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.

2 comments:

Nick Palmer said...

Quite the most lyrical hang gliding blog post I have seen so far.

Unknown said...

Your post was a pleasure to read. Miss the contact with you, Adam, hope you are well.

Curt