as it has taken me to learn to fly, and relying on hill launches at home where the turn around time between bombout flights is at least two hours, I may well be dead from old age before I get enough airtime in thermals to ever learn to fly my Shark XC! I grit my teeth for another tow. This time I hook something, sort of, but it is not a pretty sight. I am in and out of it, with no idea where it has gone and only finding it again by chance. I'm barely maintaining as I drift back over the LZ and I'm fighting my glider the whole time. We are not one being, we are two and we do not like each other much. I'm low-ish and am wondering whether to commit when I fall out again. Shit! The bloody thermal disappears as if it were never there. Paul says over the radio, "Did you fall out or is it LZ suck?" Because he's absolutely right and I'm tired and pissed off I figure, bugger you, I'll find another thermal downwind. I get my just desserts for such childish behaviour and land 3.5 km away. It's a good landing, one I should be pleased with as technically it's my first landing out in my Shark, but I am too busy feeling sorry for myself as other pilots pass high overhead, on their way to the border or bloody Indonesia.
I pack up feeling lousy, and soon Col arrives to pick me up. He sees my face and is tactfully silent. When I get back to the tow paddock, mercifully few pilots are left as I grimly set up the Shark again. Then I lug my one ton harness to my glider and, to my complete mortification, burst into tears.
I wasn't going to admit that in this story, but the lows of XC are as extreme as the highs. Literally and figuratively, both must be accepted. Some pilots get angry, some get surly, some get stupid. Others give up, but I'm not one of them. I'm acutely embarrassed by my lack of grit but Paul has seen it all before and, while the other pilots kindly melt away, tells me all the right things. XC flying is always like this, boiled lollies to broken bickies and we all crunch our way through both. As I'm a reasonably sensible adult for most of the time, I already know this about life, but it's good to be reminded that it applies to flying as well.
I explain my misgivings about my physical skills and Paul suggests I go tandem with Ro tomorrow. It's a fantastic idea: if anything can help me learn to dance with thermals, this will. I'm cheered and take another few tows but have no luck: my frame of mind is hardly conducive to superlative flying. Hot and tired, I pack up.
In hindsight, my mood should be no surprise. The last five days have been pretty intense and I've had no rest day. I've certainly spent more time IN the tow paddock and had more tows than everyone else! But they've had disappointments and challenges, too, and have overcome them. Might as well cut myself some slack. I'm looking forward enormously to flying with Ro.
Fate is working with me, if not everyone else. The day is strong and overcast, so strong that I wouldn't fly solo, and a number of the less experienced pilots don't set up at all. Cloudbase is barely five grand. It's 12-16 knots plus at ground level, more at height. After hearing about J.'s technicolour experience the day before, I take two Kwells so as to get the most out of my tandem, rather than it getting the most out of me.
The 220 is set up in no time but conditions are still gusty and strong. Several pilots wait for the wind to settle. In the distance there's a glimpse of blue, but it is too far away to know whether it will hit our little plot. The tows that pilots do take are impressive with the car creeping along the strip or stopping completely. In the air, the thermals lean raggedly.
Ro and I hook in, me with borrowed gloves as my bar mitts aren't suitable. It's a while since I've taken a tandem, but I've only flown with pilots I trust so it's always a wonderful experience. I love relinquishing responsibility in the air; I can relax and enjoy situations I'd otherwise be too busy to appreciate.
We wait a while on the strip for conditions to come right, and then it's GO GO GO and we're off! I follow Ro's lead; the air is rough but not ridiculous, and the barge-like 220 wallows about with no problem... and no great thermals, either. The gloves are so bulky I belatedly discover I can't find, let alone manipulate, cleats and zips, so I take one off with my teeth and tuck it into my harness to go prone.
Considering the overcast conditions I'm surprised there's anything at all... but there is and Ro finds it. We release and circle, Ro explaining what he's doing the whole time. It's an amazing learning experience. After just fifteen minutes, I can - incredibly - "see" the thermal in the air. Because I'm quite tall with long arms, I can reach across Ro's shoulder and rest my right hand on his right, my left on his left. I feel every movement and realise almost immediately that I've been over-controlling the Shark. The inputs are so subtle! No wonder it's been a battle: I should have been making love, not war! Though this is clearly not an appropriate thing to mention right now.
