Monday, May 23, 2011

South By South West

The radar has been on the scent since early and keeps the mind alert hoping for a change that may or may not come. Chances feel little better than a toss of the coin but those odds are a gift for autumn. Desperation and desire are directly related, and despite any agreement between the weather forecast and trustworthy indicators from this high point on Adamstown Heights those tell-tails are scanned often and intently. It’s that time of the year when hope for just a couple of degrees back from the south west is no longer enough and we endure an increasingly familiar stretch without airtime. Right now the season is still young and there’s an ace up the sleeve: the SW is super light; fickle, but variable. If only the daylight can pour enough energy into the ground to heat the boundary layer then it may tug sufficiently on the prevailing momentum to give a direction that flows up one of the local launches. If anywhere it’s likely to be Merewether.

The drive to Wingtec peaks at the top corner into Kalaroo Rd providing a quick glimpse along the coastal fringe. Launch is in clear view for a few seconds; long enough to leave no doubt the airspace is empty and the set-up area vacant. The ocean is all but glassy yet something the eyes can’t see suggests potential lingers in that look of the Tasman. A slow pass by Airborne shows the far corner wall lined with new airframes of 7000 series and carbon leading edges all waiting for sails. The Hyundai keeps rolling to its final stop at Wingtec where those very sails are taking shape. The sock on the factory roof is spied while it waffles lethargically about the SW but it soon glances along Sth and gradually gets familiar with this new direction. Despite a droop of 30 degrees below horizontal, the best it has mustered all day, it is time to go, wait, be ready, and hope for a few more knots. Next stop: the take-off.

Craning the head forward to look beyond the windscreen releases a smile that rises on a tide of excitement; soaring efficiently and slowly no more than 70’ above T/O is a wing built to fly much faster. Mick cruises his Litespeed in the peak of the lift and cuts through the zephyr like a blade. It looks like an eagle: gliding alone and higher than anything else, turning with a confidence as if it belongs in the air, almost with the impunity of the raptor. It is ‘on’ but only just. Immediately there’s a memory of James laughing in agreement, “One foot AGL is just fine, just so long as we can stay airborne”. Happiness accompanies this tenet and it powers the ensuing trot with haste: glider on one shoulder, harness the other, in a matter of minutes it may be possible to fly like a bird. In spite of the years and the potholes along the way this reality still seems fantastic.

Emerging from the trail reveals the Tasman with a slightly rougher finish but still far from showing consistent windlines and no where near a white cap. The gut feeling is neither will improve nor appear. Sea spray loiters against the bowls in and around the tip of Dudley Bluff, the breeze enough to suspend the vapour but not to lift it a little bit higher and over the back. It will to be ‘an ask’ of the 160 to keep itself and the baggage aloft but the feeling is it will work out perfectly even if only by one foot. Narrow margins rule; never is the outcome more honest and when are the basics more essential? Do it right or bombout. So many variables: few margins, one chance, infinite options with nothing to lose and everything to gain. A rabbit hole and an intriguing one at that!

As the battens go in James and Teagan arrive but with an appointment elsewhere his visit is just showing a friend the place he thinks about when he’s at work. After discovering the conditions are soarable it is apparent even a hasty set-up and breakdown would have been like bullion in return for only a few moments off the ground. His eyes study the Fun, his mind an easy read. On his day ‘off’ and minutes of airtime slip away; unavoidable but a Cardinal FU. Nothing need be said. The familiar circumstances spawn sympathy and he is asked to jump in at any time. The temptation floods his body language but he has his reasons to decline, none more than his wing loading which comes with another 10kg.

The 160 feels light on the shoulders but not due to lift and 7 committed strides are needed to make up the difference. Launch whizzes-by but maintains abeam the right wingtip. Just as the ridgeline starts to fall away at the beginning of the first turn a patch of slightly stronger lift embraces the wing. Already near min-sink there isn’t much pitch to play with but the turn makes for perfect timing. It banks and stays within the rising air, the control frame eases away with the heels of the hands, the basebar moves few centimeters before it starts to resist and prepares a protest. The slight increase in ‘G’ confirms all the good things; 10’ adds to the height. Hope and confidence soar. Now it is easier to maintain in the higher rung of the ‘crown’ over launch. The height holds for a few passes with 20’ the maximum over T/O.

It seems just being west of launch is enough to make James lock eyes on the 160 in anticipation of a landing, and when two more spectators arrive they too seem to wait for it. Pleasing the crowd is a fraught; hang gliding is efficient converting pretentious displays into carnage right before an audience and in short order. Someone once said: vanity brings more virtues to an untimely end than any other vice. Hear Hear! Show off in a hang glider at your own peril. But crowd or not: the dynamics, technique, and mainly the rush, will always make landing the favourite.

Being so light the boundary layer is spared the rough edges normally found thick over the bushy slope rising to T/O, and as the dive trades spare altitude for speed the ride remains smooth even after the nose eases into the ascent to match the gradient up the slope. The oblique approach turns drift cross-tail and skimming along upwards to the bullseye at hang height has everything underneath apace. The climb gives gravity its better grip, quickly draining momentum and sapping pressure from the A-frame as things slow down. Uprights soon sit against the palms but rapidly weigh more as gravity applies the brake and the nose loses lift. The flare window is only a couple of seconds away yet the ground speed remains high and the boot of the harness whacks with volume when it connects with the last head of saltbush at the threshold. If all was correct at the beginning of the dive then everything right up to touchdown should follow; too much energy and the slight down gradient on T/O will lead to a long roundout but more likely a go-around, especially in a light southerly. An ideal flair is often elusive; never impossible.

“If you can land at Merewether you can land anywhere”
To quote Ricky Duncan

The last few degrees of rotation finally kill the ground speed and the glider regains weight only when the feet touch earth. Nothing will ever feel this good!

Those extra people on launch end up being the first fulltime local instructor, Ross, and his partner. Ross is a genius: he flies like a bird, and can teach anyone to do it. Ross is offered the 160 but he looks to Dudley and mentions it’s really south, and light, and that he weighs 95kg. A 190 Fun would've been ideal.

The wind needs checking before re-launching because signs are lurking of a return to ‘SW’. Already the north eastern corner of the T/O bowl gives more lift than the middle. Surprisingly the gap between there and launch is buoyant enough to link the two points with enough height for another upslope approach. These will be the last of those.

The wind drops by fractions and without the height any landing will lack the luxury of a climbing approach and the finess of a flare. Coming in level and straight-in is faster and the legs are pushing it to match ground speed while applying all available brake with each step. Hitherto it’s not enough; friction is the final option. With body braced and thighs locked it is a skid to a stop using all but the last few metres of runway.

