Success at Last

After too many attempts I have finally completed my silver distance

The day was looking promising with strong lift, but also strong winds from the south. Both Graham and I were looking to fly cross country, so I took the Junior for a downwind dash to Crowland while Graham took CU for a more ambitious task.

I launched shortly after Graham at 11 am and joined him working back and forth, to the East of the airfield, the weak morning thermals preventing me from gaining significant height and the strong winds constantly blowing me away from the airfield, and forcing me to stop and push back into the wind.

While doing this I got an excellent demonstration of the problems that I would face, both Graham and I were thermalling together, and Graham had managed to nudge both of us out of a tight thermal. (On a side note: the reason Graham could nudge me out of a thermal is that, when thermalling with other gliders your main focus should be not crashing, rather than finding the best lift, two good pilots will mutually centre on the strong core of the thermal. In our case, Graham joined the thermal above me, and was poorly centred, I climbed to his level and had to re-centre to fly safely, thus we were now both poorly centred. I expect that this was as much to do with the thermals being small and broken, as it was to Grahams skills as a pilot.) Graham left the thermal and headed upwind to better looking clouds, I had come to the same conclusion, but stayed for one more turn to give a safe distance before following.

Almost immediately I dropped like a stone. The Junior does not penetrate into wind well, to go into wind you must go fast, and in the junior going fast means descending. Whereas CU was able to reach the good looking clouds, I had to abandon and try my luck with some weaker, closer lift.

After an hour of this, with a few tense moments when I thought all was lost, the conditions improved, I contacted my first good thermal and climbed to 3,500 ft.  As I now had more height, I allowed the wind to blow me further form the airfield. My target was down wind so as long as I could stay at least in weak lift I would be making progress. Eventually I reach cloud base, decision time, the sky was looking better, so I opted to head off on task. My 50k had begun.

The first objective was to navigate around Wyton’s ATZ, I had opted to go to the East and so headed towards some good looking clouds in roughly the right direction. The thermals were streeting nicely, and despite not finding any good lift I was able to fly in almost a straight line only turning occasionally to test the strength of a few thermals. Near Wyton I encountered a patch of sink which was briefly worrying, as I descended to 2,700 ft.  Once past Wyton I was really able to unleash the cross country technique. The day was still improving and the cloud base rising, I climbed to 3,700 ft  only briefly stopping to thermal and mostly just following the cloud streets. North of Wyton was Upwood, my half way marker and a gliding club. At this point I felt delighted,  as I was comfortably in glide range of Upwood I had the confidence to push on. A few more cloud streets, past Peterborough and Crowland was in sight, I headed for the distinctive bend in the river, and eventually spotted the airfield. I stopped to thermal just above the club at 4,500 ft. Making sure that I had definitely entered the 90◦ sector and completed the task.

I briefly considered landing, to ensure and easy retrieve, but I was not going to waste all this height, so I decided to try to fly home, thoughts of doing my five hour duration, and claiming the cup for longest silver distance in my mind.

I immediately made a mistake, rather than using the GPS or the map to navigate my way back I just turned and flew in what I thought was the right direction. Resulting in an unnecessary detour to the East, before I noticed and headed back on task. My second mistake was to then decide to go to the West of Wyton on the way home, while there was nothing wrong with the route, I had not prepared for that route and it resulted in some unexpected surprises later on.

Pushing back into wind was hard work, but once I had got to cloud base I was able to hop from thermal to thermal without losing too much height. From then on I could use the dolphin technique to maintain height. I made it back to Upwood at 4,500 ft without any significant events.

This is where the trouble started, the thermals had started to over develop and spread out. When this happened there will be a period of weak or no lift for 30 minutes to an hour before the thermals reform.  I should have spotted this, but I was distracted by the fact that I had mistaken the abandoned airfield of Alconbury for Wyton and though that I had to navigate a small gap between their ATZ and Peterborough’s ATZ. This is where the decision to go the other way around Wyton came back to bite. Had I been more alert to the changing conditions, I would have stopped at Upwood and use the last of the strong thermals to gain extra height and ride out the period of no lift. Instead the strong lift all around me gave me the confidence to fly on, and I wasn’t until I was at Alconbury at 2,900 ft that I realised it had all gone wrong. I thermaled in reduced sink, and let the wind blow me back to Upwood, before landing.

Hopes of a five hour flight dashed, but still delighted that I completed my 50k, I organised and aerotow retrieve and was shortly back to Gransden. Despite landing out it was one of my most memorable flights, and very enjoyable. I’m looking forward to next season and more cross country flying. The lessons learnt where:

1) Pay attention to the changing weather around you, not just where the next thermal is;

2) Don’t change your flight plan, and fly into unknown sky, unless the conditions require it.