Still, the conditions are so marginal that it's hard work for even Ro to stay aloft. The strong winds shred the already weak thermals so they are all over the place but Ro maps ours aloud for me, so I get a sense of where I'd need to open out or close up each turn. The next day, another pilot jokes we should clone pilots like Ro and clip them to our control bars as Mini-Me's to use whenever we're getting low!
To my surprise, we bomb out after about 8 kms. I'm not the slightest bit disappointed: in fact, this is probably the most encouraging message Ro could possibly have given me - pros eat broken bickies, too! Regardless of distance, the flight has been terrific... but I'm even luckier for, after being retrieved, I get a second go.
Conditions are still strong and the tow up is exciting. But this time the thermal Ro finds is bigger and more defined, and we are in it for the distance. I can feel the dance and it's locked in at last, though the refinements will take a lifetime to polish. No more trying to ride a bike via telephone instruction - I have someone alongside, holding on as I learn to balance.
I'm also amazed at how effectively the averager finds lift when it's set correctly, like a voice in blind man's bluff calling warmer or cooler. The thermal snakes slowly upwards. Lift is only about 200 fpm, we don't get above 2800 feet and after 20 km we're losing height, conditions are cranking up and Ro decides to land east of Culgoa. We hit a rowdy thermal down low - a tease and Ro is tempted but, faintly regretfully, lets it go. The wind is very strong now; I help Ro pull in the bar and we descend with almost zero groundspeed to about 200 feet. Then we drop into one of those ghastly holes that drops us from the sky alarmingly before we're zipping over the ground to a good landing. I'm totally stoked.
Other pilots have had good flights, too, especially considering the conditions.
I just can't wait for tomorrow to try out all I've learned. That night, I close my eyes and hope for lollies.
Boiled Lollies to Broken Bickies Part 5.
The end of our week. Conditions are similar to yesterday but with lower wind speeds, and I'm optimistic as I set up the Shark. All around me, pilots are preparing for their last chance. It's interesting, because a glance at the overcast sky would suggest little cause for optimism, but such has been the nature of this course - and what we've all achieved - that everyone is prepared to give it a go with a reasonable expectation of success. For anyone who does climb away, the wind strength promises good distances.
I pre-flight, then pause before hooking in. Around me are the visible signs of my learning curve - vario, radio, GPS, map, harness with its water and packup gear. The implications - that I'm comfortable (at least in this big, flat country) landing out, in my Shark, on my own, away from the home paddock. The biggest changes are all inside, invisible to everyone but me.
I make up a few weak links, attach one to the quick release and turn my glider. After practising dance-steps yesterday, I'm bursting with anticipation. I don't even feel hot in my polarfleece, which I've donned with considerably less apprehension than before. I move forward; M. is on the strip beside me and Ro is ahead, taking another tandem. Getting away from the paddock will be challenging, I remind myself. Be content with one or two thermals, staying in them for as long as possible, and dancing coordinated turns with my glider. Progress, not distance, is my goal for today.
Ro tows up and is away, having timed his launch perfectly for one of the patches of sunshine. M. is off, then A. Over the radio, pilots are working together, helping each other find thermals and sharing them as they did yesterday. Theory from whiteboard briefings has reached into the sky and now pilots are learning from each other, as well.
My turn. Five knots straight up the strip, a gust under one wing as I GO GO GO but it's okay, a rush of adrenaline and I'm airborne and level, my Shark no longer an enemy. I start pushing out at about 300 feet; by the time I reach 2,000 at the end of the strip my biceps are burning. I've passed through nothing startling so I fly to the side, over the dirt paddock, but the air is completely stable. I find some zero sink and turn a few times anyway, to see whether I've got the dance or not and - thank you, Ro - yesterday's lessons have indeed sunk into my bones. The Shark turns with the smallest of inputs, my elbows are relaxed, and I'm enjoying the air and my glider. I have never flown the Shark as well as I'm flying it now. I set up a nice conservative landing approach and come in fast, hitting all the turbulence I'd missed up higher, but I've enough speed to manage it just fine. I land, exhilarated, ready for another go.