The strength wanes and Hickson becomes the only viable ridgeline. A B-line goes over the Eastern Face where bushes are gently swaying on the bowl side but completely still on the seaward. Figure-of-8s can only maintain and launch is out of reach until a Sea Eagle arrived low in the sawcut: it's black leading edge defining dihedral with white trailing edge and undersurface, all effortlessly soaking up the lift. Immediately there was a pulse in the altitude and impressively the eagle continued south and connected with a convergence line. How long had it been there? Birds must really think we are idiots! There was no flapping during the headwind course above the east face, just a slow buoyant climb all the way. The 160 would never muster that performance but following the same line allowed for enough height gain and one more landing; a dog’s breakfast by comparison and minus more tread.

The next launch was the last. Passes about Hickson were at minimum sink and fence height. T/O was definitely out of reach for good. The air got that feel about it: light ripples in the breeze pass through a few times and seem to be trailing the east face from the SW. Time to go.

The LZ was Merewether Club House and the gentle descent in front of the café in wind shadow failed to impress any of the peddlers. Latte consumption continued unabated but a couple of kids were blown away by the silent arrival.

The walk up to the Hyundai had only just started when James and Teagan arrived in a car that could only have been built for speed; a two seater of Italian ilk with a carbon fibre engine that lives in the boot. It has lower profile tires than my pushy and less camber than a topless. It stands about 1m off the ground and occupants must recline to fit inside. The three of us squeezed in this 250kph+ silver beast and James made it so; the turbo hissed after each gear change and within seconds I found myself standing alone in a cloud of dust next to the water tank.

Retrieving the gear bag made for one last walk down the track and despite being pre 5pm many long dark shadows dimmed the way. The exit revealed a wafting wind, WSW, and a sun already on the horizon. Shorter days still to come and less onshore sea breezes will be on offer. The morning SW is going to be less likely to swing but will be watching the tell-tails anyway.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

G Force

The Harness

The state of the harness gives a good indication of the loads generated during the spin. Tears through the cordura are extensive, the back-up webbing failed at the stitching and the backplate is in sections. I have no recollection of hitting any part of the glider during the accident but it is possible I connected with the A-frame during the tumbles and damaged the downtubes in the process.

Back-up webbing separated when stitching failed due to diagonal load after backplate failure in the spins.

The backplate broke into three sections. To the left is the slider bar still connect to the mains, carabiner, hang strap and 'dingle dangle', all of which remained connected to the glider.

The slider, main riser, carabiner and hang strap which (it goes without saying) should have remained connected to the harness.

1/3 of the backplate broken longitudinally (slider bar tearing through) and laterally (from G-force in spin).

Al Daniel and Shane Duncan piecing things together that afternoon.

The Glider

Damage to the glider started at 6500' and took only a matter of seconds. The airframe showed failures from positive and negative 'G' ergo: tumble. The glider was found in a field about 1km from where I touched down.

Chris Jones found this section of keel a short distance from the glider.

Nose wire failed at crimp.

Backbone of the glider, the keel, looking worse for wear. Downtube not much better. The stinger extension was never found. Keel wire failure at crimp.

Expense break. Gloves and harness show no signs of carbon fibre and I have no recollection of hitting the basebar or A frame. Damage during the spin?

Keel broke in two spots. One break looks like a negative load and the other looks positive. I have no memory of hitting the keel nor is there bruising etc to support this body. The spin likely to be the cause.

The hang strap pillar folded back and partly recessed into the keel. Significant G force required to do this damage. The spin was destructive despite accelerating smoothly to it's maximum.

The missing stinger! Separated during the spin? The A-frame shows evidence of point loads but I do not recall connecting with the down tubes and have no bruising or injury to suggest this.

The leading edges and cross-bars remained in tact. The nose plates are deformed with RHS bolt torn through.

The Instruments

A few days later a farmer out working in a field found my instruments. This is incredible not only because the location was no where near where I touched down or where the glider landed, but amazingly the GPS was undamaged.

Brauniger Comp shattered front and back.

Instrument mount.

Bracket bent 30 degrees.

Failure of carbon and glass.

The GPS could not give a tracklog of the accident because the mount separated from the glider during the tumbles, from then on we went our separate ways. In any case the time stamp interval of 3 seconds wouldn't provided much detail of the flight path other than rate of descent etc.

The Body

9 broken ribs. Collapsed lung. Fractured sternum. Flail fracture of chest.

Aero medivac to John Hunter Hospital

The eyes starting to clear up by day 5.

Lucky to be alive! Day 12.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cheating Death

It was the 2nd task of the Gulgong Classic and just like the day before the wind gusts and turbulence in the tow paddock were moderate to heavy. It was about 30-35 degrees Celsius at ground level and the conditions seemed stable although the weather report had predicted good instability. Due to the rough conditions weak links were breaking just about every other tow and the two tugs worked hard to eventually get everyone off the ground successfully. The task was 209km, north, to Manilla Airstrip.

I towed out of the airstrip around 1:30pm and went to release height behind Pete Marhiene. During the first thermal I noticed several light inversion layers. Eventually I drifted downwind and met up with Chris Jones, Phil Schroder, Oliver Barthelmes and Dave May and we topped out at 6500’ before heading NW in a cross-tail direction to get on the upwind side of the course line.

Chris was ahead by 200m and after a 5km glide I watched him complete two turns in what looked like solid lift. Eventually Dave, Oli and Phil would also head for Chris but before I got there he had already straightened up and was back into a search pattern. This was typical of the conditions for the day; very short lived ‘bubble’ climbs, mild to moderate turbulence and generally a stable type of feel to the weather. Way off to the north great looking clouds filled the sky along the Liverpool Range and beyond, we needed to get there but for now we continued to hunt for a core that may be lurking around in the stable conditions of Gulgong.

While Chris, Oli, Phil and Dave tended to search upwind I turned downwind for about 100m and noticed the air felt much better there, still bumpy and stable but at least it was more buoyant. I fully expected to only gain a few turns out of any climb I may find before it too petered out. Soon I felt some lift ahead and more to the left so I began a shallow turn in that direction and the vario started to chirp at about 200-300’/min. VG was off except for about 1 arms length of rope. I was flying at about 50kph with a bar position faster than best glide speed.

As I climbed for about a ¼ of the first turn the ‘G’ began to lighten and the nose started to ease over. For that first split second I expected a ‘wire slapper’ to precede a return into normal flight. This did not happen. The ‘G’ went to zero and the nose continued over. I braced onto the basebar and attempted to pull in and maintain hang position but the ‘G’ went negative and the nose went over. I still had a grip on the basebar and kept the torso as close to it as possible but the leg/boot end of the harness continued to move toward the undersurface and my upper body would eventually follow. The nose-over motion accelerated and then I lost contact with the basebar.

