Having spent a couple of hours on Sunday struggling to stay up under an 8/8th gloomy sky whilst listening over the radio to what seemed like every glider pilot east of the Malverns having a whale of a time I was determined not to hold back on my next opportunity.
So Tuesday arrived and yet again the forecast was much better to the East. However, it also showed we had a small window early on where it would be possible to get away before it over developed. Consequently, I choose one of the club tasks to Towcester (south of Northampton) and back for 305km (see the National ladder for the list of tasks which you don’t have to pre-declare).
I took off around 11am and after scratching around in very soft lift I eventually got to cloudbase at 3000ft amsl, crossed the start line and was off to Hay Bluff where I took a leap of faith and set off east in the hope of contactin g some lift. Down into the Golden Valley and at 2000ft amsl I was thinking I’d probably blown it as any lift encountered was broken and very scrappy.
I eventually got it together and at 3500ft I decided to cut across the top of Credenhill Danger area, which is 2300ft above ground so around 2700ft amsl, to some better looking clouds. As I did my Oudie started screaming at me “warning airspace” so I was a bit confused. Looking at the chart it confirmed I was above the danger area and continued on track. It was only later when at home did I get to the cause of the warning – looking in the settings I had the permanent airspace selected but I also had the occasional airspace of between 2300ft – 10,000ft selected as well. I was relieved that I hadn’t violated any airspace as it would have nullified the whole flight.
Anyway as I pushed east the condit ions got better and better and after getting a really good climb at Worcester I set off on a 40km straight glide to Stratford just easing up a little in the lift and pushing faster in the sink – brilliant fun.
Generally I’d drop to around 3000ft amsl and then look for a climb as below this height the thermals were very scrappy and difficult to centre on, above this height they were quite meaty solid affairs.
From Stratford I had to hold the glider below 4500ft to avoid the airspace above but the flight to the turnpoint at Towcester was not difficult and without drama, that was to come later!
At the turnpoint I had to scrap around a bit in order to get re-established and get myself mentally re-adjusted to the into wind return,which I knew would be more challenging.
Climbing on the return leg and I was loosing around 2km per climb as I drifted back with the wind so it was important not to bother with any lift under 3kts.
My return track took me north of Banbury, Edgehill, Chipping Campden and then south of Evesham where I got my highest climb to 5500ft amsl in what felt like wave induced thermals – quite rough.
Approaching Ledbury, still at over 5000ft I was getting confident that I could get back but then decision time arrived.
The wind was WSW and the whole of the Black Mountains were over developed and a black plume of cloud stretched out over the Hereford area with little, if any, sun on the ground. Normally with 5000ft you’d expect I’d be on a final glide home but with the Black Mountains looming up I knew this was not the case so I had to decide whether to go north to the Bluff or south to the Sugar Loaf.
I decided to go south because firstly the wind direction meant if I could get onto the Sugar Loaf I was pretty much guaranteed to get home but also because there was a sunny line along the southern edge of the over development spread out. I thought this would potentially work and so it did until I passed north of Ross-on-Wye where it all started to go to worms very quickly.
The wind had picked up significantly and the air had become much more turbulent, a sure sign that I was getting the wave interference in the lee of the mountains. I had no choice now but to push on in the hope of getting one last big climb or even getting into any wave. The Skirrid is often a good place to get into westerly wave
After gliding in what seemed like never ending sink I found myself at 2000ft amsl on Garway Hill, near Grosmont, soaring back and fore in very non-compliant air. I know the area quite well from my cycling so knew that landing options were limited and restricted to very small fields so I was pretty well motivated to get away from there!
I didn’t get much luck on Garway so decided to push forward onto Campston Hill which is a lower spine of the Skirrid running north. All the time I’m looking into the valley for possible landing fields and eyeballed one near Pandy and another near Llanfihangel Crucorney (LC) but continued south to the Skirrid in an attempt at soaring it.
I arrived at the Skirrid half way down and despite some close in work failed to climb so had to retreat back north to my previously selected field at LC as by now I couldn’t reach the one at Pandy.
There were some really good fields at the bottom of The Skirrid which I had mentally prepared myself for but on closer inspection they were either covered in muck or were in the process of being spread with muck so I decided against them for pretty obvious reasons -ewch!
This restricted me to one small, recently cropped, field which was down below the little hamlet of Llanfihangel Crucorney. The approach wasn’t ideal with high ground, trees, church, hedge etc and it was quite turbulent being directly in the lee of, not only the hills, but also a large railway embankment.
However, thanks to the brilliant air brakes on the Mini Nimbus and a good field surface I got in safely for a distance of 286km.
Getting away from our club is not always easy but getting back, particularly in a wind from the SW-NW quarter, is very challenging. You can throw any of your glide computers away because they don’t give you the full picture . So would I have been better going north to Hay bluff? I don’t think so because there was no sun on the ground that way and the whole of the easterly edge of the Black Mountains would have been in sinking air and wave rotor.
After thoughts – I am reviewing my decision making during the latter part of the flight and have come to the conclusion that I was cutting things a bit too close for comfort. In my desire to stay in the air and complete the task I started to fly a bit too close to the edge and left field selection far too late, didn’t inspect the field properly and left myself with few options.
In hindsight I should have made a decision before Garway Hill to land out as I’d already identified some good fields to the east of it. Alternatively, I could have made a decision slightly earlier, when I knew my chances of getting back to BMGC were less than 50/50, to divert to Usk and get a tow back home later.
So despite all the experience of cross country flying in hang gliders and gliders over 40 years I still found myself in a position that was marginal, potentially disastrous and wholly of my own making. So take heed and listen to the self preservation common sense voice in your head and not the gremlin on your shoulder egging you on. Finally on a lighter note, many thanks for the quick recovery by Mike Rossiter, Robbie and Jim – good to see my trailer can still move!!