I stood at launch looking out over the vast plains to the west of Mt Borah. In the blue skies above, the bright sun beat down on the patchwork of fields baking them with a promise of thermals that would lift me skyward. In the distance, a few clouds marked the spots where warm, rising air had condensed. It was the first day of the 2018 Paragliding State of Origin competition. Over a 150 pilots had traveled to Manilla from far away places only to fly as far away from Manilla as possible.
Overhead dozens of gliders turned in tight circles gaining altitude in an invisible thermal. Ahead, a few gliders sailed back and forth across the ridge in light breeze, sniffing for thermals while slowly sinking lower with each turn. Behind me stood another row of pilots ready to fly. Their bunched up gliders slung over their shoulders and faces masked behind goggles and face shields like aerial ninjas.
The air was filled with the sound of inflating gliders as their crispy fabric rustled to life. Cheap Baofeng radios announced that were indeed in ‘channel mode’. Icom radios beeped incessantly as their frustrated owners huddled in groups behind launch attempting to enable tone squelch. Off in the distance I could hear music. Tex no doubt.
Molly and Tex prowled the launch, their telephoto lenses capturing the inevitable ‘creative launch techniques’.
Suddenly a wing rocked back and then shot upwards, climbing in a thermal. Like sharks smelling blood, the other gliders quickly homed in on the lift and joined the climb. The day was looking good.
I shuffled forward with my wing and started getting ready to launch. I had been here before. Exactly a year ago I stood here on the same launch under a hot sun wearing a down jacket, gloves, scarf, sunnies and an ill fitting helmet. Pockets in my harness were stuffed with snacks and the camelback bladder was bulging with three liters of water. I was going to fly far. Dehydration was a real concern in the heat and I didn’t want to starve on the hike to the road after spending hours in the air. Live tracking was enabled to show the search party my last known position in case I got lost.
I had a massive total of 10.7 hours in the air, all of it on the coast. But I was confident of flying far. Manilla is the stuff of dreams and distance records.
A mixture of sunscreen and sweat seeped into my eyes. I tried to blink it out along with the vivid memory of that flight last year. I had taken off and promptly glided down into the West bomb-out without encountering a single thermal on the way. The sting of the thistle barbs as I picked my wing out from the bushes was still fresh in my mind.
I had bombed out in the same spectacular fashion on all three flights that day.
But this was no time to dwell on the past. I had one more year of flying under my belt and had flown an amazing 27km a few months earlier. The PFS (pre flight slash) had been taken care of and I was ready to fly. The next gust of wind inflated my wing’s cells as I lifted it overhead. I ran down the launch and was lifted into the air smoothly.
I had timed the launch well - I was hooked into a thermal and climbing strong immediately after launch. The vario was beeping steadily at 3.5m/s. The grin on my face stretched from ear to ear as I leveled out at 1600m. Sitting in my high perch above launch enjoying the cool air, my earlier trepidation was a distant memory.
The curse of the West launch was broken! I didn’t bomb out! Basher wouldn’t be getting my money today. Visions of long sunset retrieves from hundreds of kilometers away were dancing in my head. I was going places today!
I thought about making a radio call to announce my altitude. There might be a few pilots that hadn’t noticed how well I was doing.
As if on cue, my glider started sinking. “Not a problem I’ll find another thermal soon”, I thought as I circled in the sink searching for lift. Soon I was dropping as fast as I had climbed. It was alarming how quickly I was down to launch height, still in sink. The sink alarm on the vario was starting to wear on my nerves. Scratching around the usual trigger points didn’t reveal any lifting air. I was now well below launch height. Other gliders around me were sinking. Pangs of desperation were setting in as the flattening ground forced me closer to the landing zone. A glider collapsed lifelessly in the bomb-out as someone landed.
Bombing out on the West side isn’t actually that bad. Apart from the painfully prickly thistles — or the packing in the heat — or the waiting for the Basher — or losing valuable flying time. Besides all that, it’s a great opportunity to make friends with other pilots in the same depressed state of mind, as you all watch gaggles of gliders circle cheerfully above. Lasting friendships are forged (hi Eaglebait!) when you’re crammed into the back of the noisy, hot and dusty basher with eleven other sweaty pilots and the door is locked behind you. From the outside.
As the loud basher precariously makes it way back up the steep dirt track to the launch, sounding like it’ll blow a piston any moment, it’s impossible not to feel closer to God and your fellow passengers. Pro tip — get in the basher first. You’ll have the worst chances of survival if the Basher rolls, but at least your last moments won’t be spent smelling the armpit of the hairy guy squishing you into the back. But back to me…
Staying In the Now
My head swiveled around looking for rustling leaves or other gliders climbing. Nothing. Getting lower still. Full-on dread set in as I got closer to the bomb-out and the incessant groan of the vario continued.
Then I felt a little bump. A moment later the vario chirped.
Forcing myself not to panic, I turned as flatly as I could trying not to lose height. The vario had stopped it’s deathly groan. The sink rate showed -0.5m/s. There was something here.
One turn after another and the vario confirmed I was holding between 0 and 0.5. A few more minutes of this and I had gained enough height to slide over to the ridge on the south side. The vario was now beeping in a slow but solid climb. A wave of relief washed over me as my glider slowly rose up in front of launch, having overcome bomb-out suck.
I realised I had been holding my breath. Taking a deep breath, I unclenched the sphincter and settled into a comfortable weight shift and continued turning in the thermal. The vario was now happily beeping between 3.5 and 5.5. I need to learn to core better.