As I fell weightless through the air the glider proceeded to tumble and I cleared the wing without making contact as it passed underneath inverted. Just as the glider came around upright I bottomed out with a thud when the hang strap went tight and for a split second I thought everything may stabilize however there was more than enough momentum to enter the 2nd tumble. Again I don’t recall hitting any part of the glider as it went over a second time. I fell with another thud when the hang straps went tight but this time the tension lasted for a much shorter period of time. I went weightless as if falling straight down for several meters before feeling the start of a rotation/spin in the horizontal plane (like a sycamore seed).

The first spin finished quickly but I entered the 2nd spin with much more speed. I tried to go for the parachute handle but the ‘G’ force had already built up significantly and my arms (and eventually my head) were forced and held out away from the center of rotation preventing me from reaching the parachute handle. I realized I was in a bad way and my life depended on getting to the parachute. Hard as I try with all of my strength, my arms remained straight pointing away from the harness.

What followed is something I could never have imagined, a force developed by these rotations, incredibly rapid acceleration and unbelievable ‘G’ load that increased with each spin. I have watched video of similar motion when a glider folds its wings but on those occasions the rotation seems to reach a maximum after a number of seconds. Not in this case. The ‘G’ force continued to increase and since it was transverse to my prone position blood pooled ventrally in the front half of my body. In the next few seconds my eyes sustained advanced haematoma from this force. By the 5th and 6th rotation the load was so severe I knew the equipment would have to fail soon and hopefully before I sustained serious injury. Then in a split second the ‘G’ force went to zero and I was being thrown through space. At least I could move my arms and hold my head up. I reached for the parachute handle.

I was aware of moving horizontally with a lot of velocity but could also hear the airspeed accelerating very quickly. Motion through the air was like a projectile that soon turned into a vertical freefall. I realized then I had separated from the glider. I located the parachute handle and pulled with my right hand but it didn’t budge, and after a few more heaves I was convinced the parachute was going to need a lot more persuasion to come out. It was jammed inside the harness. (We would later discover the back plate had failed catastrophically and the opening of the parachute port was deformed as a result).

As I fought to remove the parachute I was aware of free-falling straight down in a boot-first/head-up/’pencil’ position (this would later be confirmed by Dave, Chris, Oli and Phil). Over the next 5 seconds I continued to struggle with the parachute while the sound of the airflow reached a maximum. I was at terminal velocity.

One arm was not strong enough so I reached down with the left and with both hands heaved on the handle and finally, after another couple of seconds I felt the parachute come loose. I threw it sideways, let go and waited.

What came next was the most painful and violent impact I have ever felt in my life as if I had been torn in half. Extreme pain instantly filled the body with the worst of it concentrated in chest and upper back. I knew I had sustained serious injury and immediately suspected my back was broken. Then I looked up just enough to see one of the most beautiful things in my life, the clean circular shape of the front 1/3 of the parachute, taut, inflated and in tact. The airflow was quiet now and the earth was no longer hurtling towards me. In less than 15 seconds I had fallen 4000’, the parachute and harness survived the deployment and so had I but not without injury, and the pain suggested I was in a real bad way.

The thought of paralysis filled my mind and I needed to know. I tried to wriggle my fingers and they moved. Then I thought with some dread, ‘My legs?’ I tried to wriggle my feet and they moved too. Relief mixed in with the pain but concern remained that my back was probably broken despite the spinal cord being intact. I needed a soft landing to protect what wasn’t damaged. I looked down and the remaining 2000’ came up very slowly. I could only just breathe. I needed to get down as soon as possible and get help.

After a minute of trying to get more air into my lungs my color vision started to fade, I was graying out. I remained conscious but gradually blacked out and feared I may have sustained fatal internal injuries.

My thoughts immediately went to my wife who passed away earlier this year. I hoped that if this was what was happening to me then I would be with her soon. Then I felt content for the first time in 4 months. My soul mate, taken away so early in our life together with whom I had shared so much in seven years of marriage… Pain was no longer on my mind and I felt calm. After a few moments an awareness came over me, I was not dying, I would survive, and this was not my time. The peace gave way to the pain which returned with a vengeance. Shock set-in and I passed out.

When I came too I was on my back looking up at the sky. I looked around and suddenly the realization of what had just happened came back all at once. I said out loud in astonishment and relief, “I survived!” Then I started to get dragged backwards at a walking pace for a few feet before coming to a stop. I looked over my shoulder and there was that beautiful red colored parachute again, right behind me on the ground and still inflated. A gust came through and I slowly got dragged along the ground a few more feet.

The pain was worse than ever now and I had to get out of the harness. I rechecked arm and leg movement and all were still working. I unclipped the leg loops and the waist belt and as I struggled in vain to undo the chest buckle I heard a voice from behind. A farmer who had seen my parachute from a distance sitting inflated on the ground drove over to check it out. “Can I give you a hand there son?” he asked as he walked into my field of view where I lay on my back. “Yes, undo this buckle and call an ambulance”, was my reply.

He too struggled with the chest strap and I thought it may be jammed from the deployment. I had one more go and it released. I rolled out of the harness, stood up, walked over to the shade of a nearby tree and carefully crouched in the least painful position. There I stayed for the next 90minutes until I could be evacuated.

Three things I saw that day will stay with me for the rest of my life. First, a glimpse of that High Energy parachute quietly soaring above and taking me safely to earth after the wildest and most painful ride of my life. And again as I lay unconscious in that field, waking up and looking over my shoulder to see it there once again, that big red parachute on the ground, still inflated as if continuing to watch over me.

Second was the sight of Oli, Dave, Phil and Chris all coming into land only meters away from where I crouched in absolute searing pain. I watched them get out of their harnesses one by one and I felt much better straight away. It was like the cavalry had arrived. They rallied around me in relative silence but their concern was obvious. It took 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive but the pilots urged the paramedics on and tried to hurry them to do what ever was necessary to get me out of there and into hospital. I heard Oli pleading with the Ambulance Officer, “You need to get the helicopter, just send the helicopter right now”. “Dave sat next to me and relayed my answers and questions as I could hardly speak. I can’t describe how good it was to have them there.

Then the red and yellow Westpac helicopter touched down! The crew was on the ball and once airborne I finally realised I was safe. We lifted off and headed straight for The John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.

As I was wheeled in through the hospital doors a familiar face in a green medical gown stood there waiting, Conrad Loten, fellow hang glider pilot and head of the Emergency Department took over my treatment and directed his staff calmly but with obvious authority and competence. After the CAT scan Conrad came over to my bed and confirmed the damage; 6 broken ribs, a collapsed lung, broken sternum and a flail fracture of the chest. “What about my back?” I asked. With a hint of a smile he assured me the back was in perfect condition, no damage to the spine whatsoever.

