Highs and Lows: Thermals On – the first day of the UK XC season

Wednesday 27 March, 2013

What happened to spring? In the UK we’ve had snow, floods and freezing fog in what has turned out to be one of the coldest March’s on record. But, with a single day forecast to be classic, Hugh Miller grabbed the day and stared a -15C windchill in the face. Come on!

Colin Hawke above the English flatlands. Photo: Jim Mallinson

Colin Hawke above the English flatlands. Photo: Jim Mallinson

There’s no pressure like the first XC day of the season, is there? It was looking good the whole week before Thursday 14 March, and I couldn’t sleep much the night before for excitement. Dressed ready for an expedition to the North Pole, I dropped George off at school and was on a train to meet editor Ed by 9am. Two hours later we were clipped in on launch at Combe Gibbet with a truly epic sky boiling overhead.

We’d endured winding country roads, a horrible half an hour thinking the wind was too west for the site (thanks for that, Jim Mallinson!) and, oh I don’t know, basically just sitting in a car sweating with two layers of thermals and all the rest of the clobber you need for cold weather flying.

In the end, it was an easy climb-out. I was on an EN-A, as I’m trying to write a chapter on flying low aspect wings for a new book we’re set to publish later this year – 50 Ways to Fly Better. That morning I’d given myself a good talking to – hang back, take all climbs to the top, fly your own flight, blah blah blah, but surprise surprise like the idiot I am I’m first over the back, death gliding off while the others all push back upwind to better climbs.

I was down below take-off height before connecting with my second climb, and it was a right scrabble trying to stay up. But I found low aspect low down actually seemed an advantage. You can turn on a sixpence, it’s super-stable, and a lot of fun. And the wing really pulled into each climb. The thermal consolidated and 20 minutes later I was up at base. It was the lesson I needed: calm yourself down and stay high.

I learnt a little on the flight to pull together a few hopefully-helpful bullet points for the book. Mainly, you have to spend as much time as you can at base, soaking up all the good air, and flying short glides to the next cloud. There’s no plan ‘b’ or ‘c’ with low performance wings – you have to make each move count. For much of the 75km, I was with Alex Coltman on his Trango XC and an unidentified Mantra 4, and they looked like sailplanes the way they could shark about the place, having a sniff over here and over there, picking and choosing their climbs – lucky buggers.

By 2.30pm I was choosing where to land in the shade, while the others above me glided effortlessly on to a sunnier area. But I can’t blame the wing’s performance on my demise. I got really spaced out after a couple of hours in the air and just couldn’t concentrate in my last patchy climb. I’d also developed that stupid sense of invincibility at the top of the previous climb that usually means I’ll be flaring within the next ten minutes.

I landed in a countryside car park, and got told off by a security man for, err, nothing, but for the fact he was probably a bit bored. During our chat, I asked in a loud voice, “Is there a bus stop near here?” – knowing full well there wasn’t. Some walkers getting in their car overheard me (they couldn’t help it, I was pretty much shouting down their earholes) and offered me a lift to a nearby railway station. The night before I’d been agreeing with a friend about how you just don’t see anyone hitch-hiking anymore. Well, Katie, I’ve disproved us – the human spirit is alive and well in the human counties. You just have to drop in from the skies and pretend to be totally mentally retarded (not too hard for me) to awaken it.

At the station I talked to Ed. He’d landed at his Mum’s house, 20km over the back, and was about to have tea in her kitchen. It was 3.30pm and neither of had yet stopped moving the whole day. “What a stupid day out”, we both agreed, before travelling another three hours to wherever we needed to get back to.

As I approached home, Jim Mallinson rang. He’d taken off from his more westerly launch at Westbury and done over 140km to land at the beach near me. He said he’d felt like he’d been tripping for the last hour, gliding in a straight line for 40km along a dying seabreeze front.

Well, I’m now convinced that flying an A or low B wing can really help your flying much more than going for more demanding, higher aspect wings. They climb the same – if not better – than higher aspect wings (and today was absolute proof of that for me), they’re just so easy, the handling is fantastic, and you feel so safe under them. When fear plays such a big factor for many of us, why not stay on ‘A’s until we can fly 50 km or so on them?

Respected fly-guide Kelly Farina wrote a great piece in Skywings about it. In 2007 he was freaked from near-accidents on his comp wing that he’s been flying ‘B’s ever since and absolutely loves the serenity they give. They give your head the much-needed space to really pick good lines and observe conditions. Anyhow, I’ll have to get thinking more about this area and get writing for the book.

The Delta 2 is next on the list to fly. I’m supposed to be reviewing it – and so is Greg Hamerton – for the next issue. We’re not allowed to talk to each other about our experiences flying it, and Ed will publish the two pieces side-by-side just to see how similar or different our reviews are. We’ll see how that works out. Till then, back to the rain and snow of an English early ‘spring’.

Watch: Combe Gibbet in the spring time

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