Topping out at 1700m I remembered we were supposed to be flying as a team. I looked around to find my team mates but despite the white streamers trailing on their wings, I couldn’t recognise anyone.
Humbled by my near-bombout experience, I didn’t think I could survive the excitement of getting flushed down again. So I decided to head off to the North on my own before the next sink cycle kicked in.
Going Places…it’s officially an XC
Heading North, I stayed above the ridgeline appreciating the thermals that kept me at a safe altitude. I could see that they were coming over the plains to the West but which fields were creating them? Where were the thermal collectors? I had no idea but I was happy to bumble along using every thermal to gain all the altitude I could and then moving on.
Flying at a comfortable height I could now relax enough to have a look around. The world is a small place when viewed from seven thousand feet. To my left, flat plains stretched out with a mountain range marking their end about 25 kilometers away. A group of gliders circled in the valley a few kilometers to my right. The water in Split Rock dam to the North East shimmered under the sun. Looking back, I could see a gaggle of gliders rising above the West launch. Ahead I could see the end of the range I was flying above, and the village of Barraba beyond. Or was it Bingara? Or Boogerineye? Between the end of the range and this village lay the Tarpoli Sinkhole, a hostile stretch of land known for sucking down gliders.
Wary of this Bermuda Triangle of gliders, I was happy to find a climb at the end of the range which carried me safely beyond the Tarpoli Sinkhole. Having climbed back up to 2000m my confidence was buoyed and my mind was once again freed from the struggles of avoiding ground-suck. I was starting to notice things that I had missed earlier. I had read about inversion layers and knew they were a layer of warm air that trapped all but the strongest thermals below them. But now I could actually experience this phenomena. I noticed that the air would became noticeably rougher around 1600m today and the wing would surge and bounced around erratically. But once I managed to climb above this layer, the air become very smooth.
I noticed that my circles in the thermals were becoming elongated. The wind was pushing the thermals and my glider downwind with each turn. I was covering distance fast. The earlier clear sky was now dotted with puffy clouds.
Soon the town of Barraba lay below me. I had been in the air for about an hour and fifteen minutes. I checked the distance from launch on my instrument and it showed 30km! Without realising it I had beaten my previous personal best of 27 km and I was still at 2000m. Even a straight glide down to the ground would add about 10 km to my distance. I should’ve been very happy but I was greedy for more. I knew it was still early in the day and I could fly much further. I just had to be patient and not rush forward as I am prone to. I was officially on an XC!
For the next half hour I glided in light lift stuck below the inversion layer at 1600m. Above, I could see some gliders at almost double my height but I never found a strong enough thermal to break through. Still I was making great progress downwind reaching over 65 km/hr at times on speedbar.
The glide from the last climb was smooth without any hints of thermals and I was down to about 200m over plowed fields that should have produced a thermal. I was approaching a row of trees at the downwind edge of these fields. Glancing down at the instruments showed 58 km from launch. Branches of trees swayed in the strong wind. As I passed over the trees I had a choice to make. Continue flying downwind and extend the glide to land past the 60 km mark or turn around in hope of lift from the trees? If I didn’t find lift, I would land short of 60 km.
I gambled on the lift and turned to fly along the treeline.
The vario started beeping weakly and I held my breath. I wasn’t sure if this was just ‘ridge’ lift from the strong wind blowing over the trees or a thermal. Turning as efficiently as I could, the glider climbed slowly and drifted downwind away from the trees. This was definitely a thermal because I was now well behind the trees and still in a very flat climb. Slowly the thermal strengthened and the vario became happier, eventually topping out at almost 2300m. This is the highest I had been the entire day.
I couldn’t believe my luck! I had narrowly cheated ground-suck twice in one flight and had passed the 60 km mark. Until now, I’d been randomly stumbling into thermals and I was ecstatic that the thermal trigger theory worked when I most needed it to.
Miraculously I still didn’t need to relieve myself either!
[TRACK Photo of the treeline that saved me]
Down to the wire
An easy climb back up to 2300m followed. Passing Bingra at the 85km mark, the vaunted 100km was looking like a real possibility. But on glide along the ridge East of Bingra, I was dismayed to find the entire valley to the West in shade.
At 95km and quite low, a row of ploughed fields appeared at the mouth of a valley to the right. As I detoured to the East towards these fields, I descended even lower without finding a hint of lift.
With just 5km to go, I realised this flight was about to end. Switching to survival mode I turned back towards North. The sink rate along this line was good and it was my best bet at extending the death glide. Leaning back in the harness as much as possible, I tucked my arms in and pointed my toes forward in an effort to reduce drag.
The ground steadily came closer and my eyes darted between the terrain and the instruments. Distance from launch read 99 km! I laughed out nervously at the thought of missing the 100 by such a small margin. My trusty Gradient Golden continued its shallow glide not much above tree height, pushed along by the tail wind. I was low enough to smell the cow pies.
This was going to be real close!
I started counting down the distance aloud — 99.2, 99.3, 99.4 … and then suddenly … 100km! WTF?!!
Not trusting the erratic jump in distance, I continued forward towards the approaching treeline. Yanking the left brake at the last moment, I braced for a hard, butt-scraping crosswind landing into thistle. But I had enough height and the wing turned smoothly into the wind and descended almost vertically for a tip toe landing. Distance from launch read 101 km. I laughed in disbelief.
Four hours in the air and I’d done it!
Flush with adrenaline and weak in the legs, I recorded an obligatory 100 km video, showed due respect to the thistles by watering them and then collapsed on the ground, reveling in the achievement of a flight I’ll never forget.
[Video of landing]