Quietly but with apparent concern Conrad kept in touch of my progress and treatment over the next week. I was very lucky indeed to have him looking after me. Lots of friends visited everyday and thankfully I made a quick recovery in that first week. My family came each day with meals to spare me and my recovering body what was offered on the hospital ‘menu’. While the prognosis is still uncertain it seems as though I could expect to make something close to a full recovery. Everyday I am feeling much stronger.

I was very lucky to have survived this accident and many things were in my favor including a lot of luck. The specialists believe health and fitness gave me a big advantage not only aiding in the healing but also preventing more serious injury. Since my wife passed away some months ago I have lost a bit of weight and I suspect the less momentum I had when the parachute inflated the better. She always looked out for me in the most unusual and often in the least obvious of ways and it feels she continues to do so.

In hindsight I began preparation for this accident 18 months ago. At Forbes in 2007 I watched Austrian pilot, Andreas Orgler, experience an almost identical accident. While his incident did not involve the violent sycamore rotation he did tumble twice and then separated from his glider. His pilotless wing then descended straight at me, head-on, and only just cleared mine with a closing speed that would have certainly brought me down too. Meanwhile Andreas quickly deployed his parachute during his freefall and well before achieving terminal velocity but despite his much lower speed the inflation was explosive and the parachute failed. He continued to freefall right before my eyes.

Witnessing such a traumatic event left me deeply affected for a long time but it was the motivation to understand why it happened and then reequip with the most advanced skyline harness and a new High Energy parachute. The equipment could and did survive this rare and ‘unlikely’ event where pilot and glider are separated in flight. The accident in Forbes helped prepare me to survive mine at Gulgong. This may be small consolation to those who have never met me and knew Andreas, but the fact is there are many people here now who are very relieved and very happy because I am alive. He helped save my life.

I am very happy to be alive.

My understanding of flying has not changed in any way and I am not left with any doubt about the safety and risks of hang gliding. I hope to fly again but that depends on the ribs, and if I get to fly for another 15yrs I would be surprised if I ever come across the same air that led to my accident last Monday. Nothing I could have done and no sort of equipment would have behaved differently. The air was tipping me over no matter what.

Check your equipment and update to the best and safest.

Fly safely.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Bigair 2009

Dalby follows a rhythm. Daybreak usually arrives with a clear sky and an ESE breeze and by 8am a distant line of cloud appears off to the north. By 9 cu are overhead and soon the wind on the ground begins to ebb and flow as the first thermals drift-by in and around the airport. With a rumble the hangar doors open to reveal a lot of hang gliders, neatly stacked, all ready to hook-in-harness and ‘go’. Then the tugs come to life and within an hour the drone of rotax can be heard, peaking every 5 minutes as the next pilot in-line is dragged skyward high above the Queensland flatlands.

Here you can be soaring early and from the air the land presents like a patchwork of cotton fields and crops of sorghum and soy, a rustic tapestry interrupted every 40km or so when the next township appears on the horizon. Dalby is a very pleasant place for pilots, both on the ground and in the air. For all these reasons here is a premier location for flying, making The Bigair one of the best competitions on the international calendar.

Saturday was practice day and for the 40+ pilots it was a reminder of the cornerstone of Dalby flying; classic, world class conditions. So, with perfect clouds covering half the sky and a light drift most pilots warmed-up with an out-and-return or a triangle. If today was any indication the competition was going to be excellent, and with names such as Curt Warren, Oli Barthelmes, Jonny Durand, Cameron Tunbridge, Chris Jones, Conrad Loten and Steve Blenkinsop it was also the most distinguished pilot list for a Bigair (so far).

Towing to the west 2006.


Sunday arrived with a stronger than usual drift but the safety committee passed the conditions as ‘OK’. Conrad presented the weather report and translated the BLIP maps and predicted very good flying ahead. Then the task committee got to work and gave the day another vote of confidence by calling open distance, and to accommodate the scoring system they designated Mitchell Airstrip as goal 338km to the west. The intention was to make the goal so far away no one would make it. Right?

The day was excellent. Long streets at 6000’ intersected the course at 45 degrees and the climb rates were moderate and consistent, but intervening sink lines often made the vario groan, loudly. The ground speed in between thermals averaged 100+kph and it was an unreal sight shadowing the trucks as they rolled down the highway, on the speed limit, thousands of feet below. The first start gate was 12:45pm and the day boomed for the whole flight and as the kilometres came and went the streeting gradually acred around to parallel courseline. These conditions are worth years of wait and many including Jonny Durand would later declare the day was full of world record potential if only we started a couple of hours earlier.


Jason Reid joins the dots, 2006.

Goal was a few kilometers downwind of Mitchell township with a stretch of forest in between. I had flown with Conrad on and off over the last 150km and we finally crossed the line with 6 seconds between us. All spare altitude and the strong tailwind hurtled us into goal. It was empty. As I parked the glider I realised it only felt like minutes had passed since crossing the halfway point a couple of hours ago. Time flies, literally! For the next hour+ gliders came in, often to cheering from the ground or hooting from the pilot as they crossed over the line.

What originated as an ‘impossible’ goal to satisfy a limitation in the scoring system became an Australian distance record in a sanctioned competition (and just shy of a new world record) but this was of little significance. It was one of the best flights most of us had ever flown and all agreed the day was under called. Over half the field flew their personal best distance. Dalby!

Results: Task 1

1. Curt Warren

2. Conrad Loten

3. Adam Parer

4. Cameron Tunbridge

5. Peter Dall

The Dalby Hang Gliding Club is forward thinking and proactive and one of the best resourced clubs in Australia, and the members are in accord about the initiatives of their Club. Club President, Daron Hodder, is most vocal in this regard, they welcome all who have the skills to tow and fly safely, but they encourage flying according to the conditions rather than to the vagaries of a scoring system or the bias of a task committee. The title Bigair is as much a declaration of this attitude as it is a reflection of the outstanding flying conditions so synonymous with Dalby. True to this intent Nick Purcell had done a superlative job preparing and running what would definitely be the most successful Bigair event so far. Thanks to his efforts it would be the best competition many of us had ever attended, all we needed was the weather...

Two of DHGC's tugs.

Day # 2 arrived to confirm the local’s suspicions and worst fears; full overcast and rain, and Cyclone Hamish continued to deliver the same sort of weather for the next 3 days. We would have to wait until Thursday before taking to the air again. Tug pilot, John Blaine, armed with his guitar and a repertoire of Hank Williams Jnr provided moments of much needed entertainment to distract us from the frustations of down time, as did an afternoon at the Dalby shooting range. DHGC tug owner/pilot Bruce carrera and young Gun Jonas Bechler both proved to be most impressive marksmen.

Thursday morning arrived calm and clear and everyone was revived with the promise of flying a task but by mid morning the wind had picked-up and the sky was fully overcast again. As if to recover the general mood Nick, Annie and Bruce Carrera, and Blaino got everyone fired-up for an afternoon of towing and flying. Blaino could be heard to say more than once "We're here to fly!" But then the competition and task committees met and decided on a late straight-line round with goal at Chinchilla.

