Tuesday, 19 March 2013

An Early Start to the Season

It was on Monday March 11th when pilots started spreading the word that Thursday March 14th was possibly going to be a great day.  Our main prediction tool called "Regional Atmospheric Soaring Prediction" or RASP for short was predicting a great cross country day with strong thermals, a 6000ft cloudbase and light post-frontal northerly winds. The new somewhat controversial 'star rating' was even showing five out of five stars. Pilots that had some flexibility in their work schedule were taking heed and booking days off from work or pulling sickies, as the Aussies would say. This was all quite unusual as it was still very early in the season and only a few days after the South Eastern counties were still buried in snow. I might add that predictions for the temperature at cloudbase were in the negative double-figures so it was a day to wrap up warm.
The RASP 'Star Rating' Parameter
I had arranged to fly with Jim Mallinson who lives in the same Wiltshire village as myself, so early in the morning we were looking at the wind 'actuals' and thought that they looked a lot more west than predicted. The prediction was for the day to back more west in the afternoon, but it was looking like it was doing this earlier than predicted, so we chose Westbury White Horse as our XC launchpad rather than Combe Gibbet where the hoards were all going. Westbury is a rather unusual option for paragliding cross country flights, as you cannot fly over the back with the thermals and drift with the wind as you normally would. There is the Salisbury Plain danger area to avoid so a lot of crosswind flying is necessary to successfully fly around the restricted airspace, and this significantly adds to the difficulties.
Flying towards our village and Milk Hill

We launched and easily climbed out to just under 3000ft and started heading off along the edge of the danger area also trying to miss RAF Keevil parachute drop zone. We had to take lots of small climbs and then bail out of them as they drifted very close to the boundary of the danger area. With the airspace issues out of the way it was 'situation normal' and we headed more downwind towards Combe Gibbet and ultimately the coast. However my day came to an abrupt halt when my speed bar broke in a sinky hole and I went down. I watched Jim squeak back up with some difficulty to eventually make the coast for an amazing flight of 132km (147 with turn points) where as I made only 59km (67 with turn points). But what a great start to the UK cross country season and the earliest 100km flights in the season recorded from paragliders (made by Jim, Wayne Seeley and Alex Coltman).
Leaving cloudbase over Andover

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Paragliding World Cup: Porterville, South Africa

PWC South Africa from Colin Hawke on Vimeo

I've become terrible at updating my blog and should have written a post much sooner about my recent experiences at the first 2013 Paragliding World Cup (PWC) event in Porterville in South Africa.

The first task was literally over before it began. The conditions were quite rough and unfortunately Japanese competitor Akira Horiguchi managed to lose control of his glider before the start and cascaded into the mountainside, without deploying his rescue parachute. I witnessed with horror the whole thing and was convinced we would be dealing with a fatality but with relief eventually saw a pair of arms flailing about. Medics were already on stand-by on launch so were scrambling to locate him aided by aerial cameraman Philippe Broers who was circling above the accident site. They gave the critical first aid needed while the rescue helicopter was on route to medivac him to hospital in Cape Town. A very professional rescue indeed and I'm glad to say Akira is back in Japan and expected to make a full recovery. Philippe documented some of it in his video below.
Porterville rescue ops.. from Philippe Broers on Vimeo.

The next day we had a great task, I say it was great because I won it!! But in reality it was a 57.4km task in strongly inverted and very windy conditions entirely out in the flatlands; it was quite frankly a very difficult flying day. In total only 20 pilots made goal, but it was especially fun and rewarding for me getting over the line in first place. It was also my very first task win, I have been third and fourth on occasions but never first and not at this level, so it was a bit of a confidence booster for the future.
Crossing the line for my first task win ever

The next two tasks were incredibly frustrating because of the strong wind. We never really seemed to get any downwind legs as the wind changed direction making every glide against a headwind. A typical situation is as follows: I'm 5km out from the turnpoint and very low and in need of a climb desperately, I find a low save and milk it back to a decent height only to find I'm now 12km from the turnpoint, having drifted downwind with the thermal. So I go on glide again and get back to where I was, 5km from the turnpoint. But now I'm very low again and I need another climb, repeat, repeat ... I'm sure you get the picture.

