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.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

2012 British Paragliding Open in Meduno, Italy

Waiting for race start - Photo: Olivier Montel
I've just returned from competing in the British Paragliding Open in Meduno in Northern Italy where I managed to come 6th out of 112 pilots. To be fair pilot numbers were down due to a lot of the big guns not showing up, so it was somewhat easier to get a good result. I'm not complaining however, as it allowed me to get the good PWC qualification letter that I wanted. I also had my new wing to fly, a Niviuk IcePeak-6 which is an EN-D competition 2-liner. I'd only put a couple of evening flights on it at my local hill and being my first 2-liner I was quite excited to try it out racing with the other notable hot ship, the EnZo from Ozone.

This competition followed the recent trend as the weather was yet again marginal making the job exceptionally difficult for the task & safety committees, but we did manage to get a valid competition by getting three tasks in.

On the first few days of the competition the US Aviano Air Base allowed us to enter their airspace so we took advantage of this by setting a 54km race out towards Aviano and back. I had a really bad start, really bad - low and late. I'm not sure how I managed to put myself in such a bad place at the beginning of the race but I managed it in style. My only strategy now was to fly fast and try hard to catch the leaders way out in front. Nearly the whole field took the mountain ridge line, but to me this route looked quite tricky as it wasn't a classic linear ridge like in say Slovenia or St Hillaire. It resembled the ridge in Bir with lots of perpendicular spurs to cross and with a headwind it would have made the air turbulent and messy. With nice fluffy clouds forming in the flats I decided that would be the best option so along with two other pilots we flew the flats fast, spinning up to cloud base when we needed to. This strategy was working wonderfully until near Aviano when a huge area went in to shade and we were forced to scuttle for the ridge. About this time a pilot had an accident and the task was stopped to allow safe access to the rescue helicopter (he is recovering well).
Task Board - Photo: Olivier Montel
The task was still scored and I managed 15th, not bad for such an appalling start. However, one of the best bits of the day was waiting for the retrieve! I chose a village to land in that had some sort of festival going on, I could hear music and see lots of parked cars and people out and about. I was joined by other pilots and we gate-crashed the party. It turns out that on this day each year the residents of the village have an open day where they supply wine and food for each other and the villagers go from house to house eating and drinking as they go. One particular nice bunch were the Italian Alpini who invited us in to their trophy laden hut and cracked a couple of bottles of wine together with a feast of bread, cheese and anchovies - what a result!
Photo: Olivier Montel
The next two tasks you could only describe as short, technical and racy (fish bowl racing), but they were still fun. Unusually for me consistency meant that at the end of the competition I managed 6th overall and 4th Brit. I learned a couple of lessons: Don't always assume that the goal turn point altitude is the same as the goal field as in this competition the goal was the castle, a good fifty meters above the landing field. This really messed up my already conservative final glide calculations and I easily lost 5 places with this mistake on one task. The next mistake is not to have your speed bar set up correctly as it is quite embarrassing to have intermediate gliders overtake you on full bar; this was soon rectified! Finally, don't drink spirits, evil stuff ..
Yours truly trying to catch a matching Icepeak-6 - Photo: Andy Smart
The Niviuk Icepeak-6 is without doubt the best glider I've flown, it's certainly the fastest and best performing but it also turns nicely too and is great at banking up in tight choppy climbs. I can't wait to fly it in the Belgian Open in Annecy in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

A Paltry 100km flight from Leckhampton

Well what a weekend it was! We had a couple of good days of good weather and everybody was out making the most of it. On Saturday we had a northerly wind and good thermals predicted, the northern pilots mainly chose Long Mountain as a launch point, whereas the southerners chose Leckhampton. I managed a 103km flight which is a pretty mediocre result compared to what others did, in fact not even in the top 20! See here for the flights logged that day, in total 6000km were flown by 80 pilots which has got to be some sort of record in itself. Kai Coleman did a fantastic flight of 243km and Simon Twiss managed the coast at Weymouth for 150+km. The next day on the Sunday we had strong southwest wind and Kirsty Cameron took off from the hill behind my house (Milk Hill) and flew to near the Norfolk coast taking the open distance women's record to 233km from Helen Gant's record of 166km set the day before, amazing. I was an hour too late and found it too windy for me to climb out safely.

The North-South cup is this weekend but to be honest the weather forecast looks pants ..

Monday 7 May 2012

Respite from the Rain

The spring weather has been atrocious in the southern half of the UK this year and flying opportunities have been few and far between. Yesterday we did have a respite from the never ending rain and I managed a nice little 50km flight from the Malverns.

On glide with Steve Ham crossing the River Wye
A quick climb out from launch to base just after 11am saw a good 20+ gliders start their XCs together and several gaggles quickly formed. There was quite a lot of cloud and huge areas were in shade which meant conditions were quite fickle and difficult in places. Our gaggle chose a more northerly line towards what looked like a better looking sky. It was below freezing at cloud base and we got snowed on; I was uncontrollably shivering I was so cold (an important lesson to wear warmer clothes). Several low saves later we landed in the same field full of lovely ancient oak trees. The other main gaggle went further to the south towards overcast and murky conditions, they managed Abergavenny and beyond so did better than us ... We also could have done better but I'm not sure I could have handled the cold for much longer.

My new Icepeak-6 wing arrives soon - I can't wait.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Belgian Paragliding Open. Laragne, France 2011

Photo: Marko Väyrynen

Well last week we had the Belgian Paragliding Open in France in windy Laragne. Unfortunately we only had one task due to the Mistral conditions. The one task we did have was an ambitious 101km square task taking us over some of the breathtaking scenery of the Pic de Bure quite someway north of launch. Conditions were quite bumpy with strong thermals and a few inversion layers so I had the glider do a couple of funky things but sorted it out quickly. I had a great start and was leading for some of the way at the beginning but was caught by a few others and we formed our lead gaggle. Multiple choice of routes past the Pic de Burre towards the last turnpoint meant that we split up and went various ways. I chose the more direct line that had a large section of flat lands to traverse while others did a slightly longer but less risky route connecting a couple of ridges. Ultimately nobody got to goal as we were all hampered by a strong headwind under the inversion and the leaders all decked it at 85-90km. I landed at 86.7km but was quite quick and managed the third highest leadout points for the task. However some pilots managed a couple more kilometres and so I finished 10th out of 120+ pilots but was only 40 points shy of the winner (who got ~700 points). Due to the weather I was subsequently denied the chance to fight for a podium place.

I'm at the PreEuropeans now in St Andre, the first task is tomorrow so let's hope for some better weather.