Many pilots dribbled in light lift or zeros and some just flew downwind without hitting anything at all. It was amazing to hear reports of some pilots actually getting thermals under the full deck of dark grey cloud with no shadowing and very little heating on the ground. No one made it to goal with the best flights getting only about halfway. But it was a crucial day for points, compared to Day #1 each km was worth ten times the value and the overall placings varied as a result.


Results: Task 2

1. Jonny Durand

2. Conrad Loten

3. Dave may

4. Trent Brown

5. Nick Purcell

With just two days to go there was less time to make up ground. It was coming down to the wire for the several pilots who are challenging for the last available place on the Australian Team for the World Titles in France, in June. Only a handful of points separated about 5 pilots in contention on the national ladder so the pressure was on.

Friday arrived to confirm the cyclone had dissipated over night and once again we were greeted to classic Dalby conditions. The day was excellent. Thermals varied from 2m/sec to 4.5m/sec on the first leg to Chinchilla, 70km down wind from Dalby. Streeting was almost parallel to course line but sections of the task saw over development and widespread shading. Chinchilla was often shaded-in and seemed to be a dead spot for lift and pulled many pilots down. A few pilots spoke of tense low saves right over or near the turn point but from there the course line turned south west and now paralleled the cloud streets.

Goal was Condamine about 50km from Chinchilla. Climb rates maintained around 2-4m/sec and with the drift the final leg took about 4 climbs for about 12 pilots to make it ‘in’. As we packed-up in the goal paddock Conrado from Brazil called for everyone to look to the west, and there the sky presented like a sureal oil painting, mature and the finest looking and densely packed textbook-perfect cu as far as the eye could see.

Like Day 1 this task was probably under called but the important thing was getting what we came here for; excellent conditions and great flying.


Results: Task 3

1. Curt Warren

2. Steve Blenkinsop

3. Jonny Durand

4. Adam Parer

5. Trent Brown

The last day was another Dalby classic and the lighter drift had us flying a 134km triangle task; 44km to Jandowea, 32km to Brigalow, and then 58km into the headwind back to Dalby Airport. Today was the most challenging task with significant changes in the flying conditions throughout the course. The first leg was fairly easy although the turn point found many circling in broken and light climbs. On the way to the second turnpoint the thermals resumed with good climbs, some averaging up to 4m/sec, but then the latter half of this leg ‘blued-up’ as the clouds thinned out.


The Darling Downs from the air.

This last turn point was a trap for those who picked the wrong line but for those who veered right of course found good climbs and some pilots still reported finding up to 5m/sec on the way to goal. For those who came late it got harder as the sky blued-up once and for all. Eventually the climbs barely made ground against the drift.
Curt Warren totally blitzed the task. He confirmed a first place for the day and the competition, and a definite position on the Australian team.
Results: Day 4
1. Curt Warren
2. Jonny Durand
3. Peter Dall
4. Steve Blenkinsop
5. Oli Barthelmes
Overall Results
1. Curt Warren
2. Jonny Durand
3. Steve Blenkinsop
4. Adam Parer
5. Cameron Tunbridge
The Bigair was the last competition for the season. The national team to compete in Laragne, France, in June, includes: Jonny, Curt, Steve and Scott Barratt. A 5th vacancy has been approved by CIVL and will be offered to Chris Jones. If he declines the position forwards to Cameron Tunbridge. Good luck to them all.

The DHGC are to commended for running yet another excellent competition. Until next year....
All photos courtesy of Jason 'Yoda' Reid

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Classic Canungra 2008

The Canungra Classic 08

The Classic usually fills its 75 spots pretty fast and the competition often begins with a waiting list. Maybe the financial meltdown is to blame for this year’s low number of 55 competitors? Unfortunately the event was to finish with contention over the scoring system and the flying conditions weren’t epic like previous Classics. Day 1 saw the sea breeze come over the back earlier than expected preventing some pilots getting off the hill and day two was cancelled outright again due to an early sea breeze. Day 8 was cancelled due to poor flying conditions so all things considered you could be forgiven for thinking you didn’t miss out if you weren’t there. You’d be wrong, it was a top competition. Some of the best flying is the most challenging and this competition was proof of that.

Sometimes we were blessed with very good conditions and most days the flying varied significantly throughout the task. This variability suited intelligent flying and kept us on our toes. Day 1 started out like this and those who got off before the sea breeze arrived were greeted to surreal cloud formations over and near the take-off. As the NE hit we watched a second cloud base form below. We all needed cameras because the views were awe-inspiring! Unfortunately Les was unlucky to get stuck behind a few slow pokes and missed out beating the sea breeze. His new glider and harness and obvious eagerness would have to wait till day 3 before getting a real opportunity to cut loose.

The first task was a technical one: Mount Tamborine, 40km WSW to the township of Rathdowny, 17km west to Maroon, and then a final leg 25km Nth to Coulston. The sea breeze marched west extinguishing any heating and thermals in its wake. The smart ones picked this realizing the clock was ticking and went before the first start. Throughout the course the conditions changed from extremely buoyant sea breeze convergence to total shade between the turn points eventually to a flushing of all thermic activity as the maritime airmass moved inland. After a protracted save at near-canopy height early on I took things slowly and it was some time later that I was downwind of the last TP and finally at cloudbase. A glide from 7000’ and 26km out from goal went without hitting a single bump along the whole way and I would end up 3km short. Scott had charged in PWC style surfing the convergence and won the day with a total of only 4 in goal.

Day 2 was cancelled due to a sea breeze arriving around 11am.

Day 3 was difficult for some, very difficult for others, and apparently easy for the rest. We launched from the little used ‘Flying Fox’ launch, a NE site that is 600’ above the LZ in a narrow valley. It is ridge soarable and most got away and onto the 1st TP: Palen Creek.

The thermals were elusive and sheared, hard to hang onto and tight as. Local Knowledge or meticulous preparation would have paid off here since Palen Creek is a low spot in the general terrain and subsequent talk with locals revealed it to be a consistent ‘sink hole’. Never was the golden rule, be high at the turn point more sound advice. The worst position to be in was low at Palen Creek. I was unzipped 100m from the TP radius when I flew downwind to a rocky slope in a last ditch attempt to stay airborne. After the low save on day 1 I near beat it today and the effort paid off. I spent at least 20 minutes jostling with a handful of other desperates to salvage the flight in small bubbles that kept us alive until a real climb presented itself. 4 of us survived this one but we were unzipped for a long time and got blown downwind a ways before clawing back to altitude. Once up we separated, I had to detour alone back for the TP and then continued to trace the task slowly by myself. I was to find most of these guys landed out not long after we split up.