The next two tasks saw us all finally rewarded with great racing conditions, we also crossed into the Citrusdal Valley for a change of flying scenery with a goal line in the stadium at 'Constriction'. I was quite pleased with my performance on these tasks and often caught up the leading pack when needed and on occasions I even got ahead of it.

By the final task I was still in the running and was close in points to the leader and with a chance of a podium place, so I became determined to really push for a win. The goal field was set in the Clanwilliam rugby field, about 88km distance in total. Unfortunately I had a bad start and was well back in the field for the beginning of the task but I managed to claw my way to the front by the last turnpoint. I was in the leading gaggle 12km from goal and decided to make a break from the pack with a 9.2 glide ratio needed to make the goal on final glide. My idea was that there would be some lift somewhere on that final glide and I could use that to get over the line if I needed it. But I never found any lift, nothing at all! So although I got to the End-of-Speed section with one of the quickest times I didn't make it over the goal line, landing short by a few hundred meters. Literally a few more turns in the final thermal could have put me on the podium, but instead I got 33rd place overall. That's one to chalk up in the experience category! I'm not in to the 'could've, should've, would've' mentality and all I can say is that I learned a lot on that task at the front and will certainly try and work on my final glide calculations in future.
Over Citrusdal in Task 4. Photo: Arnold Frankenburger
Overall I'm pleased with my performance and am delighted with the task win. I seem to be developing a 'flying style' where tactics and decisions are becoming more intuitive rather than analytical. This year has started very well and if I count the free flying, 7 tasks in Colombia and the 7 tasks in South Africa I've managed close to 70 hours airtime since the new year. That's not a bad start to the season.

PWC South Africa: A quick climb-out above launch from Colin Hawke on Vimeo.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Roldanillo Open, Colombia January 2013

Photo: Silvio Zugarini

I meant to blog during the competition but I never managed it and I also didn't manage to take any pictures either but here is short post on the recent competition I did.

During the last couple of years Roldanillo in Colombia has been gaining in popularity as a paragliding destination and so I took the opportunity to do their Colombian nationals in early January. This comp directly preceded the Paraglidng World Cup superfinal and attracted a few PWC pilots wishing to practice for the big event, so the standard was pretty high.

Roldanillo is a small town of less than 50,000 people situated on the west side of the huge 'Valle del Cauca' some 40km wide and 200km long. Each side of the valley has reasonably high mountains and on the valley floor are flatlands containing large sugar cane plantations. Smaller vineyards and other fruit farms dot the edges of the valley.

The main take-off used by the competitions is locally known as ‘Los Tanques’ and is a pretty 45 minute drive from town. There are others like 'El Pico' which are much closer but are smaller, tend to get crowded and somewhat tricky to launch from. The flying day here starts early and you should aim to be on launch and ready to go at 09:30 and are usually launching an hour later when the first thermal breezes start to flow. However generally after midday a strong west wind arrives presenting a back-wind on take-off and quite rotary conditions close to the ridge. This obviously prevents late starts to the day.

During our competition we had the good fortune to have 7 tasks on 7 consecutive days (80.2km, 104.7km, 80.9km, 53.9km, 117.6km, 69.4km, 49.5km) and provided great racing both in the mountain ridge and a lot out in the flats. In general I flew pretty well and was up the front often with the leading pack on most tasks but I made a few mistakes that cost me places and so my result was a slightly disappointing 25th out of 134 pilots.

Conditions were very strong with average climbs sometimes 7+ m/s on the ridge and perhaps half that in the flats. Unusually we were on occasion getting close to 3000m at the tops of the climbs whereas in previous years the maximum heights reached was significantly lower. Apparently Roldanillo normally produces nice gentle thermals and so it was a shock to most pilots to be confronted with strong turbulent conditions. The cause of  this was an incredibly dry season whereas in previous years it had been very wet making things much milder. I heard several stories of pilots last year landing in waist deep water in the fields, but this year the only water I saw was in the river or the swimming pool, even the irrigation ditches seemed dry.

All in all, including the practice days, I managed 500+km of XC and 32 hours of racing. Good practice for the PWC in South Africa.