And this time, I find something at the very end of the tow. It's not strong but it's wide and the moment I release I turn straight back into it... and again and again! Yes! I've got it! Not cored exactly, but definitely in lift rather than sink. My vario beeps encouragingly - it's not singing, but that makes its continuous tone all the more satisfying! On the ground, Paul is enthusiastic. "Don't worry about replying, just concentrate," he radios, and I gratefully accede. I'm flying almost entirely by feel, using the averager only when I fall out but, for the first time, I've an idea where the thermal has gone and where to look. I'm gaining slowly, very slowly, and drifting back over the setup area, past the little dam and the trees around it, to the paddock behind, and still I'm going up. This time it's not luck, it's actually me! Elder S. has landed, asking for relay of his position. I try a few times but every time I talk on the radio I fall out and Paul finally says not to worry, retrieve will find S., and to just keep concentrating.
I don't actually know how long I stay in that thermal, but every minute is equivalent to thirty of my first XC flight because this time I am in control. On Monday, the air carried me along as a passenger; a joyous passenger, to be sure, but a passenger nonetheless. Not today. I think I reach about 2700 feet but to be honest I'm guessing: I've forgotten and it doesn't really matter. The ground below me circles slowly but the Kwells are doing their job and all I feel is satisfaction. I can't be very far from the paddock because Paul says at one point, "Don't worry about radioing your position, we know where you're heading, keep going, keep concentrating!"
At last I lose the thermal. I search upwind, downwind and to each side in the cloverleaf pattern we've been taught, but this time I have no luck and the averager is despondent. I head downwind on glide, radioing my bearing and position from the GPS. I hit a few lumps and zero sink that I pause to investigate but, though I buy a little time, I win no height. Over another paddock, and another. Dust and stubble and crop. There's a tree-lined road to the north and I head towards it, mindful of retrieve. At about 1,000 feet, I start looking for landing options - everything seems to be happening much faster on this flight because I'm lower. The wind is quite strong; as I descend, I spot tree branches and leaves moving. Downwind is a town with silos, big buildings and, no doubt, nasty rotor.
I choose my stubble paddock, radio bearing and distance, and hear A. saying he's spotted me: I'm landing just upwind of him and M. As I box the field I discover turbulence from a block of trees in the upwind adjacent paddock. Conditions must be stronger than I thought if the turbulence stretches this far back, and I don't want to land anywhere near them or the road. Luckily, I've plenty of time and height so I choose another corner of the paddock. This is just as well because, as I set up behind the fence and enter final at 200 feet, bar pulled right in, the thermal I'd been seeking earlier finds me (why is it so? Murphy?) and the vario sings in spite of my pulling in as hard as I can. It won't let me down and the air is horrible (well, probably not for experienced pilots, but it's the worst I've ever struck). Luckily I have a big, flat paddock ahead of me, buckets of airspeed, no obstacles and I'm facing straight into the wind. As I fight to keep the Shark level I remember my instructors' voices telling me to relax, remind myself that speed is my friend, then suddenly the air flicks me out like a bug, the ground rushes up, relax, ease out, relax... to trim and gentle, gentle on the flare, a one-step landing. Hooray! Hooray!
I turn the glider, unhook, and whoop out loud. My GPS says 8.4 km. And I flew every single metre of it! I've landed towards the middle of the paddock - it's a bit of a hike back to the fence and the firebreak where retrieve will come, but hey, who cares? I carry first my glider, then my harness to the fence, then leisurely start breaking down. D. and J. are there to retrieve before I even finish, along with M. and A. I am so thrilled with my flight. Distance and height per se are irrelevant today. What might be broken bickies to another pilot is manna for me. We throw my glider up with the others, retrieve Elder S., and get back to the tow paddock.
M. watches other pilots leave, then sets up again to better his distance, but I am utterly content. Anything more would be anticlimactic. I fish a cold beer out of the esky and sit on a stool amongst the stubble and the flies, listening to the radio and pilots still in the air. What a day. I crack the beer and take a deep swallow. Normally I don't drink beer, but it is the perfect drink in this hot dusty country and, this once, it tastes strangely sweet, sweeter than anything.
Cheers from Down Under
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