Scott was probably already in goal just behind Johnny Durand when I was negotiating a serious looking long glide over a definite ‘no landing’ area between the spectacular Mount Barney and Mount Maroon. Toes, teeth and anything else clenchable bared-down during the strong headwind and under intermittent cloud streets but eventually everything could relax after clearing this vast expanse of forest. Then almost straight away I hit a boomer at the beginning of the flats. I shook my head in relief when I settled into 600’/min only to look down and see someone still deep, lee side a 1000’ below and pushing headwind! Competitions bring out the best and the worst in us, but they are subjective terms.

Lake Moogera always seems to be the designated goal when it’s a headwind northerly and this makes for a tenuous final glide. The last ridge line prevents crossing the final 2km into goal if you are low but I have been here before and knew to get height. Camo and Les got in too not long after. In fact Les just cleared the final ridge and was unzipped in the headwind with only a few hundred metres to go, unsure if he would make it. Brian was stoked for a single retrieve stop at the goal paddock.

Day 4 continued the slow trend towards stabilizing flying conditions. The sky was bluer, the thermals even harder to latch onto and never seeming to connect in one column all the way to base. After a reasonable run from Tamborine and after negotiating a battery change for the GPS halfway to the TP the conditions got very fickle. 30 minutes later I found myself lining up a landing at the turn point: Lions Rd, about 30km short of goal. Soon after two guys in Stings landed next to me… LOL!

Hang gliding competitions are very good for the ego. You can be a hero one day and cut-off at knees the next. When this happens the ego shrivels up and perspective improves. I was starting to realise how much I had forgotten after the long hiatus, more than I thought. I had an hour to contemplate such things before Brian arrived. We loaded-up and started to drive down the road when he looked at me and confirmed in so many words that I was indeed a dud. Brian is also good for the ego.

We were off to retrieve Les who was about 10km closer to goal and he was still grinning when we found him. He is flying very well and loves his new equipment. Then we drove towards goal to get Camo and Scott where 25 pilots had made it ‘in’ and the LZ is very exclusive indeed; a fairdinkum runway/tarmac next to a salubrious looking golf course with manicured surroundings. It must have been a nice sight to watch during final glide.

Day 5: Attila Bertok, reigning world Champion, loves big tasks and so far he has been quiet on this front but today he declares the task committee has problems with their manhood. He is a tall Hungarian who speaks like Arnold Schwarzenegger and no one challenges his insinuation. Soon the task committee take the hint and set a 114km task around Killarney to Maryville. This area is mountainous with tall ranges and large tracts of forest.

We are back to Flying Fox launch and ready to go before 11am. Scott lays the map out in front of us on the truck tailgate and we huddle around to listen. His finger slowly traces the course, skipping over all the areas he knows we are familiar with but then his hand stops just short of goal. He taps his finger on the spot a few times and points to a concentration of contour lines. He is counts the contour interval and crunches the numbers then speaks without emotion, “You need 2000’ minimum to clear the range. From there you will easily make it in but remember the headwind. If you get low there is a gap in the range, here”, he points to a small dip in the contours, “but it is off course so best to stay high and fly straight in”. 1hr later Scott and I climb out together in a good one straight after our ordered launch.

Now, armed with yesterday’s lessons and today’s information I am confident. I am decisive and plan ahead. I charge out. I exhaust each option as each one fails to pay off and land just 27km from launch. The error of my ways is evident. I am alone in the paddock but it would've been appropriate to have a couple of women standing nearby looking surreptitious while slowly flexing their little fingers. Too hard, too fast; lesson # 4897.

Out on course Les is in his stride and finally gets an opportunity to put his skills and new equipment through the paces. Camo meets him near mount Maroon and would later tell how Les is in fine form but from here they part ways. Camo takes a novel track away from task line and into a vast plume of smoke from a bushfire that has been ticking away for several days. He thinks he saw a thermal column within the large scale area of smoke so he dives into the abyss and endures a good dose of carbon monoxide to get his climb and take it all the way to base. Talk about suffering for your art.

Les and Cam continue on their way to goal while Scott on the other hand goes down not far from me. He is in the Koralbyn Valley, a place I have also visited prematurely in a previous Classic. Scott says he has had good flights through there before but I have also been warned off this area by the locals. Brian finds the both of us and drops us in at the nearest town before heading west to chase Cam and Les.

Scott and I are grounded and start the afternoon with a hairdresser; an English lass who is playing guitar when we walk into her salon. Scott instructs her to sell him a hair cut. She accepts the challenge and convinces him a ‘style cut’ is the ticket and she did a fine job too. For her efforts Scott also pays her a nice compliment with a rare good luck charm. He takes out a 4-leaf clover from his wallet and hands it to her. She is touched and I am impressed.

We are still waiting for Brian and kill time with a visit to the library. Scott reads techno magazines while I grab a pile of Bird Watchers Australia but I only look at the photos. Later we are sitting in the park and Scott gets a pizza for dinner but I balk at the fast food and opt for three magnums instead. Then a text from Brian, ‘Camo made it to goal. Les is just short’ but it sounds like Les’ where abouts are hard to locate. It could be a delayed retrieve and sure enough the night falls… Scott and I are still in the park, the day has been long and watching him spin around on the childrens carousel is bringing back year 12 physics; F=mwwr, v=wr... 'We need to get out of here.'

Another pilot arrives on foot after walking 12km out of the boondocks. Apparently his car/driver ditched him without notification before he even got picked up and he is well ticked-off. His face says it all but he tells us anyway. He gets a phone call and walks out of earshot for a few minutes. Scott thinks he is paranoid. I think he is just venting. ‘Get us out of here' I think to myself and almost on cue a ride pulls up 50 feet away. Raef sticks his head out of the window, "Hey boys, need a ride?" We make it back to the camping ground, HQ, and download our GPS’s. Brian and Les arrive not long after and Les is smiling. He flew over 100km today.

Day 6 and we arrive at Beechmont, the same launch used for the Australian record set last year. We notice more stability with high cirrus trespassing from the south. Once again timing will be everything; get up and go before the heating dies. Beechmont is a bit of a lottery and to make matters worse it has a 90 minute turn around. Unfortunately Les succumbs like many others but the rest of us are on our way while Brian gets Les back to launch for a re-fly. Along with Camo and Scott I make the last of the foothill ranges with good height but the next 30km over flat Beaudesert is now completely shaded by the cirrus. Some of the guns come back to the ridge after testing the waters. I think to myself ‘Drop gears, throw out the anchors and tip toe!’

We all creep out into the cool and dark looking flats. Any blip in the terrain is a draw card for potential release of any residual hot air that remains on the ground. We are all in the same boat and there are slow moving gliders searching in the area trying to home-in on any lift. Three eagles join me in mine and help to re-centre as neighbouring cores redirect the thermal and meander it skyward. The eagles soon leave on glide. Then Attila appears out of no where, he is lower and on a fast glide to what I don’t know because there is nothing ahead to show lift. Metres of VG line flail behind him and his wing looks flat as a pancake as he burns up precious altitude and disappears out on course.

Somehow most of us get across Beaudesert but with little height to spare. Then the sun light returns but for some it's too late and they go down, but some of us look like making it. After another low save the conditions improve and the turn point comes up fast. The confidence swells which is becoming a sign to be wary of and today is no different. This halfway point has sun all along the course line but the sky is blue. Sure enough the air mass is different and the climbs are sheared, tight and sparse. I find myself 15km short of the last TP and low but in something that varies between climb and sink to average about 20’/min. I stick with it. The first priority is to stay in the air, I am drifting towards the TP anyway and going up, albeit extremely slowly. Besides, there are no other options to explore from this height. Drew Cooper coined a popular saying, Love the lift you're in. I hang tight.

I'm in this dysfunctional climb for so long that I become totally tuned to its choppy edges and pulsating strength and after circling and circling I almost zone-out while milking what little it has to offer. I soon see the leaders several kilometres away making their way back from the TP into the headwind and towards goal. Some are low, on glide and in survival mode. They are struggling and I will soon learn that a few of them will not make it in. I put myself in their shoes and all of a sudden my elusive 20’ average feels like a good place to be. During the long drift I notice other gliders on the ground, to the left and right of course and off in the distance.

Eventually after this 20 minute lesson in patience my climb comes together. It clears the inversion layer just as I pass over the rim of an extinct volcano and in two turns it grows into a smooth 600’/min thermal. I get the TP and after one more good climb and a bit of strategic ridge soaring on the way-in 'goal' is in the bag.

Les’ bombout put him out of step with the wave of cirrus as it moved through but he made a valiant effort to get out to the Chicken Shed Ridge and beyond the foothills. Scott too missed out today but like a winner he takes it in his stride. No one failure will be allowed to negatively affect subsequent flights, he will analyse everything to learn from the flight irrespective of its level of success. He is a model of eventual victory.

Day 7 looks difficult. The stability is evident as we are a day and a half prefrontal. Blue with inversions and those squirrelly, tight and sheared climbs are odds-on. We will be launching from Tamborine to head down to that old chestnut; Palen Creek, then followed by a shortish headwind leg up a narrow valley to Rathdowny. Attila makes no reference about manhood and the comp committee. It’s a petite task but everyone knows the conditions will make it hard. Canungra is technically difficult and distance is secondary.

From Days 2 and 4 I know not to follow the Boarder Ranges and I also know to be high at Palen Creek. The headwind will be strong on the last leg so again, be high at Palen Creek. But all these considerations exclude launch. Mount Tamborine in a north wind is ordinary and getting away from here is made much harder by the stability and the drift. About 25% of the field will land in the bombout today.

It was a struggle to get high but now and then persevering with the broken and sheared climbs that pulse in strength would eventually see them consolidate into a coherent core. When they did you were stoked. Spending 4 times as long climbing in tight sheared-up thermals made the good ones feel like gems, and they were. The hardest part was early on but 15km before the TP a really good climb was finally found over a shallow valley. The sloping treed knoll with a road winding along the base fed a 300’/min climb that turned into a smooth 750 all the way to several thousand feet. Better thermals were now more frequent as the TP approached, due no doubt to the change in topography, from the flats to small hills and narrow ridgelines. I was the 9th and last one in goal. Scott came in 2nd and Camo was 4th.

Day 8 was cancelled due to the arrival of a front and bad weather.

Try to make it the Canungra Classic next year. This club puts on a competition you will not forget. They are a very pro active and supportive group of skilled pilots and organize everything for ease, entrainment and quality flying. The area is technical to fly and pushes your skills. Some of the best pilots in Australia come from this region. A few of the best pilots in the world come from here, a testament to the quality of flying and the groundswell of talent. The bottom line is ‘FUN’ and this they never fail to deliver on year after year.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Whispering wind


I was on the freeway by 10am and pushing hard to do the 140km ASAP. Sometimes the speeds went higher but only when the coast was clear of highway patrols and speed cameras. The sky was dark and grey thanks to a vague and perpetual layer of cloud that dropped light drizzle during the whole trip. I forged ahead despite its threat to kill any possibility of a flight. At the halfway point the fuel icon lit up which meant I was down to the last 9 liters, probably enough to cover the rest of the trip but I wasn’t going to risk the flight because I ran out of gas. Airtime is too rare these days. I rolled into the Caltex at Swansea, 30km short, filled the tank and five minutes later I was on the road heading north into Newcastle.

The rain stopped just before I arrived at Merewether. The hill faced squarely into the cool, 18 knot SSE sea breeze while a lone hang glider meandered back and forth above the launch. The deliberate figure-of-eights and red streamer flying off the kingpost identified it as a trainer. At the edge of take-off Tony Barton stood alone, rugged-up in winter gear to beat off the cold, his hands holding a radio close to his face while he looked up to observe the student’s every move. From a distance Tony’s instructions were just a murmur as he coached his charge, then he slowly glanced around and offered a nod and a smile before returning his full attention to the student. I rolled the glider off my shoulder and didn’t slow down to set-up but I did look up once or twice to catch a glimpse of the soloing student. Each time made me grin, half in admiration of the pilots’ new found freedom, half in the anticipation of being airborne in about 15 minutes.

Just as I launched the drizzle started again so I set a course for the strongest lift in front of the eastern face. Maximum height was the ideal holding pattern to ride out the wet while the rain passed by. Tiny beads of water quickly coated the sunglasses and basebar, both good measures of how wet the Mylar got, and a look upwards revealed beading along the leading edges. As the droplets coalesced and grew on the top surface the airflow deteriorated and the wing confirmed this with a diminishing performance and poor handling. The turns insisted on being progressively flatter, and faster, and there was an increasing margin above the usual stall speed. I pulled on a full arms length of VG and the subtle and increasing tendency for the nose to 'nod' disappeared.

I eyed the full deck of grey cloud in all directions and waited for improving conditions but at the same time I already felt that inner relief tinged with euphoria, the contentment that descends the moment that last step gives a final push to launch hang glider and pilot into the air. I was no longer confined to the direction of a highway or the limit of a speed camera, or the authority of the police, or anyone else. Movement now was free and bound only by the imagination. Flying straight, turning, flying level, sedately, quietly soaring over the ocean remote from the land-based life. Freedom.

Gradually the rain stopped and the sky brightened-up as the cloud deck thinned. The glider began to dry out. Small cumuli could now be seen within the general cloud cover and soon waves of lift started appearing as lines of slightly darker water on the ocean surface, ‘sets’, that moved-in perpendicular to the wind direction, mild at first but increasing in strength over the next hour. The intermittent increase in altitude gave a stark contrast to the lower and slightly longer lulls in between the waves of lift. Good timing with each sweep of the instability allowed for a jump to and back from adjacent headlands north and south. At any one time a look out over the ocean showed three to four equally spaced, parallel lines of instability that arrived like clockwork.

I rode the waves of instability and flew into the afternoon. The lift lines continued to get thicker and more defined and now and then a bulge along the leading edge of the squall would catch the eye, so I waited from up high before spotting the next one. It was about 500m upwind so with VG 'on' I flew a course to intercept and eventually reached it at about 300’ ASL over the beach. Right away the sink slowed and smoothly reversed into solid lift of about 400’/minute. I continued straight ahead, eased off the VG and let the glider settle-in at trim and watched the headland in the distance drop away relative to the next one behind. I banked to the left and once the turn was established was 'on rails' in the smooth seabreeze. It’s the middle of winter at a cold and overcast coastal site so I expected the lift to die out before too long. But it didn't. The first few circles were telling, they connected with a constant climb rate as the glider threaded its way up to higher altitude, and well away from the cliffs and ridge lift.

I circled and drifted and watched the beach, surf and headlands drop away. The positions of the hills out to the west were a good gauge of climb and I had double launch height in short order. I re-centered a few times mainly to correct slightly upwind and watched Lake Macquarie and Speers Point, both about 10km away, come into view. The big construction cranes 5km away lined up with Mount Sugarloaf in the distance and a few more turns had them dropping out of alignment altogether. I quickly passed through the first thousand feet and the climb rate didn’t vary one bit. I looked up to gauge how far away cloud base was and felt there would be some drifting involved to make the link, and there was no coming back once committed. Today was the day for a XC from the coast. I was flying to a timetable and had other commitments so the opportunity was passed-up so the rest of the afternoon was spent staying within reach of the car. The rest of the flight was a mix of ridge soaring and biding time before circling in the next thermal, getting as high as possible before straightening-up and gliding back to the coast. Still great fun but I wish I could have gone with it.

These were rare conditions. It only happens a few times a year and usually at the change of season but to get really good climbs like today is special. The thermals were most consistent and strongest at about 2pm. At that time the drift direction had improved and gave a tailwind of about 30kph. Inland the clouds looked flat bottomed, tall and about 7000-8000’ AGL. A three hour flight with a conservative pace would have given a fantastic tour of the Hunter Valley, despite the early twilight at this time of the year. That would have been something really good to write about.

I landed, packed the glider and harness, loaded up the car and drove out of the carpark. Soon I was back on the freeway.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Air Europe

Here is my latest video, to watch click on the link:
Winter is all but here and the flying has thinned out, plus our video camera stopped working a while ago so I am out of footage to edit. No more clips until next season I guess.

I have always liked the music from the French duo Air. I first heard their songs on a cassette player in a German hire van in 2000 while traveling through Europe with two buddies; Mick and Al. We traveled through Austria, Italy, France and a little of Germany in the Buchbinder van with our hang gliders strapped to the roof. Mick had brought some really good music. Apart from Air I also remember listening to a lot of Tonic, The Verve and Powderfinger. Driving over the Ferker Pass in Switzerland at 2am under a full moon, along the Italian Aps or through Bavaria, there was almost always some music to accompany the moment. Sometimes it was front and centre and loud, other times it was subtle and quietly playing in the background, other times it was turned 'off'. We all had similar appreciation for the music and the appropriate time when to 'turn it up', turn it down', or to have none at all.

Breakfast in a French B&B: bagettes, beurre frais, confiture, et cafe (bien sur).

It was my first taste of cross country flying and I had two very experienced and skilled mates to show me how it was done. For more than two months the three of us traveled through Europe flying at some very spectacular sites and meeting a lot of people along the way. I literally had about 5 inland flights under my belt when we took off in the 747 from Sydney, I had never been to Europe and we were going to some of the worlds best flying sites. But my inexperience didn't prevent me from realizing I was diving in at the deep end. I did however have a heap of hours flying on the coast and I was confident with launching and landing so I was thinking I was pretty safe. Besides, I had Mick and Al to help me out but nevertheless I was still filled with a lot of anticipation. And as traveling companions these two guys were the best.

Glienkersee, Windischgarsten, in Austria.

Mick is a very funny guy and we discovered his sense of humour transcended any language and cultural barrier. Many a night we found ourselves dining as guests of local pilots and often enough Mick had everyone in fits of laughter. He is a very skilled pilot and does everything with aplomb; aerobatics, crosscountry flying, instructing students, landing in a tight spot... You see him fly and something catches your eye. All of these photos are from Mick's photo album.

The LZ in front of the 'Flyers Bar' at the base of Kossen, Austria.

Al's dry sense of humour was a perfect counterpoint to Mick's flamboyant take on things. Al has been flying for decades and has achieved atleast one world first in a hang glider. He is a doctor by trade and speaks with a lot of understatement so it took me a while to really appreciate the exploits of his pioneering spirit. He was one of the first to open-up the reknown Borah/Manilla site in NSW but Al's most notable achievement took place in the 1990's when he was the first person to soar the morning glory in northern Australia. As we traveled from village to village, and flew each new launch, and as we met other European pilots I slowly recognised how inspirational Al's flights on the morning glory were to a lot of people around the world. The Europeans knew of Al and his unique flights long before we arrived and many rolled out the red carpet in honour of his accomplishment.

High over Larangne, France.

Those two months went by quickly. We flew as much as possible. Above central France, Larangne, and Chamonix in the French Alps; Bassano at the foot of the Italian Alps to Monte Cucco near the Mediterranean; to the top of The Wilder Kaiser, 'The Kings Teeth', in Kossen and Windischgarsten in Austria. We saw Europe from the air. We nearly lost Mick and Al forever due to some lethal, continental sized cloud suck over Castelluccio, Italy. I phoned my dad (who was in bed back in Australia) from 12,444' over France, a height I never ever dreamed of after only a few years of low altitude coastal flying. And there were so many more good times like these.

The sign says it all...

We, the three of us and everyone we met, were initially drawn together because of our common pursuit of flying but flying also served as the ice breaker. It was a common passion that quickly connected us to many other people. Experiencing the cultural differences was a unexpected reward for our travels and worth the trip on its own.

Soaring over Monte Cucco, Italy.

As the three of us meandered though Europe we left a wake of good times, spectacular flying and new friends. All the while Micks tapes filled der Buchbinder with memorable music where ever we went. Those songs and instrumental tracks still take me back to the places we visited and remind me of those special times.

I have combined the track All I Need with footage of a classic day of where it all began for me, soaring over the east coast of Australia.

Air, their first album